I spend too much of my spare time watching the global financial crisis unfold. It’s become something of a spectator sport for me since the clusterfuck of 2008, and at this point it’s more akin to watching a lingering piece of roadkill gasping for its last breath on the side of the highway than observing history unfold. It’s horrible and troubling but I can’t avert my eyes. With every nation on Earth facing insurmountable debt at the hands of a banking system that was never going to be able to sustain itself, collapse is in the cards and is coming all too soon to a planet near you.
Worst off is the United States which has come to play the role of both biggest victim and most egregious perpetrator of a corrupt and unsustainable system. Seventeen trillion dollars of debt, unrepayable as that obviously is, is just an hors d’oeuvres in this multi-course meal of financial malfeasance. Unfunded liabilities amount for another 200 trillion (no one knows the real number for sure, all we know is that it’s huge and comes to much more than all the money and wealth there is on Earth). The system has failed, the game is over, and it’s time to clear the board and start all over again with something new just as soon as our politicians are forced into so a narrow corner, they’re left with no more moves to keep the match going just one more turn.
After far too many years kicking the can down the road, the American Empire looks about ready to kick the bucket. Their unbacked fiat currency isn’t going to last much longer, but neither is anybody else’s fiat currency. When the American dollar finally goes belly up and the greenback is worth more as campfire fuel than money, everybody is going to feel the pain. The world’s global reserve currency is a terminal patient and the only option left is to keep printing it and digitally summoning it into existence until everyone collectively agrees they don’t want to deal with it anymore and goes looking for a new currency or commodity to do business in.
This is, of course, nothing new. Epic hyperinflation happened in Zimbabwe recently, culminating in the 100 Trillion Dollar Note. Last century it happened with the Weimar Republic and became a key ingredient in pushing Germany towards a Second World War. Track hyperinflation back far enough and you’ll see it’s been cropping up over and over again for millennia.
The collapse of the currency is just one thing in our current political situation that draws comparisons to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. The problem with these comparisons that keep cropping up is that most of them are factually incorrect. And as an ancient history buff, it irritates me.
Last night I watched the documentary Four Horsemen, which serves as a solid, but rudimentary guide to what’s going wrong in the world today for those who are just starting to wake up to this reality. In it, precious metals expert David Morgan, refers to the collapse of the Roman denarius, saying how it eventually ended up as a bronze coin with a silver wash. The point he was making about the debasement of money is valid, but his description is wrong. The denarius never had to suffer such an indignity. It was dead years before this happened to Roman coinage.
Maybe I’m just being nit-picky, like a Trekkie who wigs out about the technical inconsistencies of the recent J.J. Abrams Star Trek films, but I genuinely believe Roman history should be taught (and taught well) in every high school history class each and every year until students thoroughly understand how empires rise, thrive, decline and fall. It bugs the hell out of me when learned people, trying so hard to inform all the clueless worker bees out there about what’s happening right under their noses, get their ancient history wrong. Comparing America to the Roman Empire can be helpful and informative, but get your facts straight and your comparisons right.
Fact one, for example, is that Roman civilization never really fell, merely changed shape – from kingdom to republic to empire to split empire to eastern empire. The fall of the western half of the empire marked the beginning of the middle ages, but the eastern half persisted. It wasn’t until the Ottoman Turks finally developed big enough canons to smash through the walls of Constantinople, the most heavily defended city in the world, that the empire finally came to a real finish, marking the end of the middle ages. Fact two, it wasn’t pagan decadence or bread and circuses or Roman orgies that caused the decline to happen. The rot didn’t really set in until well after Christianity became the official state religion. Make of that what you will, but it seems to me the solution to Rome’s problems wasn’t fewer orgies or less sexual liberation. And fact three, the debasement of the denarius (and other coins) was a long process that took centuries before hyperinflation really got rolling. Sure, it ended up being a disaster, but Rome did a better job of managing its finances and remaining a solvent empire than we’re doing today. So watch where you’re slinging those comparisons. Rome deserves more credit than to be compared with the accounting mess the United States finds itself in.
For no other reason than I’m on a roll, allow me to give you a rundown on all the layman ever needs to know about ancient hyperinflation and the collapse of Roman currency. I am, after all, the comic artist who made a series called Money Talks featuring the portraits from international notes as characters. So I guess money is another one of those subjects I obsess about – just not in the productive “gotta earn some more of it” way.
The denarius made its first appearance during the Roman Republic, in the year 211 BCE. There had been a few other stabs at coming up with a silver coin denomination, but the denarius won out, probably because it wasn’t far off in size and weight from the silver drachm that had been issued by many Greek citystates and kingdoms for centuries. From the very beginning, it was a pure silver coin, weighing in at a consistent 3.90 grams (by current means of measurement). The design was limited at first, with not a lot of variation. The head of Roma personified or an occasional god appeared on the obverse, while various gods riding a chariot or the Dioscuri typically adorned the reverse.
Those holding the office of moneyer were eventually given more leeway to experiment with designs, and used their term in office to honour the feats and achievements of their ancestors on Roman coinage. The only rule was that no one currently alive could be depicted on a coin. That was what kings did, and Rome, which had been a small kingdom in its earliest days, did not look back on that period fondly once it became a senate-controlled Republic. In fact it was a denarius of Julius Caesar, during his dictator-for-life period, that is sometimes referred to as “the coin that killed Caesar.” He broke the cardinal rule. After a number of issues that only featured his name on the coin, he had a denarius struck with his actual portrait. This was pointed to as proof positive that he had become a full-blown tyrant. “Dictator” was merely a temporary office what was appointed by the senate during times of national emergency. “Dictator-for-life” was an office Caesar claimed for himself with the support of the people of Rome who saw him as a great hero. But tyrants had to go. One mass-stabbing later and the Republic was thrown into a power struggle as various imperators sought to become top dog. Eventually it was Caesar’s nephew Octavius who came out on top. He adopted the title Caesar Augustus and became the first Roman emperor. The senate was kept to fill its democratic role, but now that Rome had become an empire, there was no doubt who had absolute authority at the end of the day.
The denarius continued merrily through this tumultuous period, maintaining its weight and purity. The only exception to this was the debased legionary denarii that Mark Antony had struck for his men by a mint that travelled with his army. Everyone knew these coins weren’t as pure as the real thing, so nobody ever tried to horde them for their precious metal content. They saw circulation for centuries, and most examples that exist today are worn to the point that they’re barely recognizable.
This anomaly aside, the denarius remained untampered with until the fifth Roman emperor, (and one of the worst) Nero. He was the first one to start mucking about with the precious metal content of the coinage, but that’s the kind of shenanigans you can get away with when you’re treated as a god on Earth and have complete authority over everything, including the mints. Initially this was done on the sly, but future emperors became more open about it. The weights and silver content of the denarius became irregular, but it remained a handsome, well-struck coin. Only by the time of Commodus, a rather barking mad, egomaniacal, paranoid and psychopathic emperor, did the denarius start to look a bit rough around the edges. Quality standards, in manufacture if not silver content, were bumped back up during the Severan dynasty that soon followed. But the Severans would also usher in the beginning of the end of the denarius that had been, effectively, the ancient world’s reserve currency for four hundred years at that point.
It was Severus Antoninus (“Caracalla” to his friends, but he didn’t really have any friends because he was such a ruthless prick) who introduced a new silver coin in 215 CE. Larger than the denarius, but containing only the same amount of silver, it was put into circulation with the nominal value of two denarii. And the people rejected it. No one knows exactly what the coin was called in its era, but today it’s referred to as the antoninianus or double-denarius. A failure on its initial release, and citizens balked at using any money that claimed to be worth more than a denarius with no increase in its silver content. Caracalla got bumped off a couple of years later for unrelated reasons, and issue of the antoninianus grew spotty. The usurper emperor who followed, Macrinus, issued them, as did Elagabalus once the Severan family seized power again. But it became an on again/off again affair with subsequent emperors.
It wasn’t until the arrival of Gordian III in 238 CE that the antoninianus began to be issued in bulk. In fact, the denomination became so prevalent under this new boy-emperor, the denarius quickly faded away. Quality issues of the denarius did continue in his reign, but vanished utterly by the end of his time on the throne. There are some anecdotal instances of debased denarii making later appearances from various short-lived usurper emperors and breakaway provinces, but they’re exceedingly rare. As of 244 CE, the denarius was effectively dead and gone.
The antoninianus, however, despite being far from a pure silver coin, was still a nice, well-produced piece of currency. We’d be lucky today if our coinage had that amount of hand-crafted artistry and precious metal content. So I’m certainly not knocking the antoninianus. At least, not at this point. Trouble for the coin only really began during the reign of Gallienus. And for good reason. It was during this period, from 253 to 268 CE, that the Crisis of the Third Century kicked in with a vengeance. The Roman empire was beset from all sides – usurpers by the dozen, breakaway fledgling empires absconding with huge tracts of Roman land and wealth. It was a mess. Perhaps most telling for how bad things got was when Gallienus’ own father and co-emperor, Valerian, became the first and only Roman emperor to be captured by the enemy (in this case, the Sasanian shah Shapur I, who reportedly had old Valerian stuffed and taxidermied into a stepping stool that Shapur later used to mount his horse).
The last decent silver-content antoninianii were minted at the Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium mint in what is now Cologne, Germany. One by one, all the mints switched to minting smaller, shabbier, uglier coins. Quality control standards dropped through the floor. Not only did the coins look bad, they went from being largely silver, to almost completely bronze. A token 1-in-20 parts silver remained, making the coins technically billon (a silver-bronze alloy), but they sure looked bronze. Or at least they did once the thin silver wash the coins were coated in wore off in circulation.
Eventually the crisis passed, the empire persisted, breakaway provinces were recaptured, and the quality of the coinage bounced back. At least in appearance. Nice designs and quality die-crafting resumed, although the 1-in-20 parts silver ratio persisted, as did the silver wash which made the coins temporarily shiny but added no actual value. When Diocletian came to power towards the end of the third century, he decided it was high time there was a major currency reform. After the better part of a century in circulation, the over-minted antoninianus was killed off, as was any pretence of precious metal content in the day-to-day currency. A cosmetic silver coating was retained, but most coins spent at the market became plain old bronze. The issues that came out of this period, through Diocletian’s Tetrarchy system of government and the subsequent dynasties that ushered the empire through the entire fourth century, remain somewhat mysterious. Again, we don’t know what the coins were called, but there was a lot of variation in size and weight (with coins that were probably worth the same amount shrinking in size over the course of decades, even though they were struck in cheap base metals). Today we call them AE1 through AE4, depending on nothing more than a few millimeters of diameter difference.
There were token attempts to issue nicer, more valuable coins. The occasional large bronze, clearly meant to be of a higher value than its contemporaries, is noted through to the end of the Constantinian dysnasty. Diocletian, during his reforms, also tried to revive a quality silver coin about the size and weight of the old denarius. It was called the argentus, and it was a very nice coin that only lasted a few years before disappearing. More successful was the later siliqua, yet another silver coin of decent purity and design. Unfortunately, by the time that one came along, precious metal in regular circulation was so rare, most siliqua suffered from coin shaving and clipping by people who tried to keep some of the silver content for themselves before spending the coin at face value. Some siliqua had their edges shaved so severely, the legend is completely gone and only the portrait remains (which, incidentally, is no help at all in identifying the emperor since realistic depictions eventually gave way to generic, idealized, one-face-fits-all portraits).
And what about gold, you might ask? Well, actually, in all this debasement mess, gold remained sound. The standard gold coin, the aureus, eventually gave way to the later solidus, but weight and purity never really suffered much for one reason, and one reason only. Emperors paid their militaries in gold, so they were the very last people to get screwed. An unpaid army is an unhappy army, and emperors ruled only so long as their generals were behind them. Once they lost the support of their soliders, it was knife-in-the-back time and the military coup would result in a whole new emperor, typically chosen from the upper ranks of the men. And the cycle would repeat, over and over again. Few emperors got the chance to die of old age, many reigns were short-lived, yet strangely everybody still seemed to want the top job. But they all knew to pay the army in sound money, no matter how shitty things got. Otherwise their headless body would soon be dragged through the streets and dumped in the Tiber.
The Fall of the Roman Empire is an event usually pinned to the year 476, but this isn’t really accurate. That was just the year when the last remnants of the declining western empire packed it in after years of puppet emperors and barbarian encroachments. The truth is, the power had long-since shifted away from the city of Rome and was now centred in Constantinople in the east. The emperor Constantine had made that the new capital of the Roman Empire back in 337 CE, and Rome itself was really only a nostalgic remnant of past days of glory. By the time it fell, east and west had become two different embodiments of the empire of old, with the city of Rome a rundown depopulated shell of itself. Despite this supposed fall, the eastern empire continued to live and occasionally thrive for another thousand years. We typically call that entity the Byzantine Empire, but it’s a misnomer they got saddled with by a much-later historian who kinda pulled the name out of his ass. What they were was a direct continuation of the Roman Empire (they would have called themselves Romaion and that’s what we would be calling them today if the Byzantine label hadn’t stuck).
By the time the Byzantines came along, the currency was absolutely pathetic. Most coins were tiny, sad little lumps of bronze called nummi, unidentifiable even when freshly struck. Bags of them were required to make purchases of basic goods and services. It was Anastasius, the first emperor to come to power post-Leonid dynasty in 491 CE, who finally sorted things out and stabilized the coinage system with a bunch of new denominations, most notable a large follis that was worth 40 of the discontinued nummi.
It should be noted that Byzantine coinage is pretty damn ugly. Coins were recycled and restruck over each other, making for some jumbled mushy designs. And no one to this day has been able to adequately explain why the later trachy coins were cup-shaped. But given that this was now the middle ages (dark ages to some), everybody’s coinage was pretty shitty. Compared to the wafer thin hammered coins that would come to define the period, at least Byzantine coins felt substantial – even the low denomination spare change.
So in the end, despite screwing up their money, bankrupting an empire, hyperinflating and imploding here and there, the Romans still managed to keep their shit together and muddle through until the Ottomans delivered them their final defeat in the year 1453. If you’re keeping count, that’s well over two thousand years of consistent civilization if you look all the way back to the traditional rise of the Roman kingdom in 753 BCE. Not bad for a people who are, it seems, most famous for “falling.” If you really want to compare the woes of the American Empire to Rome, get back to me when they’ve had that kind of a run. Rome, for its flaws, is still one of history’s greatest success stories. And their money still survives to this day, dug up from farmer’s fields as a matter of routine by metal detectionists. Let’s see how much of today’s paper money survives thousands of years. And as for the digital money… That crap can all disappear as fast is it takes a banker to type the number “0” and hit enter.
There you have it, the not-so-brief history of Roman coinage collapse according to me. You know, I hadn’t planned on writing anything along these lines today. This is just me rattling a bunch of history off the top of my head and I do tend to go on. If you think this is bad, you should engage me in a chat about cinema some time. I simply don’t shut up.
I don’t know what brought it on. Maybe it’s because it’s November 5th, maybe it’s because the million-mask march is happening today. We all have issues with how things are being run, be it domestic NSA spying, TSA strip searches, drone assassinations, or the rise of corporate-controlled fascism. There’s a lot to fix and it’s hard to know where to start. But if we’re going to rewrite the rules of the game, maybe we should begin by reinstating a sound monetary system. At least it will be easier to know who’s winning if the score board isn’t rigged.
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
Guy Fawkes and his companions
Did the scheme contrive,
To blow the King and Parliament
All up alive.
Threescore barrels, laid below,
To prove old England’s overthrow.
But, by God’s providence, him they catch,
With a dark lantern, lighting a match!
A stick and a stake
For King James’s sake!
If you won’t give me one,
I’ll take two,
The better for me,
And the worse for you.
A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope,
A penn’orth of cheese to choke him,
A pint of beer to wash it down,
And a jolly good fire to burn him.
Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring!
Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King!
Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!