"In any struggle, it is essential to know two things: what you are fighting for and what you are fighting against. If knowledge of the former is absent, the will to win will be lacking. If knowledge of the latter is absent, confusion and uncertainty will result."
Stone weights in the shape of ducks from ancient Iraq
Earliest man didn’t have the convenience of money in the form we know it. The earliest minted coinage, according to the Greek historian Herodotus, came from ancient Lydia on the Aegean Sea in what is now northwest Turkey, ca 700 BC.
However, even at this early date coinage was not the standard means of trade throughout the ancient world. Most trade was conducted by a means of weights and measure. The problem arose because each territory had its own unique trading currency. Egypt, for example, traded in gold while the Greeks used silver and copper as their means of purchasing what they needed. Others, such as the ancient Syrian city-state of Ebla traded in textiles, olive oil, and raw goods.
Thus the ancient world sought to standardize their means of trading. One such example is the price of an ox by which all of the ancient currencies could be evaluated. An ox traded for an ingot of 8.5 grams (0.30 ounces avoirdupois) of gold or 25.5 grams (0.90 ounces avoirdupois) of copper.
It is fascinating that everywhere we look in the ancient world we find an amazing standardization of the weights.
This standardization is seen in the early use of the weight of a talent, which we find to be most commonly equal to a cubic foot of water at 62o F and equal to 28.25 kg (62.288 pounds avoirdupois). Of course the weight of the early talent would depend greatly on whose foot you used and there were some slight variations in the talent’s weight.
When the talent is referred to as money it always means a talent of gold. The talent of gold has been reported as the same weight as a person, and so meant about 50 kg (110 pounds avoirdupois). Some historians hold, rightly or wrongly, that the gold talent commonly meant a weight of about 33 kg (75 pounds avoirdupois) but a talent of gold could and did vary anywhere from 20 to 40 kg (44 pounds to 88 pounds avoirdupois).
However, during the Bronze and early Iron Age there doesn’t seem to have been too much a problem since the ratios of exchange were generally easily calculated.
Other than in ancient Rome, the talent of 28.25 kg was commonly divided into the mina (aka maneh) with 1 mina being equal to 1/60th of a talent and approximately equal to 16.5 ounces avoirdupois (.47 kg).
The mina was further divided into the shekel but here we find a marked lack of standardization in weights.
The Egyptian shekel (called the kdt) was the weight of the common Egyptian dbn; the Egyptian shekel as well as the Ugarit, Syrian and Palestinian shekels all were 1/50th of a mina and weighed 9.4 grams (0.33 ounces avoirdupois). While the ancient Babylonian shekel stood as 1/60th of a mina: 7.8 grams (0.28 ounces avoirdupois), others had various weights assigned to the shekel, the ancient Eblainites set the shekel at 1/66th mina.
As late as the 5th century BC the Athenian tetradrachm (meaning four drachmae) was the most extensively circulated coin in the Greek sphere of influence. It was solid silver, weighed approximately 18 grams (.58 ounces Troy) and featured the bust profile of a helmeted Athena while on the back it contained an image of an owl; the symbol of Athens. It is because of the owl on its reverse that the tetradrachm is commonly known as the Athenian Owl.
The Tetradrachm (The Athenian Owl)
The tetradrachm was based on the Athenian weight that 6 obols equaled 1 drachma: a weight of 4.7 grams; 100 drachmae equaled 1 mina; and 6000 drachmae would equal 1 talent of 28.2 kg.
With the conquests of Alexander the Great and the rise of the Hellenistic period, the Athenian tetradrachm was replaced with the Greek drachm (meaning a handful), minted with about 4.7 grams of pure silver, as the official coin of the empire.
It is the drachm that was used in the early Roman Empire up to the late Roman Republic period and which eventually became known as the Roman denarius (plural; denarii). It is the history of the denarius that will take the point in the destruction of the Roman Empire.
Granted the preceding is an abbreviated history of exchange and the means used to purchase and sell one’s goods. However, it points up the fact that for thousands of years people had a means of verifying what it cost them to buy or sell the goods they desired.
This is not to say there weren’t those who didn’t abuse the system by using unequal weights and cheating those they traded with. Certainly more than one ancient religious text warns one of carrying "differing weights." The Holy Scriptures ask a very simple question: "Shall I count pure those with the wicked scales and with the bag of deceitful weights?" (Micah 6:11)
There were those, but it does point out that a conscientious trader had a means to check the transaction and protect himself from the corrupt and dishonest predators that prey on the just efforts of others. Even the state was subject to being checked since it would be a simple matter to weigh the minted coins which were in circulation.
It is said that the Roman Empire is the foundation of Western civilization. If so, then we are bound to remember Rome’s greatest faults.
The principle large coin within the realm of the Roman Empire was the denarius. This originally pure silver coin was the set wage for an unskilled laborer for one days work in the late Roman Republic and into the period of the Roman Empire, according to classical writers and historians.
Do you find this hard to believe?
We know that Rome’s wealth depended almost solely on her military conquests. So great was the influx of goods into Rome, from those conquered lands, that it has been reported that the harbors were full of ships delivering goods from throughout the empire but that most of these same ships left their ports empty, having nothing for the return trip. This influx of wealth was due exclusively to the discipline, might and prowess of the Roman soldiers who were paid a meager 900 sesterces yearly.
Now, in the Roman currency there were four sesterces to the denarius which means that in the course of a year the average Roman soldier made 225 denarii or less than 2/3rds the yearly wages of an unskilled field hand. Given the propensity of any state and especially the Roman Empire to indulge itself in the rewards of subjugation with little or no regard for the lives and well being of those who do the fighting and dying, this is certainly possible.
Indeed, we need not look any further than the American war machine to see the dearth of compensation that defines the fortunes of those who are sent to die as opposed to the abundance and affluence of those who issue the orders and reap the benefits of conquest. It was the same in ancient Rome.
However, the strength of Rome was also the means of it own destruction. Like so many empires Rome doesn’t collapse in an epoch struggle with the evil invaders. Rome died slowly being eaten by the cancer that lived in its dark soul.
The disease should have been evident but like so many events that lead to destruction, Rome’s decline began unnoticed, not being diagnosed until there was nothing left but a wretched corpse which had once been the grandeur of Rome.
Certainly, one can point to the excesses of Caligula, or Nero and his Golden House as the start of Rome’s decay. At the death of Nero, during the year of five emperors (69 AD), the gluttonous third emperor, Vitellius, spent 2,250,000 denarii (enough to pay his Roman legions for 1,000 years) just on lavish banquets.
Yes, Rome was on the verge of bankruptcy but through it all the denarius remained strong. So strong that when Vespasian took the throne in late 69 AD he was able to right Rome’s financial ills and commission the building of the Colosseum over the artificial lake that sat in the forefront of Nero’s Golden House.
All the grand design and what it meant to be Roman was on the line by the time Trajan became emperor in 98 AD. The whole economy was sliding into the abyss since there was nothing left to conquer. Rome was struggling with both its economy and the loss of it population who were beginning to flee the city. This prompted Trajan to institute a program called alimenta.
Alimenta was the use of public funds to subsidize education along with food for Rome’s needy. It was funded by wealthy land owners who pledged portions of their estates as collateral for government loans. The interest these landowners paid to Rome on their loans funded the alimenta.
When Hadrian took the throne (117 AD) at Trajan’s death, Hadrian continued the policies of his predecessor but increased the dependence of Rome’s population on the state by offering more circuses and aid to the poor. Of course these policies swelled the need for civil servants and bloated the civil service bureaucracy.
The results should have been predictable but they were ignored. Rome, like all states in decline, began a process of devaluating the denarius. In a short period of time the once pure silver coin became a mixture of silver and copper. With this came the rising prices due to inflation while wages started to stagnate and the privileges of freedom and what it meant to be a citizen of Rome began to evaporate.
By 235 AD Rome was a mere shell of an empire. Plagues were sweeping through the empire, famine was becoming a common occurrence, earthquakes were leveling whole regions and the Roman military entered into the 50-year period known as the "Barrack emperors." It was a time when legions were declaring their commanders emperor then assassinating them. Not surprisingly, during the period of 244 to 260 AD, Rome had 16 emperors and few were lucky enough to die of natural causes.
In the west the Franks, Jutes, and Germanic Alemanni crossed the Rhine River, while the Vandals and Goths threatened Rome by crossing the Danube. Rome was powerless to stop the invasions and was loosing its empire on all sides. On July 1, 251 AD Rome was humiliated at the Battle of Abrittus when the Goths, under the command of King Cniva, slaughtered the Roman legions, including the Roman Emperor Decius and his son.
The Roman Empire was now in a complete free fall and so was the denarius; so much so that by the time Diocletian became emperor in 284 AD the denarius was solid copper, the gladiatorial games were being offered for more than 150 days out of the year, and food had become a "right," supplied by the state, for the Roman citizenry.
The once proud denarius which had stood against the gold aureus at a ratio of 25 to 1 was now reduced, through inflation, to a worthless 833 denarii to one gold aureus.
Diocletian’s plan for recovery was simple. Stimulate the Roman economy with public works; the building of roads, bridges, along with palaces throughout the empire. The problem was that public works took large sums of money and it wasn’t long before Diocletian was faced with a financial crisis as large as the Roman Empire.
Diocletian soon learned that Rome no longer had the manpower to accomplish such grand schemes. The lack of manpower coupled with hyperinflation, currency troubles, completely inefficient bureaucracies, and a useless tax system left Diocletian standing on the edge of the abyss staring at the beast called chaos.
Diocletian saw only one way to solve Rome’s problems; his answer was to reform Rome’s currency and of course transform the tax system into another complicated tax mess. Then he issued his infamous "Edict of Maximum Prices and Wages;" a list of some 1000 items, which set the upper limit the items could be sold for and for which wages could be paid.
These reforms he hoped would make future planning feasible and the imperial income drearily commonplace and utterly predictable.
What he received instead was the contents of Pandora’s Box.
Diocletian’s Edict was his war on terror. It effectively halved the value of the Roman copper and bronze coins. It also established the death penalty for those profiteers or speculators who were blamed for the empires hyperinflation and who were compared to the "barbarians" who were now pressing in on Rome.
Rome’s problems had started with a whimper; now Diocletian had turned a whimper into a death rattle. His mass minting of coins sent the Roman coinage into another hyperinflationary spiral taking the denarii to a ratio of 1666 against one gold aureus. Merchants were forbidden to move to another market to sell their goods or to add transportation costs to the goods if it would make the price greater than Diocletian had set.
According to the tariff the cheapest meat in the empire were sparrows and 10 sparrows were to be sold for no more than 16 denarii, which at today’s market prices would be close to $5.30.
The effect was immediate; merchants closed their shops and either sold their goods illegally or bartered with customers on a huge, growing black market. Some towns could no longer afford to produce goods and so manufacturing began to collapse as the cost of transportation and raw materials increased. Those on fixed salaries, including the military, found that the lack of goods drove prices up. This coupled with inflation left them struggling to make ends meet and some even from feeding their families.
Roman’s were no longer free. They had been reduced to serfs and Rome had passed from an empire into a totalitarian state albeit a broke and dying state.
I opened this article with this statement: "In any struggle, it is essential to know two things: what you are fighting for and what you are fighting against."
The parallels between the Roman experience and the coming American tragedy should be obvious. Does anyone know a good recipe for sparrow?