David has taught college history and holds an MA in history.
Show Me The Money
If you want to buy anything today, whether it's groceries or a sports car, there's a lot of ways to pay. You can use a credit card or a check or even a cell phone app when it's time to pay the bill. Before the first banks were invented, however, people relied on nothing more than metal coins in order to power their economy, or their trade and riches. In fact, the ancient Romans produced so many coins over their existence that you can buy a lot of them on eBay today!
While many civilizations before the Romans used gold and silver as payment, we know that the first Roman minting, or coin production, started about 400 BCE. Before this, Romans used bronze weights as money. The first coins made in Rome resembled those that were produced in nearby Greece, where silver coins had been popular for several hundred years. In fact, the first coins discovered by historians actually had Greek letters. Later coins carried the name 'Roma,' the Romans' word for themselves.
A conflict called the Punic Wars brought in lots of treasure and led to the first Roman coins made of pure gold. Along with the gold coins came the silver denarius coins (pronounced dee-nar-eee-us) that Romans would use for another 500 years. These coins spread across Europe and have been found from Britain to the Middle East.
Just like American money has pictures of presidents, ancient Roman money had pictures of Roman leaders. Roman rulers wanted to demonstrate their power and riches by putting their faces on coins. Think about it: when there's no TV or Internet, how do you know who your rulers are and what they look like? Coins let everyone know who was in charge, but this meant that with a new leader, the Romans had to change their coins.
For example, the Roman ruler Julius Caesar minted huge numbers of coins with his face on them. When Marcus Brutus killed Caesar, Brutus minted coins with his own face on one side and two daggers on the other side to remind everyone who was responsible for taking down Caesar!
Making and Breaking
The Roman mints expanded beyond Rome itself. We know of different mints throughout Europe that created more coins in order to keep trade and markets going. Mints in modern-day France, Egypt, and Turkey helped to ensure that everyone throughout the Roman lands had the right coins.
With all these new places producing coins came a lot of imbalance in coins' value. After all, if an old coin is made of pure gold and a new coin from a different place is just half gold, the old one is much more valuable and nobody will want the new coin. That's just what happened when rulers changed the amount of precious metals in coins. Romans paid their taxes in new coins with less gold and silver and kept the older, more valuable coins for themselves.
The might of the Romans depended on their money and economy. Rome's process of minting coins depended on who was in charge and how much precious metal was on hand. Since different rulers made their own coins, a new ruler meant that the coins changed as well.
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