A Brief History Of The Roman Denarius


The Roman denarius was the most important coin of its time and one of the most famous coins in history.

Its extensive circulation across the vast reaches of the Roman Empire demonstrates the success of silver as a monetary medium.

Yet, the tale of the denarius is also one of debasement, inflation and monetary collapse.

It is a warning for the present day of the folly of abandoning sound money.

The denarius was first struck in 310BC but it wasn’t until 211BC that it became the dominant monetary unit.

The 211BC denarius had 4.5g of silver and the coin had 95% fineness.

The word denarius literally means 10 asses.

The aes was the bronze coin of the early Roman Republic that the denarius replaced as the standard.

According to Kenneth Harl in his excellent book Coinage in the Roman Economy, 300 B.C. to A.D. 700:

“The success of Roman currency rested upon its silver coins, which over the centuries often suffered recoinage, debasement, and revaluation that directly affected the supply and use of coins, and thus state expenses, taxes, and prices in the marketplace. Romans employed as their principal coin a modest-sized silver denomination, the denarius, for nearly five centuries.”

The Denarius During The Roman Republic

Roman Denarius minted 211-208 BC

In the early years of the Roman Republic bronze coins called aes were used.

As Rome extended her power over the Italian peninsula she incorporated the Campania region, who had been using silver coins styled on the Greek drachma for several hundred years.

The Romans realised that because silver was much more valuable than bronze, it meant it would be much more convenient to settle large transactions wth small amounts of silver rather than large amounts of bronze.

So in 310BC the Romans minted the first denarius, modelled on the Campania coinage. This was 6.8g of silver at 93.5% fineness.

Rome did not have a local supply of silver and had to rely on conquest to obtain it. Therefore in those early years, bronze coins still circulated as the main form of money.

The conquest of Magna Graecia, the Greek settlements in southern Italy by 270BC, gave the Romans enough silver to being minting a large enough quantity of denarii to the point where it became a more commonly circulating currency, albeit one of high value.

The defeat of Carthage and subsequent peace treaty in 241BC obtained a vast quantity of silver in indemnity payments.

Under great financial strain during to the Second Punic War (218-201BC), the Roman Republic undertook the first devaluation and recoinage of silver, either in 213 or 212BC. This was done in order to service the war debt.

The first issues of denarii had silver content ranging between 6.3 and 6.8g.

The new denarius had a silver content of 4.5g.

This took place alongside a reorganisation of the denominations of the bronze coins as well as emergency issues of gold coins.

This version of the denarius became the dominant monetary unit for the remainder of the Roman Republic and for the much of the Roman Empire.

The subsequent conquest of Carthiginian Iberia gave Rome control over the highly productive mines in Spain which, alongside Carthage’s indemnity payments, meant a steady flow of silver became available.

As Kenneth Harl explains:

“In the Second Punic War, the Republic reforged it’s silver and bronze currency into a system of denominations that endured for the next 450 years. Rome also learned how to avoid massive default in a crisis by devaluing the silver coinage, adopting a fiduciary bronze currency and minting emergency gold coins. The Romans added these measures, well known to Greek states since the fifth century B.C., to their arsenal of financial expedients.”

In 141BC, the denarius was revalued from 10 asses to 16. Bronze asses had gradually wore down with heavy use and fell short of their original minted weight.

In order to prevent reminting a huge amount of bronze coinage the revaluation aligned the relative values at the market rate.

Julius Caesar’s Denarius

A denarius of Julius Caesar

In 49BC, during the Civil War at the end of the Republic, Julius Caesar seized the state reserves and began to strike denarii bearing his name.

He also struck significant amounts of gold aureii.

The aureus was an 8g gold coin and in 46BC the exchange rate to the silver denarius was set at 25:1.

Caesar gradually transformed the coinage away from Republican icongraphy, replacing it, as Kenneth Harl describes, with “his titles and symbols of office, his ancestors and patroness Venus, and finally his own portrait.”

After his death in 44BC, Caesar’s image continued to adorn the denarius.

Octavian’s Denarius

A denarius of Octavian (Augustus)

Following the death of Julius Caesar, both Octavian (also known as Augustus) and Mark Antony minted their own denarii.

This was both to pay the bills and to lay claim to being Caesar’s heir.

When Octavian and Mark Antony united in the Second Triumvirate with Lepidus, they struck new denarii bearing their portraits.

In 23BC, after Octavian defeated Mark Antony in the Battle of Actium, he undertook a reform of the Roman coinage that would last almost two hundred years.

This reform established a new base metal currency for smaller denominations and set them in fixed exchange rates with denarii and aureii.

Kenneth Harl describes the reform:

“The keystone of this edifice was the denarius, the “link coin”, against which all other coins, including provincial and civic ones, could be reckoned and exchanged. For the first and last time in their history the peoples of the Mediterranean enjoyed, in the denarius, a common measure of value. Augustan coinage owed its success foremost to the economic growth stimulated by the Roman peace, but the coinage itself contributed to this growth by facilitating transactions, both large and small.”

The purity of the denarius had also, at times, fallen to as low as 92% during the latter years of the Republic. Octavian restored it to 98%.

Nero’s Denarius

A denarius of Nero

Nero became the emperor of Rome in 54AD.

Nero’s budget was strained due to war debts, rebuilding costs after the great fire of Rome and extravagant imperial spending.

In 64AD he began debasing the denarius by reducing its silver content.

Reductions in the silver content of the denarius had been happening since its inception. But these tended to be small reductions and, when circumstances allowed, the silver content was restored to its original weight.

What began under Nero was a large scale debasement of the currency that continued over several hundred years and ultimately contributed to the fall of Rome.

The Romans had no bond market. So governments had no method of deficit financing. If there were no new inflows of specie from conquest and the government was running a budget deficit, then debasing the currency became the easiest method.

What this meant was taking the coinage obtained from taxes and minting them into a new coin with a lower silver content but with the same face value. This enabled the emperor to increase the money supply.

Nero debased the denarius by 20%. For every 1 million denarii taken in taxes, he was able to issue 1.2 million new denarii.

These new coins were accepted by the Roman public only because of the long history of imperial coins as sound money. Kenneth Harl oberves the irony:

“Ironically, public faith in imperial coins made possible the policies of debasement that eventually eroded the Augustan currency…Debasement netted Nero revenues, but it also courted risks. Price increases sparked by the debasement in 64 apparently had little long-term impact, but imperiling confidence in the currency was the first step toward financial disaster. The international reputation of Roman coins was tarnished.”

Trajan’s Denarius

A denarius of Trajan

Trajan (98 – 117AD) took an interesting approach. He minted denarii according to Nero’s weights but he restored earlier designs.

These went back as far as the late second century BC during the Roman Republic.

The aim was to improve public faith and confidence in the money by appealing to tradition, heritage and familiarity.

Kenneth Harl:

“Trajan, by restoring older designs, acknowledged the danger that debasement and recoinage could undermine this trust and trigger a panic.”

Yet within six months of issuing the new coins Trajan debased the denarius by another 3-4%.

The Great Debasement of the Denarius

A denarius of Marcus Aurelius

By the time Marcus Aurelius became emperor in 161AD the denarius had been debased 26.5% in the nearly 200 years since Nero.

Marcus Aurelius debased the denarius another 4%.

Kenneth Harl explains why the emperors did it:

“Although each debasement drove up wages and prices, the lag in these rises enabled the imperial government to net surplus revenues exceeding the short-term effects of inflation. During war, emperors found It dangerous not to debase.”

In 215 Caracalla introduced the antoninianus. This was a silver coin with a face value of double a denarius but only 80% of the silver content of two denarii.

Gresham’s law went into effect as the denarius was hoarded. People preferred to pay with the coin with a lower silver content and hold onto the one with the higher silver content. Prices rose to reflect the reduced amount of silver in the coin.

Elagabalus (218-222AD), two emperors after Caracalla, recognised the danger and abandoned the antoninanus and the denarius reentered circulation.

A denarius of Severus Alexander

By the rule of Severus Alexander in 222-235AD the denarius contained only 40% of the silver content of Octavian’s denarius.

Up until 235, the public still retained confidence in the denarius. Price inflation was approximately equivalent to the rate of debasement. While this caused problems in the economy, at least citizens could be confident in what their money was worth.

After 235 things changed.

The denarius was rapidly debased to fund the Roman war machine. Public confidence disappeared and an inflationary spiral began.

The emperors believed that the debasement was to fund a temporary military crisis and that in victory they would acquire a booty of gold and silver.

But this was no temporary crisis. This was the Crisis of the Third Century that nearly brought the downfall of Rome and lasted from 235 – 284AD.

In 238 the antoninanus was revived. It too had been further debased, now with only 70% of the silver of two denarii.

Over the next several decades the antoninanus was rapidly debased and public confidence was destroyed.

Aurelian introduced a new silver coin, the aurelianianus, while Diocletian introduced the silver argentus nummus, intended to be a resurrection of Nero’s denarius, but this coin never regained the status that the denarius once held.

Diocletian undertook a significant monetary reform to try and improve Rome’s finances after the Crisis.

But his most significant move was introducing a new gold coin, the solidus.

Gold rather than silver became the principal monetary standard and the glory days of the denarius were well and truly over.


The Roman monetary system was glorious while it lasted.

The use of precious metals as money contributed significantly to the economic stability and might of Rome.

At the center of it all was the Roman denarius.

It became the monetary standard in 211BC as a 4.5g coin with 95% fineness.

However, the great flaw in the denarius, and in precious metals as money generally, is the ability to debase the coins by reducing the precious metal content. This is far less of an issue than with fiat money, where new supply can be created very easily, but it was an issue nonetheless.

Rome succumbed to monetary debasement and inflation and this contributed to the fall of the empire.

The story of Roman money has many lessons for the modern day. None more so than the need for a hard money standard where supply is limited but also one that is immune to debasement.

I’ve leave you with a final word from Kenneth Harl:

“The success of Roman coins contributed in no small measure to the long periods of price and wage stability. Repeated use of the same denominations for the purchase of familiar units of goods bred public faith not so much in the abstract notion of Roman currency but rather in specific denominations such as the denarius, and it was this fact that enabled emperors to manipulate the currency during the third and fourth centuries.”


Home > The History of Silver > Roman Denarius


Harl, Kenneth W. Coinage in the Roman Economy, 300 B.C. To A.D. 700. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Image Credits

137 BC Denarius is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.5

211 BC Denarius is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.5

Julius Caesar Denarius is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.5

Octavian Denarius is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.5

Nero Denarius is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.5

Trajan Denarius is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

Marcus Aurelius Denarius is licensed under CC-BY-SA 4.0

Severus Alexander Denarius is in the public domain

About The Author

Scroll to Top