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Roman Money


Aureus
1 of gold

Denarius
25 of silver

Sesterce
100 of brass [Orichalcum]

As
400 of bronze

The Roman monetary system used both gold and silver to provide a real value of the coins. It was bi-metallic (as the US dollar in the 19th century). Throughout most of the Empire, the basic units of Roman coinage were the gold aureus [minted at 40-42 to the pound, with 8 grams of nearly pure gold], the silver denarius minted at 84 to the pound [of 3.9 grams of nearly pure silver], and the copper or bronze sesterce. The sesterce [sestertius] was equivalent to one-quarter of a denarius. The reference coin was the gold coin, the Aureus, which did not circulate widely. Soldiers were paid three times a year in Aureus. It seems that an Aureus (the gold standard of the time) had a special symbolic valuewith the troops. The silver coin was the denarius, with 25 denarii for one aureus. Twenty-five denarii equaled one aureus and the denarius was at one time considered the basic coin and unit of account. In 89 bc, the sestertius, equal to one-quarter of a denarius, replaced the bronze ass as a unit of account. In Constantine's reform of ad 312, the aureus was replaced by the solidus as the basic monetary unit.

Servius Tullius was the first who caused money to be coined, by stamping on brass the image of cattle (pecudes whence the term pec-unia). Previously, exchanges were made by barter, or by means of uncoined metal. The most common brass coin, the as, was originally a Roman pound in weight and was divided like that into twelve ounces. The As was originally the unit of ihe Roman currency, and contained a pound of copper, but it was diminished from time to time in weight and value till at last it contained only 1/24 of a pound.

Silver coin was first stamped B. C. 269; the most common coins were the Denarius, Quinarius and Sestertius. The Denarius was originally reckoned as equal to ten pounds of brass, marked X, or )(, and contained originally 2.5 asses (when the as was still the primary Roman monetary unit), the quinarius 5, and the dinarius 10 but after the reduction of the as to an ounce BC 217, it passed as equal to sixteen asses. The Quinarius was half the Denarius, and marked V. The Sestertius was a fourth part of the Denarius, and originally equal to 2 1/2 asses (hence its name semis tertius), and marked LLS i.e. Libra Libra Semis, abbreviated IIS or HS. After the reduction of the as to one ounce, the Sestertius passed for 4 asses.

Pliny the Elder relates that "Silver was not impressed with a mark until the year of the City 485, the year of the consulship of Q. Ogulnius and C. Fabius, five years before the First Punic War; at which time it was ordained that the value of the denarius should be ten libr ["Pounds" or "asses"] of copper, that of the quinarius five libr, and that of the sestertius two libr and a half. The weight, however, of the libra of copper was diminished during the First Punic War, the republic not having means to meet its expenditure: in consequence of which, an ordinance was made that the as should in future be struck of two ounces weight. By this contrivance a saving of five-sixths was effected, and the public debt was liquidated."

Gold coin was first stamped at Rome BC 207; the most common coin was the Aureus or Solidvs, equal in weight to two Denarii and a Quinarius, and in value to 25 Denarii. Pliny the Elder relates that "The first golden coin was struck sixty-two years after that of silver, the scruple of gold being valued at twenty sesterces; a computation which gave, according to the value of the sesterce then in use, nine hundred sesterces to each libra of gold. In later times, again, an ordinance was made, that denarii of gold should be struck, at the rate of forty denarii to each libra of gold; after which period, the emperors gradually curtailed the weight of the golden denarius, until at last, in the reign of Nero, it was coined at the rate of forty-five to the libra."

Since originally, there were 288 "scripula," or scruples, to the "libra" or pound, Pliny the Elder would appear to give 5760 sestertii to the pound of gold, and not 900 merely. Though this apparent discrepancy has generally puzzled the commentators, the solution, as suggested by M. Parisot, in the Notes to Ajasson's Translation, appears equally simple and satisfactory. He suggests that in the "as," or "libra," of two ounces, there were 288 scruples. Now, the scruple remaining the same, when the as or libra was reduced to one ounce, it would contain but 144 of these scruples. Then, on making the as the sixteenth part of a denarius instead of the tenth, it would lose three-eighths of its value in scruples, or in other words, 54 scruples, thus making it worth but 90 scruples. Then again, by the Papirian Law, the weight or value of the libra or as was reduced one-half, making its value in scruples only 45; or, in other words, five thirty-seconds of its original value, when worth two unci or ounces. This number of scruples to the libra would give, at the rate of twenty sesterces to the scruple of gold, exactly 900 sesterces to the libra of gold.

As early as the rule of Nero (54-68 AD) there is evidence that the demand for revenue led to debasement of the coinage. Nero reduced the silver content of the denarius to 90 percent [3.4 grams] and slightly reduced the size of the aureus in order to maintain the 25 to 1 ratio. It was possible to reduce the silver con-tent of the denarius while maintaining the 1:25 ratio with the Aureus and without creating inflation (provided that the total quantity of money does not change). Trajan (98-117 A.D.) reduced the silver content to 85 percent, but was able to maintain the ratio because of a large influx of gold. In fact, some historians suggest that he deliberately devalued the denarius precisely in order to maintain the historic ratio. Debasement continued under the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD), who reduced the silver content of the denarius to 75 percent, further reduced by Septimius Severus to 50 percent. The sesterce was valued at 1/4500 pound of Gold from Nero's reign until the year 215, and at at 1/5000 pound of Gold in 215. By the middle of the third century AD, the denarius had a silver content of just 5 percent.

The daily wage rate for male laborers in Rome under the late Republic was estimated [by Duncan-Jones] as 3 Sesterces. In the early Empire, a rate of 4 sesterces [1 Denarius] is suggested as the daily wage by a variety of contemporarneous sources. Legionary soldiers in the early Empire had a gross daily pay of 2.5 Sesterce, for an annual gross pay of 900 sesterce [after deductions for expense, the net annual pay was about 250 sesterces, or less than 1 sesterce per day. The number of 225 denarii [900 sesterce] is fairly sure: Suetonius and Dio writing at different times have the same number that is expressed in two different ways. The same sources agree that the pay increased to 300 denarii under Domitian in 83-84.

At the end of the first century C.E., the emperor Nerva instituted an alimentary system in Italy that supported the nourishment of poor children. Under Hadrian, this system provided legitimate male children 16 sesterces and legitimate female children 12 sesterces a month. The monthly allowance dropped to 12 sesterces for illegitimate males, and 10 for females. Boys were supported until the age of 18, and girls were supported until age 14. At these ages, boys could support themselves by working, and girls were old enough to marry.

Crassus, for instance, is said to have possessed lands to the value of 200,000,000 sesterces ; he is said to have had, in slaves, buildings, furniture and money, as much more. Caligula laid out upon a single supper 10,000,000 sesterces. Cleopatra is said to have swallowed, at a feast with Anthony, a pearl worth the same sum. Cicero is said to have haa a table which cost l00,000 sesterces. Perhaps these sums would be much larger, if due allowance were made for the depreciation in the value of the precious metals.




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