History repeats itself, so the scholars say. But according to Mark Twain it just rhymes. Literary quips and hair-splitting aside, I’ve found that one of the most valuable things anyone can do to advance their knowledge and understanding of the world is the study of history. Now I’m not talking about the kind of history you get in grade school and university, where all you’re told to do is rote-memorization of people, dates and events. To get any value whatsoever out of studying history, you have to be able to discern cause and effect. What causes civilizations to grow to greatness, and what causes them to collapse?
There are few collapsed civilizations that have been studied in quite the depth as the Roman Empire. Many theories have been offered, some with more merit than others. Ludwig von Mises argued that Rome was eroded from within and that economics played a huge part in it. This is too big of a story for me to cover in a single article, so I will focus on one of the most important aspects; the currency.
For hundreds of years, the Romans were on a bimetallic standard, not unlike the currency system of the early United States. There was a gold coin, the aureus, which was popularized by Julius Caesar. There was also a silver coin known as the denarius, which was what most Romans used in their day to day transactions. It was on a solid gold and silver standard that Rome ascended to the height of its development and power.
One of the greatest enemies of mankind is hubris, and the Roman Empire was certainly not immune to this. The phrase “bread and circuses” refers to the massive welfare spending that occurred in Rome during the height of its power. With the treasury filled with gold, spendthrift politicians quickly used the money to buy influence, votes and curry favour with neighbouring states.
When Julius Caesar first began minting large quantities of the aureus it was 8 grams of pure gold. By the second century it had declined to 6.5 grams and at the beginning of the fourth century it was replaced by the 4.5 gram solidus. The purity of the coin itself was never debased, but the ever decreasing weight was a sure sign that government spending had been outpacing revenues for centuries.
All of this however, pales in comparison with the devaluation of the denarius. The denarius was the backbone of the Roman economy. Citizens earning their income in gold were a rarity given that a day’s wage for an average labourer at the time is estimated at a single denarius. Thus it also became the target of severe abuse by the Roman authorities.
The denarius began as a 4.5 gram silver coin and had stayed that way for centuries under the Roman Republic. After Rome became an empire, things began to turn sour for the denarius and, by extension, the Roman economy. Base metals, such as copper were blended in with the silver and so even though the coin itself weighed the same, the amount of silver in it became less and less with each successive emperor. Throughout the first century the denarius contained over 90% silver but by the end of the second century the silver content had fallen to less than 70%. A century later there was less than 5% silver in the coin and by 350 AD it was all but worthless, having an exchange rate of 4,600,000 to a gold solidus (or nearly 9 million to the original aureus).
The economic chaos the hyperinflation of the denarius had on Roman society was very real. The population of Rome reached a peak of about 1 million inhabitants during the first century BC and maintained that level until nearly the end of the second century. At this point it began to slowly decline throughout the third century and precipitously throughout the fourth. By the fifth century, only about 50 thousand people remained.
Now compare the collapse in value of the denarius to some modern-day currencies and see if you notice any similarities:
Further reading in to the events that unfolded in Rome (links below) will reveal that as the denarius was debased, Rome became an economic basket case. Desperate times called for desperate legislation as the fabric of society was slowly torn apart by inflation. I urge my fellow readers to gain a firm grasp of these events because they will be instructive as to what we can expect for the future. The destruction of the Denarius is only one example of currency debasement, of which there are hundreds. Romans that held on to their gold coins fared well in the hyperinflation and if history is any guide, they will serve us well in the coming years.