An Ancient Financial Crisis Has Been Discovered…In Roman Coins

Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote about coins of fluctuating value in his 44 BCE essay on moral leadership. Centuries later, that brief mention has fueled a long-running historical debate – a debate that the coins themselves have just answered.

“Historians have long debated what the statesman and scholar meant when he wrote ‘money was thrown everywhere, so no one could know what he had’. (De Officiis, 3:80) and we believe that we have now solved this puzzle”, said Kevin Butcher, archaeologist from the University of Warwick.

The Roman State wavered on the on one’s last legs in 91 BCE at least in part because of the social war against their Italian allies, who wanted citizenship with the power to vote in Roman elections. In 89 BCE, Rome was mired in a debt crisis, and Cicero’s passage suggested that people were losing confidence in their currency, the denieralso.

Denarius coin depicting the god Bacchus sampled as part of the project. (University of Warwick)

“Cicero related how the Roman tribunes approached the college of praetors to resolve the crisis, before Gratidianus claimed credit for the collective effort”, Explain Butcher.

“One theory is that Gratidianus fixed the rate of exchange between the silver denarius and the bronze like (whose weight had only recently been reduced). Another is that he published a method to detect counterfeit denarii, and thus restored confidence in the currency.”

“Unfortunately, Cicero’s choice of words is too obscure for historians to determine exactly what was going on. His purpose in writing about it was not to illuminate monetary history; he was simply using the incident as an illustration of a Roman magistrate misbehaving by taking credit for the work of others.”

As part of an ongoing project, Butcher and his colleagues analyzed the composition of coins minted during those years. They used minimally invasive sampling techniques to avoid damaging the precious silver relics, bearing the heads of gods and Roman rulerswhich were first introduced as coinage in 211 BCE, valued at ten bronze donkeys coins.

Researchers have found that before 90 BCE the denarius was made up of pure silver, but it didn’t drop 10% until five years later.

“The denarius initially fell below 95% fine, then fell back to 90%, with some coins as low as 86%, suggesting a severe currency crisis,” he added. concludes Matthew Ponting, archaeologist from the University of Liverpool.

Representation of a money changer (precursor of a banker) in Rome.  (DeAgostini/Leemage/Museum of Roman Civilization, Rome)Representation of a money changer in Rome. (DeAgostini/Leemage/Museum of Roman Civilization, Rome)

Currency depreciation aligns with other evidence of financial hardshipincluding the state taking the unusual step of selling public land to buy grain in 89 BCE.

A massive increase in coin production also took place in 90 BCE, with 2,372 dies – the molds for making parts – compared to 677 the previous year, and 841 the following year. All of this was probably due to Rome’s struggles to fund the Social War.

Later, the Romans debased their currency again during the civil war between Pompey and Julius Caesar, when Rome turned to new conquests and taxed citizens to ensure its financial stability. But this debasement was not to the same extent as coins minted in 87 BCE.

“This might be the meaning of Cicero’s words: that the value of money was ‘tossed about’ because no one could be certain whether the denarii they had were pure or not”, said Butcher.

“It is all the more remarkable that around the time Gratidianus issued his edict, the level of fineness rose sharply, reversing the debasement and restoring the denarius to high quality coinage.”

David C. Barham