Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.3.32


Kenneth Harl, Coinage in the Roman Economy, 300 B.C. to A.D. 700. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. Pp. 533. ISBN 0-8018-5291-9.


Reviewed by Ronald Cluett, Classics and History, Pomona College, rcluett@pomona.edu.

The debate over the ideological significance of numismatic iconography is familiar to most classicists, if still unresolved. Less well known but of equal historical importance is the question of the place and function of coinage in the Roman economy. Many scholars have sought to minimize the importance of coinage to the operation of the Roman economy as a whole, for reasons ranging from the limited role of coinage in an underdeveloped agricultural economy to the social rather than commercial value of coinage as a medium of exchange in an 'embedded' society. Even many who do acknowledge an economic role for coinage concentrate on minting as an expression of fiscal policy (that is, as a means of meeting the government's financial obligations) rather than as a response to the commercial needs of the economy. Acceptance of any or some of these arguments does not necessarily diminish the value or interest of Roman coinage as evidence for particular economic or social phenomena, but it does deny coinage a central role in the economic life of the Roman people.

A very different picture emerges if one accepts the alternative hypothesis that coins were central both to Roman state policy and to the commercial life of the Roman empire. In this analysis, the history of Roman coinage as a fiscal instrument is part of the history of Roman imperialism. During the Republic, the expansion of Roman power outside of Italy provided the catalyst for the monetization of the Roman economy. Rome entered the First Punic War with "a rudimentary currency, few fiscal institutions, and no significant reserves of precious metal" (Harl, p. 27). And the financial burden imposed on the state by projects such as the construction of a Roman navy during the First Punic War was immense. Only the indemnities that flowed to Rome in the wake of victory could offset such expenses. The pattern would be repeated during the Second Punic War; ultimately, the revenues of empire would both finance further expansion and meet the expenses of administering the territories under Roman control. A stable currency was itself a product of successful imperialism, since both the mines which Rome ultimately controlled in the West and the tribute and spoils which poured in from the East provided the necessary quantities of precious metal to maintain a stable and pure currency. During the Principate, as we all know, the balance between the profits of conquest and the expenses of maintaining an empire shifted; new economic factors such as the practice of paying donatives and ambitious imperial building projects added to the expense side of the ledger without producing any compensating revenues. The result was not only inflation and devaluation of the currency, but ultimately the end of the "monetary unity of the Roman Empire" in the wake of the barbarian invasions of the fifth century (Harl, p. 181).

At the same time, the story of coinage in the Roman economy is also the story of the daily commercial lives of the various people and peoples under Roman rule, as they went about their business in the local markets of the Roman empire. This is most clearly seen in Asia Minor, where local civic coinage flourished through the middle of the third century A.D. There, coinage reflects many aspects of local economies, from practices of die-sharing between often far-flung communities (see K. Kraft, Das System der Kaiserzeitlichen Munzpragung in Kleinasien [Berlin, 1972]), to the presence of Roman troops in a given region and celebrations of imperial visits, such as the visit of the emperor Tacitus commemorated by the community of Perge in Pamphylia in 275 A.D., the last extant civic coinage of Asia Minor in the third century (Von Aulock 4759; SEG 1984 #1306; see I. Kaygusuz, EA 4 [1984], pp. 1-4; C. Roueche, Images of Authority [Cambridge, 1989], pp. 206-28). In Egypt, "economic growth" was in large part a response to "the stimulus of Roman peace" (Harl, p. 117); there, Tiberius and Claudius successfully imposed a fiduciary billon (alloy of less than 25% silver fineness) coin which remained stable for over two hundred years and served the commercial needs of a population of six million people. The clearest statement of the connection between Roman imperialism and local commerce, however, concerns Gaul. In the Pro Fonteio, Cicero states that "no Gaul ever does business independently of a citizen of Rome; not a denarius changes hands in Gaul without the transaction being recorded in the books of Roman citizens" (Pro Fonteio 5.11; translation from Harl, p. 66). In these and other regions of the Roman empire, Roman state policy and local commercial life were closely intertwined.

This is essentially the story which Kenneth Harl tells in his comprehensive survey of Coinage in the Roman Economy, 300 B.C. to A.D. 700. His makes clear his goal on the first page of his study: "This is an attempt to redress the balance by dealing with coins both as fiscal instruments of the Roman state and as the medium of exchange employed by the Roman public" (Harl, p.1). An initial chapter defends this more expansive view of the place of coinage in Roman economic life against the alternative perspectives outlined at the beginning of this review. Seven of the remaining eleven chapters trace the history of coinage in the Roman economy chronologically, from "The Monetization of Roman Italy, 500-200 B.C." through "The Loss of Roman Monetary Ways, A.D. 400-700". Four final chapters address various thematic questions: "Government's Aims and Needs", "Coins in the Cities and Markets of the Roman World", "Coins, Wages, and Prices", and "Roman Coins Beyond the Imperial Frontiers". Finally, approximately forty percent of the book consists of plates and appendices, including a glossary and extensive bibliography.

Some readers will be overwhelmed by the sheer volume and complexity of the one thousand years of minting activity with which Harl deals in the course of his chronological survey; and Harl is perhaps to be faulted for losing sight of the woods for the trees on occasion. Nonetheless, there is much to be learned from his study. Readers unfamiliar with concepts and problems in the study of numismatics will benefit not only from the glossary but from discussions of the interpretation of hoard evidence (pp. 11-6), of estimates of mine output (pp. 80-3), and of the conditions which prompted countermarking (pp. 84-5) or debasement (pp. 90-5), along with treatments of other issues in numismatics found throughout the text. Those already versed in such matters will appreciate the thoroughness not only of Harl's presentation but also of his notes and bibliography; for them, Coinage in the Roman Economy will serve as a one-stop reference on Roman numismatic history. In this regard, the organization of the bibliography by subjects is confusing: headings in italics mark different subject areas ("Metrology", "History of the Currency"), while upper-case lettering marks sub-sections within those areas; the various subject areas do not correspond to the chapters in Harl's main text, and the inexperienced reader with thus be forced to find her way through the nearly thirty pages of bibliography without external guideposts. Nonetheless, this is a minor quibble about a superb and exhaustive guide to a topic which deserves more attention from all who are interested not only in Roman imperialism but also in the commercial and civic life of the communities of the Roman empire.