Rome was founded by refugees fleeing the Trojan war. The poet Virgil tells the story of prince Aeneas and his band who fled Troy by boat as it fell to the Greeks. After many months and rough seas, they landed on the banks of the river Tiber. The men wanted to go back to sea, but the women persuaded them to stay. The women got their way. Given what Rome achieved later, it was probably a good decision – easy to say with hindsight, of course – although Virgil says it was not so much a conscious decision, as destined by the gods.
Another Roman founding story gives us the precise date on which the city was founded – 21st April 753 BC. The background is this. There was one King Amulius who deposed his brother to take the throne of Alba Longa. His brother’s daughter, Rhea Silva, meanwhile was raped by Mars, the god of war, and gave birth to twins, Romulus and Remus – demi-gods, no less, and also descendants of Aeneas. Fearing for his kingdom, King Amulius ordered they be drowned, but a she-wolf saved them and went on to rear them. When the twins were old enough, they came and dealt with the treacherous Amulius, restored their grand-father to the throne and founded the city of Rome.
Rome began as a kind of sanctuary for estranged young men, exiles and the unwanted. To bolster its population they took to kidnapping maidens from nearby kingdoms.
At this point in the story of Rome, coins barely existed in Italy or anywhere else. It was across the Mediterranean in Lydia (today’s Turkey), that the technology of coinage was first employed around 600BC, some 150 years after Romulus and Remus ‘founded’ Rome. Over the next few centuries coins would gradually spread across the Mediterranean. In Italy, the Etruscans were using coins before the Romans.
Rome ‘transitioned’, to use an awful modern word, from monarchy to republic in 509BC. The next five hundred years would see the Roman Republic fight a seemingly never-ending series of wars as its empire gradually expanded. Their enemies were Latins, Etruscans, Celts, Gauls, Samnites, eventually Carthaginians, Iberians, and Macedonians. First they took control of central Italy, then the south and into Sicily. From Northern Italy they took control of Provence. They expanded into Greece, Spain and North Africa. By 52BC, seven centuries after Romulus and Remus, the Romans had taken Britain.
By then Roman coinage was widespread and established. But the process was slow and gradual.
Salt was an essential commodity and reasonably fungible, so it also found use as money. In ancient Greece salt was traded for slaves. It’s thought the expression ‘not worth his salt’ – unworthy of his pay – has its roots here. Soldiers of the early Roman Republic in the fourth and probably fifth centuries BC would receive a handful of salt as pay – from where we derive the word, ‘Salary’.
This prized commodity, over which wars were fought, was part of the reason the Romans began building their great roads. The salt trade was both lucrative and essential, and they needed to get salt back to Rome to support its growing population. The Via Salaria was built to move salt from the pans at the mouth of the Tiber inland to Rome itself.
Sheep were also used as money, it seems, and the Latin word for money (pecunia) is thought to derive from the word for sheep (pecus). Irregularly shaped pieces of rough bronze, which needed to be weighed with each transaction, were also used, and this same bronze would make Rome’s first standardised coins.
The Republic started minting its own coins from about the third century. Rome seems to have been rather slow adapting coins compared to the rest of the Mediterranean, especially Greece and Asia Minor. The Romans were limited by the natural resources they had available. Silver and gold were scarce, though the bronze that made its first coins was abundant in central Italy. It seems silver coins were gradually devised for trade with the Greeks in Southern Italy.
As the Republic expanded, and access to silver grew, the silver denarius evolved and the denomination remained in circulation for 450 years. They were produced by ‘mint magistrates’, junior officials who choose the designs and legends, often advertising the officials’ families for political purposes.
But eventually Roman currency would be widely used throughout Europe, western Asia and northern Africa right into the Middle Ages. It would become the model for later currencies – the currencies of the Islamic and the European states during the Middle Ages and the Modern Era. Their names too derive from Rome. The Arabic dinar, for example, comes from the denarius. The British pound, the Italian lira, the French livre and Hispanic peso are all translations of the Roman libr.
* Dominic Frisby, author of Daylight Robbery – How Tax Shaped The Past And Will Change The Future, out now in paperback at Amazon and all good bookstores with the audiobook, read by Dominic, on Audible and elsewhere.