Question Answered: Money in Ancient Rome

Money in Ancient Rome

by Roman on April 12, 2010

As promised in my last post – Ask a question, get it answered by me – I will every day answer the best question I get here on Financial Jesus.

Today’s questions come from Paco Vanderdo in Colorado, USA.

He sent 2 questions:

  1. What are all the types of Ancient Roman money?
  2. How long did the Ancient Roman money last?

Instead of just answering the questions I’ll get a little more specific and do an overview of money in ancient Rome.

Ancient Rome and the beginning of an empire

Ancient Rome is probably the best known empire in the whole world. It is studied in history classes around the world and one can say that no country since the fall of Rome has ever risen to the glory of the Roman Empire.
Ancient Rome was founded in 753 BC (Before Christ) by Romulus and lasted for 2206 years until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 AD.

Yes, you read that right – the Roman Empire lasted for 2206 years.

During such a long time change is inevitable and this is probably the reason why Ancient Rome didn’t have the same kind of money throughout all of its 2206 year history. This would be equivalent to us using the same money as Jesus did. 😆

The first money of ancient Rome – the Cow

While funny, the headline above is very true! During the early days of Rome, money was not invented yet. Just like the rest of the world, the Romans used the bartering system.

This means that when they needed something they simply traded what they had for the thing they wanted. As you probably imagine all this meant a lot of negotiating. To make things a little easier the ancient Romans used cows as the base for their bartering system.

The way it worked was that when you wanted to sell a house you just said that it is worth 30 cows. When the person who wanted to buy it, didn’t have cows he would just agree with you that 1 cow is worth 3 goats and give you 90 goats instead.

As the small town of Rome developed into a city and then into the Roman Empire the need for a new kind of money suddenly became inevitable.  Cows were great but they were incredibly difficult to transport over long distances.

First Coins in Ancient Rome

About 300 years after the foundation of ancient Rome the Roman Empire had grown to include several of its border territories.

To effectively deal with its trading partners a new system of coins and money was developed. At first the Romans simply started using small chunks of metal. The most common of them all was bronze.

Raw Bronze or Aes Rude

The lumps of bronze were called Aes Rude and they were simply lumps of bronze. The heavier it was the more value it held.

Here is a picture of the ancient roman bronze money, known as Aes Rude.

Aes Rude

Notice how the Aes Rude looks just like a rock. However when you hold it in your hand it feels like metal. None the less it is very difficult for the ordinary person in the present to recognize this form of money from rubble. It is just a piece of bronze that is unprocessed – just how it is found in nature.

First Minted Coins – Aes Signatum

After some time of usage the bronze lumps proved themselves as a great substitute for using cows as money :lol:.Bronze proved to be so effective that in no time the Roman government decided to issue stamped bronze coins – the Aes Signatum.

Aes Signatum

Most of the early coins carried pictures of animals and nature. For some unknown reason each of the coins initially weighed about 1.6 kilograms (3.5 pounds). This made them rather heavy. The coins were also all in 1 denomination.

This means that when today we have a penny, a nickel, a dime and a quarter the people in Ancient Rome only had 1 coin with 1 value. Since they had no paper money this is the equivalent of only having 1 dollar coins.

First real coins – Aes Grave or Heavy Bronze

In 267 BC the first coins as we know them today were issued in ancient Rome. They were a lot lighter and in the beginning only weighed about 200-400 grams. As time went on the coins lost more and more weight.

The Aes Grave coins were minted in different denominations – making them a lot easier to use. Usually they depicted animals, ships and gods of ancient Rome.

Aes Grave

Silver and Gold Coins in Ancient Rome

The Ancient Greeks had been using silver and gold coins for a while when Rome took notice and wanted to copy them. Since more valuable, silver and gold allowed to carry larger sums of money more easily than the bronze coins. This meant better and easier trade!

In addition to the bronze coins the Romans came out with 2 additional coins – the denarius (silver coin) and the aureus (gold coin). Since the Romans didn’t have any know-how about making coins from precious metals they employed Greek metal smiths to mint the silver and gold coins for them.

Aureus - the Roman Gold Coin

The gold and silver coins were the first real coins in the sense of their weight. The golden Aureus weighed only 8 grams.

Just like the USA is printing more money each day and thus slowly making the dollar worthless the Romans used to do the equivalent of their time. The value of the gold and silver coins did not come from their weight but it was always their face value – the sum printed on them.

The Romans had a problem that they wanted more coins but they did not have more gold to make more money. What they did was to slowly start making the coins lighter and lighter. At its making the golden Aureus weighed 8 grams, this slowly became 7.3 grams during the reign of Emperor Nero and then later even 6.5 grams.

The case with the silver denarius was even worse. While the denarius was also getting lighter, its silver content was also systematically lessened. In 301 AD  the golden aureus was worth 833.3 silver denari, by 324 AD it was already worth 4350 denari.The runaway inflation was caused by the decision to debase the coin value in order to seemingly pay more money to soldiers.

Money in East Roman Empire the Byzentine

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD (the original Rome) there was still the East Roman Empire or Byzantine that stood for almost another 1000 years. For a complete history of money in the Roman Empire you can check out this article in Wikipedia.

Waiting more questions

It has been fun getting questions from all you guys. Tomorrow I will answer another question. To ask me a question just insert it to the form on the top of the menu on the right. For additional instructions go here.

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{ 1 trackback }

Jesus in early rome | FinAppx
January 5, 2011 at 6:47 pm


Car Insurance Phi April 13, 2010 at 10:42 am

Wow! That was a history lesson right there! I know that they used to treat animals as a form of currency but I had no idea it was a cow!

cindy April 15, 2010 at 10:57 am

wow! this is very interesting!

james May 19, 2011 at 11:21 am

im bored to death ow it’s poisonous!

Mountain Rifleman November 10, 2010 at 4:25 pm

Pecuniary is a word relating to money.

From the Latin pecunia means (pecus, orig. property in cattle) Esp., money, cash, sums of money, i.e., wealth in cattle.

Perhaps we should return to real money, cattle, whatever. (maybe even the most precious of all metals – lead.

Mountain Rifleman

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