Analysis of Roman coinage sheds light on financial crisis

A study involving the scientific analysis of Roman coinage revealed a significant depreciation in the value of silver denarii in the early 1st century BC, shedding new light on a financial crisis alluded to by the statesman and writer Roman Marcus Tullius Cicero in his essay on moral conduct, De Officiis.

Dr. Matthew Ponting samples a silver Roman coin. IMAGE: Professor Kevin Butcher, University of Warwick.

Metallurgical analysis of coins of the time revealed a significant decrease in the value of the denarius. Produced in pure silver before 90 BC, the coinage was deliberately alloyed with up to 10% copper by 87 BC.

After waging a war in Italy from 91 to 87 BC with its own autonomous allies, the Roman state risked bankruptcy. These new findings suggest that this financial strain led to a relaxation of minting standards which, as Cicero implied, then triggered a monetary crisis.

“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.’ (Of Officials3:80) and we believe we have now solved this puzzle,” said Professor Kevin Butcher from the University of Warwick.

Dr Matthew Ponting of the University of Liverpool added that “the Romans had been accustomed to extremely fine silver coinage, so they may have lost faith in the denarius when it ceased to be pure”.

Copper drilled below the silver surface of a late Hellenistic coin (not one of those implicated in the study) demonstrating how debasement could be disguised. IMAGE: Professor Kevin Butcher, University of Warwick.

Cicero referred to the crisis in a moral anecdote describing the self-interest of Roman praetor Marius Gratidianus, who claimed sole merit in a monetary reform devised jointly by the tribunes and the college of praetors.

Professor Butcher adds that around the time Gratidianus issued his edict, the silver content of the denarius rose sharply, reversing the debasement and restoring it to a high quality coinage.

The discovery is part of a five-year project, “Rome and the coins of the Mediterranean 200 BCE – 64 CE”, funded by the European Research Council as part of a collaboration between researchers from the Universities of Warwick and Liverpool, the ISIS Neutron and Muon Facility and the STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

By analyzing the chemical composition of all major silver coins in circulation during this period, the project aims to shed light on the financial strategies of Hellenistic and Classical Mediterranean states.

David C. Barham