From Adrian Goldsworthy's How Rome Fell: "Civil war remained a common event, ...the economy collapsed, as successive emperors massively devalued the coinage to pay for their wars."

Other sources say the emperors debased the coinage to pay soldiers for wars for the empire (i.e., not for their own civil wars): "This income was not enough, however, to cover the entire cost of the new army [made in response to the new Persian threat], and in the late third century emperors also pursued two further strategies. First, they debased the coinage..." (The Fall of the Roman Empire by Peter Heather)

So did the emperors debase the coinage for their own civil wars, or for wars against external enemies?

"By 268 there was only 0.5 percent silver in the denarius." (mises.org/daily/3663 - transcript of Professor Joseph Peden's lecture)

Did such huge debasement occur as a result of the emperors' need to fund troops for their civil wars, or for foreign wars? It seems that it was likely a combination of both, but which played a bigger part in causing the coinage to eventually be reduced to less than 1% silver content?

If it is hard to say, are there any examples (hopefully more than a few, and at least fairly significant) of certain emperors debasing the coinage mainly due to their civil war?

  • Not all foreign wars did much for the empire. Some wars are better left unfought, even if successful. (For example, wasting a whole treasury on conquering a rebellious patch of desert). May 26, 2013 at 21:36
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    There are some pointers here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…, but this subsection needs to be expanded and sourced better... May 26, 2013 at 21:40
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    Perhaps different reasons apply to different emperors as they faced different circumstances ...
    – Drux
    May 27, 2013 at 7:31
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    Note also that the crisis of the 3rd centruy proliferated the emperors, with all contenders having (unequal) access to the same, and diminishing, pool of resources. It would have been a wonder if they had not debased the currency under the circumstances. May 27, 2013 at 8:16
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    Edited the question to make it more specific.
    – Sally
    May 27, 2013 at 16:54

2 Answers 2


Look into the "Crisis of the Third Century." You'll note that the date given in the Perden lecture is towards the end of this period.

The best answer is probably "both" and "neither."

During the ~ 50 years of the Crisis Rome had 26 Emperors: most of them were generals who established their rule through force. Thus your answer is civil war.

But while the various Emperors killed each other, they neglected the borders, and raids from Sassinads, Goths, Vandals, etc were frequent. The Emperors then needed even more troops to defend the borders. Thus your answer is war for empire.

But the reality is the two are related to each other. Foreign powers raided the Empire because they believed they could get away with it: the Empire appeared divided and distracted. But if an Emperor cannot protect his people from outside forces, he loses the respect of his people and his soldiers, and the likelihood of a coup increases.

So the two effects re-enforce each other - internal discord leads to external attacks leads to internal discord. A simple answer - such as '[Civil or Foreign] Wars forced the Emperors to devalue the currency' is almost certain to be incomplete.


Nobody knows for sure since there was no annual budget or even centralized government accounting.

However, it seems that the necessity to pay soldiers in the context of usurpation and civil wars was the deciding factor. During the late IInd century, it had become standard practice to pay a bonus to (loyal) troops on the accession of a new emperor; the so-called donativum. Initially, these payments were relatively modest and also quite infrequent as the regins were relatively long. But as the pace of usurpation started to pick up, these bonuses became nearly yearly events and the amounts also went up as usurpers tried to outbid each other.

In my view, the practice of the donativum and the endless civil wars were part of the process which nearly drove the Roman Empire into the ground: the transformation of the Principate into a Military Dictatorship gone mad. With every general in the Empire being a potential emperor, but also at the same time a potential victim of summary execution within the next 6 months if he chose the wrong side, it is a small wonder that financial discipline collapsed entirely.

  • This is flagrantly false. There most certainly was a centralized government accounting department in Rome. One of the reasons the empire lasted so long as it did despite centuries of incompetence was highly developed bureaucracies that raised taxes and managed monies. Mar 21, 2016 at 21:25

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