The Reduction Of Silver Content In The Roman Denarius

The Reduction Of Silver Content In The Roman Denarius
(Roman Piso, 06-09-2017)

Since I have been studying so many different areas of ancient history, particularly that of ancient Rome, this subject has been of some interest to me and others for a number of reasons. It has been apparent that the decline in the content of silver in Roman coinage directly related to various factors within the Roman Empire over the course of several centuries; namely, through the First Century AD/CE to the Fourth Century AD/CE.

The examination of the part that coins played in history is crucial in helping to make important determinations in a number of areas of the study. For instance, the names used by various emperors, their family members, wives, and sometimes, relatives. It is for much more than simple interest or trivia that we, as historians, examine ancient coins.

We find many things of interest and importance, that is, of value to us in our quest to learn more about the people and times in which they lived. Coins of the various emperors contain information. They give us portraits of the emperors which give us some idea as to how they looked. They tell us things from what they chose to include on their coins, such as symbols, gods and/or goddesses, motto and more. And, at times, we may even find examples of propaganda and historical reference.

But in this instance, we are examining the silver content or the amount of silver contained within the silver denarius (or “denarii” in plural) as minted under the various emperors. Which, may tell us a few things or at least indicate or support various views of certain emperors at particular points in the historical timeline of the Roman Empire.

One of the first things that comes to mind is that as the Roman Empire was expanding and more people and territory was being added to it, the demand for more coinage became a priority. And, one of the easiest ways to make silver coinage ‘stretch’ is to “water it down” so to speak. Or, in other words, reduce the silver content rather than the size of the coins – which, by the way, was another thing that we see happening as time went on (a good example of this can be seen in the reduction of size in both the denarius and the tetradrachm over the course of time).

Coins which were produced under the Emperor Augustus were virtually as pure as they could make them, about 98 percent pure. We see, as time went on, that the silver coins minted under later emperors were reduced to ‘billon’ (a token amount of silver) and essentially copper coins with a silver wash to make them appear to be silver. Of course, with use, the silver washed coins would begin to show the copper as the silver wore off.

Basically, the coins which were produced by the Julian Emperors remained for the most part, stable. The exception to that (and remember, we are focused primarily upon the denarius in this paper), could be coins produced for the various Roman territories in the form of coinage issued for use in the provinces. Once the rule of the Julian Emperors ended with the death of Nero, we begin to see where the rule of successive emperors changed the content of silver in their coins.

The Silver Content In The Denarius Under Various Emperors*:
[Again, remember that we find silver reduction in coins produced for the provinces]

Augustus (ruled : 27 BC/BCE-14 AD/CE) 97/98%.
Claudius (ruled : 41-54 AD/CE) 97%.
Nero (ruled : 54-68 AD/CE) 97%.
Vitellius (ruled: 69 AD/CE) 81%
Domitian (ruled: 81-96 AC/CE) 92%
Trajan (ruled: 98-117 AD/CE) 93%
Hadrian (ruled: 117-138 AD/CE) 87%
Antoninus Pius (ruled: 138-161 AD/CE) 75%
Marcus Aurelius (ruled: 161-180 AD/CE) 68%
Septimius Severus (ruled: 193-211 AD/CE) 50%
Elagabalus (ruled: 218-222 AD/CE) 43%
Severus Alexander (ruled: 222-235 AD/CE) 35%
Gordian III (ruled: 238-244 AD/CE) 28%
Philip ‘The Arab’ (ruled: 244-249 AD/CE) 0.50%
Claudius II [‘Gothicus’] (ruled: 268-270 AD/CE) 0.02%

There was a major coinage reform under the emperor Diocletian (284-305 AD/CE), and various changes occurred afterward, during Constantine’s reign. This paper does not extend into detailing that information. In our listing of emperors (above), we see a steady decline in the amount of silver in the denarii being produced by each of the emperors listed after emperor Trajan; from Trajan’s 93% to the 0.02% in those being produced by Claudius II.

More information on later coinage of the Roman Empire can be found in various books, including ‘Roman Coins And Their Values’ by David R. Sear, Seaby Publications Ltd.

The reduction in the amount of silver in a little at a time over the course of the rule of emperors as time went on, seems to beg the question, was their some pre-designed plan for the reduction of silver in coins which was put in place by certain emperors and then instituted by successive emperors according to that plan?

Remember, these emperors, as we are now finding out, were related to each other and had common ancestry with each other. That is, they were already of “royal blood” to begin with, regardless of what they tried to make people think in the histories that they were in control of.

If this was done slowly, over time, as it was in instances that we see here, the populace would not be able to tell what was going on. And, it is most certain that the emperors never announced publicly, just what they were doing when reducing the amount of silver in their coins. That is, they were fooling the public.

Whatever the case, we need to continue to examine and study instances such as this, and compile more data from the reign of more of the emperors. That is, we need to better complete the information that we have to work with and fill in the gaps that have been missing. Also, we should bear in mind that other factors may apply in consideration of the change in silver content from one emperor to another.

One explanation for a change may not be that one emperor or another did not intentionally raise or lower the silver content, but that in changing administration, those working in the silver refining process, may have changed as well. Sources of ore or metal may have fluctuated or changed.

In some instances, new or different mints could have been a factor as well as silver destined for the refinery being hijacked or otherwise lost. Without written records or other confirming information, we simply need more data from which to extrapolate with any certainty, a solid postulate.


References and links:

* Bear in mind that these are averages for the coins sampled in various studies to date. The studies were controlled to the extent that they could be considering that many million coins were produced within the Roman Empire. Not every denarii of every emperor could be tested currently. So, this information will have to suffice for the time being. It is as accurate as we can be with the tests and studies that have been conducted up to this point.

‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Denarius’, by Alan W. Pense (Provost and Vice President, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA 18015-3035).

Alan W. Pense has a downloadable PDF document/paper.

The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Denarius

‘Roman Coins And Their Values’ by David R. Sear, Seaby Publications Ltd., 1995, etc.

Also do a web search using these search terms: “Roman History Timeline”.


Other papers by Roman Piso can be found here:

The Roman Piso Papers

This paper posted at Academia(dot)Edu:

The Reduction Of Silver Content In The Denarius


Title in other languages:

[Albanian: ‘Reduktimi i shumës së argjendit në denarin Romak’]
[Arabic: ‘تخفيض الكمية الفضية في الروماني دياريوس’]
[Armenian: ‘Reduktimi i shumës së argjendit në denarin Romak’]
[Bosnian: ‘Redução da quantidade de prata no Roman denário’]
[Chinese: ‘罗马银子中银量的减少’]
[Czech: ‘Snižování množství stříbra v římský Denár’]
[Danish: ‘Nedsættelse af sølv i Romersk denar’]
[Dutch: ‘Vermindering van de zilveren bedrag In de Romeinse Denarius’]
[Esperanto: ‘Redukto De Arĝento Kvanto En La Roma denaron’]
[Estonian: ‘Hõbedane teenari Roman summa vähendamine’]
[Filipino: ‘Pagbaba ng halaga ng pilak sa mga Romanong denaryo’]
[French: ‘Réduction de la quantité d’argent dans le denier Romain’]
[German: ‘Reduktion des silbernen Betrags im Römischen Denar’]
[Greek: ‘Μείωση του ποσού ασημένια με το ρωμαϊκό Denarius’]
[Hebrew: ‘הפחתת סכום כסף ב דנאריוס רומן’]
[Hungarian: ‘A Római dénár ezüst összeg csökkentése’]
[Italian: ‘Riduzione della quantità d’argento nel Denario Romano’]
[Japanese: ‘ローマデにおける銀量の削減’]
[Latin: ‘Summam in reductione Argentum Roman’]
[Latvian: ‘Denarius Romiešu sudraba summu samazināšanu’]
[Lithuanian: ‘Mažinti sidabro kiekį Romos denaras’]
[Norwegian: ‘Reduksjon av sølv beløpet i den Romerske Denarius’]
[Persian: ‘کاهش مقدار نقره در Denarius روم’]
[Polish: ‘Zmniejszenie kwoty srebrny w rzymskiego denara’]
[Portuguese: ‘Redução da quantidade de prata no Roman denário’]
[Romanian: ‘Reducerea cuantumului argint Denar Roman’]
[Russian: ‘Сокращение количества серебра в Римской денариус’]
[Serbian: ‘Смањење од сребрне износа у је Роман Денариус’]
[Sindhi: ‘چاندي رقم جي گهٽتائي رومن Denarius ۾’]
[Slovak: ‘Zníženie výšky striebra v rímsky denár’]
[Slovenian: ‘Zmanjšanje zneska srebro v rimski denar’]
[Spanish: ‘Reducción de la cantidad de plata en el denario Romano’]
[Swahili: ‘Reduktimi i shumës së argjendit në denarin Romak’]
[Swedish: ‘Minskning av Silver beloppet i den Romersk Denar’]
[Turkish: ‘Roma Denarius gümüş tutarının azaltma’]
[Ukrainian: ‘Скороченню срібло в Денарій Роман’]
[Urdu: ‘رومی دانآریوس میں چاندی رقم کی کمی’]
[Zulu: ‘Ukuncishiswa Of Inani Isiliva Ngo ISigungu esiphethe umbuso waseRoma lukadenariyu’]


Key Words & Terms)

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