The Roman Denarius was the main currency of the Roman Empire for over four centuries, from the late third century BC to the early third century AD. It was a silver coin that initially weighed about 4.5 grams and contained about 95% pure silver. However, over time, the Denarius underwent a process of debasement, which means that its silver content was gradually reduced and replaced by cheaper metals such as copper or bronze. This had significant economic, social and political consequences for the stability of the Roman Empire.
Reasons for the debasement
One of the main reasons for the debasement of the Denarius was the need to finance the military expenditures of the empire, especially during times of war and crisis. The Roman army was a professional and well-equipped force that required a large amount of resources to maintain its loyalty and efficiency. The emperors often resorted to debasing the Denarius to increase the money supply and pay their soldiers and officials. However, this also led to inflation, which eroded the purchasing power of the coin and reduced its acceptance among the population and the provinces.
Another reason for the debasement of the Denarius was the decline in silver production and trade in the empire. The Roman economy relied heavily on the extraction and importation of precious metals from various regions, such as Spain, Gaul, Britain, Asia Minor and North Africa. However, these sources became depleted or disrupted by wars, rebellions, piracy and external invasions. The emperors faced difficulties in obtaining enough silver to mint high-quality coins and had to resort to debasing them to maintain a sufficient quantity of currency.
(Graphic courtesy of JCogn)
The Debasement waves
- The first debasement occurred in 200 BC during the Second Punic War against Carthage when its weight was reduced to 3.9 grams, making it equivalent to 1/84 of a Roman pound (libra) instead of 1/72.
- The second debasement happened in 141 BC when the weight of the assēs was lowered from 6 to 4 unciae (ounces), making the Denarius equivalent to 16 assēs instead of 10. This was done to pay for the construction of roads and aqueducts in Italy.
- The third debasement took place under Julius Caesar in 49-44 BC when he minted a large quantity of Denarii to fund his civil war against Pompey and his allies. Caesar increased the number of assēs in a pound from 84 to 96 and reduced the weight of the Denarius to 3.4 grams. He also introduced a gold coin called aureus, which was equivalent to 25 Denarii.
- The fourth debasement occurred under Nero in AD 64-68 who further reduced the weight of the Denarius to 3.3 grams and lowered its silver purity from about 90% to 80% by adding more copper. He also decreased the weight of the aureus to 7.2 grams.
- The fifth debasement happened under Commodus in AD 180-192 who reduced the weight of the Denarius to 2.7 grams and its silver purity to 75%. He also increased the weight of the aureus to 7.3 grams and made it equivalent to 50 Denarii.
- The sixth debasement took place under Septimius Severus in AD 193-211 who reduced the weight of the Denarius to 2.2 grams and its silver purity to 50%. He also decreased the weight of the aureus to 6.5 grams and made it equivalent to 100 Denarii.
- The seventh debasement occurred under Caracalla in AD 215-217 who introduced a new silver coin called Antoninianus, which was equivalent to two denarii but weighed only 1.6 grams and had a silver purity of only 40%. He also increased the weight of the aureus to 6.6 grams and made it equivalent to 150 Antoniniani.
- The eighth debasement happened under Aurelian in AD 270-275, who reformed the coinage system by increasing the weight of the Antoninianus to 3.9 grams and its silver purity to about 5% by adding more bronze. He also decreased the weight of the aureus to 5.3 grams and made it equivalent to 800 Antoniniani.
- The ninth debasement took place under Diocletian in AD 294-305, who replaced the Antoninianus with a new silver coin called Argenteus, which weighed about 3 grams and had a silver purity of about 95%. He also introduced a new gold coin called solidus
How did the Debasement of the Silver Denarius contribute to decline of the Roman Empire ?
The debasement of the Denarius had a negative impact on the stability of the Roman Empire in several ways:
First, it undermined the confidence and trust in the monetary system and the imperial authority. The people lost faith in the value and reliability of the coin and started to hoard or exchange it for other forms of money, such as gold, foreign currencies or commodities. This reduced the circulation and velocity of money and hampered economic activity and trade.
Second, it increased social inequality and discontent among different groups of society. The rich and powerful were able to protect themselves from inflation by investing in land, property or luxury goods, while the poor and middle classes suffered from rising prices and declining living standards. This created resentment and unrest among the masses and increased the risk of civil wars and revolts.
Third, it weakened the cohesion and loyalty of the army and the provinces. The soldiers and officials felt cheated by receiving debased coins that were worth less than their nominal value. This reduced their morale and motivation to fight for or serve the empire. The provinces also felt exploited by having to pay higher taxes in debased coins that were worth less than their original value. This increased their dissatisfaction and desire for autonomy or independence from Rome.
The debasement of the Roman Denarius was a complex phenomenon that had multiple causes and consequences for the Roman Empire. It was a result of both external pressures and internal mismanagement that affected various aspects of Roman life. It was also a symptom and a factor of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire that occurred in late antiquity.