chapter  2
12 Pages

From Aurelian to Diocletian: Financing Imperial Recovery by Coinage Debasements and Fiduciary Currencies

WithDebasements and Fiduciary Currencies – Kenneth W. Harl

Given the extent to which so many of the world’s economies have su ered from excessive issues of at paper money and consequent in ations, o en drastic, since the First World War and the end of the traditional gold standard, the coinage debasements in the Roman world during the third century ad should appear to be quite relevant to modern society. Yet, the great debasement of imperial Roman silver coins, along with the accompanying price increases during this era, has attracted little attention among current scholars of Antiquity. Debased silver or billon coins, especially the antoniniani of 238-74 ad, and the silver-coated coins struck between 274 and 371 – for almost a century – produced serious in ations that ruined traditional classes, while enriching much of the Roman autocracy and its servants.1  A destructive expedient at best, these debasements led to a breakdown not only of the currency but of scal institutions and monetary policy.2 Hence this in ation was once seen as a step backwards: a destruction of a well-developed, monetized market economy and a consequent shi to a ‘natural’ or barter economy (Naturwirtschaft ) that marked the transition from the traditional Classical world to that of Late Antiquity. More recently, however, scholars have devoted far less attention to such questions of debasement and in ation, and have instead directed their primary e orts to quantifying the Roman economy. But the results are far from conclusive. ere are insu cient data for, and even less agreement on, estimates of the GDP of the Roman Empire or even the scale of annual production of silver currency in the late rst and second centuries.3 e economy of the Rome under the Principate has also been compared, with varying degrees of success, to those of the traditional agrarian empires of Han China, Mughal India and the Ottoman Middle East.4 Furthermore, social historians, writing in the tradition of M. I. Finley, have regarded coins as scal instruments issued to meet imperial expenditures rather than to promote markets and trade in what has sometimes has been dubbed an underdeveloped economy. Coins, which were also deemed to have been in limited

supply, are thus minimized in their importance, along with the impact of debasement a er 235 ad.5 is view has led some scholars to contend that a change of social mentalité rather than political, military and economic crisis prevailed in the years from 235 to 284.6 But such an argument confuses cause and e ect; for the new mentalité resulted from other wider changes in state and society: especially those that were propelled by the impact of debasement and in ation.