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The denarius (Latin: [deːˈnaːriʊs], pl. dēnāriī [deːˈnaːriiː]) was the standard Roman silver coin from its introduction in the Second Punic War c. 211 BC to the reign of Gordian III (AD 238–244), when it was gradually replaced by the antoninianus. It continued to be minted in very small quantities, likely for ceremonial purposes, until and through the Tetrarchy (293–313).: 87
The word dēnārius is derived from the Latin dēnī "containing ten", as its value was originally of 10 assēs.[note 1] The word for "money" descends from it in Italian (denaro), Slovene (denar), Portuguese (dinheiro), and Spanish (dinero). Its name also survives in the dinar currency.
Its symbol is represented in Unicode as 𐆖 (U+10196), a numeral monogram that appeared on the obverse in the Republican period, denoting the 10 asses ("X") to 1 denarius ("I") conversion rate. However it can also be represented as X̶ (capital letter X with combining long stroke overlay).
A predecessor of the denarius was first struck in 269 or 268 BC, five years before the First Punic War, with an average weight of 6.81 grams, or 1⁄48 of a Roman pound. Contact with the Greeks had prompted a need for silver coinage in addition to the bronze currency that the Romans were using at that time. This predecessor of the denarius was a Greek-styled silver coin of didrachm weight, which was struck in Neapolis and other Greek cities in southern Italy. These coins were inscribed with a legend that indicated that they were struck for Rome, but in style they closely resembled their Greek counterparts. They were rarely seen at Rome, to judge from finds and hoards, and were probably used either to buy supplies or pay soldiers.
The first distinctively Roman silver coin appeared around 226 BC. Classical historians have sometimes called these coins "heavy denarii", but they are classified by modern numismatists as quadrigati, a term which survives in one or two ancient texts and is derived from the quadriga, or four-horse chariot, on the reverse. This, with a two-horse chariot or biga which was used as a reverse type for some early denarii, was the prototype for the most common designs used on Roman silver coins for a number of years.
Rome overhauled its coinage shortly before 211 BC, and introduced the denarius alongside a short-lived denomination called the victoriatus. The denarius contained an average 4.5 grams, or 1⁄72 of a Roman pound, of silver, and was at first tariffed at ten asses, hence its name, which means 'tenner'. It formed the backbone of Roman currency throughout the Roman Republic and the early Empire.
The denarius began to undergo slow debasement toward the end of the republican period. Under the rule of Augustus (27 BC – AD 14) its weight fell to 3.9 grams (a theoretical weight of 1⁄84 of a Roman pound). It remained at nearly this weight until the time of Nero (AD 37–68), when it was reduced to 1⁄96 of a pound, or 3.4 grams. Debasement of the coin's silver content continued after Nero. Later Roman emperors also reduced its weight to 3 grams around the late 3rd century.
The value at its introduction was 10 asses, giving the denarius its name, which translates as "containing ten". In about 141 BC, it was re-tariffed at 16 asses, to reflect the decrease in weight of the as. The denarius continued to be the main coin of the Roman Empire until it was replaced by the antoninianus in the early 3rd century AD. The coin was last issued, in bronze, under Aurelian between AD 270 and 275, and in the first years of the reign of Diocletian.
Debasement and evolution
|267 BC||Predecessor||6.81 g||?||1⁄48 pound. Equals 10 asses, giving the denarius its name, which translates as "containing ten". The original copper coinage was weight-based, and was related to the Roman pound, the libra, which was about 325 g. The basic copper coin, the as, was to weigh 1 Roman pound. This was a large cast coin, and subdivisions of the as were used. The "pound" (libra, etc.) continued to be used as a currency unit, and survives e.g. in the British monetary system, which still uses the pound, abbreviated as £.|
|211 BC||Introduction||4.55 g||95–98%||1⁄72 pound. Denarius first struck. According to Pliny, it was established that the denarius should be given in exchange for ten pounds of bronze, the quinarius for five pounds, and the sestertius for two-and-a-half. But when the as was reduced in weight to one ounce, the denarius became equivalent to 16 asses, the quinarius to eight, and the sestertius to four; although they retained their original names. It also appears, from Pliny and other writers, that the ancient libra was equivalent to 84 denarii.|
|200 BC||Debasement||3.9 g||95–98%||1⁄84 pound.|
|141 BC||Debasement||3.9 g||95–98%||1⁄84 pound. Retariffed to equal 16 asses due to the decrease in weight of the as.|
|44 BC||Debasement||3.9 g||95–98%||Death of Julius Caesar, who set the denarius at 3.9 g. Legionary (professional soldier) pay was doubled to 225 denarii per year.|
|AD 14–37||3.9 g||97.5–98%||Tiberius slightly improved the fineness as he gathered his infamous hoard of 675 million denarii.|
|64–68||Debasement||3.41 g||93.5%||1⁄96 pound. This more closely matched the Greek drachma. In AD 64, Nero reduced the standard of the aureus to 45 to the Roman pound (7.2 g) and of the denarius to 96 to the Roman pound (3.30 g). He also lowered the denarius to 94.5% fine. Successive emperors lowered the fineness of the denarius; in 180 Commodus reduced its weight by one-eighth to 108 to the pound.|
|85–107||Debasement||3.41 g||93.5%||Reduction in silver content under Domitian|
|193–235||Debasement||3.41 g||83.5%||Several emperors (193–235) steadily debased the denarius from a standard of 78.5% to 50% fine. In 212 Caracalla reduced the weight of the aureus from 45 to 50 to the Roman pound. They also coined the aes from a bronze alloy with a heavy lead admixture, and discontinued fractional denominations below the as. In 215 Caracalla introduced the antoninianus (5.1 g; 52% fine), a double denarius, containing 80% of the silver of two denarii. The coin invariably carried the radiate imperial portrait. Elagabalus demonetized the coin in 219, but the senatorial emperors Pupienus and Balbinus in 238 revived the antoninianus as the principal silver denomination which successive emperors reduced to a less intrinsically valuable billon coin (2.60 g; 2% fine).|
|274||Double Denarius||3.41 g||5%||In 274, the emperor Aurelian reformed the currency and his denominations remained in use until the great recoinage of Diocletian in 293. Aurelian struck a radiate aurelianianus of increased weight (84 to the Roman pound) and fineness (5% fine) that was tariffed at five notational[clarification needed] denarii (sometimes called "common denarii" or "denarii communes" by modern writers, although this phrase does not appear in any ancient text). The coin carried on the reverse the numerals XXI, or in Greek κα (both meaning 21 or 20:1). Some scholars believe that this shows that the coin was equal to 20 sestertii[clarification needed] (or 5 denarii), but it is more likely that it was intended to guarantee that it contained 1⁄20 or 5% of silver, and was thus slightly better than many of the coins in circulation. The aureus (minted at 50 or 60 to the Roman pound) was exchanged at rates of 600 to 1,000 denarii, equivalent to 120 to 200 aurelianiani. Rare fractions of billion[clarification needed] denarii, and of bronze sestertii and asses, were also coined. At the same time, Aurelian reorganized the provincial mint at Alexandria, and he minted an improved Alexandrine tetradrachmon that might[clarification needed] have been tariffed at par with the aurelianianus.
The emperor Tacitus in 276 briefly doubled the silver content of the aurelianianus and halved its tariffing[clarification needed] to 2.5 d.c. (hence[clarification needed] coins of Antioch and Tripolis (in Phoenicia) carry the value marks X.I), but Probus (276–282) immediately returned the aurelianianus to the standard and tariffing[clarification needed] of Aurelian, and was the official tariffing until the reform of Diocletian in 293.
|755||Novus denarius (new penny)||Pepin the Short (r. 751–768), the first king of the Carolingian dynasty and father of Charlemagne, minted the novus denarius ("new penny"): 240 pennies minted from one Carolingian pound. So a single coin contained 21 grains of silver. Around 755, Pepin's Carolingian Reform established the European monetary system, which can be expressed as: 1 pound = 20 shillings = 240 pennies. Originally the pound was a weight of silver rather than a coin, and from a pound of pure silver 240 pennies were struck. The Carolingian Reform restored the silver content of the penny that was already in circulation and was the direct descendant of the Roman denarius. The shilling was equivalent to the solidus, the money of account that prevailed in Europe before the Carolingian Reform; it originated from the Byzantine gold coin that was the foundation of the international monetary system for more than 500 years. Debts contracted before the Carolingian Reform were defined in solidi. For three centuries following the Carolingian Reform, the only coin minted in Europe was the silver penny. Shillings and pounds were units of account used for convenience to express large numbers of pence, not actual coins. The Carolingian Reform also reduced the number of mints, strengthened royal authority over the mints, and provided for uniform design of coins. All coins bore the ruler's name, initial, or title, signifying royal sanction of the quality of the coins. Charlemagne spread the Carolingian system throughout Western Europe. The Italian lira and the French livre were derived from the Latin word for pound. Until the French Revolution, the unit of account in France was the livre, which equalled 20 sols or sous, each of which in turn equalled 12 deniers. During the Revolution the franc replaced the livre, and Napoleon's conquest spread the franc to Switzerland and Belgium. The Italian unit of account remained the lira, and in Britain the pound-shilling-penny relationship survived until 1971. Even in England the pennies were eventually debased, leaving 240 pennies representing substantially less than a pound of silver, and the pound as a monetary unit became divorced from a pound weight of silver. After the breakup of the Carolingian Empire pennies debased much faster, particularly in Mediterranean Europe, and in 1172 Genoa began minting a silver coin equal to four pennies. Rome, Florence, and Venice followed with coins of denominations greater than a penny, and late in the 12th century Venice minted a silver coin equal to 24 pennies. By the mid-13th century Florence and Genoa were minting gold coins, effectively ending the reign of the silver penny (denier, denarius) as the only circulating coin in Europe.|
|785||Penny||Offa, king of Mercia, minted and introduced to England a penny of 22.5 grains of silver. The coin's designated value, however, was that of 24 troy grains of silver (one pennyweight, or 1⁄240 of a troy pound, or about 1.56 grams), with the difference being a premium attached by virtue of the minting into coins (seigniorage). The penny led to the term "penny weight". 240 actual pennies (22.5 grains; minus the 1.5 grain for the seigniorage) weighed only 5,400 troy grains, known as a Saxon pound and later known as the tower pound, a unit used only by mints. The tower pound was abolished in the 16th century. However, 240 pennyweights (24 grains) made one troy pound of silver in weight, and the monetary value of 240 pennies also became known as a "pound". The silver penny remained the primary unit of coinage for about 500 years.|
|790||Penny||1.76g||95–96%||Charlemagne new penny with smaller diameter but greater weight. Average weight of 1.7 g, but ideal theoretical[clarification needed] mass of 1.76 g. Purity is from 95% to 96%.|
|c. 1527||Penny||1.58g||99%||Tower pound of 5400 grains abolished and replaced by the Troy pound of 5760 grains.|
|1158||Penny||92.5%||The purity of 92.5% silver (i.e. sterling silver) was instituted by Henry II in 1158 with the "Tealby Penny" — a hammered coin.|
|1500s||Penny||By the 16th century it contained about a third the silver content of a Troy pennyweight of 24 grains.|
|1915||Penny||The penny, now struck in bronze, was worth around one-sixth of its value during the Middle Ages. British government sources suggest that there has been an 8700% price inflation since 1914, or an average of 4.2% annually.|
Value, comparisons and silver content
|Marco Sergio Silo: 116–115 BC|
|Helmeted head of Roma||Galloping Equites holding a sword and a barbarian's head|
|Denarius: Sergio 1|
It is difficult to give even rough comparative values for money from before the 20th century, as the range of products and services available for purchase was so different. During the republic (509 BC–27 BC), a legionary earned 112.5 denarii per year (0.3 denarii per day). Under Julius Caesar, this was doubled to 225 denarii/yr, with soldiers having to pay for their own food and arms, while in the reign of Augustus a Centurion received at least 3,750 denarii per year, and for the highest rank, 15,000 denarii.
By the late Roman Republic and early Roman Empire (c. 27 BC), a common soldier or unskilled laborer would be paid 1 denarius/day (with no tax deductions), around 300% inflation compared to the early period. Using the cost of bread as a baseline, this pay equates to around US$20 in 2013 terms. Expressed in terms of the price of silver, and assuming 0.999 purity, a 1⁄10 troy ounce denarius had a precious metal value of around US$2.60 in 2021.
At the height of the Roman Empire a sextarius (546ml or about 2 1/4 cups) of ordinary wine cost roughly one dupondius (1⁄8 of a denarius); after Diocletian's Edict on Maximum Prices was issued in AD 301, the same item cost 8 debased common denarii – 6300% inflation.
Silver content plummeted across the lifespan of the denarius. Under the Roman Empire (after Nero) the denarius contained approximately 50 grains, 3.24 grams, or 1⁄10 (0.105ozt) troy ounce. The fineness of the silver content varied with political and economic circumstances. From a purity of greater than 90% silver in the 1st century AD, the denarius fell to under 60% purity by AD 200, and plummeted to 5% purity by AD 300. By the reign of Gallienus, the antoninianus was a copper coin with a thin silver wash.
In the final years of the 1st century BC Tincomarus, a local ruler in southern Britain, started issuing coins that appear to have been made from melted down denarii. The coins of Eppillus, issued around Calleva Atrebatum around the same time, appear to have derived design elements from various denarii such as those of Augustus and M. Volteius.
Even after the denarius was no longer regularly issued, it continued to be used as a unit of account, and the name was applied to later Roman coins in a way that is not understood. The Arabs who conquered large parts of the land that once belonged to the Eastern Roman Empire issued their own gold dinar. The lasting legacy of the denarius can be seen in the use of "d" as the abbreviation for the British penny until 1971. It also survived in France as the name of a coin, the denier. The denarius also survives in the common Arabic name for a currency unit, the dinar used from pre-Islamic times, and still used in several modern Arab nations. The major currency unit in former Principality of Serbia, Kingdom of Serbia and former Yugoslavia was dinar, and it is still used in present-day Serbia. The Macedonian currency denar is also derived from the Roman denarius. The Italian word denaro, the Spanish word dinero, the Portuguese word dinheiro, and the Slovene word denar, all meaning money, are also derived from Latin denarius. The pre-decimal currency of the United Kingdom until 1970 of pounds, shillings and pence was abbreviated as lsd, with "d" referring to denarius and standing for penny.
Use in the Bible
In the New Testament, the gospels refer to the denarius as a day's wage for a common laborer (Matthew 20:2, John 12:5). In the Book of Revelation, during the Third Seal: Black Horse, a choinix ("quart") of wheat and three quarts of barley were each valued at one denarius. Bible scholar Robert H. Mounce says the price of the wheat and barley as described in the vision appears to be ten to twelve times their normal cost in ancient times. Revelation thus describes a condition where basic goods are sold at greatly inflated prices. Thus, the black horse rider depicts times of deep scarcity or famine, but not of starvation. Apparently, a choinix of wheat was the daily ration of one adult. Thus, in the conditions pictured by Revelation 6, the normal income for a working-class family would buy enough food for only one person. The less costly barley would feed three people for one day's wages.
The denarius is also mentioned in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant & in Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37). The Render unto Caesar passage in Matthew 22:15–22 and Mark 12:13–17 uses the word (δηνάριον) to describe the coin held up by Jesus, translated in the King James Bible as "tribute penny". It is commonly thought to be a denarius with the head of Tiberius.
- Denarius of L. Censorinus, for the detailed description of a specific Roman denarius
- French denier
- Gold Dinar
- Ides of March Coin
- Macedonian denar
- Solidus (coin)
- Tribute penny
- Pay (Roman army)
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