Why Few Roman Silver Coins Greater Than the Denarius?

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by kevin McGonigal, Mar 30, 2020.

  1. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    A few days ago one of our members put up an image of a very early and rare Roman silver didrachma of the early to mid Third Century BC in connection with his posting. This got me to thinking. The Greeks issued many kinds of didrachmas or staters of that weight, ca. seven grams or so, and quite frequently silver tetradrachmas as well. It seems to me that the Romans could issue that denomination, at least for the Greek cities of Magna Graecia but even if the later quadrigatus is considered a didrachma of sorts, most of the silver which the Romans issued in the later Republic and early Empire was of the denomination of the denarius. Rome did not seem much interested in such a larger silver denomination for use, at least in the Latin West. Yes, in the Greek East the Romans had no problem with mints issuing multiple drachmai coinage but for some odd reason (to me anyway) the huge gap (25 to 1) between the gold aureus (Julius Caesar to Caracalla) and the silver denarius did not seem to bother them. When a kind of double denarius, what we call the antoninianus, was issued in the Third century AD it still left a big gap between the aureus and that coin and if by that time the aureus was circulating simply as bullion there was no fixed exchange rate between the two.

    My question to members is, what do you think may account for Rome, again at least in the Latin West, seemingly not being interested or concerned with minting larger silver coins which might have reduced the large gap between the denarius and aureus? Thanks.
     
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  3. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter Eye of Horus

    Interesting question for which I have no answer. I guess we might assume that the tetradrachms struck in the Eastern cities of the Empire did not circulate in the West. (Well, maybe) We do know that Egypt was a closed economy and that the denarius, when one exchanged money was probably worth the same as a billon tetradrachm, whereas the drachm might have been tariffed at one sestertius.

    On the other hand, we know of money changers in the temple who presumably had to assess values of a variety of coinages including Tyrian shekels and the so-called tribute penny or denarius, and we know that denarii circulated in the East.
     
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  4. EWC3

    EWC3 (mood: stubborn)

    [QUOTE="kevin McGonigal, what do you think may account for Rome, again at least in the Latin West, seemingly not being interested or concerned with minting larger silver coins which might have reduced the large gap between the denarius and aureus? Thanks.[/QUOTE]

    I think you maybe need to turn this upside down. The Mauryans only had billions of smallish silver, much like most of RR Rome. So did the Parthians and Sasanids. And Greek states like Miletos seems dominated by small silver. Like Medieval Gurarat and the Shahis. And Anglo-Saxon and Norman England too, and likewise for Continental Europe at that time. Plus the Chinese really only had copper.

    So the question is just as much, why did the others bang out big silver and gold? And also, what prompted you to frame the question your way anyhow?

    Rob T
     
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  5. Alegandron

    Alegandron "ΤΩΙ ΚΡΑΤΙΣΤΩΙ..." ΜΕΓΑΣ ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΣ, June 323 BCE Supporter

    Some rough thoughts from my informal readings:

    The Italic peoples in Central Italy had no natural precious metals outside of Copper, made into Bronze. No silver or gold. Early transactions requiring a currency were lumps of AE, weighed, and traded. The AS was the original currency unit, which was one Roman pound (Libral unit). This went on for centuries. Their history was steeped in tradition, and they adhered to Aes for years.

    Later, as they started trading with, and incorporating Magna Gracae into their sphere of influence, conquered, or contracted cities as Allies, (and, yeah, that Pyrrhos guy invaded!), they began using a Denarius (derivative Italic/Latin name of 10, as in 10 Asses.) It was after conquering and controlling areas that had naturally occuring precious metal mining, that they began to incorporate more silver into their coinage.

    First a Heavy Denarius - tariffed at 10 Asses - (Didrachm) that was approx a Shekel to Didrachm size, then devalued during the 2nd Punic War to the Denarius Reform of 211 BCE approx 4g Silver.

    Italia Aes Rude  - bronze ca 5th-4th Century BCE 29.7mm 32.4g rough uncia.jpg
    Italia Aes Rude - bronze ca 5th-4th Century BCE 29.7mm 32.4g rough uncia

    Eventully cast into Bars, Formatum, and later Coins.

    ITALIA Aes Formatum AE Bronze Ax Head ca 5th-4th C BCE sextans size 44.8mm 56g.JPG
    ITALIA Aes Formatum AE Bronze Ax Head ca 5th-4th C BCE sextans size 44.8mm 56g

    Oscan-Latin Aes Formatum scallop shell with Ribs 4th BCE.JPG
    Oscan-Latin Aes Formatum scallop shell with Ribs 4th BCE


    upload_2020-3-30_10-17-46.png

    RR Aes Grave AE Quadrans 269-242 BCE Dog 3 pellets Six spoked wheel 59.8g Craw 24-6a Th-Vecchi 34 ex Sellwood

    upload_2020-3-30_10-22-16.png
    RR Aes Grave Anon 280-276 BCE Triens 46mm 90.3g 9.3mm thick Tbolt-Dolphin Rome Crawford 14-3 T Vecchi 3

    Many of these coins were being minted SIMULTANEOUSLY to the early Heavy Denarius. A lot of the RURAL farming areas still used the traditional Aes style coinage. As farms became consolidated into large wealthy Estates, silver coinage was more convenient than weighing out huge amounts of Aes coins / lumps in pounds.

    Original Heavy Denarius (tarriffed at 10 Asses), or modern numismatists call Didrachm
    RR 234-231 BCE AR Heavy Denarius -  Didrachm Apollo-Horse prancing Crawford 26-1 Sear 28.JPG
    RR 234-231 BCE AR Heavy Denarius - Didrachm Apollo-Horse prancing Crawford 26-1 Sear 28


    POST-REFORM (generally after 211 BCE) Denarius:
    upload_2020-3-30_10-30-23.png
    RR Anon AR denarius Roma 211-206 BCE ROMA incused Dioscuri single horn-helmet Sear-- Craw 68-1b SICILY R

    Sicily was the First Province that Rome obtained, and was when they moved from controlling the Italian Peninsula to becoming an Empire. They were an Empire under the Roman Republic for almost 200 years, before becoming a Principate / King controlled Empire under Augustus.
     
    Last edited: Mar 30, 2020
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  6. medoraman

    medoraman Supporter! Supporter

    Interesting question. I think the Romans had such an array of smaller coins, from small copper up to denarius, because this was the major needs. Small copper to denarius were usable for daily needs, with long term savings, if a person had such a thing, converted to gold.

    From what I have read, small copper to denarius very roughly would cover up to around $50 in modern value. Well, that is what a normal person would generally spend, especially remembering ancient people were much poorer overall than modern western societies. So I simply believe they weren't needed in commerce. We used to have $1000 and $500 bills, ($10,000 and $5,000 as well), but even if they circulated today, how often would you use them? Romans were practical people, they made coins needed and not any for "glory".
     
  7. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    I think you maybe need to turn this upside down. The Mauryans only had billions of smallish silver, much like most of RR Rome. So did the Parthians and Sasanids. And Greek states like Miletos seems dominated by small silver. Like Medieval Gurarat and the Shahis. And Anglo-Saxon and Norman England too, and likewise for Continental Europe at that time. Plus the Chinese really only had copper.

    So the question is just as much, why did the others bang out big silver and gold? And also, what prompted you to frame the question your way anyhow?

    Rob T[/QUOTE]
    Probably because I have a large number of large silver denomination Greek coins and a large number of Republican and Imperial denarii and if one lays them out one is bound to notice a great number of large Greek silver coins and very few large Roman ones. Nothing of cosmic significance here but an anecdotal observation that prompted my curiosity.
     
  8. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    Would that not also apply to the Greek speaking East that did issue didrachmas and tetradrachmas in large numbers?
     
  9. medoraman

    medoraman Supporter! Supporter

    Depends on how you use coins and what you were used to. Coinage was an evolution. It started with impossibly tiny to huge pieces. However, even outside Rome like Parthia coinage started to converge to what works best. That is lots of options for small change which the vast majority of people use, and gold for large sums. They never got bigger really worldwide until new technology allowed exploitation of massive new reserves of silver and gold starting around 1500 or so.

    Another aspect is what @Alegandron talked about. Romans had a copper background. They picked up the idea of a denarius from the Magna Graecia neighbors, but concentrated on copper small change. I think that has a role as well. If Magna Graecia had more of a history of large silver MAYBE Rome would have had some.

    Just my thoughts on the subject, and as such could be completely wrong. :)
     
  10. Magnus Maximus

    Magnus Maximus Dulce et Decorum est....

    I’ve often wondered that to. I don’t have an answer but I can say that most of the Tetradrachms used by the successor states were not found in everyday circulation. In the Seleucid empire they tended to be used in large payments/trade or to pay the troops. A Tetradrachm would have been roughly 4 days of pay for an skilled laborer, so I wouldn’t imaging many persons using them in the market place.
     
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  11. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    When a Roman legionary retired and his accounts squared away, he must have been entitled to a fair amount after 20-25 years of service. I wonder how he was paid off, that is with what coins.
     
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  12. Magnus Maximus

    Magnus Maximus Dulce et Decorum est....

    @kevin McGonigal
    Either a crap tone of denarii or a lot of aureii is my guess. That might explain why we have lots of examples of both available today.
     
  13. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member Supporter

    I believe much was paid 'in kind'. There were places a soldier could get land near a Colonial city. I have seen no explanation of details on this but it is not necessary that all of the cash out was paid in coin. Some of you may have heard of the "Forty acres and a mule" proposals for Southern slaves following the Civil War. I suspect the system worked better for Rome since there was plenty of unused land in Europe and no previous owners who would dare to oppose the idea.
     
  14. Alegandron

    Alegandron "ΤΩΙ ΚΡΑΤΙΣΤΩΙ..." ΜΕΓΑΣ ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΣ, June 323 BCE Supporter

    Agreed. Everything I have read was that they were "farmed out" to lands. Gave the Republic (and Principate) colonies of ex-legionaries to settle areas, and ensure that they had more and more sympathetic populations in the Empire. Also, Rome knew that the land would become productive with Legionary families tending the farms.

    I believe this happened after the Marian Reforms around 107BCE.
     
    Last edited: Mar 31, 2020
  15. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    I know that was true in the First Century BC as the triumvirs were constantly seizing land, often in Italy from peasant farmers to pay off their legions. It was major source of contention for Octavian and Mark Antony before the final blow up. After the reduction of the army under Augustus and from then on, though, I do not see in the sources much talk about soldiers getting, even wanting lands. Recall that by this time many soldiers were coming from backgrounds were farming would have been an alien and unappetizing way of spending their retirement.
     
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  16. robinjojo

    robinjojo Well-Known Member

    I think one factor is inflation. Rome certainly experienced it, especially in the later years of the empire, resulting in increasingly debased and lighter weight denari and later antoniniani.
     
  17. rrdenarius

    rrdenarius non omnibus dormio Supporter

    Interesting post.
    I think Republican Rome did not mint large silver coins because they did not have the silver. The ratio of gold to silver coin weights / denominations were not high as the 25/1 you mention. Based on coin inscriptions, the smallest gold coin was 20 asses and one denarius was 10 asses.
    Rome started as a modest city state and expanded first to incorporate the Italian peninsula and eventually the area around the Mediterranean. At first Rome did not have gold or silver sources (trade or mines) and used bronze metal, land and livestock to measure / store wealth. We know wealth was measured because citizens had to have minimum levels of wealth, expressed in asses, to hold positions in the army. Most transactions were barter or crude bronze metal. Rome's supply of precious metal increased as they defeated others and brought much of their wealth to Rome.
    I think there were two big turning points in RR money:
    1. about 400 BC Rome first payed soldiers
    2. during their wars with Carthage Rome ran out of bronze to make money and war materials. The silver denarius replaced the As.
    During the second war with Carthage, Rome issued the Crawford 44 series of coins, about 211 BC, has both gold and silver coins. These were issued late in the 2nd Carthaginian War. The ratio of gold to silver ratio determined by these coins is 8/1.
    • Cr-44/2, gold 60 asses coin, weight 3.38
    • Cr-44/3, gold 40 asses coin, weight 2.25
    • Cr-44/4, gold 20 asses coin, weight 1.12
    • Cr-44/5, silver 10 asses coin, weight 4.84 Note this is an unusually high weight coin
    • Cr-44/6, silver 5 asses coin, weight 2.14
    • Cr-44/7, silver 2.5 asses coin, weight 1.06
    coin weights from -
    http://davy.potdevin.free.fr/Site/crawford1.html
     
  18. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    The 25 to one I mentioned was not the gold-silver value ratio which was probably something like 11 or 12 to one but the ratio of the aureus to the denarius (25 denarii = one aureus) of the Augustan coinage which held steady for a considerable period, even when Nero reduced the weights of both the denarius. and aureus ca. 60 AD.
     
  19. EWC3

    EWC3 (mood: stubborn)

    Yes. I would tend to see a gradation across the Greek world. From the rather extreme Doric culture of Sparta – no coins at all - to the mixed culture of Athens, primarily big tetradrachms - to the rather democratic Ionians at Miletos – with lots of small silver only. It would be the small silver that was actually useful to most people in the market place. We so very often hear about Athens being the birthplace of democracy – which is a bit odd if you read their leading thinkers like Plato or Aristotle. The Ionian actual democrat Democritus seems to have felt snubbed in Athens.

    Returning as I did earlier to a general overview – looking worldwide the really question is - why were there so many tetradrachms? Many if not most cultures are happy enough with just a 4 gram unit in silver – except for the Chinese – who went for 4 grams in copper.

    Rob T
     
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  20. 1934 Wreath Crown

    1934 Wreath Crown Well-Known Member

    @kevinMcGonigal I think you've asked the million dollar question that many a layman like me have often wondered about but were too afraid too ask:)

    The smaller gold coins (Solidus and Tremissis) came about much later in the life of the Roman Empire (mainly Byzantine era) which leaves a huge gap between the practical but modest Dinarius and the imposing Aureus. Although as pointed out earlier, the Greeks issued much larger coins in both Gold (Octodrachm) and silver (Decadrachm), albeit very few in number. But in silver coinage they had a wide range with the Drachm and its variations, the modest obol and its multiples or the quarter stater in gold.

    Surely when the Romans conquered all of Southern and South-Eastern Europe, Asia Minor and North Africa, in particular Macedonia, Greece and Egypt, the bulk of the wealth of the ancient world and all the gold and silver taken by Alexander the Great from Persia must have fallen into Roman hands for manufacturing and developing a more extensive variety of coinage. Why didn't they?

    Is one to assume then that the Ancient Greek Empire had a much more advanced coinage system which catered for all its requirements including international trade, affluent Greek citizens as well as the poor. Whereas, perhaps the Ancient Romans only minted coins mainly for use by their citizens and conducted large scale trade with Africa and India using bullion bars or weight equivalents??
     
    Last edited: May 8, 2020
  21. Magnus Maximus

    Magnus Maximus Dulce et Decorum est....

    @EWC3
    I am more confident in my initial post about Seleucid tetradrachms being used almost exclusively for trade/large state payments.
    I recently picked up an tetradrachm of Antiochus II Theos(literally translates to God) minted in western Anatolia. Now the Seleucids controlled an absolutely massive amount of territory at this point, but for some reason they decided to establish a mint in the western most peripherally of their territory. Historically we know Antiochus II and his generals campaigned extensively in the area against Ptolemaic Egypt. I can't prove it, but I am leaning toward my coin being used for military payment in those campaigns.
    combined946.jpg
    Material: Silver
    Weight: 16.85 g
    Syria, Antiochus II; 261-246 BC, Perhaps Tralles, Tetradrachm, 16.85g. SC-534.2. Obv: Diademed head of Antiochus II r. Rx: ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΑΝΤΙΟΧΟΥ Apollo, slight drapery on r. thigh, seated l. on omphalos, testing arrow and resting l. hand on bow; control marks in outer l. and r. fields. Obverse somewhat high relief. aVF / Fine

    Diadokhoi250nbc.jpg
     
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