How money came to Rome

The Latin rights provided Rome with a magic formula, and in the 2nd century BC, Rome expanded everywhere. In the East they took over from the crumbling Hellenistic monarchies: in 133 BC the king of Pergamum actually bequeathed his empire to Rome. Everywhere that Rome went, the result sooner or later was peace and prosperity. Since towns were no longer allowed to fight their neighbours and were forced to live in peace, they became very prosperous.

Nevertheless from my monetary point of view, Rome presents a problem. I would like to argue that money caused the economic and social changes that marked the great leap forward and that once money and the market economy is established, the bonds of the kinship society are loosened, and the ‘caste’ society is replaced by a ‘class’ society. The story at Rome suggests that the reverse may be true: that a market economy will not really take root and thrive unless it is planted in the more fertile soil of an open, or ‘class’ society..

Rome was slow to adopt money, indeed the very word for money, pecunia, comes from the Latin pecus, a herd of cows, suggesting that cattle were the main form of wealth in early Rome. The first money in Italy was that used by the Greek colonies in the south of Italy: in the north, the Etruscans never really took to money (though there are coins imitating Greek coins at Populonia). The Etruscans were never a monetary economy: that was one of their problems.

The earliest form of money at Rome consisted of lumps of bronze, such as that shown above. This one is stamped with an elephant, and it is usually assumed that this dates to the time of the invasions by Pyrrhus who brought elephants with him. On the other side is a pig, as the Romans found that elephants could not stand the smell of pigs, so they therefore used pigs to scare away the elephants.

The earliest Roman money is not really money at all. It is the so called aes rude or rough bronze, and consisted of lumps or rather bricks of bronze, some of them crudely inscribed with the name of Roma: it was not the sort of stuff you could carry round in your pocket and it may have been more an ideal measure rather than something for practical use. Indeed even as early as the Twelve Tables of law, drawn up around 450 BC there appears to have been a rudimentary system of payments based on lumps of bronze which were weighed out. Ironically the first Roman coins were not proper struck coins at all but crude cast coins.


The coin above is not a proper coin at all, but a coin that was cast, rather than being struck. It shows the two headed god Janus, a favourite of the ancient Romans.

The first proper coins bearing the name of Rome were not used at Rome itself at all but in the areas of the Greek colonies to the South around Naples. It was as if the Greek towns in the south of Italy had all been monetised and when they fell within the Roman sphere, they demanded to use money. The Romans therefore allowed them to make coins stamped with the name of Roma but they did not want to have this new fangled means of exchange to circulate in Rome itself.

The first widespread Roman coinage was the denarius coinage introduced towards the end of the war with Hannibal around 212 BC. This is a proper struck coinage: here we see a helmeted figure of Roma on the left; note the mark ‘X’ on the left which stands for 10, the denarius being worth 10 asses in the copper coinage. On the reverse is a picture of the Dioscuri, twin horsemen carrying spears, with the inscription Roma underneath.

Even during the war against Hannibal, the Romans did not really use coins. It is said that Hannibal issued 70 times more coins than Rome did. The reason for this is interesting. These early coins were mostly minted to pay soldiers, and the armies of the Greek states and indeed Carthage were mainly mercenaries, who needed to be paid. The Roman armies were citizen armies who did not need to be paid, at least not in money; it is recorded that Roman soldiers were paid from 340 onwards, if not indeed earlier; but since money did not exist at that date, they could not have been paid in money – presumably they were paid in kind, as an agreed measure of corn to recompense them for the loss of their harvests in their absence. But is it perhaps this citizen army both of Rome’s own citizens and those of their allies, that gave Rome its formidable fighting strength?

It was not until towards the end of the war with Hannibal, in around 212 BC that the first real in Roman coinage was introduced: the denarius, a coin which was to last for the next 400 years and gives us the word £sd, which survived in Britain down to the 1970s. However once the denarius was firmly established and once Hannibal was out of the way, the Roman economy roared ahead. Here we see one of the interesting aspects of monetary economics: introducing money is not enough; it is only when the basic social structure is in place, where there is a government that is prepared to let go of its grip on economic matters and allow the market to take over that the market can take over, and we can begin to see all the gains and benefits that this entails.

(The history of the introduction of Roman coinage is extremely complex and controversial. It is a problem begins with the Roman writers themselves notably Pliny the Elder who gives a long and confused account about the origins of coinage, suggesting that the aes rude was introduced by the second king of Rome, Servius Tullius, traditionally dated 578 to 535 BC. This is clearly much too early and historians and numismatists have been steadily lowering the dates. There is now general agreement that the denarius coinage, which was the first ‘full’ coinage was only introduced at the very end of the war with Hannibal around 212 BC: Pliny implies an earlier date of 269, which for long confused everybody.

This whole subject was put on a new basis by Michael Crawford in his influential book on The Roman Republican Coinage published in 1974. It is now generally agreed that the denarius coinage was not introduced until the very end of the war with Hannibal, around 212 BC. There is also widespread acceptance that the crude aes rude does not begin until around 300 BC; however the introduction of these various cast coinages and early silver coinages between 300 and 212 is extremely controversial).

Next: From Hannibal to Augustus