Friday, October 7, 2016
Money in Ancient Rome By James William Gilbart 1853
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The Romans, like other ancient nations, had, at first, no coined money, but either exchanged commodities against one another, or used a certain weight of uncoined brass. The various names of money also denoted weights, in the same way as with us, who now use the word "pound" to denote a coin, whereas it first denoted a pound of silver. Indeed, we have borrowed this practice from the Romans; and over the figures that denote the pounds, we do not place the letter P, but the letter L—the first letter in the word libra—the Latin word for a pound. The Roman pound was equal to about twelve ounces avoirdupois.
The table of Roman money would stand thus:—
10 asses make one denarius.
25 denarii make one aureus.
The as was of brass, the denarius of silver, and the aureus of gold.
All the Roman money was originally of brass; and hence the word as, which in Latin denotes brass, is also employed to denote money. Silver was not coined in Rome until the year of the city 483; that is, 269 years before the Christian era,—and gold, 62 years later, or 207 years before the Christian era.
Servius Tullius first stamped pieces of brass with the image of cattle, oxen, and swine. The Latin name for these is pecudes; hence, money was called pecunia, from which we derive our word pecuniary. The As was a brass coin that weighed a pound. There were other brass coins, weighing one-half, one-fourth, and one-sixth of a pound.
The practice of depreciating the currency, by issuing coins sustaining the same names as the previous coins, but containing a less quantity of metal, was adopted by the Romans to a greater extent than in our own country. With us, a pound weight of silver that was formerly coined into twenty shillings, is now coined into sixty-six shillings. In the first Punic war, money became so scarce that the Romans coined asses that only weighed two ounces, or the sixth part of a pound, which passed for the same value as those of a pound weight had done; by this means the republic gained five-sixths, and thus discharged its debts. Such an example could not fail to have imitators among succeeding statesmen. In the second Punic war, while Fabius was dictator, the asses were made to weigh only one ounce, and subsequently they were reduced to half an ounce.
The denarius was of silver. The Romans had three silver coins—the denarius, the quinarius, and the sestertius. The first was equal to ten asses, that is, to ten pounds of brass; the second, to five asses; and the third, to two asses and a-half.
A pound of silver was coined into a hundred denarii; so that, at first, a pound of silver was equal to a thousand pounds of brass, a circumstance which proves that silver was then comparatively scarce. But afterwards the case was altered; for, when the weight of the as was diminished, it bore the same proportion to the denarius as before, till it was reduced to one ounce, and then a denarius passed for sixteen asses. The weight of the silver money also varied, and was different under the emperors from what it had been under the republic.
We translate the word denarius by the word penny, and over figures denoting pence we put the letter D, being the first letter in the word denarius, the Latin for a penny. But the Roman penny was not made of copper, nor of brass, but of silver, and, at the time of the Christian era, was worth about sevenpence-halfpenny of our money. We learn from the New Testament history, that the Roman penny bore the image and superscription of the emperor, and was used in the payment of taxes; that it was the usual wages for a day's labour; and that two-pence would provide a night's entertainment at a public inn.
The aureus was of gold. It was first struck at Rome in the second Punic war (207 years before the Christian era), and was equal in weight to two-and-a-half denarii, and in value to twenty-five denarii, or one hundred sestertia. The common rate of gold to silver, under the republic, was tenfold. At first, forty aurei were made from a pound of gold; but, under the later emperors, they were mixed with alloy, and thus their intrinsic value was diminished.
Among the Romans, money was computed by sestertia. A sestertium was the name of a sum, not of a coin, and was equal to a thousand of the coins called sestertius. A sestertius is equal in English money to the one hundred and twenty-fifth part of a pound sterling, or about one penny, three farthings, and two thirds of a farthing.
The system of banking at Rome was somewhat similar to that which is in use in modem times. Into these institutions the state or the men of wealth caused their revenues to be paid, and they settled their accounts with their creditors by giving a draft or cheque on the bank. If the creditor also had an account at the same bank, the account was settled by an order to make the transfer of so much money from one name to another. These bankers, too, were money-changers. They also lent money on interest, and allowed a lower rate of interest on money deposited in their hands. In a country where commerce was looked upon with contempt, banking could not be deemed very respectable. Among most of the ancient agricultural nations, there was a prejudice against the taking of interest for the loan of money. Hence, the private bankers at Rome were sometimes held in disrepute, but those whom the government had established as public cashiers, or receivers-general, as we may term them, held so exalted a rank that some of them became consuls.
The Romans had also loan banks, from which the poor citizens received loans without paying interest. We are told that the confiscated property of criminals was converted into a fund by Augustus Ceasar, and that from this fund sums of money were lent, without interest, to those citizens who could pledge value to double the amount. The same system was pursued by Tiberius. He advanced a large capital, which was lent for a term of two or three years to those who could give landed security to double the value of the loan. Alexander Severus reduced the market-rate of interest, by lending sums of money at a low rate, and by advancing money to poor citizens to purchase lands, and agreeing to receive payment from the produce.
The deity who presided over commerce and banking was Mercury, who, by a strange association, was also the god of thieves and of orators. The Romans, who looked upon merchants with contempt, fancied there was a resemblance between theft and merchandise, and they easily found a figurative connexion between theft and eloquence, and hence, thieves, merchants, and orators were placed under the superintendence of the same deity. On the 17th of May in each year the merchants held a public festival, and walked in procession to the temple of Mercury, for the purpose, as the satirists said, of begging pardon of the deity for all the lying and cheating they had found it convenient to practise, in the way of business, during the preceding year.
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