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First Read: Coinage in the Roman Economy


First Read, a continuing series of essays about classic and contemporary works of numismatic literature…

Essay by Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek….

Coinage in the Roman Economy by Kenneth Harl, Ph.D.

Buy the book before you buy the coin.

                       -Numismatic proverb (attributed to Aaron Feldman)

I’m always a little embarrassed when CoinWeek describes me as an “ancient coin expert.”

I know some of the real experts–people who’ve built up an encyclopedic database of numismatics over a lifetime, neatly organized and cross-indexed for instant access in their brains. I am awed by their abilities, but my brain doesn’t work that way.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to. I may not have all the information in my head, but I know where to find it. I have the books right here.

Normal people (those who are not coin geeks) often ask, “Why do you need so many damn books?”

It’s a fair question.

In Classical numismatics, as in so many other fields, we often find ourselves drowning in information but starved for context. Collectors experience a flood of ancient coins, beautifully imaged and meticulously described on dealer web sites or arriving in the mailbox with each season’s surge of new auction catalogs. But it’s not always easy to find resources that help us understand what these coins meant, and how they worked.

Coinage in the Roman Economy by Kenneth Harl provides that context.

Harl’s book is a scholarly work intended for academic readers. It assumes a basic familiarity with ancient history, but it’s also an accessible source for the kind of information that collectors of Roman and related coins need to know, to understand exactly what it is that we collect with such passion.

“The objective of this book is an examination of how the Romans used coined money.”

                       -Kenneth Harl, Coinage in the Roman Economy, (1).

This objective is fully achieved.

Harl’s fundamental insight is that “coins were the money of the Roman economy.”(1) Think about that for a bit. It’s quite different from our world, where the economic role of cash is diminishing, and “money” increasingly consists of coded electronic impulses.

Author Kenneth Harl

The elite minority of Romans who could read and write cared little for economic theory. Few surviving ancient sources help us understand how the coinage worked. For modern coins, we have mint records (sometimes going back centuries) that tell us how many pieces of each type were struck. But Harl explains in the first chapter that just trying to estimate the quantity of coins that circulated in antiquity is a thorny and controversial problem.

Ancient civilizations like Egypt and Mesopotamia managed to create large and complex markets and trade networks before the invention of coins. Coinage was a primarily Greek invention that the Romans borrowed, like so much else. The adoption of coins came relatively late in the long history of the Republic. A chapter on “The Monetization of Roman Italy, 500-200 BC” explores the reasons behind this.

After experimenting with unwieldy, impractically-heavy bronze coinage[1], Romans eventually hit upon a denomination in silver that was so handy it survived for centuries:

[F]or the first and last time in their history the peoples of the Mediterranean enjoyed, in the denarius, a common measure of value.” (73)

How this worked is explained in a chapter on “The Denarius and Overseas Expansion,” examining the interplay of trade, conquest and economic growth.

The dramatic transition from republic to empire produced some of the most beautiful, most historic–and most collectible–coins struck in antiquity, such as the popular “Twelve Caesars”. The chapter on “The Augustan Coinage, 30 BC – AD 200” explains how these high-purity gold and silver pieces built up public faith in the coins and the emperors they depicted.

The long economic decline of Rome was reflected in the gradual deterioration of the coinage. Under pressure to pay an ever-larger and more demanding army, emperors resorted to the easy expedient of inflating the currency. As the public lost confidence in their money, there were periodic reforms. A chapter on “The Great Debasement and Reform, AD 193-305” recounts this story in detail.

The collapse of the system is documented in the chapter on “The Loss of Roman Monetary Ways, AD 400 – 700.” This carries the story well beyond the traditional date for the “Fall of Rome” and into the era we used to call the “Dark Ages” (but now understand as “Late Antiquity”).

Questions that Classical numismatists are frequently asked include “What were the coins worth?” and “How much did things cost?”. Harl’s chapters on “Coins in the Cities and Markets of the Roman World” and “Coins Prices and Wages” review the best evidence we have for answers to these questions.

Since bread was the staple of the Roman diet, Harl provides good, time-series data for the wholesale price of wheat, but scanty information on prices of meat, fish, fruits and vegetables. There are records for the prices of the exotic imports and luxury goods coveted by the elite, but relatively little on what common people earned, bought and sold.

A concluding chapter, “Roman Coins Beyond the Imperial Frontiers,” dismisses the long-accepted notions that tribute paid to barbarians and the booty they captured, along with the Eastern trade in Chinese silks and Indian gems and spices, sapped the economic vitality of the empire by draining its stock of precious metal:

The aurei and denarii carried by merchants in search of profit or granted as rewards to dutiful allies, marked the triumph, not the demise of Roman imperial currency.” (313-14)

Packing a thousand years of economic history into a little more than 300 pages of text is a masterful accomplishment. While it’s not light reading, especially for beginners, the prose is lucid. Clear black and white plates illustrate 267 coins mentioned in the text. There is a glossary of English and Latin terms, and an Appendix explaining Roman weights and measures. A well-organized “Select Bibliography” fills 46 pages, providing a reliable guide to the current and classic literature of Ancient Roman numismatics in English, French, Italian and German.

The only feature I missed was a list of tables, since the tables scattered throughout the text provide a wealth of useful information. For example:

  • Table 3.1 Silver Bullion and Coin Available to Roman Mint 201-151 BC
  • Table 5.3 Standards of Alexandrine Tetradrachmae, Egypt 73-30 BC and AD 19-68
  • Table 9.3 Estimated Military Expenditures, AD 6 – 235 (in millions of denarii)

Coinage in the Roman Economy is a book every serious collector of Roman coins should consider. It belongs in your high-traffic reference library, on the shelf with David Sear’s Roman Coins and Their Values and David Vagi’s monumental two-volume Coinage and History of the Roman Empire (which I hope to review in a future “First Read”).

Kenneth Harl (B.A. Trinity College, M.A, Ph.D Yale) is a professor of history and Fellow of the American Numismatic Society. He has taught Classical and Byzantine history at Tulane University since 1978. He is also the author of two compact, inexpensive handbooks for archaeologists on Roman and Byzantine coins commonly found at dig sites in Turkey.



[1] See “Numismatic Monsters”:


Harl, Kenneth W. Coinage in the Roman Economy: 300 BC to AD 700. Johns Hopkins University Press (1996). 472 pages. List Price: $73.00.

(The publisher’s web site – – accessed on 23 November 2014, advertised a sale price of only $25.00 ISBN: 978-0801852916)

Guide for Coins commonly found at Anatolian Excavations: Byzantine (AD 498-1282). Archaeology and Art Publications (2001). 48 pages.

Guide for Coins commonly found at Anatolian Excavations: Roman (AD 238-498).
Archaeology and Art Publications (2001). 43 pages.

Sear, David. Roman Coins and Their Values (4th edition). Seaby (1988).

Vagi, David. Coinage and History of the Roman Empire. Sidney, OH. (1999).

Mike Markowitz
Mike Markowitz
Mike Markowitz is a member of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian, and defense analyst. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York, and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.

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