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The denarius (pl. denarii) was the standard Roman silver coin from its introduction in the Second Punic War c. 211 B.C. to the reign of Gordian III (AD 238–244), when it was gradually replaced by the Antoninianus. It continued to be minted in very small quantities, likely for ceremonial purposes, until and through the tetrarchy (293–313).
The word dēnārius is derived from the Latin dēnī "containing ten", as its value was originally of 10 asses. The word for "money" descends from it in Italian (denaro), Slovene (denar), Portuguese (dinheiro), and Spanish (dinero). Its name also survives in the dinar currency.
|211||Introduction||4.55g||95–98%||1/72 pound. Denarius first struck. Equivalent to 10 asses.|
|141||Debasement||3.9g||95–98%||1/84 pound. Retariffed to equal 16 asses due to the decrease in weight of the as.|
||3.9g||95–98%||Death of Julius Caesar, who set the denarius at 3.9g. Legionary (professional soldier) pay was doubled to 225 denarii per year.|
||Tiberius slightly improved the fineness as he gathered his infamous hoard of 675 million denarii.|
1/96 pound. This more closely matched the Greek drachm. In 64, Nero reduced the standard of the aureus to 45 to the Roman pound (7.2 g) and of the denarius to 96 to the Roman pound (3.30 g). He also lowered the denarius to 94.5% fine. Successive emperors lowered the fineness of the denarius; in 180 Commodus reduced its weight by one-eighth to 108 to the pound.
|Debasement||3.41g||93.5%||Reduction in silver content under Domitian|
|193–235||Debasement||3.41g||83.5%||Several emperors (193–235) steadily debased the denarius from a standard of 78.5% to 50% fine. In 212 Caracalla reduced the weight of the aureus from 45 to 50 to the Roman pound. They also coined the aes from a bronze alloy with a heavy lead admixture, and discontinued fractional denominations below the as. In 215 Caracalla introduced the antoninianus (5.1 g; 52% fine), a double denarius, containing 80% of the silver of two denarii. The coin invariably carried the radiate imperial portrait. Elagabalus demonetized the coin in 219, but the senatorial emperors Pupienus and Balbinus in 238 revived the antoninianus as the principal silver denomination which successive emperors reduced to a miserable billon coin (2.60 g; 2% fine).|
||3.41g||5%||In 274, the emperor Aurelian reformed the currency and his
denominations remained in use until the great recoinage of Diocletian in
293. Aurelian struck a radiate aurelianianus of increased weight (84 to the Roman pound) and fineness (5% fine) that was tariffed at five notational denarii
(sometimes called "common denarii" or "denarii communes"by modern
writers, although this phrase does not appear in any ancient text). The
coin carried on the reverse the numerals XXI, or in Greek κα (both
meaning 21 or 20:1). Some scholars believe that this shows that the coin
was equal to 20 sestertii
(or 5 denarii), but it is more likely that it was intended to guarantee
that it contained 1/20 or 5% of silver, and was thus slightly better
than baby of the coins in circulation. The aureus (minted at 50 or 60 to the Roman pound) was exchanged at rates of 600 to 1,000 denarii, equivalent to 120 to 200 aurelianiani. Rare fractions of billion denarii, and of bronze sestertii and asses,
were also coined. At the same time, Aurelian reorganized the provincial
mint at Alexandria, and he minted an improved Alexandrine tetradrachm that might have been tariffed at par with the aurelianianus.
The emperor Tacitus in 276 briefly doubled the silver content of the aurelianianus and halved its tariffing to 2.5 d.c. (hence coins of Antioch and Tripolis (in Phoenicia) carry the value marks X.I), but Probus (276–282) immediately returned the aurelianianus to the standard and tariffing of Aurelian, and was the official tariffing until the reform of Diocletian in 293.
The "denarius" (plural: denarii) was first struck about 211 BC during the fiscal crisis Rome suffered as a result of the Second Punic War (218-201 BC). Previously Rome had struck silver didrachms, most recently in the form of the famous "quadrigatus" (so-called because the reverse motif was a quadriga (four-horse chariot)). The stresses of the Second Punic War drove the struck weight of the "quadrigati" below 5 grams before Rome decided to produce a still lower weight standard for silver with the introduction of the denarius. The word "denarius" is a Latin adjective which means "containing ten", and came to be the name of the new denomination since it was originally valued at ten asses (see "As"). Early denarii bore the mark of value "X" on the obverse.
Whereas the quadrigatus had fallen below five grams, the denarius was struck on the even lower standard of 4 scruples, or 1/6 of a Roman "uncia", or ounce. Since there were 12 unciae to the Roman "libra" (pound), this meant that the denarius was struck at 72 to the pound, or 4.55 grams. However the weight drifted downward and by the middle of the second century BC the standard was re-established at 3.5 scruples, or 3.98 grams. About 141 BC it was re-tariffed at 16 asses instead of 10, and it stabilized at that valuation and weight into the time of Augustus (except for certain exceptions, the most well-known being the base legionary denarii of Mark Antony). Silver coins of the Republic and early Principate were struck at a fineness of 96 to 98%.
Under the Empire the weight began a slow downward drift until by the time of Nero 's coinage reform the denarius was struck at about 3.6 grams. Nero re-established the standard at 3 scruples, or a theoretical 3.41 grams (96 to the Roman pound), but also dropped the fineness to about 82%. This had the unfortunate effect of invoking Gresham 's Law (if depreciated or debased coinage circulates concurrently with coinage of higher intrinsic value, the higher intrinsic value coins will disappear due to hoarding) and many of the early Imperial denarii were undoubtedly melted down.
The denarius continued a slow downward drift in weight, reaching 3.25 grams by the reign of Trajan (98-117) and finally reaching about 3.15 grams before it virtually disappeared from the monetary system about 240. However, its weight was not as much of a problem for its survival as was its fineness. It drifted downward until by the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180) it was 75% fine. Unfortunately the debasement accelerated under the Severans to about 50% by 214 when Caracalla (198-217) introduced the "antoninianus" That denomination was probably tariffed at two denarii although it only weighed about 1.5 times as much as a denarius. Its creation was probably necessary since any serious further debasement of the denarius would give them the appearance of mere billon. Therefore an avenue other than debasement was needed, and the new "ersatz" double was introduced. Once again Gresham 's law was perhaps unknowingly invoked, with the nearly-fatal result for the denarius that it ceased to circulate, since two antoniniani were worth four denarii, although containing only 75% of the silver. The last emission of any size was by Gordian III (238-244), although the denomination was retained in the monetary system until it was replaced by the "argentei" (see "Argenteus") of the Tetrarchy. It ceased to be "silver" by the end of the reign of Gallienus, and such small numbers as were struck were of a very base billon (those of Aurelian being by far the most common). In its final stages from about 260 onward its weight fell to about 2.58 grams, and it is sometimes referred to as an "Ae Denarius" to reflect the low (less than 4%) silver content.
The denarius is probably the most well-known of Roman monetary denominations, surviving in a recognizable form for over four-and-a-half centuries! Invariably under the Empire the obverse was either the bare or laureate bust of the emperor. Its diameter was relatively constant with time at between 18 and 20 millimeters, although after about 260 it often slipped to 17 millimeters.
The denarius is mentioned in the Christian New Testament eight times as follows:
Matthew 18:28 "But the same servant went out and found one of his fellow servants, which owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, "Pay me that thou owest."
Matthew 20:2 "And when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard."
Matthew 22:19 ""Show me the tribute money." And they brought unto him a
Mark 14:5 ""For it might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and have been given to the poor." And they murmured against him."
Luke 7:41 "There was a certain creditor who had two debtors: the one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty."
Luke 10:35 "And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two denarii, and gave them to the host, and said to him, "Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee."
John 6:7 "Philip answered him, "Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not
sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little.""
Revelation 6:6 "And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, "A measure of wheat for a denarius, and three measures of barley for a denarius; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine."
In each case the original Greek word is a form of "denarius", although the term
is variously rendered in modern translations in order to make it meaningful to
the average modern reader. For example, the venerable King James Version renders
the term as "penny", which is understandable when one considers that the modern
British abbreviation for "pence" is "d", which originally was an abbreviation
for the "denier", a descendant of the denarius.
From Matthew 20:2 an idea of the first century buying power of the denarius is gained; namely a day 's wage for a laborer.
G. Thomas Schroer
Please add updates or make corrections to the NumisWiki text version as appropriate.
DENARIUS. - This well-known Roman coin derived its name from its value of ten asses (a denis assibus) when it replaced the quadrigatus at the time when the old cast aes grave coinage finally gave way to the new struck bronze coins circa 211 B.C.
Around 141 B.C., the denarius was retarrifed at sixteen asses and retained this value into Imperial times.
According to Pliny, it was established that the denarius should be given in exchange for ten pounds of bronze, the quinarius for five pounds, and the sestertius for two-and-a-half. - But when the as was reduced in weight to one ounce, it was established that the denarius should be given in exchange for sixteen asses, the quinarius for eight, and the sestertius for four. And though the reason for its being so called no longer existed, yet the denarius retained its original name. With respect to the weight of thje denarius, it appears, also according to Pliny and other writers, that there were, in the ancient libra, eighty-four denarii.
The problems with Pliny 's theory are cited (though unresolved) by Eckhel, and the chronology of Edward Sydenham, with regard to the Republic, has been revised by Michael Crawford in his Roman Republican Coinage.
The mark of the republican denarius was X with one or two variations in the form of that letter. A similar mark was used on the bronze coinage to indicate the weight of X asses; but on denarii also it donates the value of X asses, for which, as already stated, the denarius was given in exchange. Instead of this mark, however, on coins of the Atilia, Aufidia, Julia, Titinia, and Valeria families, there appears the numeral XVI, doubtless indicating the value of the denarius as 16 asses.
With respect to the types of denarii, Pliny simply states that "the type of silver was bigae and quadrigae." – this is true with reference to a large portion, but many bear other types. Tacitus (De Morib. Germ.) has mentioned the bigati, and so has Livy frequently, whilst describing the booty taken in Hispania and Gallia Cisalpina. On denarii struck during the later periods of the republic, the types varied in many ways, conforming to the will of consular magistrates, and finally of the triumvirs.
The obverses of the early denarii bore the helmeted head of Roma, while their reverses exhibited representations of the Dioscuri on horseback (as on the denarius pictured at the head of this entry); also figures driving bigae and quadrigae, from which the pieces were termed bigati or quadrigati. They were also called Victoriati, when their types displayed a figure of Victory, as in the woodcut below, from a denarius of the Fannia gens, in which the goddess is driving her chariot and four horses at full speed.
This was also the case with the half denarius, called the quinarius (see EGNATIA and EGNATULEIA), or piece of five asses, but of this and of the small silver coin called sestertius, few specimens are extant.
Examples of the republican denarius can be found under the respective headings of Atilia (Dioscuri) – Annia (Victory in a quadriga) – Baebia (Quadriga) – Caecilia (Biga of elephants) – Cipia (Victory in Biga) – Cornelia (Jupiter in Quadriga) – Curiatia (Quadriga) – Saufeia (Victory in Biga) – etc., etc.
For specimens of the Imperial denarius see Caesar Augustus – Agrippa and Augustus – Caligula and Agrippina – Antonia – Severus Alexander. To these we add the cut below from a rare Decursio denarius struck during the reign of Nero.
Frequent mention is made of the denarius or (Roman) penny, in biblical writings, where it is spoken of as the daily wages of a labourer and too, as the tribute penny, "Whose is this visage and superscription?" Published in England, the "Numismatic Illustrations of the Narrative Portions of the New Testament," quoting from St. Matthew, the words "a penny a day," makes the following observations:- "The penny here mentioned was the denarius, which, at the time of Our Lord 's ministry, was equivalent in value to about sevenpence halfpenny of our money. With the decline of the Roman Empire, the denarius was by degrees debased; and before the time of Diocletian had entirely disappeared, or rather had ceased to be struck in the Imperial mints; but that emperor restored the coinage of silver; and denarii were again minted, though reduced in weight. This reduction went on, after the division of the Empire, until the denarius, once a very beautiful medalet, became a coin of very inferior execution, low relief, and reduced thickness and weight. * * * The term 'denarius ' is yet preserved in our notation of pounds, shillings and pence, by £. s. d. * * * It is worthy of remark, that, in this country, a penny a day appears to have been the pay of a field laborer, in the middle ages; whilst, among the Romans (See Tacitus, Ann, lib.i) the daily pay for a soldier was a denarius." From the same work, another passage referring to the imperial denarius, as circulated during the ministry of Jesus Christ, can be found cited in this dictionary, amongst the mintages of TIBERIUS.
Frequent mention is made of the denarius or (Roman) penny, in biblical writings, where it is spoken of as the daily wages of a labourer and too, as the tribute penny, "Whose is this visage and superscription?"
Published in England, the "Numismatic Illustrations of the Narrative Portions of the New Testament," quoting from St. Matthew, the words "a penny a day," makes the following observations:-
"The penny here mentioned was the denarius, which, at the time of Our Lord 's ministry, was equivalent in value to about sevenpence halfpenny of our money. With the decline of the Roman Empire, the denarius was by degrees debased; and before the time of Diocletian had entirely disappeared, or rather had ceased to be struck in the Imperial mints; but that emperor restored the coinage of silver; and denarii were again minted, though reduced in weight. This reduction went on, after the division of the Empire, until the denarius, once a very beautiful medalet, became a coin of very inferior execution, low relief, and reduced thickness and weight. * * * The term 'denarius ' is yet preserved in our notation of pounds, shillings and pence, by £. s. d. * * * It is worthy of remark, that, in this country, a penny a day appears to have been the pay of a field laborer, in the middle ages; whilst, among the Romans (See Tacitus, Ann, lib.i) the daily pay for a soldier was a denarius."
From the same work, another passage referring to the imperial denarius, as circulated during the ministry of Jesus Christ, can be found cited in this dictionary, amongst the mintages of TIBERIUS.