Denarius: How Rome’s Coins Kept an Empire Stable

Roman Denarius: Commodus


Throughout history, there have been many different types of money. Many have had a significant impact on the economic and political concepts of finance, commerce, military, building projects, entertainment, and personal investments of many people and nations. Perhaps none remained as stable, influential, significant, or as widely used as the Roman Denarius. This article will discuss the significance and history of the Roman Denarius.

Rome was founded as a city in 753 BCE. Rome was not a mercantile power like Carthage, nor did it expand its borders by trade or exploration. Instead, Rome expanded and took her territory outright in brutal wars against her immediate neighbors.


Early in her history, Rome used a currency known as the Aureus. The Aureus, while not as well known as the Denarius nor as financially influential or historically significant, this currency nonetheless financed Rome’s projects for the first four hundred fifty years of her existence.

The First Denarius

In 269 BCE, five years before the First Punic War, the first Denarius was struck. The Romans put an initial monetary value equivalent of 10 asses, the fifth most valuable money of Roman times. Everything had a financial value throughout the sedentary and non-Barbarian ancient world. Rome was no exception. Everything from spices, grain, slaves, land, and building projects was purchased by Roman Denarius.

Rome’s Military

After 100 BCE, the Roman military became a professional military and had to be paid a salary. This was one of the first examples in history where members could make a living from being in the military. Soldiers were paid a salary appropriate to their rank. Modern armies still follow this practice of merit and higher salary according to rank. At the time this would be similar to being promoted in other professions that offer similar financial benefits.

Roman soldiers would carry their Denarius in their cingulum, a part of their armor that protected their hamstrings and groin. Whenever soldiers gambled or spent their salary, they knew their money was close by.

The Roman Denarius could be seen as being widely recognized as similar to the US dollar.


Caeser and his Pirates

Julius Caesar in 75 BC was captured by Greek Pirates while on his way to study in Rhodes. The pirates demanded a ransom of 20 talents, the equivalent of the weight of 20 pounds of Denarius. Caesar scoffed at this and said that a man of his status was worth more than 50 talents.

The greedy pirates convinced that they would both get their money and torment the young future dictator happily agreed. But Caesar became an obnoxious captive, one the pirates found almost intolerable to live with. Caesar swore that he would return and have the pirates all crucified.


After the ransom was paid, Caesar raised and financed a fleet with Roman coins, hunted down the pirates, and executed them. He cut their throats as a sign of leniency to put the pirates out of their misery.

Sound Money

Rome was careful to maintain the value of the Denarius over the centuries when compared to the currencies of contemporary civilizations. This was from strong economic policies, not overspending funds on unnecessary projects, waging wars that could benefit the empire economically, and spending money on financially beneficial undertakings. Rome was a Republic and then turned into an Empire where there was rarely ever economic trouble during its early “Golden Years”.

Many Roman citizens became fabulously wealthy on the strength of the Denarius. One example of such a citizen was Marcus Licinius Crassus. Anywhere Roman culture and Roman money went, Roman towns and villas sprung up. Along with these villas came impressive engineering feats, commercial and trade hubs were established, infrastructure was built, and Roman citizens lived a life of comfort and strong financial success.

Beginning of the End

During the reigns of Emperors such as Caligula and Nero is where you can begin to see some depreciation in the denarius. Rome financially suffered due to the incompetence and grotesquely excessive spending habits of various Emperors going forward. The result was that the Emperors bled the coffers almost dry and failed to engage in any successful military or commercial undertakings. But these were uncommon exceptions during the Golden Age of the Empire.

In the mid to late 3rd Century AD, as Rome became increasingly politically unstable and was starting to become undermined by the overwhelming populations of Barbarians living inside her borders and joining the ranks of her armies, the value of the Denarius began to decline gradually.


Emperor Aurelian

There was a brief moment of optimism under the reign of Emperor Aurelian’s coinage reform in 274 AD. This came at the cost of nearly abandoning the Denarius and a period of optimism would not last as Aurelian died just a year later in 275. Under the reign of Diocletian, the Denarius was discontinued as a currency and the Romans would never again use it.

For nearly 600 hundred years, it was both the most well-known and the most valuable money in the ancient world. Several countries in the world use a currency called dinar, a derivative of Roman money. Perhaps this is due to the notion that the Romans were so financially intelligent, and these countries wanted to replicate the economic success that Rome enjoyed for hundreds of years.

Silver Ancient Coins
A Roman Denarius displaying the portrait of Roman Emperor Geta.

Published by Invest in History Co.

We specialize in high-quality gold and silver coins. Focusing on Middle East, Eastern European, and Ancient coins. We carry Roman, Greek, Parthian, Phoenician, Celtic, Byzantine, Russian, Jewish, Islamic, and many other culture's coins.

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