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Monetary Theory and Roman History

  • Marcello De Cecco


In the study of Roman money Theodore Mommsen remains 135 years after his work a towering figure, more pragmatic than theoretical in his economics, yet still sound. He saw the politics in monetary history, and especially its connection with the strength of the state. His view is more penetrating than MV = PT, fashionable in twentieth-century scholarship on Rome. And it is better economics than offered by the Polanyi School as the alternative line of analysis. The Polanyists infer an absence of a Roman monetary system from the failure of some part to be as sophisticated as the best. On the contrary, the Roman monetary system does not look so different from that of Europe since Mommsen wrote, uneven in its use of monetary devices, but sensibly so.



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1 Mommsen, Theodore, Geschichte des Romische Münzwesen (Leipzig, 1860); French translation, Histoire de la Monnaie Romaine (Paris, 1865).

2 Bolin, Sture, State and Currency in the Roman Empire (Stockholm, 1958), p. 12.

3 Mommsen, Histoire, p. xvi.

4 Bolin, Sture, State and Currency in the Roman Empire (Stockholm, 1958), pp. xvii–xviii.

5 Bolin, Sture, State and Currency in the Roman Empire (Stockholm, 1958), pp. xvii–xviii.

6 Bolin, Sture, State and Currency in the Roman Empire (Stockholm, 1958), vol. 2, p. 68.

7 Bolin, Sture, State and Currency in the Roman Empire (Stockholm, 1958), p. 75.

8 Bolin, Sture, State and Currency in the Roman Empire (Stockholm, 1958), vol. 3, p. 157.

9 The “contemporary” inspiration of much Roman historiography has been noticed by A. Momigliano in his appreciation of Rostovzev's work.

10 A most original attempt to place the phenomenon of money in ancient Rome within the context of Roman institutions was made by von Scheel, H., in his short article translated as “I concetti fondamentali del ‘Corpus luris civilis’” in Pareto, V., Biblioteca di Storia Economica (Milan, 1907), vol. 2, but which originally appeared in German in the 1860s. Von Scheel shares in his article the antipathy Momigliano has noticed in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Italian jurists for the Roman world and Roman law in particular. Von Scheel's thesis is that the Romans, unlike what they were made to appear by Rodbertus and his followers, had an exclusively monetary economy. because they had no economic production, no modern property relations, no concept of the individual as separate from the state. As they had no free-labor production, they had no value in use and only value in exchange. Hence the dominance of monetary relations in their economy. Von Scheel sees the modem world as originating from the barbarians' institutions. “While German property is a consequence of labor, Roman property is a consequence of possession; while the German State grew as a gradual limitation of individual property rights, the Roman State is itself the source of property rights” (p. 247). The extensive monetization of the Roman economy in the imperial period, even outside the cities, and in the more agro-pastoral context, was confirmed recently by Fergus Millar's elegant textual analysis of Apuleius' novel. See his The world of the golden Ass” in Journal of Roman Studies, 71 (1981).

11 The main reference is to his “Zur Wahrungskrisis der römischen Imperiums in 3. Jahrhundert n. Chr.,” in KIio, 26 (1932/1933), although the same theory is still advanced in his An Ancient Economic History (Leyden, 1970), vol. 3. The monetary crisis of the Roman Empire had been likened to the collapse of Central European monetary systems after the Great war by Sepré, A., in Circolazione Monetaria e Prezzi (Rome, 1922).

12 Frezoul', article, “A propos de la hausse des prix sous Diocletien,” is contained in the Mélanges Carcopino (Paris, 1965).Whittaker's, C. R. article, “Inflation and the Economy in the Fourth Century A.D.,” is published in King, C. E., ed., Imperial Revenue, Expenditure and Monetary Policy (Oxford, 1980) (BAR Series 76).

13 See Whittaker, “Inflation and the Economy.”

14 Guey's, Julien article, “L'Aloi du dernier romain de 177 à 211 après J.C.,” was published in the Revue Numismatique, 4 (1962).

15 See her “Fiscalité et monnaie, problemes de methode,” in Dialoghi diArcheologia (1976/1977) and “Devaluations et fiscalité” in AA.vv.,Les Devaluations à Rome (Rome, 1975). In the first of these articles Corbier points out that Heichelheim had been influenced by the monetary situation of the Europe of his time, but fails to repeat the procedure of what concerns Guey and herself.

16 The standard reference is Polanyi's, K. “The Semantics of Money Uses” (1957), reprinted in his Primitive, Archaic and Modern Economics, Dalton, G., ed. (Boston, 1968).

17 Weber, M., General Economic History (a course of lectures delivered in 1920, edited by Hellman, and Palyi, ) (New Brunswick, N.J., 1981), pp. 236ff.

18 Bolin, State and Currency, p. 11.

19 West, L. C. and Johnson, A. C., Currency in Roman and Byzantine Egypt (Princeton, 1944).

20 Nicolet, C., “Il pensiero economico romano,” in Firpo, L., ed., Storia delle idee politiche, economiche e sociali (Torino, 1982), vol. 1.

21 I disregard here one of the loci classici of debate of Roman monetary history, the controversy about Pliny's “gold drain.” Edward Gibbon's treatment of the subject is so convincing that reference to it suffices treatment for this subject. “It is no easy task to confine luxury within the limits of an Empire,” says Gibbon. Imports flowed into Rome and the Romans paid, he says, quoting Pliny, with precious metals. However, since the gold/silver ratio had risen between Pliny's time and the reign of Constantine, Gibbon concludes that the supply of silver. from Spanish times, must have been so abundant to more than make up for the drain to the East. Following Gibbon, I fail to be worried by the Roman Empire's balance of payments problems.

22 Crawford, M., “Money and Exchange in the Roman World,” Journal of Roman Studies, 60 (1970). I have selected this article for careful analysis because the main opinions he expresses in it are repeated in his numerous more recent works.

23 Another Cambridge ancient monetary historian, Grierson, Philip, in an article on “The Origins of Money” in Dalton, G., ed., Research in Economic Anthropology (Greenwich, 1978), maintains that serving as a means of exchange is the function anthropologists usually indicate as money's most important function. Grierson himself prefers to indicate the “measure of value” as the main function money performs. He reproaches Sir John Hicks for preferring the “store of value” function. He would, I presume, not agree with what I say (following Sir John's teachings) à propos of Crawford.

24 See von Scheel, “I concetti fondamentali.” Here von Scheel expressed, on the contrary, the opinion that in Rome money's main function was to serve as a means of exchange. “In the pecunia there is first of all the concept of the universal and publicly recognized means of exchange … The aim of money is to constitute a means for the circulation of goods which, through its intromission, and the juxtaposition of merx and pretium, becomes a special negotium, the emptio-venditio” and “for juridical negotia we cannot think of any other measure than what is represented by pecunia” (p. 736). Crawford tends to play down juridical evidence, but one cannot fail to be impressed by the remarkable wealth of quotes from the corpus juris von Scheel is able to assemble in order to back his statement on the main function of money in Rome. The period he studies coincides with that studied by Crawford.

25 On the supply of money and working of the Roman monetary system, compare Crawford's pessimism with what is, in my view, a more realistic assessment, contained in Hopkins, K., “Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire,” Journal of Rotnan Studies, 70 (1980).

26 A similar viewpoint is expressed by Lo Cascio, E. in a very perceptive article, “State and coinage in the late Republic and early Empire,” in Journal of Roman Studies, 71 (1981). Claude Nicolet, in his famous contribution for the Annales, Économie, Société, Civilisation (ESC) (1971), had even contended that the Roman writers had a clear understanding of the relation between money and prices. He quoted very convincing passages from Roman writers, among which the famous one from Suetonius, which Lo Cascio quotes again in his article, proves that that writer, at least, knew not only that money has an influence on prices, but that it also influences changes in output through changes in the interest rate. For the verbatim quotation, see Lo Cascio, p. 86.

Monetary Theory and Roman History

  • Marcello De Cecco


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