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FORVM`s Classical Numismatics Discussion Board  |  Numismatic and History Discussions  |  Ancient Coin Forum (Moderator: goldenancients)  |  Topic: How common was ownership of silver coins? 0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic. « previous next »
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Author Topic: How common was ownership of silver coins?  (Read 3652 times)
basemetal
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« on: March 10, 2007, 06:21:15 pm »

We all know the incredible numbers of silver coins that were minted in the very roughly 700 years of the existence of what we call the roman empire, in whatever form or size that empire existed.
But given the total number of subjects and citizens of the empire at a given time, how many, or rather what percentage of romans and their subjects actually ever called a denarius (or the later incarnations) their own?
I realize that a percentage implies some actual number, but for the purposes of this discussion, I mean half, three-quarters, one-quarter, or some other part?
I have a feeling (a very valid scientific concept...lol) that a great, great many of the "members" meaning citizens, freedmen, slaves, subjects, and others that comprised the "roman empire"  never owned an actual silver coin.  They may have seen one or many, and of course knew of silver as a metal, but actually owning one or earning one? 
If the answer is a minority, it really gives pause for thought that the ubiquitous denarius was actually a coin that was owned by the fewer, not the greater.
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TRPOT
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« Reply #1 on: March 10, 2007, 08:38:40 pm »

I kind of picture them being a bit like a modern $100 bill...common, yet not used in most everyday transactions by average people. Then again, they didn't have credit cards back then, so people probably stashed them away for bigger purchases more commonly than people might keep $100 bills.

But of course, I could be way off the mark!
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« Reply #2 on: March 11, 2007, 01:02:01 am »

The most commonlly cited example is that a denarius was about a day's wages for a soldier, and soldiers were certainly not upper-class.  So it seems that they were fairly commonly traded amongst not just the elite, but the common folk, as well.
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jarnait
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« Reply #3 on: March 11, 2007, 01:23:18 am »

Hi!

I was wondering about the same as Basemetal the other day, and esnible pointed me at:

http://www.ancientcoins.biz/pages/economy/

which I found very informative.

I also wonder "who had money in her/his pocket" :-)

Regards!

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« Reply #4 on: March 11, 2007, 03:50:23 am »

Hi,

Just a thought, but as the soldiers where numerous, and paid (every week ? every day ?) in denarii (see the large amount of Mark Antony galleys minted in travelling mints for the purpose of soldiers wages), they would likely spend them to buy goods or for their entertainment : wine, beer, girls and maybe the disneyterrum of those days. Then people, at least shopkeepers, barmen or maids, girls would have these denarii in hand, even for a short time if they had to give them back to their boss. Not sure to make it clear.

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« Reply #5 on: March 11, 2007, 04:51:29 am »

 
   When I think of the seemingly prodigious volume of denarii (think of Septimius and the Severans generally perhaps? – and for example) struck with Moneta reverse as it would seem, frequently enough for sake of giving a general donative – it would seem surely the plebians at-least received precisely these silver tokens. (?)
  What good is that Moneta in the money chests of Senators-alone (for example)?
 
  Though I must say, I don't know when that practice began...
 
   Best,
   Tia
 
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« Reply #6 on: March 11, 2007, 08:59:39 am »

This excerpt was written written by Tacitus about the Germanic tribes:

“They like old-fashioned coins because they have been long familiar with them—especially those which have notched edges and are stamped with representations of two-horse chariots. They also prefer silver to gold, not from any special liking to the metal, but because a quantity of silver coins is more convenient for buying ordinary cheap merchandise.”


Tacitus, "The Agricola" and "The Germania", translated by H. Mattingly, Penguin Books (1970): 105.
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« Reply #7 on: March 11, 2007, 10:23:22 am »

I kind of picture them being a bit like a modern $100 bill...common, yet not used in most everyday transactions by average people. Then again, they didn't have credit cards back then, so people probably stashed them away for bigger purchases more commonly than people might keep $100 bills.

But of course, I could be way off the mark!

They were like the $20. There are a lot of them and they are only used for the medium sized purchases and pay. The Romans would use the bronze coins for their other purchases.

I was wondering if there is any evidence of banks or savings in ancient rome or did people just stick all of their money in their ground or mattress?
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TRPOT
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« Reply #8 on: March 11, 2007, 12:55:43 pm »

I guess I just imagined $20 being too cheap for a day's pay...but looking at the prices in the shops at Pompeii etc., I guess a $20 bill would be far more appropriate!
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« Reply #9 on: March 11, 2007, 01:56:42 pm »

The usage of silver coins depends on what period we are talking about. The economy of the Republic was not very monetised at all. Large amounts of silver were only issued on special occasions, i.e. civil wars.

There was not much silver issued up until Vespasian. On the other hand, judging by the re-used, countermarked bronze coins of the early emperors, which are usually worn almost flat, bronze must have been circulating like mad.

Vespasian is the first emperor that issued large quantities of silver coins (and had a large number of types). It's reasonable to assume that silver coins came more and more into use. However if a denarius was a day's pay then the bronze sestertius was a quarter of a day's pay. Writers of the time usually give prices in sestertii, even if they run into millions, so it must have been the case that a denarius was considered to be 4 sestertii rather than a sesterii being a quarter of a denarius. By that I mean the sestertius was the dollar or pound of the day, not the denarius.

More and more people must have started using silver coins - until the silver went out of the silver coins! When Diocletian and Constantine started to issue silver again, they were issued in much smaller quantities, so I suppose they were not so much used by the plebs.
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« Reply #10 on: March 12, 2007, 04:06:22 pm »

I do wonder how much money the average peasant farmer really needed to handle in a lifetime. I'd guess that barter or trading favours would account for a very large proportion of transactions in any village community of the time. What's needed is specific accounts of poor people. Two come to mind; the story in Luke's Gospel of the woman who has ten drachmae, loses one, searches the house from top to bottom, then throws a party when she finds it, and the one about the desperately poor widow with two lepta. Some ordinary people evidently handled silver regularly (there's no indication that the first woman is in any way 'rich'), but it was precious, and some would be too poor to have access to it at all.
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« Reply #11 on: March 12, 2007, 08:49:49 pm »

Hi,

This is not related to denarii and the Roman economy, but more to Greek and Ptolemaic Egypt ones, so it doesn't answer Robert's question, but I found it interesting to read.
It mentions "banks" several times and there are examples of transactions, prices, and taxes.

http://www.columbia.edu/itc/classics/bagnall/3995/course_web_resources.html

Regards

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basemetal
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« Reply #12 on: March 13, 2007, 06:47:55 pm »

On further reflection, it is at least said that slaves and gladiators could buy their own freedom for their personal value price.  I somehow doubt that it meant that either of the two  stored or lugged around large bags of sestertii.  And then as now, prostitutes often handled large volumes and values of coins(cash today).  None of the above three were except rarely, counted as wealthy. 
Same today, if you substitute say, garden variety drug dealers and modern prostitutes. 
I think perhaps the misnomer "poor" may be misleading. 
Perhaps few "rural" or "agricultural" types ever owned or possesed silver coinage.
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« Reply #13 on: March 13, 2007, 10:56:23 pm »

 
     I’ve not long ago gone back to start-again reading  K. W. Harl’s, Coinage in the Roman Economy, which I began last year and was interrupted by illness – so, I’ve not long ago started over again from the beginning.
  A very interesting work in my view.
 
  Reflecting on what you’ve just said above, Bill, got me thinking of a couple things Harl has said which may be of some relevant interest here.
 
  “The extent of circulation of coins in the countryside is best understood by an analogy to medieval Europe, which was at least as rural as much of the Roman Empire.  Documents from A.D. 1000-1300 reveal that great  numbers of ‘black money,’ low grade silver deniers, circulated between countryside and city every year in seasonal cycle; so too denarii and bronze coins of the Principate or billon nummi of the Dominate must have traveled for centuries.
  “There was nothing inherently backward in the structure of the Roman economy that limited such a pattern of circulation.
  “The Roman world, like other civilized societies before the industrial age, drew its wealth from the land…”
 
   ~ Also …
 
  “The success of Roman currency rested upon its silver coins, which over the centuries often suffered recoinage, debasement and revaluation that directly affected the supply and use of coins, and thus state expenses, taxes, and prices in the marketplace.  Romans employed as their principal coin a modest-sized silver denomination, the denarius (measuring 22-20 mm in diameter), for nearly five centuries (264 B.C. – A.D. 238); bronze and gold coins served as its subsidiary fractions and multiples.  Various billon coins, reckoned in notational denarii (denarii communes or d.c.), followed for a century (A.D. 251-367), but they yielded primacy again to fine silver coins that recalled the denarius and inspired the pennies and deniers of medieval Europe and the dirhems of the Caliphate.”
 
   (Harl, CITRE; pgs. 4, 6 respectively.  All punctuation and italics as in the original).
 
   If, indeed, the first denarius (denarii) are rather held to date to ca. 211 B.C., of course I can’t account for Harl’s date here of 264 B.C.  Even so, I don’t think it detracts from the inherent & compelling reasoning expressed in the main.
 
   Best,
   Tia
 
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« Reply #14 on: March 14, 2007, 02:34:01 pm »

Coin finds in Pompeii might shed some evidence on the coins a person might carry around with himself or herself (although it is based on an urban setting and not rural).  Michael Crawford, in "Money and Exchange in the Roman World," The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 60 (1970), writes, "In interpreting the coin finds from the excavations of city sites we are extremely fortunate in having Pompeii as a model to work from.  The life of the city was simply stopped and almost everything preserved as it was when the eruption of Vesuvius happened.  The most striking feature of the coin finds is that way in which all metals and denominations are jumbled together.  A typical find, associated with three corpses, consisted of 1 aureus, 6 denarii and 10 associated bronzes" (p. 42).  These unfortunate souls, whose lives were cut tragically short in 79, give us a little window into the pocket change that some individuals carried around.

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« Reply #15 on: March 14, 2007, 05:48:07 pm »

I would be careful when dealing with the finds from Pompeii.  It is not as if they dropped everything and immediately ran.  People grabbed whatever portable wealth they had and then fled.  If someone was found with an aureus, six denarii and ten bronzes, it may be that that constitutes their savings, rather than their pocket change. 
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« Reply #16 on: March 14, 2007, 06:46:09 pm »

In doing excavations, I have learned there are always several reconstructions possible when it comes to the material remains of a city.  This is the enjoyment of interpretation and hypotheses.  So yes, this coin find is open for interpretation. 

The example that Crawford cites seems to be one that is representative of the type of coin finds in Pompeii and Herculaneum.  He also notes a group of coins from a dolium in a shop-counter which had 374 asses and 1237 quadrantes.  He draws some of his evidence from early archaeological reports, e.g., Notizie degli scavi di antichita, 1881.   There was probably not a unified reaction to the eruption in terms of action.  Some did collect their portable goods and flee.  Others, however, lingered and sought shelter in their homes (like some of those who live along the coast when hurricanes approach).  Some may have fled immediately with what they had on their backs.  One of the most unusual archaeological finds was a man and his dog who sought shelter in a cellar and were buried alive by 10 feet of volcanic ash.  Air, however, continued to get down to them, and it appears that they lived on for about two weeks (See S. C. Stites, The Celator, Vol. 19, No. 11 [November 2005], 6-16 for a popular summary of the event).

David
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« Reply #17 on: March 15, 2007, 06:42:23 am »

Very likely the guy with the aureus was carrying his shopping money for the week, or whatever they would have used it for at the time, plus his savings in the aureus.
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« Reply #18 on: March 16, 2007, 08:18:28 pm »

Remember too that Pompeii was a fairly affluent city.
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« Reply #19 on: March 17, 2007, 12:07:27 am »

That is certainly true.  The whole Bay of Naples was a semi-resort area for rich Romans.  Many Romans had their summer homes down on the Bay.  It is possible that this was what the man normally carried around, but it is too dangerous to speculate, because of the chaotic circumstances of the eruption.  It could have been anything from pocket change to life savings.  It is too difficult to draw any conclusions from this one instance.
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« Reply #20 on: March 17, 2007, 04:56:02 am »

While it is true that the bay of Naples was a resort area, Pompeii itself was an old established commercial centre.

The denarius at the time was supposed to have represented a day's pay for a legionary (and presumably of the same order for any working class person), so to put it in perspective, an aureus would have been worth 25 day's pay. I don't think gold coins would have been used on a daily basis and even silver must have been difficult to get change for when paying for small items.
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« Reply #21 on: March 17, 2007, 05:28:55 am »

 
   According to Harl, overall, of all the coins collected at Pompeii, 48% were denarii, 48% base metal (bronze & copper) and 4% were gold – aurei.
 
  ~ T.
 
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« Reply #22 on: March 17, 2007, 09:59:57 am »


   According to Harl, overall, of all the coins collected at Pompeii, 48% were denarii, 48% base metal (bronze & copper) and 4% were gold – aurei.
 
  ~ T.
 

Any idea how many coins were collected?
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« Reply #23 on: March 17, 2007, 10:10:58 am »

Tia,

That's indeed an interest statistic -- almost half of the coins found were denarii. I read once, years ago, that almost half of all the bills in circulation in the US were $20s (at that time I was broke as hell, so I did not believe the statistic, but for some reason it stuck with me). So awl's comparison between a denarius and a $20 bill may not be far off at all.

I was not able to confirm that fact regarding the percentage of $20s in circulation, so if anyone is able to, I'd appreciate it.

Mark
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« Reply #24 on: March 17, 2007, 10:42:00 am »

Unfortunately Harl doesn't give the total number of coins found at Pompeii.

Another (and in my opinion better) book on the Roman economy and monetary functions is Andrew Burnett's "Coinage in the Roman World". He quotes an inscription found at Pergamum dating from the reign of Hadrian.

"For although they [the bankers] were bound to accept 18 asses per denarius from the tradesmen, stallholders and fishmongers, all of whom normally deal in small bronze, and to pay out 17 asses to those who wished to exchange a denarius, they were not satisfied with the exchange of asses, but even in cases where someone bought a fish for a silver denarii they exacted an as for each denarius."

The role of bankers (or moneychangers) was quite important. It seems it was not quite as simple to spend money as it is nowadays.
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« Reply #25 on: March 17, 2007, 10:49:37 am »

When I was in Pompeii last year I was amazed at how different it was from Rome.  The streets are in a grid pattern compared to Romes chaotic streets and many of the houses were richly decorated.  Vaulted ceilings, mosaics, paintings, indoor plumbing.  While certainly Rome had all of these things, I think it is fair to say that the majority of people in the bay of Naples were well off.  I believe Cicero had more than one place in this area along with other senators.

I've read in many different historical books that most gold coins were stashed away and not widely circulated.  
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« Reply #26 on: March 17, 2007, 11:21:34 am »

 
   Right – as Peter has answered of course, Harl doesn’t mention the number of coins in total, he gives only %’s.
  He does include also however, a further breakdown of those recovered at Pompeii, Minturnae Camulodunum, Moguntiacum and at Haltern.
 
  For Pompeii, he states:*
 
   Aureus – 4%
   Denarius – 48%
   Sestertius – 9%
   Dupondius – ( none )
   As – 27%
   Semis – ( none )
   Quadrans – 11%
   Non-Roman – 1%
 
   Of the five cities thus ‘charted,’ Pompeii is significantly distinctive in the high number of denarii found: 1%, 3%, 4% and 5% for the other four cities respectively, with considerably greater number of Asses for the latter four as well.
 
   Thank you for the mention & reference to A. Burnett’s work, Peter.  Not available at Amazon, but looks like one could perhaps still get a copy from Spink and Son Ltd. (?).
  Perhaps I’ll try when I’ve finished Harl’s – and another stack I have here waiting.
 
  Best,
  Tia
 
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« Reply #27 on: March 17, 2007, 12:35:22 pm »

 
      Thank you for the mention & reference to A. Burnett’s work, Peter.  Not available at Amazon, but looks like one could perhaps still get a copy from Spink and Son Ltd. (?).
  Perhaps I’ll try when I’ve finished Harl’s – and another stack I have here waiting.
 
  Best,
  Tia
 

Take a look at item 330035975793 at you know where. 38 available!

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« Reply #28 on: March 17, 2007, 03:53:32 pm »

 
   Ah-ha!
  Much & many thanks, Peter.
 
  I did a search there too, and it drew a blank… ( - ? - )
  Tried again now, and still no returns.
  But very good – thank you.
 
   Best,
   Tia
 
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« Reply #29 on: March 18, 2007, 12:31:12 pm »

Thought this was interesting....found it in Suetonius.  Speaking about Augustus' will

"He also left a bequest of 400 000 gold pieces to the Roman commons in general; 35 000 to the two tribes with which he had family connections; 10 to every Praetorian guardsman; 5 to every member of the city cohorts; 3 to every legionary soldier."

Then Suetonius quotes directly from the will:

"My heirs will not receive more than 1 million 5 hundred thousand gold pieces; for, although my friends have bequeathed me some 14 million in the last 20 years  nearly the whole of this sum, besides what came to me from my father, and others has been used for the benefit of the State"

It appears then that there was quite a good number of gold coins around by the end of Augustus' reign.
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« Reply #30 on: March 18, 2007, 12:56:48 pm »

Quote from: Titus Pullo on March 18, 2007, 12:31:12 pm
"My heirs will not receive more than 1 million 5 hundred thousand gold pieces; for, although my friends have bequeathed me some 14 million in the last 20 years  nearly the whole of this sum, besides what came to me from my father, and others has been used for the benefit of the State"

Interesting...

Coin Archives shows a Trajan aureus at 7.25g, and world spot price of gold is currently $20.97/g, so...

14M aureii = 101 metric tons of gold = $2.1 billion dollars! His 1.5M aureii bequest would be about $225M.

These numbers would put him among the top dozen wealthiest heads of state today.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_heads_of_government_and_state_by_net_worth

Interesting how wealth in gold at this level doesn't seem to have changed so much over the years.

Ben
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« Reply #31 on: March 18, 2007, 01:04:50 pm »

The direct translation of Suetonius at
http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/Augustus*.html
gives these sums of money in sestertii so clearly it is values he is talking about rather than specific coins. That doesn't mean that they might not have been paid in gold of course.
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« Reply #32 on: March 18, 2007, 01:26:03 pm »

The direct translation of Suetonius at
http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/Augustus*.html
gives these sums of money in sestertii so clearly it is values he is talking about rather than specific coins. That doesn't mean that they might not have been paid in gold of course.


When I click that link it doesn't bring me to a Suetonius page and I can't find a link on the home page. Sad  I wanted to see the literal translation from Latin.
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« Reply #33 on: March 18, 2007, 01:35:47 pm »

Try this?

http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/home.html
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« Reply #34 on: March 18, 2007, 01:51:05 pm »

Thank you that link worked.  Interesting that the latin has the amount in Sestertti and my english translation (Robert Graves) has it in Gold.    What I find interesting is that Augustus says he has all of this cash "on hand"!  This is amazing when you contemplate the sheer amount of coin that must have been centered in Rome, because not only do you have the Emperor but all the senators, Patricians and Eques not to mention the plebs.  Talk about spare change!
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« Reply #35 on: March 18, 2007, 02:57:31 pm »

Quote from: Titus Pullo on March 18, 2007, 01:51:05 pm
This is amazing when you contemplate the sheer amount of coin that must have been centered in Rome

Certainly a huge amout of money, but another interesting way to look at it is the physical volume involved.

The 1.5M aureii Augustus actually had on hand, if we assume is was held in gold (sestertii were used as an accounting unit, so use of them doesn't imply those were the coins involved) would be about 10.8 metric tons of gold, but gold is incredibly dense, weighing 19.3 tons per cubic metre, so this quantity of gold is "only" a half cubic meter (consider a pile about 3x3 feet square and 2 feet tall). Of course the volume would be larger if held in coin because of the gaps inbetween, although it's also possible that some was held in bullion.

Ben
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