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Mark Lehman's NJCL Lecture Print E-mail
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Mark Lehman's NJCL Lecture
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So, the supposedly "silver" coinage continued to be debased until by the early 260s AD, the antoninianus had been reduced to a very small, and usually crude, billon or copper coin with a silver wash.  Later, even the silver wash was abandoned. Once the antoninianus had for all practical intents and purposes been reduced to a base metal coin, around 240 or so, production of the larger, standard bronze denominations that were supposed to be its fractions ceased, and so did the output of almost all of the once-multitudinous, local, provincial issues, often with Greek inscriptions, from hundreds of mint-cities throughout the fringes of the empire. 

So, The Romans were faced with one terrible fiscal crisis after another resulting in runaway inflation, because all their silver and gold was going east to pay for their expensive, luxurious tastes, and also to pay for an even more expensive defense budget because the empire was continuously beset with pretenders and contenders for the throne from within, and hostile "barbarian" neighbors all wanting a piece of the Roman pie from without.  They didn't have a John Kenneth Galbraith or Alan Greenspan to tell them how to run a deficit budget, either, so their solution was to debase and downsize the coinage - unfortunately the government did it without asking anyone else if THEY thought it was a good idea, so public confidence in the value of the money was eroded - the social contract had been unilaterally breached - and consequently, the coins became almost worthless.  Aurelian, who came along in about 270 AD restored some modicum of order and somewhat improved the coinage, but soon after his death it deteriorated again, along with the political situation. 


16. Later Antoniniani - Aurelian, Probus, House of Carus

later ants.
Later Antoninianii

The Late Roman Period, 250 - 498 AD.  

17. Diocletian through Constantine

Folli: Diocletian to Constantine

So, when Diocletian came along and restored order again at the end of the 3rd century, his reforms scrapped what little was left of the old Imperial coinage system in favor of a new, empire-wide coinage based on a large, silver-washed billon coin.  A new system of mintmarks - relatively easy to understand even today, identified what mint-city the coins came from even though the designs were now the same throughout the empire.  One of the only names we have for the myriad of bronze coins from the late Roman era is "Follis" - what Diocletian called his new denomination - and it's not even clear if that denomination-name "Follis" meant the coin, or a whole bag-full of them.  The very last of the local, provincial issues with Greek inscriptions were finally abolished, and the new, standard Imperial denominations and types with all inscriptions in Latin were now issued simultaneously and exclusively from the centralized imperial mints in a system that spanned the ancient world in an arc that extended from London, through Europe and Asia, all the way to Alexandria in Egypt.   Unfortunately, the cycle of debasements soon resumed, and the Follis rapidly declined in weight and silver content.  So, By the time of Constantine the Great and his extended, dysfunctional family, the real circulating money was once again just about all small token bronze coins, occasionally with a silvery wash, but more often, just bronze.