Currency And The Collapse Of The Roman Empire

Tyler Durden's picture

At its peak, the Roman Empire held up to 130 million people over a span of 1.5 million square miles.

Rome had conquered much of the known world. The Empire built 50,000 miles of roads, as well as many aqueducts, amphitheatres, and other works that are still in use today.

Our alphabet, calendar, languages, literature, and architecture borrow much from the Romans. Even concepts of Roman justice still stand tall, such as being “innocent until proven guilty”.

So, as Visual Capitalist's Jeff Desjardins' asks, how could such a powerful empire collapse?


Courtesy of: The Money Project


The Roman Economy

Trade was vital to Rome. It was trade that allowed a wide variety of goods to be imported into its borders: beef, grains, glassware, iron, lead, leather, marble, olive oil, perfumes, purple dye, silk, silver, spices, timber, tin and wine.

Trade generated vast wealth for the citizens of Rome. However, the city of Rome itself had only 1 million people, and costs kept rising as the empire became larger.

Administrative, logistical, and military costs kept adding up, and the Empire found creative new ways to pay for things.

Along with other factors, this led to hyperinflation, a fractured economy, localization of trade, heavy taxes, and a financial crisis that crippled Rome.

Roman Debasement

The major silver coin used during the first 220 years of the empire was the denarius.

This coin, between the size of a modern nickel and dime, was worth approximately a day’s wages for a skilled laborer or craftsman. During the first days of the Empire, these coins were of high purity, holding about 4.5 grams of pure silver.

However, with a finite supply of silver and gold entering the empire, Roman spending was limited by the amount of denarii that could be minted.

This made financing the pet-projects of emperors challenging. How was the newest war, thermae, palace, or circus to be paid for?

Roman officials found a way to work around this. By decreasing the purity of their coinage, they were able to make more “silver” coins with the same face value. With more coins in circulation, the government could spend more. And so, the content of silver dropped over the years.

By the time of Marcus Aurelius, the denarius was only about 75% silver. Caracalla tried a different method of debasement. He introduced the “double denarius”, which was worth 2x the denarius in face value. However, it had only the weight of 1.5 denarii. By the time of Gallienus, the coins had barely 5% silver. Each coin was a bronze core with a thin coating of silver. The shine quickly wore off to reveal the poor quality underneath.

The Consequences

The real effects of debasement took time to materialize.

Adding more coins of poorer quality into circulation did not help increase prosperity – it just transferred wealth away from the people, and it meant that more coins were needed to pay for goods and services.

At times, there was runaway inflation in the empire. For example, soldiers demanded far higher wages as the quality of coins diminished.

“Nobody should have any money but I, so that I may bestow it upon the soldiers.” – Caracalla, who raised soldiers pay by 50% near 210 AD.

By 265 AD, when there was only 0.5% silver left in a denarius, prices skyrocketed 1,000% across the Roman Empire.
Only barbarian mercenaries were to be paid in gold.

The Effects

With soaring logistical and admin costs and no precious metals left to plunder from enemies, the Romans levied more and more taxes against the people to sustain the Empire.

Hyperinflation, soaring taxes, and worthless money created a trifecta that dissolved much of Rome’s trade.
The economy was paralyzed.

By the end of the 3rd century, any trade that was left was mostly local, using inefficient barter methods instead of any meaningful medium of exchange.

The Collapse

During the crisis of the 3rd century (235-284 A.D), there may have been more than 50 emperors. Most of these were murdered, assassinated, or killed in battle.

The empire was in a free-for-all, and it split into three separate states.

Constant civil wars meant the Empire’s borders were vulnerable. Trade networks were disintegrated and such activities became too dangerous.

Barbarian invasions came in from every direction. Plague was rampant.

And so the Western Roman Empire would cease to exist by 476 A.D.

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kill switch's picture



The parallels are amazing.... But we have a kinship...The storm is comming.

knukles's picture

Read Cicero.  Also read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
Only the names and dates are different.

KesselRunin12Parsecs's picture
KesselRunin12Parsecs (not verified) knukles Feb 19, 2016 7:59 PM

Washington DC


One weird thing that's not immediately apparent on any of these esoteric WDC maps is that there's a direct line that connects the shrine of the National Basilica (of Catholic University), thru the White House, & to the Pentagon...


Also, these WDC lines connect even further south, to Alexandria,VA, where, the city building of Alexandria is a replica of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, (one of the 7 ancient wonders of the world)...


Lighthouse of Alexandria


Alexandria, VA


Rusty Shorts's picture

Washington DC was originally called Rome. 


In 1663, the property that would become the Capitol's site was inscribed in the Maryland property records as “Rome,” its owner a man named Francis Pope. The southern boundary of this property was shaped by Tiber Creek named for the river that runs through Rome, Italy, the Tiber.


Just like Rome Italy

Washington DC, or Rome Maryland may sit on 7 hills as well

Washington D.C. has 7 hills, whose names are: Capitol Hill, Meridian Hill, Floral Hills, Forest Hills, Hillbrook, Hillcrest, and Knox Hill.

Luc X. Ifer's picture

BS. There is science why societies fail not lunacy. It is known for long but guess why is not spread? Because lazy mind people like you find comfort in steak, beer and stories not factual information and self education.

Why do societies collapse/fail

Durrmockracy's picture
Durrmockracy (not verified) Luc X. Ifer Feb 20, 2016 12:34 AM

If you hold cash, you are helping slow the money velocity.  You are stopping gold & silver from ascending to their natural position in the economic order.  You are the enemy. 

Stop playing 'the victim' that was just thrown haplessly into this system.  It relies on your consent and willingness.'s picture

Soooooo, bring on the negative rates???

silverer's picture

The original scary picture of where things are:

The Collapse of Complex Societies


All Risk No Reward's picture

Secrets in Plain Site...

This kind of thing becomes important inasmuch as the Debt-Money Monopolists can manifest their vision and belief systems based on their ability to finance anything.

While some may consider Revelations in the Bible to be fiction, the Debt-Money Monopolists can finance its vision into reality - all it takes is for them to believe that following it gives them ever more power to implement the tyranny elucidated in that Biblical chapter.

Keep your head on a swivel...  Reality if truly stranger, much stranger, than fiction.

Yen Cross's picture

 I'm a Simpleton Knuks. I'm grateful for the blue sky, and my new spatula, from the ninety nine cent store.


 Dont get me started on the pork chops seasoned in honey teriyaki marinade, with fresh slices of orange, from my own tree.


Minions's picture
Minions (not verified) Yen Cross Feb 19, 2016 8:16 PM

There's also the "behind the scenes" shenanigans that cause Empires to collapse. So it was for the Roman Empire and so it will be for the US >>>

phaedrus1952's picture

Excellent point, Minions.

Virtually all detailed descriptions of this era repetitively use the phrase 'palace intrigues' as various groups from the military, aristocracy, commercial classes vied viciously to maintain their share of the diminishing collective wealth.


One reason for the large number of figurehead leaders (emperors).

CC Lemon's picture

How the hell do you grow pork chops on your tree?

STP's picture

GMO, that's how! I've got a fried chicken tree, that's just starting to blossom.  It smells just like a KFC.

BigRedRider's picture

Do you have a cunt-tree too?

logicalman's picture

A friend of mine was in a used book store a few years ago and ran across a school history book from 1955. Knowing I'm a bit of a history nut and the fact that it was published the year of my birth, he spent a whole 50¢ and bought it for me.

Turned out it was a teacher's copy - still had notes scribbled in margins and on a few bits of paper between the pages.

Reading the section regarding Rome, I was struck by the fact that in almost every case, the word Rome could be replaced with USA.

The book was from back when there was still some education left in the school system.



nmewn's picture

"The more laws, the less justice." - Cicero

duo's picture

Obama's one pleasure barge away from being "our" Caligula.


Hillary will be our Nero.

Reichstag Fire Dept.'s picture


Very interesting book of yours! I think the take-away on the Roman/USA comparison is that once you start down the road of currency debasement it sets your country on a financial trajectory to failure.

It looks like there were hard limits to the Roman Empire at a certain point. They ran out of peoples to conquer and their plunder to seize. They were only able to expand to a certain size, large as it may have been they couldn't get any larger.

Once approaching those hard limits, money debasement began in earnest. I've seen it said here on this site by a few people - "Is this our WWI moment" - I would ask, "When were our ""Roman Moments""? Was that the QE or the ending of the gold standard on August 15th, 1971? ...or the 1933 gold seizure?!

Is the destruction of the oil price cause or effect? What was the Roman's "oil" and what became if it?

Hell...maybe they couldn't afford the road maintenance costs after they built too many roads to nowhere?!

Calmyourself's picture

I tire of the "hard limits" argument we are not even close to limits yet.  It has merit as an argument your just too soon..

phaedrus1952's picture

@ logicalman

The same effect may be prompted by a reading of the first chapter (30 pages) of the book 'How the Irish Saved Civilization'.

Starts out describing how hundreds of thousands of barbarians crossed the Rhine, overwhelming the Roman army by their sheer numbers.


The cultural descent was eerie in its present-day similarities.

Gab Timov's picture

If only they had liquid robots.

The Future of Money is Liquid Robots, by Rick Searle, FEB 2016


Joe Cool's picture

If you had 100 silver 1 oz. rounds in 476 AD?  That would be how much today?

knukles's picture

Today 1 oz silver = $15.31  Thus, 100 = $1,531
Methinks you mean what would it have been worth back then, no?
How many slaves would it have bought?  Or politicians? 

LetThemEatRand's picture

Yeah, but what if you had bought 100 shares of Apple in 476 AD?  Imagine what that would be worth today.

willwork4food's picture

Don't be silly. They only had 100 shares outstanding then.

LetThemEatRand's picture

Touche.  I hear Buffet got his start buying a 25% position from Caligula.  Soros thought it was a fad.

813kml's picture

Avoid Caligula's naked shorts.

Mr. Universe's picture

4.5g was a days wage for a skilled craftsman.  That would equal 1 American Silver eagle for 7 days of labor. Today a skilled craftsman @ $40/hr would be cheap here in SFbay.  According to my calculations that should make Silver worth somewhere in the area of $2240. Time to feed the fish.

SheepRevolution's picture

There are way more workers now chasing the roughly same amount of gold/silver. So 2240 is still probably way too small figure....

Napiersabre's picture

476AD didn't exist, its part of the Dark ages that have been fabricated

quadraspleen's picture

"Yeah, but what if you had bought 100 shares of Apple in 476 AD? Imagine what that would be worth today."

A fair whack less than they were two years ago?

Soul Glow's picture

Judas sold out Jesus for 30 pieces.  I htink that says a lot.

e_goldstein's picture

Sweet, I can afford my own pantheon!

Budnacho's picture

Remember truly go-out in need to be buried in a tomb with all your PM's and worldly Pharoh...


Suddenly....Nevada has purpose!


Get a couple valleys....some excavators, some dudes in skirts that chant...a few guards....yeah, ...we could make it work...a new Necropolis....just minutes from downtown Vegas!



TheReplacement's picture

According to the article that would be a months wages.

TheProcinctu's picture

Which seems more realistic?


Judas betrayed Jesus for                $200?    $15,000?    $750,000?
Does a plot of land in the city cost    $200?    $15,000?    $750,000?
should an ounce of silver be worth   $15.40?    $1,000?    $50,000

further explanation of these numbers are found within the link....  HERE  

detached.amusement's picture

every bit as interesting would be how much the council of nicea was paid to deny the existence of the gospel of judas

Reichstag Fire Dept.'s picture

The author tells us how much it's worth. One danarius could purchase one days labour of a skilled tradesman/craftsman.

So, ballpark, best guess, they made about US$1.oo/day to US$1.5o/day depending of their hours of work.

Beam Me Up Scotty's picture

How come todays liberals are clamoring for a $15 per HOUR minimum wage then?  Thats 8x 15 = $120 per DAY.  Seems a bit higher than $1.50 per day.  So much for a "days work for a days pay."  So todays poor are yesterdays rich then??

TheReplacement's picture

How many countries can brag about how fat their poor are?

logicalman's picture

Look at it the opposite way.

6.8g of silver was a day's wage for a Roman craftsman - that's about 1/5 Troy.

What does a plumber charge per hour - multiply by 8.

1 Troy ounce of silver should, by this calculation, be worth a 40 hour week for a plumber.

Numbers are roughly rounded - it's Friday and I just got home from the local bar.

I'll let anyone with a recent plumber's bill continue with the math from here.



jaxville's picture

  Why don't you consider the value of work related to 90% silver coin?  That far more accurately reflects the value of silver since it cost far less to produce silver in 1964 than it did in 64 AD. Consider that the cost of most goods fell dramatically as technology improved productivity.

  Granted that a certain amount of inflation was masked by production of silver coin (1962-1964) that was subsidized by the government mint.

  I think the most accurate gauge of silver's real value is what it purchased in the mid to late 1950s.  Most civilized nations had circulating silver silver coins at that time as well.

detached.amusement's picture

why dont you consider the value of all those paper claims

SmedleyButlersGhost's picture

I'm going to put it out there - what is the difference between a slave and a politician? (I realize the outfits can be comical). Thank you in advance for your insight.

LetThemEatRand's picture

Slaves insist their name is not Toby, whereas politicians are happy with Barry?  Wait, bad example.

TheReplacement's picture

A leader is a slave to the people.

A politician is a slave to money and power.

Not all slaves are created equal.

Joe Cool's picture

Silver has lots of catching up to do in any historical comparison....100 1 oz. silver coins would have been a fortune in Rome......

Antifaschistische's picture

a 4.5 gram coin was worth a days wages.   That's .15 oz. 

if let's say a days wage today is $150.   $150 = 4.5 grams   then one oz would equal $666.66 dollars in today's money.

....hows that for you boys who say in historical terms an oz of gold will always just buy a suit.