Money in the Roman Republic - an exhibition at the MoneyMuseum


Roman politicians needed much money to win the vote. As a result, each one was overindebted. Part of the Roman Empire is based on the money crunch of Roman politicans. 


A Coinage of their own paving the Way to Superpower: How coined Money conditioned Rome‘s History of Conquest and War



In 396 B.C., the Romans conquered the Etruscan city of Veii, located 18 kilometers - that is roughly a day’s march - away from Rome.


A century or so later, little Rome had conquered all of Central Italy and put out feelers to Southern Italy.


Although at that time the Greeks had been using a sophisticated monetary system for more than three centuries, the Romans didn’t think it to be necessary to introduce their own coins following the Greek example.


At the Tiber River, people used Aes Rude as currency, unworked lumps of metal that every farmer could use as raw material for producing simple equipment for farm work.

The trade in Rome required almost no money at all. Luxury goods? Who could afford them? Everybody lived on what the soil generated. Everybody produced what he needed in every day life. There was no need to buy food. And on their self-sustaining farms families and slaves worked together. That was why there was no need of something like wages and salaries. The Roman army hardly needed any pay, either. After all, this army consisted of citizens whose civil duty it was to fight for the Republic.


The legions were highly successful. As a result, Rome soon controlled major parts of Italy.


In order to consolidate the dominion, the senate appointed Appius Claudius Caecus with building the famous Via Appia. That was just one of many infrastructural projects that – under the control by the Roman upper class – were run in the recently taken territories. Getting such major projects up and running required the collaboration with local entrepreneurs. That was the moment when the Roman officials realized how much easier it was when one possessed silver coins like the ones that were used in the Greek world.


As a matter of fact, the first Roman coins look very much like their Greek models. This is hardly a surprise, for the dies were probably made by Greek die cutters, the minting done by the Greek craftsmen.


Rome only gradually started its own minting of coins. Not regularly, of course. Plus the number of coins produced was never vast. Compared with the denarii, the early didrachms are incredibly rare.


Only during the Second Punic War, the senate decided to carry out a monetary reform. At some point, shortly before 211, the new monetary system was introduced that was geared to the needs of the Romans. The most successful denomination created back then was the denarius – which was to shape the Mediterranean economic world for 450 years to come.


It features a female head with a helmet on its obverse. We have become used to call the goddess depicted Roma although it is much more likely that she actually is the ancient Roman goddess of war, Bellona.


On the reverse, the Dioscuri are depicted. To the Romans, Castor and Pollux were the great helpers in battle. It was believed that it had been these divine twins who had intervened in the decisive battle in the First Roman-Latin War in favor of the Romans and hence made them successful.


As belligerent as the look of this coin was its purpose. After the decisive victory in Italy the Romans forced it on all cities and peoples they ruled. The coins of the local population were collected, melted down and re-coined into new denarii. That procedure made sure that, after the victory, none of the defeated was able to hide his possessions from the eyes of the victors. He was obliged to hand in his silver for re-coining, if he wanted to use it as currency afterwards.


The Second Punic War had brought Rome the supremacy over Spain. That came with the control over the rich silver mines. As much as 1,500 talents of silver reached Rome every year as tribute. That was enough to coin 9 million denarii.


From then on, monetary policy was a matter for the senate. It convened at the beginning of the year to talk about the expenditures. A decision was made as to how many new coins were to be produced. The quaestores then took the metal required from the treasure in the Temple of Saturn and brought it to the mint.


That was the place where the denarii needed for conquering kingdoms were produced. Hence, silver coins were used to get even more silver. Booty and tribute - that was the goal. By the way, this goal can be seen from the fact that, apart from the senate, only the military commanders and their paymasters were allowed to convert raw metal into denarii.


Consequently, the Roman Empire expanded. It grew larger and larger with every military campaign. The areas highlighted green in this map are the ones where the people had to pay taxes to Rome shortly after Cesar’s death. Their taxes were used to finance first the Civil War, then the conquest of the entire Mediterranean region.

With the legions came the denarius. It became the main currency in all of these areas. It was the link connecting the East and the West, the North and the South to become one single economic region.


The increasing importance of the denarius can’t be separated from the expansion of the Roman Empire. In the same way, the expansion of the Roman Empire would have reached its natural limits – without the denarius.


Roman Career Ladder - Traditional Version


Imagine to be in ancient Rome and you want to become a politician. There were specific preconditions and career steps. The historian Ursula Kampmann explains the system. 



Roman Career Ladder – Update for Imperators


Those who wanted to get to the center of power in Rome had a very long way ahead of themselves. Outsiders had a difficult time. But there was one other possibility: to use the popular assembly - watch how the system crumbled.


Signet Sunflower Foundation