Roman Currency Mores

A Brief Look at
The Monetary System
in the Roman World
Obverse side

In the twenty-first century, many of us think of money as paper or even as bytes of data to be exchanged electronically. But coins were the commonest medium for money in the past and continue to be in much of the world today. Even the United States has re-introduced a dollar coin. At the start of the Republic, Romans were still using the barter system, and cattle -- pecus -- were the standard of exchange. In fact, it was from pecus that the Latin word for money, pecunia, was derived. Eventually pieces of bronze became an additional form of exchange. These chunks of bronze were called aes rude. At the beginning of the third century BC, markings were added to these bronze pieces to denote weight and worth. The as, as it came to be called, weighed a Roman pound or libra -- about 335.9 grams or 0.74 pound -- and became the basic unit of exchange. It was divided into twelve smaller units called aes grave, weighing a Roman ounce or uncia. These lesser denominations were called: semis (half-as), triens (third-as), quadrans (quarter-as), sextans (sixth-as), and uncia (twelfth-as).

Contact with the Greeks prompted the Romans to introduce silver coinage in 269 BC. They used a Greek-style silver coin in addition to the bronze as for another hundred years. Then, in or about 187 BC, they reorganized their system and from this overhaul came the denarius, a silver coin worth about ten asses. The Punic Wars had decreased the value of the as and it depreciated again, in or about 130 BC, to approximately 16 per denarius. The as and the denarius remained the most common coins, and their use fluctuated throughout the remainder of Roman civilization. With the dawn of the Imperial age under Augustus, new coins went into circulation using four metals: gold, silver, brass, and bronze (or copper). The gold aureus, first introduced during the Second Punic War, became more widely used, although the as and denarius remained in circulation. Typically, gold and silver coins had official use, such as the paying of salaries, while the brass and bronze coins were used in everyday transactions.

In the Republic money was minted in the Temple of Juno Moneta on the Capitoline Hill (our word "money" comes from Moneta). Responsibility for minting coins lay with the Senate, in the hands of junior magistrates called tresviri monetales. During the Empire minting took place in several different cities. The emperor had sole responsibility for minting gold and silver coins, while brass and copper coin mints were located throughout several provinces.

Here are the commonest denominations and their relative values after the Second Punic War (i.e., after 201 BC). The value of each was based on the as:

reverse Name Metal Values
as bronze --
dupondius bronze or copper 2 asses
sestertius metal alloy 4 asses or 2 dupondii
denarius silver alloy 16 asses, 8 dupondii or 4 sestertii
aureus gold 400 asses, 200 dupondii, 100 sestertii or 25 denarii

-- J. Walsh, 2001


Sources:
"Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome," Lesley Adkins and Roy A. Adkins. Oxford University Press, New York 1994.
"As the Romans Did," Jo-Ann Shelton. Oxford University Press, New York 1998.
"American Classical League Service Bureau: Roman Coinage", Herbert M Howe.

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