I had read some years ago an article describing the decision of an emperor to deal with the empire's economic troubles be devaluating the currency. The devaluation occured by mixing silver with not so precious metals. That policy was continued by the successor emperors but in the end the only thing they managed to achieve was to cause a tremendous inflation. I am trying to find out infos about this incident, the time span in which it happened and the emperor that initiated it. Any info or links to books about this policy will be most welcome

  • Basic economic principle- "Inflation is a tax that nobody has to vote for". Debasement (effectively the same as inflation for specie currency) creates more money, giving the government more funds and more. Debasement happens all the time - there is no single event or period.
    – MCW
    Nov 15, 2016 at 15:55
  • The answer lies not in creating an inflation but forcing everyone in your "Empire" to find alternative methods of being paid. Horses became a powerful form of Money as a consequence. Emperors became weak. Legions quite often defeated. Nov 16, 2016 at 10:48
  • This may not be directly related to the question, but Diocletian's Edict on Maximum Prices is an interesting related thing.
    – taninamdar
    Nov 16, 2016 at 18:51

2 Answers 2


The correct term for this is Debasement of the currency. The Wikipedia article on Roman Currency has details.

To summarise, the basic coin was the denarius, introduced in 211BC. Its size and the amount of silver in it gradually shrank over time; debasement of the coins was a fairly continuous process. The exact reasons for it aren't clear, but shortages of precious metals, and inadequate state finances probably had a lot to do with it. Debasement usually increased when the empire was weak.

  • In the basement of the National Roman Museum - Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, behind a 3'-thick vault door, is a massive display of coins. You can track the fortunes of Rome by looking at the coins -- debased, back to high quality, debased again. Dec 11, 2017 at 20:02

I wanted to expand on my comment; the traditional formulation of the economic principle is "Inflation is a tax for which nobody has to vote." In an autocracy like the Roman Empire, the maxim would be slightly adjusted, "Debasement is a way of funding the government without generating opposition from strong stakeholders."

Debasement reduces the buying power of the individual and shifts that buying power to the state - it reduces the wealth of everyone who stores wealth in coin. Like most "flat" taxes, it is regressive and has a greater impact on the poor. Like most flat taxes, it is also easier for the wealthy and powerful to minimize the impact of the tax. (when debasement is imminent, shift wealth to non-coin assets such as land or art.)

Infographic summarizing Roman currency debasement - Note the graphic "Silver content of an individual denarius" - debasement occurred repeatedly and frequently. There was no single event.

Econtrader on currency debasement

  • This is far to modern a concept to be understood at that time. There was no paper money at the time so hard currency was simply very limited in supply. Greece's silver came from nearby Thrace whereas Rome's silver came from far away Spain (at least by the overland route.) So Rome was always in grave danger of having its physical monies not just debased but eliminated by any "barbarians" who might take Spain. This is certainly what Carthage tried but failed to do. Nov 16, 2016 at 19:29
  • The Carthaginians were in Spain before the Romans, not the other way around. Rome conquered Spain (south of the Ebro) only after driving out the Carthaginians in the Second Punic war; the Carthaginians in Spain were never after Rome's silver supply.
    – 0range
    Nov 21, 2016 at 22:15
  • 1
    Which concept are you referring to as being too modern to be understood at the time? If you refer to inflation, you are probably right. But the Romans certainly understood tax policy, the distribution of the tax burden and the possibility to cut costs by debasing the silver (Dinarius) and gold (Aureus) coins. (Although they likely did not anticipate the long term effects of currency debasement.)
    – 0range
    Nov 21, 2016 at 22:21

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