Money in Ancient Rome
Updated: May 20
So if you travelled back in time 2,000 years then how would you buy things and what would they be worth?
The funny thing about economics is that all commodities change value at different rates (and directions). This is because of:
the demands of the market (what are people actually buying)
the provision of the market place (what/how much people are making/selling)
any technological advancements (like something that makes production or transportation quicker/cheaper therefore bringing the cost to the consumer down).
So let's have a look at the types of coins that the Roman's would have used for money...
Let's have a look at those coins in detail:
Quadrans (worth 1 quarter of an as)
Literally “a quarter (of an as)”, the quadrans, also known as “teruncius”, was the lowest value coinage in imperial Rome. It had 3 dots representing 3 "unciae" implying that it was worth 3 twelfths of an as. "Uncia" means 1 twelfth, a lot of Roman measurements were divided into twelve so it had it's own special name, therefore "3 unciae" means 3 twelfths. Unlike other coins, the quadrans never had the emperors face minted on to it.
This coin has the bust of Hercules on the obverse and the prow of a ship on the reverse. Both sides have 3 dots representing three unciae.
Semis (worth 1 half of an as)
A semis, literally meaning half (of an as), was a small bronze coin that would usually have an S or 6 dots on it (representing an hypothetical 6 unciae in weight). 1 semis would buy you a cera (wax writing tablet).
This coin has a winged horse on both sides with an S under its belly, the symbol for semis (or half).
As (worth 2 semissis, or 4 quardrans)
The as was originally a bronze, then subsequently copper, coin. It's value changed as well going from being worth 1 tenth of a denarius to 1 sixteenth.
This coin has a picture of Janus, the two-faced god of beginnings and ends, on the obverse and the prow of a ship on the reverse. In Roman mythology Janus welcomed Saturn, who arrived in a ship after being overthrown by his son Jupiter.
Dupondius (worth 2 asses)
The dupondius was a large brass coin. At the height of the Roman empire 1 dupondius would buy a loaf of bread or 1 sextarius of wine (that's 1 pint or half a litre in modern measurements).
This coin has a picture of Didius Julianus on the obverse who was emperor for 9 weeks in the year of five emperors (AD 193). On the reverse the letters S C stand for Senatus Consulto. Bronze coins were often valued higher than their material worth so the S C letters verified their commercial value.
Sestertius (worth 4 asses)
Originally a small silver coin, sestertius means “two and one half” as it was originally worth a quarter of a denarius (worth 10 asses) and therefore it was worth 2 ½ asses. However, by the time Julius Caesar was dictator the sestertius was made of brass and, being the denarius was now worth 16 asses, the sesterius' value had increased to being worth 4 asses.
On the obverse this coin shows the profile of Gaius Valens Hostilianus who became emperor in AD 250 but died of the plague the next year at age 21.
Denarius (worth 16 asses)
The denarius was the main silver coin used in Roman society. Goods and services were valued/measured in denarii (as long as the value was over 1 denarius). Its name means “ten of” as it was originally worth 10 asses, although by 140 BC the as was re-tariffed at 16 to the denarius.
This coin has a picture of the head of the goddess Roma on the obverse. On the reverse there is a mounted cavalryman holding a sword and the head of an enemy.
Aureus (25 denarii)
The aureus (meaning golden) was a pure gold coin worth 25 denarii. It was about the same size as the denarii but heavier due to the denser metal.
This coin features Septimius Severus on the obverse. On the reverse you can make out "LEG. XIIII. GEM. M. V.", which stands for "Legion XIIII Gemina Martia Victrix" the legion that proclaimed him emperor in AD 193