Mints of the Roman Empire
Mints of the Roman Empire
If there was something that sustained the strength of the Roman world in front of its neighbours and enemies, it was undoubtedly its economy. And if something explains its fall it is also because of its crisis in this aspect.
In its initial stage, in the times of the kings, Rome was based basically in animal breeding and agriculture. In the republican stage agriculture took great importance and the trade started to grow. In the imperial era the trade was of capital importance where merchants and craftmen, grouped in collegia (professional brotherhoods) proliferated in the cities selling all kind of products on their own shops: the tabernae. There were also businessmen that left everything in the hands of slaves.
Big fortunes were made in real state, like Crassus, who while renting houses in his insulae, fattened his coffers. Even six-floor buildings were constructed frequently, and reached up to seventy feet (20.70 metres) in the Augustus era. This gives us an image and an organization of the cities very similar to the current ones.
Throughout its history, the common axis on which economic power moved was war: so important was that until the arrival of the famous pax romana, in the first years of our era, there always existed a casus belli (a reason to declare war) or was sought under the pretext that was necessary in order to obtain juicy booties in the form of wealth and slaves. This explains the continuous and vertiginous initial territorial expansion and, in turn, the decline when the boundaries of the borders stagnated, as the offensive campaigns ceased to exist as well as the great benefits of their victories, while the defensive conflicts did nothing but erode the state treasury and consume excessive resources for the maintenance of border armies: you just have to try to imagine what it was to keep around 350,000 legionaries with all the military gear that surrounded them without getting in return the many benefits of the past in rich conquered provinces. This, together with the end of the slave model for the moral victory of Christianity, the successive civil wars and the resurgence of corruption, turned the Roman Empire into a giant with feet of clay, too appetizing and accessible to the barbarians who lurked and accumulated closer and closer to the limes.
The slave society gave way to a new model: building the foundations of the servitude that would be the basis of medieval feudalism.
Carriage marks in Pompeii
Carriage marks in Pompeii
Roman anchor
Roman anchor

LIVESTOCK AND AGRICULTURE

Because of the ancestors, the first quirites, were almost exclusively dedicated to grazing and agriculture, these activities were always seen as good ones, and in times of greater refinement and foreign influences, not a few illustrious figures appealed to the old rural virtues against the vice and decadence of the urban world. The agriculture got focused on the vine, cereals and olives, which provided products that could be stored and they weren’t perishable. The Egypt’s annexation was very important for supplying the whole empire later, so much that it came to be considered its granary, although we should not detract from other provinces such as Sicily or Carthage. Instead, the most perishable products were produced on the sorroundings of the cities which were supplied daily by the local farmers.

Eventhough it was based on the Sumerian techniques imported through later towns and villages, the roman culture brought agricultural advances, some of them have been practiced until today: intricate systems of land irrigation and drainage of swampy areas, water and windmills, implantation of crop rotation, a double-leaf plow, the vallus (a kind of harvester driven generally by oxen) and used measuring systems such as the Roman scales for example.

MINING

As in many other things, we find in Rome the origin of the mining engineering.

About the metallic minerals, the principal resources came from the mines of Hispania (generous province one the olive and vine, also on the tuna fishing industry). Gold, silver, iron, copper and lead extracted from its entrails favored the prosperity.

Dacia provided good quantities of gold after the conquests of Trajan, Britannia and Africa lead, Italy and Cyprus copper and tin (thus being able to manufacture bronze with both metals). Such was the development of the gold industry that virtually all gold deposits known today on both sides of the Mediterranean were already cataloged and exploited by the Romans.

Extractive industries of stone, marble and granite watered the entire empire. They were basic for urban expansion and infrastructures.

Salt was also very important for the conservation of food, especially those from fishing, constituting one of the most important sources of food throughout the territory. The main extraction centers were located in Ostia (the port of Rome), Sicily, the Mediterranean coast of Gaul and north of Cartago Nova (present-day Cartagena). Both evaporation and block removal were used, depending on the deposit.

Other raw materials had to be imported, such as alabaster from Arabia, amber from Germania and ivory from Africa.

For the mining administration, procurators were appointed.

Las Medulas gold mine. Leon
Las Medulas gold mine. Leon
Trajan market
Trajan market
Trajan market
Trajan market
Trajan market
Trajan market

COMMERCE

As the territory increased, it became necessary to secure commercial transactions and this was achieved almost definitely in Augustus’ time with a peace of four decades, where a vast network of high quality roads and an interior sea full of well-supplied ports favoured an unprecedented economic growth. Previously, the great general Pompey, towards the end of the republican period, pacified the Mare Nostrum definitively defeating the Cilician pirates, years before the first civil war that confronted him to a military colossus: Gaius Julius Caesar.

Roman merchants went into Arabia and beyond Egypt, reached the western coast of India and some sailed to Ceylon (establishing even small delegations to protect their interests) and even China. The Silk Road had its birth in the imperial era and to protect the transit of goods by land a line of fortifications was established every few tens of kilometres, at the eastern end of the empire, with cavalry troops to repel attacks on the caravans by bellicose nomadic tribes. Throughout the territory, the newly created cities were designed based on an orthogonal plane where the squares and right angles prevailed that facilitated transportation, with wide forums to attract and stimulate transactions.

In the sea the merchant ships with their characteristic square sail could navigate with favourable wind at 6 knots, being able to connect the Atlantic with Rome in just one week, and with variable capacities according to their size, being able to reach 200 tons. They were flexible enough and thanks to the design of their hull could afford to go inside the deltas and navigate against the current of rivers such as the Rhine, the Danube, the Euphrates, the Nile, the Tiber or the Ebro, thus reaching interior cities like Rome or Caesaraugusta (present-day Zaragoza). These galleys frequently crossed rivers like the Phasis or the Cyrus using routes to the South of the Caucasus inherited of the ancient Greeks who in turn had inherited them from the local kingdoms.

Ruins of Ostia
Ruins of Ostia
Via de la Plata and Arc of Caparra. Caceres
Via de la Plata and Arc of Caparra. Caceres

CURRENCY

The roman economy was based on its monetary system, but it is little known by the public the late adoption of a real one, since until the middle of the 4th century BC they did not coin currency and based their transactions on barter and to a lesser extent also on a primitive monetary unit known like as, which as its translation from Latin means it was made of bronze.

The asses were copied from the etruscans and on the imperial era they weren’t used anymore. In their origins they were rough cast pieces of orichalcum (composite material in 4/5 parts of copper and 1/5 of zinc): the aes rude. Later on, they adopted the ingots form and adding marks after (aes signatum), some of them of livestock (pecus) probably indicating it’s equivalence (hence the origin of the pecuniary concept: money). Finallly, the first round coin implanted by Rome: the aes grave, of bronze, introduced around the year 269 BC it included in its design the face of the two-faced god Janus on one side and the prow of one galley on the other (extolling the newly acquired naval power). Starting from this unit of reference emerged fractional coins with the same design but varying the deities represented: semis (1/2 as: Saturn), triens (1/3 of as: Minerva), quadrans (1/4 of as: Hercules), sextans (1/6 ace: Mercury), uncia (1/12 ace: Bellona).

Coins discovered in Britania
Coins discovered in Britania

Shortly before coining currency, the Romans ordered the Greek colonies to make silver coins in imitation of theirs: didrachmas. They were followed by the quadrigatus and shortly after by the victoriatus (originated in Illyria). It was from the conquests of these Greek colonies in southern Italy (mainly the rich Taranto) that they began to mint their own silver coins and it was not until much later that the gold coins were extended.

The monetary system took as a reference since the end of the republican period the aureus (gold), although little was used in practice. The effective circulation of money based on silver had the first issue around the year 200 BC taking the denarius as the official currency of the empire. It was also copied, this time from the Greek drachmas. A well-known fractional coin was the sestertius (100 coins were equivalent to an aureus), which was coined in both silver and copper. Another fractional coin was the quinarius (the gold one was equivalent to half an aureus and they were needed 25 pieces of the silver one to equal the value of the gold quinarius). And finally, we have the dupondius with a value of two asses or half sestertius.

As curiosities: it is necessary to emphasize that the etymology of denarius comes from ten donkeys (denis asinum) taken as equivalence, still livestock, of this piece. Until 133 BC a denarius equaled 10 asses. After that date to 16. Once introduced the aureus, this amounted to 25 denarii. In the imperial period, copper and bronze were used again, and shortly before, Julius Caesar initiated the fashion of representing the faces of illustrious figures on coins.

In the imperial era various reforms were carried out to balance the economy with disparate successes. The most relevant were those made under the orders of Augustus, Nero, Caracalla, Aurelian, Diocletian and Constantine.

Silver didrachma of the 3rd century BC
Silver didrachma of the 3rd century BC
Aureus of Augustus (8.18 gr of gold)
Aureus of Augustus (8.18 gr of gold)
Aureus of Nero (7.27 gr of gold)
Aureus of Nero (7.27 gr of gold)
Hadrian coin
Hadrian coin

Augustus based the system from an aureus of 7.79 grams of gold.

In Nero‘s time, fruit of the devaluation of the currency as a result of uncontrolled inflation, the silver denarii became an alloy with only half of this material. He lowered the weight of the aureus to 7.27 grams.

Caracalla wanted to fix this problem by introducing a new currency: the antoninianus, which progressively lost value until it became a silver-plated copper coin that only represented 3% of its value half a century later. He lowered the weight of the aureus to 6.54 grams.

Aurelian among other measures improved the quality of the coins and reformed the mint (place where the coin is made).

Diocletian minted silver coins again, something that had not occurred in half a century, introducing the argenteus. In bronze he also introduced a new coin similar to the as: the follis, which was sometimes plated in silver. In turn, since this reform the marks of the mint appear regularly.

Constantine made a large reform that covered many aspects, but he is mainly remembered for the replacement of the aureus by the solidus (approximately 4.5 grams of gold), which in turn had its fractional coins: the semis (2.27 grams) and the scrupulus (1.70 grams). In silver he introduced the miliarense (18 equaled a solidus) and the siliqua (24 equaled a solidus).

The solidus was the reference currency with which the western empire fell and it was also in Byzantium, the eastern empire, until the Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118 AD) who replaced it with the hyperpyron.

At the end of the 7th century an Umayyad caliph copied the solidus in quality, weight and design, introducing shortly after Koranic verses in the coinage: it was the dinar. With this currency unit he tried to compete with the Byzantines in economic matters, in addition to the religious or military, fighting for the hegemony of the East.

As for the mints, it should be noted that in republican times the provinces could manufacture their own currency. At the beginning of the empire they lose this right and a magistrature is established composed of the triumviri monetales, some officers in charge of its supervision. The emperor had the power to issue in gold and silver and left the copper for the Senate. Coins were usually coined in Rome but as the territory gained in extension other centers were created for their manufacture under the control of quaestors and proconsuls, and later procurators, achieving a unified currency in all provinces. Some important mints after the capital of Rome were those of Lugdunum (present-day London), Aquileia, Nicomedia and Constantinople, although there are records of several hundred throughout the empire.

Coins of the 3rd century AD
Coins of the 3rd century AD
Solidus of the Emperor Honorius (4th-5th centuries AD)
Solidus of the Emperor Honorius (4th-5th centuries AD)
Visigoth gold coin
Visigoth gold coin

Author: Eduardo Ortiz Pardina