Ancient History & Civilisation

4. CURRENCY AND FINANCE

The Greek cities of southern Italy coined silver: Tarentum from the mid-sixth century, Cumae from c. 500 BC, Naples and the Etruscans from c. 450 BC; but the Romans were slow to develop a monetary system of their own. The view that Roman coinage began about 340, when Capua issued the so-called Romano-Campanian series for Rome, has now been generally abandoned and the development of Rome’s early coinage is set later.9

In early times values were estimated in terms of oxen and sheep; hence the word pecunia (money), derived from pecus. The Romans were content to barter or to use copper weighed in the balance (aes rude); about 430 BC a law was passed by which for the collection of fines 100 pounds of bronze was equated with ten sheep or one ox. It was not until 289 that the office of triumvirs of the mint was established, probably for the purpose of casting the so-called aes signatum, bronze in bars weighing some six pounds each and bearing types on each side (such as a shield and sword, trident, anchor, elephant, sow, ox); only one of those that survive bears a legend, ROMANO (RUM). Since these bars lacked a mark of value and had to be weighed, they were money rather than coins, but probably at the same time real coins were issued: circular bronze asses, marked 1 (one as) and weighing a pound. The first of these libral asses was probably the series that had the heads of Janus and Mercury on its two sides. It was followed by other series, which include that with a wheel as a constant reverse type on all denominations (a reminder of Rome’s interest in road construction and starting perhaps in 269) and the more famous Janus/prow series (probably c. 225) which remained the normal type of Roman bronze coinage throughout Republican times. It was the war with Pyrrhus and closer contacts with southern Italy and its silver coinage that led Rome to produce in a southern mint two issues of silver coins, marked ROMANO (RUM), for war purposes: the types were Mars/horse’s head, and Apollo/horse. Then in 269 the mint officials produced a silver coinage in Rome with the same legend and showing Hercules/wolf and twins; this was soon followed during the First Punic War by another series showing Rome/Victory (both with corresponding bronze). Meantime the old aes signatum was falling into disuse and struck bronze began to replace the cast aes grave. Then after the war followed four silver issues marked ROMA, of which the fourth (c. 230: 235, 225?) depicted a young Janus and Victory in a chariot (quadriga) and became known as a quadrigatus. At much the same time came the libral bronze prow series. Thus although Rome had been slow to adopt a coinage, under the stimulus of the Pyrrhic and First Punic Wars she not only accepted this civilized medium of exchange but took to it with open arms. Traders and Roman soldiers serving in southern Italy and Sicily would benefit, and Rome’s international status was enhanced.

The Hannibalic War had sharp effects on the coinage. The weight of the as declined steeply: to a semi-libral standard near the beginning and then rapidly to a triental and (214?) quadrantal. Soon after 215 the quadrigatus was replaced by a smallervictoriatus(with reverse type of Victory). A year or so earlier an emergency gold issue was made (Janus/oath-scene) when Naples, Paestum and Syracuse sent gifts of gold to Rome, and then c. 211–209 a second gold issue (Mars/eagle): after the defection of the Latin colonies 4,000 lb of gold were taken out of the reserve. In or about 211 a radical change was made with the introduction of a new silver denarius (= 10 asses, and showing Roma/Dioscuri on horseback), linked to a sextantial bronze system. This new bimetallic system remained the basis of Rome’s coinage throughout the rest of the Republic.

Thus Roman coinage was issued to meet the requirements of war rather than of trade. Practical needs were met by practical solutions, not by constructing economic theories. Hence wartime difficulties forced the Senate partially to repudiate its debts by reforming the coinage instead of by establishing a permanent war debt to be funded and repaid over a long period. The financial policy of the state followed the lines of its political development. In Italy Roman colonies would naturally use Roman coins, while many independent Greek states and some Latin colonies issued coins in early times. But Roman coinage gradually predominated and after the Hannibalic War the Romans claimed a monopoly. In the provinces no uniform policy was enforced. In the west convenience generally led to the establishment of a Roman monopoly. A policy of enlightened self-interest was shown in Spain where beside Roman coinage native silver (argentum Oscense) was allowed to circulate in the second century, partly as a medium for the payment of tribute and partly to facilitate commerce within Spain. Carthage also continued to issue money. In the East where the Romans found a variety of issues existing they did not interfere with local coinage. Their wars there rather served to bring the money of the East to Rome. So great was the flow that many Eastern nations were forced to go off the silver standard, although Roman exactions may have been a contributory rather than the chief cause of this.

The late invention of Roman coinage attests the simplicity of the financial problems of early Rome. But her intrusion into the Mediterranean world and the strain of the Punic Wars forced the Roman treasury to shoulder heavier responsibilities. Towards the end of the First Punic War when the treasury was exhausted and taxes could not be increased, the government followed the example of a Greek ‘liturgy’ or a modern war loan: a fleet was raised by public subscription, but with the understanding that the state would refund the money in event of victory. The main source of income was taxation. The usual tributum simplex was a one-mill tax (one-tenth of 1 per cent of property values); this might be increased in wartime. Other sources were rent from public land, an indemnity of 100 talents from Hiero, and profits from the sale of prisoners and booty. The cost of the war to the Roman treasury has been estimated at some 100 million denarii. The Hannibalic War strained the treasury still further. In 216 an acute shortage of money led to the appointment of triumviri mensarri and a slight inflation by reducing the weight of the as. In 215 double tributum was levied; later this may have been still further increased. When cash was exhausted, credit alone remained; in the following winter the praetor called on warprofiteers to offer supplies for Spain by contract on indefinite credit, and three companies of nineteen men responded. In 214 crews were supplied by ‘liturgy’, state building contracts were undertaken on undated promises to pay, slaves were bought on credit for military service, trust funds of widows and orphans were taken over by the state, many knights and centurions refused their pay. To meet a fresh crisis in 210 the state borrowed the savings of the citizens: much jewellery, plate and precious metals were voluntarily contributed. In 209 the reserve sacred treasury was used, and when twelve of the Latin colonies refused to supply further troops or pay, the other eighteen offered more. After Metaurus had relieved the strain, the twelve defaulters were punished in 205–204 by the imposition of direct taxation, based on a census, in addition to their other obligations. From this taxation two-thirds of the voluntary contribution of 210 was repaid in 204 and 202; the third instalment was paid in land in 200 when the Macedonian War claimed financial support. Scipio’s African expedition was largely financed by voluntary help. The treasury receipts during the war have been reckoned at 286 million denarii (citizen tribute, 65 million; tithes of Sicily and Sardinia, 24; port dues, etc., 10; booty, 65; sacred treasury, 5; loans, contributions, super-taxes, etc., 117). The corresponding expenses of 286 million are estimated at: army stipends, 180 million; food for allied troops, 36; land transport, 15; arms, 20; navy and transport, 35. The average annual expense of the war was about 3½ times greater per annum than during the First Punic War.10

During the first half of the second century national wealth rapidly increased. Roman property, which may have been worth some one thousand million denarii in 200 BC, was doubled or trebled in value by 150 BC, while the population had increased about 50 per cent.11 War indemnities, booty, and the Spanish mines formed new items of income. In 187 Manlius Vulso persuaded the Senate to repay all the outstanding tributum still owing from the Hannibalic War; this perhaps only included the super-tax over and above thetributum simplex. By repaying 25½ tributa the government finally liquidated its war debt. In 167 citizen taxes were discontinued and ten years later the treasury had a balance of 25½ million denarii in its vaults. Professor Tenney Frank has worked out the budget of the period as follows. Income, 610,600,000 denarii (war indemnities 152,100,000; booty and Spanish mines, 159,500,000; citizen tax, 60 million; rents from public land, 63; provincial tithes, 130; other vectigalia, 46). Expenses are reckoned at 555 million denarii (army stipend, 300 million; food for allies, 64; transport, 50; navy, 58½; public buildings, 20; super-tax repaid, 22½; other expenses, 40). These figures may well be 50 per cent too high or low, but at any rate they give a valuable idea of the scale of Roman finance for a period when 77 per cent of the national income was devoted to military costs.

The evidence for the purchasing power of money is still more slender. It has been reckoned that in the second century a bushel of wheat cost 3 denarii; olive oil, 10 denarii an amphora (26 litres); ordinary wine, half the price of oil; beef, perhaps 2 or 3 asses: a complete suit, 100 denarii; a lady’s wardrobe 1000 denarii; farm slaves, about 500 denarii; a plough ox, 60–80 denarii. Wages were low. A slave could be hired out at ½ denarius a day; free labour may have earned a little under a denarius. Thus a labourer who earned 300 denarii a year might be able to feed and clothe himself and his wife on two-thirds of his income, leaving the meagre balance for house rent and extras. At the other end of the social scale the estate of Scipio Africanus may have been worth a million denarii.12

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!