Study sheds light on Roman financial crisis

A study on the composition of Roman denarii has revealed a new understanding of a financial crisis in the Roman world, first mentioned by Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero during the 1st century BC.

Researchers from the University of Liverpool and the University of Warwick used scientific methods to analyse coins as part of the “Rome and the Coinages of the Mediterranean 200 BC – AD 64”, a five-year research project to increase our understanding of the economies of classical Rome and other Mediterranean states by analysing the composition of their coins and cross-referencing the findings with the historical record.

The study has revealed a debasement of the currency in which pure silver coins from before 90 BC were cut with up to 10% copper only five years later. During this period, the Roman state was in danger of becoming bankrupt due to wars in Italy that led to a debt crisis.


The results of the metallurgical analysis suggest that the financial difficulties experienced by Rome in these years led to a relaxation of standards at the mint, with the result that the silver content of the coinage declined in two stages, so that by 87 BC the coinage was deliberately alloyed with 5-10% copper.

Dr Matthew Ponting at the University of Liverpool, said: “The Romans had been used to an extremely fine silver coinage, so they may well have lost confidence in the denarius when it ceased to be pure. The precise level of debasement might have been less important to contemporaries than the mere realisation that the coin was adulterated and no longer made of true ‘silver’.”

Professor Butcher at the University of Warwick, said “The discovery of this significant decrease in the value of the denarius has shed new light on Cicero’s hints of a currency crisis in 86 BC. Historians have long debated what the statesman and scholar meant when he wrote “the coinage was being tossed around, so that no one was able to know what he had.” (De Officiis, 3:80) and we believe we have now solved this puzzle.”

University of Liverpool


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