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In the vast majority of cases, Roman writers and government officials recorded amounts of money (money donated, value of items bought/sold, amount given in wills, etc.) in sesterces. Given that the sesterce was such a rarely-minted and rarely-used coin, why did the Romans choose to use that denomination for virtually all monetary records?**

*Admittedly, this is largely based on personal research: I have never seen a single mention of a sesterce coin found in Pompeii, Herculaneum, or a Roman British hoard, nor mention of the sesterce on a menu or graffiti. I'm sure there must have been some, but I've never come across it even once. The coinage in use in all those locations seemed to be the aureus, denarius, and as exclusively, despite widespread contemporaneous use of sesterces in records.

  • The answer I've always assumed is that the sesterce coin was indeed used extensively in very early Roman society, perhaps even as the primary coin, but was replaced in popularity by other denominations over time. To maintain consistency, however, official documents continued to use the old denomination even when the actual coin was practically unused. It would be nice to confirm or deny this theory, though. – Haydentech Jan 11 at 17:50
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    Your assumption that the Sestertius was a "... rarely-minted and rarely-used coin" is incorrect. The Wikipedia article on the Sestertius has some details and history of the coin. For examples found in the UK, you might try searching the Portable Antiquities Scheme database. – sempaiscuba Jan 11 at 17:54
  • @sempaiscuba I stand corrected about "rarely-minted", but all the evidence still does point to it being unusually rarely used in comparison to other coins of the era. The site you linked records a find of 1 (!) sesterce which has a hole for stringing onto a necklace, and 9 other coins which might be serterces but are so worn that they are unidentifiable. – Haydentech Jan 11 at 18:36
  • No it doesn't. The evidence is more-or-less exactly what you would expect for a coin where the value of the metal in the coin eventually exceeded its face value. – sempaiscuba Jan 11 at 19:59
  • Also, fwiw, when I search for sestertius on the PAS database it returns 11,464 results. This does include a number where the value of the coin was uncertain (i.e. where it might be an As, or dupondius), and a number where the coin had been cut into pieces but it shows that the coin is by no means rare! (Note the observation about the spelling of Sestertius in the Wikipedia article.) – sempaiscuba Jan 11 at 20:06
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While in this case plenty of sesterces were actually coined, in general you might ask why the Carolingian Empire (and most of Europe for several more centuries) used librae in its accounts or why tribute to Athens was stated in talents, neither of which was ever coined. Uncoined units of account are a convenience that avoids the need of coins for monetary transactions and that cannot readily be debased. See David Graeber's Debt: The First 5000 Years for an extensive discussion. Units of account that do not correspond to coins are a normal feature of human civilizations, not something requiring a special explanation.

Also of interest if not directly relevant, since the sesterce was a quarter of a denarius, and a farthing is a quarter of the old penny (which was a denarius), a sesterce is literally a farthing. Since Roman soldiers around 1AD were paid about 900 sesterces a year, that translates to 18s9d, or about $1 a year. That gives you a vague sense of inflation over the last 2000 years. In the US Army a private first class with 10 years experience makes about $27000 per year. On the other hand, you can buy a lot more with $27000 today than with 900 sesterces back then. For purchasing military labor prices may have gone up 25000x, but for many goods it's more like 500x (with a wide range, obviously).

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    It is interesting that in the standard British money notation £sd, £ stands for librae, d for solidi and d for denarii studyenglishtoday.net/british-money.html though the Brits never minted librae, and probably did not mint solidi or denarii for the last 1600 years. The system is out of use for 30 years, but £ is still used:-) – Alex Jan 11 at 19:22
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    @Alex Yes. The LSD (and in French it's livre, sou, denier) system wasn't just in Britain. They imported it from the continent. It took a while. Even in the reign of John they were still using marks as a unit of account (one mark was the equivalent of thirteen and four). – C Monsour Jan 11 at 19:27
  • @Alex Also, they did mint plenty of denarii....that's what the medieval silver penny was. Though it was useful to keep the names separate in case some king started minting debased pennies. – C Monsour Jan 11 at 19:38
  • Much like special drawing rights today: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_drawing_rights – James Jan 13 at 18:03
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The penny or cent remains a unit of account despite being eliminated in Canada and approaching uselessness in other Western Nations such as the U.S. and U.K.

For financial transactions the basis point, a mere 1/100th of a cent, remains the most common unit in which prices and interest rates are denominated.

Basis points (BPS) refers to a common unit of measure for interest rates and other percentages in finance. One basis point is equal to 1/100th of 1%, or 0.01%, or 0.0001, and is used to denote the percentage change in a financial instrument.

Using a unit of account significantly smaller than one's currency eases the maintenance of precision in large transactions without recourse to fractions. This was particularly important in ancient financial systems with the understanding of fractions being both weaker and much less widespread than today.

  • I don't know. The ancients going back at least 4000 years and probably longer did fractions in base 60, which is where minutes and seconds come from. I think it's a safe bet that literate ancients were comfortable enough with fractions for practical account-keeping. After all, the sociology major had yet to be invented.... – C Monsour Jan 11 at 19:32
  • @CMonsour: Being capable of making change in farthings, pence, shillings, pounds, and guineas doesn't make one an expert in fractions. Neither does being able to mark time in hours, minutes and seconds make one an expert in fractions. When everything has a ready-made least common multiple the calculations all fall into place readily. – Pieter Geerkens Jan 11 at 19:44
  • The ancient world simply divided their units into sixtieths if they didn't have enough precision with their units, whether of time, account, or something else. If minutes and seconds weren't good enough they used thirds (1/60 of a second). True, they couldn't make an accounting entry for precisely one-seventh of a denarius, but neither can you! They could at least divide any amount of money by 3, despite not having a multiple of 3 fingers. :) – C Monsour Jan 11 at 20:05
  • @CMonsour: Re: "they couldn't make an accounting entry for precisely one-seventh of a denarius, but neither can you!" Nonsense - you're out of your lane! I can track all my accounting entries in base-7 and have exact sevenths. Seven is even a prime number to guarantee that all modulo arithmetic operations are in a field rather than a mere ring. – Pieter Geerkens Jan 11 at 20:51
  • My point is that no unit of account is base 7. There's a reason computers use integers to handle accounting. Floating point has run-off error. So, yes, you literally can't track precise aevenths in your accounts in any way acceptable to most counterparties. If you like bargaiing with yourself, you can do whatever you like. – C Monsour Jan 11 at 22:59

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