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Roman coinage

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The progressive extension of Roman hegemony over central Italy brought booty in the form of gold, silver, and bronze; the means to create a coinage on the Greek model were at hand. The stimulus was probably provided by Roman involvement with the Greek cities of Campania, after the building of the via Appia in the late 4th cent. bc; Rome now struck a coinage of silver pieces worth two (probably) drachmas, with the legend ROMANO, otherwise indistinguishable from the Greek coinages of the south. There was nearly a generation before the next issue, probably contemporary with the Pyrrhic War. (See pyrrhus.) From this point, there is a virtually unbroken sequence of Roman coinage to the end of the Roman empire in the west.

A silver coinage with a token coinage in bronze and a heavy cast bronze coinage went on side by side down to the outbreak of the Second Punic War in 218. It is probably in this period that Roman coinage penetrated the territories of the peoples of the central Apennines for the first time; and it is likely that, just as military needs may explain much of the production of Roman coinage in this period, so it was returning soldiers who carried it to Samnite and other communities.

The enormous strain of the war against Hannibal led to the debasement of the silver coinage. The first coinage system of Rome collapsed, and c.211 a new system was introduced; it included a new silver coin, the dēnārius, which remained the main Roman silver coin until the 3rd cent. ad. The issue was financed initially by unprecedented state levies on private property, thereafter by booty as the war went better for Rome. The end of the war saw the virtual cessation of minting by other Italian communities; and most coinage other than Roman disappeared rapidly from circulation in Italy.

Despite the creation of the denarius, bronze remained the most important element in the Roman monetary system for some years; a belief similar to those held by Porcius Cato (1) even led to the virtual suppression for a decade of the silver coinage, a symbol of increasing wealth and of declining public morality. But the consequences of Rome's conquest of the world could not be suppressed for ever; the booty in silver i.a. which flowed into Rome from 194 onwards and the mines in Macedonia which Rome controlled from 167 found expression in a vastly increased issue of silver coinage from 157. It became normal for Rome to coin in a year as much as a Greek city might coin in a century. In the years after 157, the coinage came accurately to reflect the position of Rome as ruler of the world by omitting the ethnic: no identification was needed.

The period after the Second Punic War saw the beginning of the process whereby Roman coinage came to be the coinage of the whole Mediterranean world. The denarius rapidly became the silver coin of Sicily, flanked both by Roman bronze and by bronze city issues. In Spain, the Romans permitted or encouraged the creation of silver and bronze coinages modelled on the denarius coinage, probably in the 150s. As more and more of the Mediterranean world came under direct Roman rule and became involved in the civil wars that brought the republic to an end, so the use of Roman monetary units and Roman coins spread, to Africa, Greece and the east, and Gaul. Only Egypt, incorporated in 30, remained monetarily isolated from the rest of the Roman world.


Subjects: Classical studies

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