Under Roman Republic one unskilled worker typically made one sestertius a day, and it was enough to keep up a modest life in ancient Rome back in the day. But I found data about Rome started to decrease the silver content of the coins denarii and sestertius, so they could mint it out of more common metals like bronze. So the value decreased significally.

Here is a quote

Like coinage of today, Ancient Rome's coins represented portions of larger denominations. The As, the basic unit, functioned like our penny. And like our penny, through inflation it experienced a loss of buying power. During the time of the Roman Republic, you could buy a loaf of bread for ½ As or a liter of wine for one As. A year's pay for a commander in the Roman army around 133 B.C. was 10-2/3 Asses, by Augustus' rule (27 B.C.-A.D. 14) 74 Denarii, and by the reign of Septimus Severus (A.D. 193-211), it rose to 1,500 Denarii.


So until Augustus the coin was relatively valuable, but in like 200 years it's value decreased significantly, which means roughly 2000% devaluation altogether.

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As the chart shows, the Denarius finally lost most of it's value between 200-320 AD.

Note: the two sources are a little bit contradicting in dates, however whichever is true, the question still valid.

I listened a podcast from Stefan Molyneux (historian-philosopher) who blamed the debasing of currency as a main factor in fall of Rome. Is it accurate statement? Was it a symptom or cause?

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    How would you measure such a hypothesis? (not to mention that "cause of the fall of the Roman Empire" is a member of the set of mystery questions like, "The heart of a Dominican", "The mind of a Jesuit", "the number of third order Franciscans", "The true price of medical treatment", "The definition of 'postmodern'") - contemplation of these questions in the absence of beer & friends is negatively correlated with sanity. – Mark C. Wallace Aug 5 '16 at 13:35
  • 1) 74 denarii at an interest rate (inflation) of 1.5% annually during 200 years is slightly less than 1500 denarii (moneychimp.com/calculator/compound_interest_calculator.htm), which makes these numbers way less alarming (of course, any direct comparation with the current economy is highly opinable, one could argue for example that the Romans did not have the kind of economic growth to justify/sustain that inflation level). – SJuan76 Aug 5 '16 at 16:38
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    2) Correlation and causation. Was inflation the cause of the fall of the Roman Empire, or a consequence of the cause? One could argue that the cause of the inflation was the debasing of the coins, and the cause of that the need to pay (bribe) more and more the army, and the need to bribe the army caused by the lack of formalized succession rules, and that was caused by... – SJuan76 Aug 5 '16 at 16:45
  • @SJuan76 you would be right if the devaluation was linear, but it was relatively slow in the first and second century, and the most of it happened in the third century. Check this chart: rmki.kfki.hu/~lukacs/ROMLAS_files/image008.gif I will improve my question with it – CsBalazsHungary Aug 8 '16 at 6:50
  • Ahem, cough; Uh, can you say "Western" Roman Empire instead? The Roman Empire fell in 1453 due to Ottoman invasion. – axsvl77 Aug 8 '16 at 7:41

It is fair to say it was a contributing factor. Often currency devaluations would take place to fund responses to other crisis. I.E. You are losing in a war in Parthia and need more troops but the treasury is looking thin. No problem! Sprinkle a little silver into those new gold coins...no one will notice, at least not right away.

Devaluations would slowly impact the confidence of the currency and add frictions to trade. In the Western Roman Empire this was less of a problem as there was no possible replacement to this currency. In the later history of the Eastern Empire consistent devaluations resulted in a switch by the European economy away from roman currency to florins. This has a significant impact on the Eastern Empires economy.

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    Currency devaluations didn't matter much because even the Roman Empire let alone the Roman Republic had an endless supply of silver coming from Spain and an endless supply of land in pretty much every direction although North Africa in particular. There were occasional slave revolts (Spartacus being the most famous) but Romans lived well actually...equestrian orders, urban gentry (Senators), palatial country estates (can't remember the name of the island West of Rome). Food revolts were quite common but that's because the living in Rome was so good...the human race just poured in. – user14394 Aug 5 '16 at 14:37
  • @user14394 actually free bread policy was very essential part of emperors' politics in late Roman history. They bribed the poor to get popularity, and people came to Rome for this early type of welfare program, they got bread and they could visit Circus, if they made any little money, they could enjoy relatively easy life compared to the countryside or outside of Roman Empire. Stefan Molyneux blames this free food policy as one source of problems since they had to produce resource this unfunded liability, which meant more taxation for those who produced something. – CsBalazsHungary Aug 8 '16 at 7:02
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    @user14394 Your assertion that currency devaluations didn't matter much is absolutely incorrect. By the time the 3rd century crisis rolled around, the hyperinflation occurring in the currency contributed to a total breakdown in trade with people moving back to the barter system as specie was unreliable. – Stuart Allan Sep 14 '16 at 13:10

I'd say that inflation was the main cause of the of the fall of the Roman Empire. Except that the inflation itself was caused by something else. Every time an emperor died (and very few died of natural causes) there was a struggle for power and the army knew that they could simply kill any emperor that didn't give them what they wanted. Emperors had to keep giving more and more money to the army to appease them, so they just created more coins with less valuable metal in them. This lead to hyperinflation and the collapse of their currency. Then what really destroyed ancient Rome was around 300 AD the government started to only accept gold when collecting taxes, while still forcing everyone to use their bronze currency. So regular farmers had to pay tax on their land in gold but they didn't have any gold. So half the time they would try to sell their land or just abandon it and you had tons of fertile land just went fallow. Or they would fall into debt and become slaves to the few rich landowners who either had gold or had ways of getting around paying taxes. Or they would illegally join the mob of people who had nothing taxable. By the time the barbarians invaded there was very little left of roman society. Mostly everyone was a slave, and if you had any land you weren't allowed to sell it or leave. The invasion didn't actually change that much, just which feudal lord was in charge of you. Most of roman wealth was already plundered before any invaders arrived. Rome kept sending out all its gold by hiring barbarian mercenaries who only accepted gold for payment. You couldn't force them to use Roman currency or they would just leave. So why isn't this a more common thing in history where an army is too large and powerful that the king has to has to tax everyone to death to keep the army happy? Mostly because people in an army usually care about their country. In ancient Rome there were so many provinces and different people that were accepted as citizens just to collect taxes on them, and the army only cared about itself, it would frequently just pillage its own people.

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    Hi Curtis and welcome to History SE. Your answer would be much improved if you used paragraphs and added sources. – Lars Bosteen Mar 19 at 23:06

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