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What Is a Denarius?

The Denarius is One of the Most Famous Ancient Coins

Struck continuously through the golden age of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, the coin was one of the most commonly circulated in its time. In the late Roman Republic through the early days of the Roman Empire, the denarius was the daily wage for laborers and regular legionaries. Its rise and decline are similar to what we see with many modern currencies, and its legacy still reverberates today.

History of the Denarius

The denarius marked a change in Roman coinage, brought about by commerce with Greece. Originally the Roman Republic used bronze or lead ingots for their currency, Traditional Roman coins had been bronze and were known as aes grave, or “heavy bronze”. These coins were cast and could be manufactured in bulk, but they were too cumbersome for regular commerce and needed to be replaced with something of higher value.

Silver coins from Greece slowly filtered into the Roman Republic, and Rome eventually created their own version. Ten bronze asses (an aes grave with the image of Janus) made up a denarius once the denomination was established, though due to the rarity of Silver, that ratio was adjusted to 16 asses several years later, around 145 B.C.

The name “denarius” came from “deni,” which meant 10. This was a reference to its original exchange rate. The denarii prototypes were probably the “quadrigati,” Silver coins with a Roman four-horse chariot on the reverse. These were created around 225 B.C.

The better-known denarius was created in a revamp of coinage, which happened around 211 B.C. The coin was not established to a set weight for each coin, but rather a set number in each Roman pound. The total of each batch had to come out equal to a pound, but each coin was not held to a specific weight. There was a slight variation in weight between each coin. Originally these coins were equal to 1/72 of a Roman pound. The early Roman Empire standard was 1/84 of a Roman pound, as noted in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. A later reduction took place to reduce it to 96 denarii in a Roman pound — many believe this took place in the reign of Nero, but this is not entirely certain.

Debasement of the Denarius

The one constant trend with the denarius was debasement. Roman emperors would change the Silver content of denarii over time and take the extra Silver to finance various programs. This debasement of the currency gradually changed the purity of the coin.
In 64 to 68 A. D., around the time of Jerusalem’s sacking by the Roman army, the coin was roughly equal with the Greek drachma at 1/96 of a Roman pound. This was the first debasement. The coin had originally been somewhere between 95 and 98% fine Silver, but now it was set to 93.5%. Over time the standard reduced to 83.5%, then 78.5%, then 50%. Eventually, the denarius became a Copper core plated with Silver, and the coating was thin enough to rub off sometimes when it left the mint.

Emperor Caracalla tried to replace the denarius with the antoninianus in 215 A.D. This coin, sometimes called a “double denarius,” only contained 80% of two denarius coins, which by this point were highly debased themselves. This caused mass hoarding of the more precious denarius, a phenomenon known as Gresham’s Law: bad money drives out good. The denarius was minted through the reign of Gordian III from 238 to 244 A.D. but was gradually taken over by the antoninianus. A few denarii were still minted through the time of Diocletian, but by the time the tetrarchy took over, these coins were extinct.

Legacy of the Denarius

The denarius was one of the most widely circulated coins of the ancient world, and many languages take the root of their word for money from the word “denarius.” The Carolingian dynasty, founded by Pepin the Short, recreated the denarius, which spread through Western Europe under Charlemagne. Around the same time, the king of Mercia in the modern-day U.K. created his own Silver penny that drew inspiration from the ancient Roman coin. The abbreviation “d” used for the penny through English history came from the denarius, as well — in the United States, it can still be seen on the abbreviation for various nail sizes, e.g., “16d” or “8d.”

The denier created by Pepin the Short was the most circulated coin of the Middle Ages, and it owed its purity and acceptance to the legacy of the denarius. Even at the time of Pepin the ancient Roman denarius saw circulation, and many had been revalued because of the quality of their Silver content — much higher than many contemporary coins.

Roman-style portraits on coins were used to cement the ties of the Carolingian dynasty and later incarnations of the Holy Roman Empire to the ancient Western Roman Empire. Even today we can see the legacy of the denarius in the common use of portraits on coins.
The denarius was a long-lived and historically significant ancient coin, and its legacy can be seen even in today’s monetary systems in Europe.

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