Major Coinage Reforms
A reform, in terms of numismatics, is a change or alter of a pre-existing coin or denomination. Some reforms changed purity and weight because different regions held different economies. A constant change in weight and purity was essential in monetary values reflecting the market at the time. However, many major reforms in the Roman empire dealt with abandoning or even inventing certain denominations. These were either used for egotistical reasons to flaunt wealth and superiority, or to possibly change an issue the existing emperor disagreed with.
Augustus re-evaluated Roman coinage when he first came into power in 27 BC. He abolished the inflated and impractical AES Grave bronze coins and replaced them with lighter coins made of orichalcum: an experimental alloy of copper and zinc. Augustus kept the weight of the silver Denarius and gold Aureus, placing his portrait on the obverse and creating a standard for each. He also put the government in charge of coinage rather than private moneyers. As a result, designs and weights had to be approved by the emperor before being issued, and the composition and fineness of the new coins were strictly enforced.
In 57 AD emperor Nero prevented the senate from issuing coinage and took hold of the Roman treasury for his personal gain. Nero increased the volume of taxed goods through trade while limiting the direct tax. After a short period of time and a complete disaster within the funding of the economy, the Roman senate stepped in and appealed the new tax reform. To Nero's dismay, he decided a complete reformation of coinage was necessary to meet his current goals..
The most important initiative in Nero's monetary reform took place in the years 63-64 AD. The first coinage Act detailed that the Denarius and Aureus were to be decreased in weight and fineness. The purity of the Denarius fell from 98% to nearly 93% pure. Nero issued his second reform which replaced most of the lower valued bronze coins with orichalcum and added the radiate crown, or spiked crown, in order to distinguish the two larger bronze types. The economy was relatively revitalized by this coinage reform as it made spending easier.
The chart below reflects the change Nero made to his coinage post reform. (Note that most bronze coinage was replaced with Orichalcum)
Type Value (Denarii) Weight pre Reform/post Reform
AU Aureus 25 7.70g/7.27g
AU Halbaureus 12.5 3.90g/3.64g
AR Denarius 1 3.85g/4.41g
AR Quinarius 1/2 1.95g/1.70g
Æ Sestertius 1/4 27.50g/27.28g
Æ Dupondius 1/8 13.64g/13.64g
Æ As 1/16 10.92g/10.90g
Æ Semis 1/32 7.15g/3.41g
Æ Quadrans 1/64 3.41g/1.70g
Domitian, a short-reigned and damned emperor of the late 1st century, enacted a minor coinage reform in the early years of his reign. Domitian inherited an empire ravaged by chaos. His predecessors, his father Vespasian and brother Titus, had undergone costly projects such as building the colosseum while repairing areas damaged by the Great Fire of Rome. The two emperors had attempted to bring Rome back to her Republican glory days. This was a costly and ineffective way to spark patriotism throughout the empire. Nonetheless, Domitian was forced to further reduce the Denarius from its set weight (Nero's standard) of 94% to almost 90% pure silver. An economic crisis led many older coins to be of incorrect weight and fineness. Once corrected, Domitian had older coins melted and minted new coins of correct planchet weight. Worn coins of the correct purity were re-minted into new coins and an expansion in provincial Roman coins allowed for private mintages.
Domitian's reform was very short lived as a conflict in Dacia had sparked the need for higher quality coins. To compensate for this, Domitian began minting coins of the Nero weight and fineness. Conflict and disorder only drove the emperor mad. He turned into a heavy spender and a heavy constructor; following in his family's footsteps of creating huge monuments commemorating honorable events. Thus, these later habits plummeted coins into economic tragedy, inflating the Denarius nearly double.
Early into Caracalla's reign around 202 AD, the Denarius was about 55% pure. Caracalla was not a very well-rounded emperor. He approved large construction projects and spent money on luxuries instead of improvement. Caracalla issued his famous edict in 212 AD, granting everyone living in the Roman empire (save for slaves) a Roman citizenship. The granting of millions of citizenships meant the value of being a citizen became irrelevant. The once cherished citizenship became a benefit of the masses and lost demand. Caracalla had also killed his brother and co-emperor Geta around this time which made him very unpopular.
In order to solve the inflation issue plummeting the empire into certain devaluation, Caracalla took drastic measures. He devalued the Denarius into 50-51% pure, and invented the Antoninianus denomination meant to be valued at two Denarii. In reality, the Antoninianus was only 52% pure and had an actual value of around 1.5 Denarii. The dubious “mistake” created a sense of lack of trust with the populous. Not only were they being deceived with facsimile denominations not worth their stated value, but taxes were at an all time high. Indeed this made older, purer, coins more popular which many people hoarded for their bullion value.
Severus Alexander reigned shortly after Caracalla in 223 AD. His reform sought to organize the monetary mess left to him by his predecessors. The previous emperor Elagabalus was very corrupt. He squandered the Roman treasury for his own personal greed. The Roman empire was in extremely critical condition during this crisis, and if the coinage was not fixed it would resort to a complete crash of the Roman economy. In order to create a halt in the chaos, Severus decreased the weight of the Denarius slightly from around 1.41g to 1.30g. After the weight had stabilized and the economy was far from hurting, he raised the weight of the denomination back to 1.5g. This weight influx created a quality of coins that the empire had not seen in decades. Also in this reform, Caracalla’s tax on goods was lessened and the administration that minted coinage was given less quantity and more quality.
Around 290 AD, sixty years after the economic crisis caused by the Severan dynasty, the Denarius was but a withered and low-purity coin that had the realistic value of a non-precious bronze coin.
Emperor Diocletian abolished all previous denominations. He slowly began replacing them with his new set of coins called the Communis. The Denarius and Aureus at this time were rarely issued, and bronze coinage was abundant. Introducing new denominations of the same weight and size meant a fresh start. Diocletian issued his first Denarius Communis: valuing each denomination in terms of bullion rather than fractions of itself. The base unit, called a Follis, was a large bronze coin weighed according to Follis standards. Diocletian would often silver plate the Follis to increase the confidence in his new coins. The Denarius was replaced by a pure coin called the Argenteus, and his experimental coin, the Solidus, planned to replace the Aureus. Bronze coins minted during Denarii communes usually have a value declaring what they were worth at the time of mintage. With growing inflation, this way of value soon proved unsuccessful. Though the economy boomed during communes the people suffered immensely. The issues with this system wasn't the system itself, it was the attempt to curb inflation by issuing coins of full weight and purity. Set wages and debasement of metal that ignored inflation was bound to last a short period of time. Old coins became worthless, and replacing these coins with no conversion rates was near impossible. Diocletian attempted to solve many issues, even resorting to a fractional system about a decade after to save the purity of his new denominations.
According to pre-existing records and values found on coinage, the average conversion rates are as follows:
Type Value in Aurei Value in Bullion
Aureus 1/1 2400 dc
Argenteus 1/24 100 dc
Follis 1/240 10 dc
Fractional Folli 1/900-1/1920 1.25-3.0 dc
Denarius (bullion) 1/2400 1 dc
Most post reform radiates will have XXI numeral, in trade valuing them at 5 dc or 20 Sestertii
Photo Courtesy of Classical Numismatics Group LLC
Constantine the Great’s Reform
Constantine I built on the idea of Denarii Communes and set a standard that would last the next thousand years. He understood coinage and the idea of supply, demand, and inflation. Constantine’s vision of 310 AD attempted to build off the pre-existing denominations valued in terms of the Follis. Constantine issued Diocletian's gold Solidus to be the main gold denomination but valued it at only 72 to a libra pound. Constantine introduced the silver Siliqua denomination, similar to the Argenteus but weighing less. He then set his two new denominations to be pure and made sure the standards would never change. The only issue was availability, as many of the mines in the North had been lost. Silver coins became a coin rarely minted unless inflationary rates soared through the roof.
The purity of the gold Solidus was internationally recognized in the Eastern tetrarchy which perhaps led to its long survival rate in commerce. The silver Siliqua however, was often reduced heavily. Towards the later portion of the Byzantine empire it was rarely used as a circulation coin.
The Roman Political Atmosphere
The entirety of Rome's economy was fueled by trade, whether it be agricultural trade, network trade, or monetary trade. It was impossible to supply an enormous empire without an exchange of goods and a working economy. During its golden age, the Roman economy was directly fueled by foreign affairs. Trade from foreign nations included spices from India, slaves from Africa, or meat and exotic foods from Hispania. The most famous open market in the empire was the Trajan market, named after the emperor. It was said that one could find anything in this market, including many foreign currencies from other nations or provincial areas of the empire. The massive exchange of currency and specific denominations required a conversion system. With this conversion system, which was not always accurate, each market item was valued in reference to the bronze Sestertii.
Overflow of cash and products created a system of supply and demand that always took into effect. Desirable items such as spices, rare jewelry, and clothing took priority. Basic necessities such as bread and meat would always be the most fluctuating goods in the market. If there were too many products, each item would cost less; if there were not enough product, they would cost more. Even with a precious metal based system the economy often saw severe inflation. The markets, taxes, and job opportunities in the empire all directly impacted the value of Roman currency.
When there were not enough coins in circulation, many emperors cut corners and issued low purity coins of decreased weight. The economy tanked when there were too many coins and not enough products; in this case a monetary reset would occur and all remaining coins melted into the correct purity. We see this happen on many occasions, such as Nero’s reform and Caracalla’s reform. The most stable economies had equal amounts of coinage per Roman household, all with an honest weight, and a constant flow of products. The Pax Romana period of Roman history was perhaps the period with the lowest inflation.
Severe Inflation (the Decline of the Denarius)
The silver Denarius, a 97% pure silver coin at the beginning of the empire, had been reduced to below 30% silver before it was abolished. A series of depressions and greed by emperors completely destroyed the value of Roman currency. This crumbled the trust of the populous who resorted to an upbraid in spending.
The period of Nero, the second civil war, the year of the four emperors, the plague, and other events influenced such a decline. The denomination faced the most change in the 3rd century, where it went from about 80% pure to 50% in a matter of three decades. Emperor's such as Aurelian furthermore decreased its value in the late part of the 3rd century, where it remained a 30-40% pure coin until it was discontinued by Diocletian.
The emperor’s way to exchange funds for the maximum coins possible was to make a small profit on the minting of coins and the circulation of the denominations. As each emperor made profit off coinage, the empire began to slowly devalue the coins. A major issue was the idea of inflation had never been understood.
As with the ancient Greeks, Roman coinage was of relative high relief with thick planchets in the early imperial period. Planchets were thick enough that they were easy to stack and circulation took longer. It wasn't practical to constantly mint coins of high relief design, as it took twice as long and twice as powerful of a strike to get a full coin. After the invention of the Antoninianus, silver and gold coinage began to decrease in thickness and increase in production. The mint workers figured out a simple design of the emperor, along with a cubic reverse, was the best approach in both conveying artistic style and neatness. Thus, this explains why later Roman coinage (especially large bronzes) is in much more abundance than earlier ones.
The Denarius in 117 AD compared to the double Denarius in 300 AD
Photo Courtesy of Classical Numismatics Group LLC
By Colby J. Abele