Does the composition of Roman coins reflect the monetary crisis?

COVENTRY, ENGLAND—According to a statement released by the University of Warwick, Kevin Butcher of the University of Warwick, Matthew Ponting of the University of Liverpool and Adrian Hillier of the ISIS Neutron and Muon Facility at the STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory analyzed the composition of Roman denarii minted between around 200 BC and 64 AD JC in an effort to understand the Roman economy. In his test De Officiis, the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote around 86 BC. a financial crisis during which “the currency was tossed about so that no one could know what he had”. Researchers found that denarii minted before 90 BC were pure silver, but within five years the silver had been cut with up to 10% copper. Some of the coins in the study contained only 86% silver, Ponting said, indicating a severe currency crisis after years of war. Butcher suggests that this addition of copper to the mix could be the origin of Cicero’s claim that coinage was “thrown all over the place”. Cicero also wrote that the Roman tribunes and the college of praetors restored the denarius to a high quality currency under an edict issued by Marius Gratidianus, who took credit for the widely popular monetary reform. For more on taxation under the Roman Empire, see “Ancient Tax Time: Filling the Coffers.”

David C. Barham