Introduction to Roman Money

Welcome to Roman Money, your comprehensive guide to ancient Roman coins and currency. Created by a Classics graduate, this site serves as an introduction to those interested in the Roman economy, Roman coinage or looking for guidance when buying ancient coins. If you have any questions on any of the material covered on this website, please contact me and I will be happy to help.

Roman Currency: Early History

Sample of Roman Currency

It is not until the early Republican period of the third century BC that the Romans began using coinage in the manner that most are familiar with. Prior to this, the coins used for trade were made of bronze and of irregular size and weight. They were known as the Aes Rude. The value of each coin was determined by its weight, rather than by any sort of denomination or identification. It is relatively late that Rome began to use coinage as representative value, rather than bullion.

Basic units

The basic unit throughout a large period of the Roman Republic and Empire was known as the as, a coin made of copper. The sestertius was a brass coin, equivalent to 4 asses. The denarius, made of silver, was worth 16 asses. The rarer aureus, made of gold, was worth 25 denarii. These were common from the late third century BC to the middle of the third century AD. Monetary reforms during the tumultuous late Empire led to the introduction of new coins.

Please find a basic table below of the Augustan currency system using the coins discussed in the paragraph above.

Denomination Metal Value (asses)
As Copper 1
Sestertius Brass (or Orichalcum) 4
Denarius Silver 16
Aureus Gold 400


Average wage

The difference between the rich and poor was vast. The average legionnaire would earn 225 denarii per year (increased to 300 during the reign of Domitian). During the period 200-150BC a legionary soldier could purchase a year’s worth of bread with 2 months’ salary. Relatively speaking, the Roman soldier was a well-paid member of society. Praetorian guards received even better pay, at 720 denarii per year.

Evidence in Pompeii shows that the average worker in the city during the period 50BC-79BC earned an average of 5 to 16 per day, with employment being seasonal and thus irregular. Miner in Dacia during the second century AD earned around 6-10 asses per day in addition to included housing and food.

Average costs

The average Roman spent much of his income on food and the Roman diet was heavily dependent on grain. Purchasing power can be roughly calculated using the prices of this commodity (similar to the Big Mac Index!). The standard measure for wheat was the modius. One unit would provide enough to make 20 loaves of bread (of one pound each). Considering that the average Roman consumed two pounds of bread per day, this covered 10 days of consumption. Due to its importance in the Roman diet, the price of grain was an important topic in Roman politics. Wealthy ambitious politicians would often purchase large amounts of grain and make it available on the market to sell at a loss to gain favour amongst the populace.

Clothing was very expensive and often a luxury the average citizen could barely afford. In 240AD 22 denarii would buy a soldier a pair of army boots.

Roman Money for Propaganda

Roman currency gave government leaders a platform for publicity. During the early Republic coins would generally portray images related to the state as a whole. This is understandable, as the Republic was relatively young and still struggling to form an identity and presence in the Italian peninsula. During the late Republic and Roman Empire, individual leaders began to use coins for individual gain. Caesar was the first political figure to choose the representation of his own image on coinage. Other political leaders soon followed suit. They would use the opportunity to portray idealised representations of themselves. They would often link themselves to Roman gods. Religion was an important facet of Roman society and it was therefore important for Roman politicians and emperors to be seen as being subservient to the gods. Emperors would also use images of ancestors or great figures such as Alexander the Great or Romulus and Remus to portray an idea of lineage and thus a right to authority. Want to find out about propaganda in the Roman Empire? Check out BBC History.

Roman province: Ancient Greek Coins

The Romans had previously adopted coinage from the Greeks. Rather than it being due to economic or military reasons, Burnett (1987) argues that the Romans wished to adopt what they considered superior Greek culture. Centuries later, Greece would succumb to their imitators. Greece became a Roman province in 146 BC following the Battle of Corinth, marking the end of autonomous Greek rule. Rome installed a method whereby Roman provinces retained their local coinage as well as being given authority to mint bronze and silver coins. For economic interests, Gold coins were carefully regulated by Rome. If you want to find out more about Greek coins, have a read of the excellent Wikipedia entry.

Conclusion

Please remember that this information is to serve as an introductory resource (for now). Roman numismatics (study of ancient Roman coins) is rich and complex, covering a long period of history and many regions. Romans used coins for over 700 years and it is therefore difficult to generalise on various matters relating to coinage and the Roman economy. Nevertheless, I hope that the following has given you a basic understanding on which to build your knowledge of Roman money.