Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.09.39
Constantina Katsari, The Roman Monetary System: the Eastern Provinces from the First to the Third Century AD. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. x, 304. ISBN 9780521769464. $99.00.
Reviewed by Clare Rowan, Goethe University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
It is an ambitious aim to provide a synthesis of the Roman monetary system in the East during the first three centuries AD. In spite of the title, however, the book focuses largely on the coinage of the third century: those looking for a detailed discussion of earlier periods will be disappointed. Throughout the work, which derives from the author's doctoral thesis, Katsari uses economic theory and comparative history to draw broader conclusions about the economy and the use of money in the Roman Empire. In employing this methodology, and in analysing coins from numerous excavations, Katsari demonstrates the potential for research in this area. But unfortunately Katsari's use of the East to draw conclusions about the entire Empire, and her unsophisticated use of the ancient material, mean that her broader conclusions remain unconvincing.
Katsari begins with an outline of the various types of numismatic evidence available: coin hoards, excavation coins, and coins preserved in local museums. This is all explained in a clear manner, accessible to the non-specialist. The use of local museum holdings as a representative sample of coins in circulation is a highly controversial methodology that could have used further justification. Here the situation is compounded by the fact that the author was unable to obtain permission to publish these coins. Consequently throughout the book conclusions are drawn from data not contained within the work, and the reader is directed to the author's doctoral thesis, which is not readily available. Katsari outlines her intention to gain an idea of the volume of coin production from these different sets of data. Absent from the methodological discussion is the problem of attrition: coins naturally fall out of circulation over time, and so later contexts will naturally contain fewer coins from earlier periods. The problem this causes for the estimation of coin production volume, and possible methods for overcoming the problem, are not adequately addressed.
In the following chapter, "Planning the financial policy of the Roman state", Katsari identifies the increased military budgets of the third century as a reason behind an increased production of silver coinage in this period. Though soldiers did receive a pay raise under Severus, Katsari's exploration of this theme takes the ancient textual evidence too much at face value: at one point the controversial HA Severus Alexander is quoted as evidence that praetorian prefects in this period were given senatorial rank, allowing the author to conclude "that the political (and probably also economic) power of the army increased substantially" (p.41). Katsari identifies this increased military expenditure in the silver coins found in archaeological excavations in the East of the Empire: there are a greater number of third century silver coins per year found at excavations in 'military zones', which Katsari interprets as an increase in production volume. The charts that detail this increase are at times difficult to read (see Chart 2 on p.44), and nowhere are we told how many coins this sample consists of, and what types of silver coins are included (denarii, drachms, tetradrachms, or all combined?). Though the author states that only excavations with over 20 coins were included (pp.26-7), a sample of 20 silver coins is less convincing than a sample of several hundred or thousand, particularly since the formula used by Katsari is only valid if the sample is over 200.1
Similarly no explanation is given of the contexts of these coin finds (do they come from graves, from marketplaces, from houses?). In some cases one wonders whether the specific archaeological context might have influenced the data. For example, the site of Dura Europos does demonstrate an increased amount of silver coinage lost per year from the reign of Severus (p.47), but the city was besieged and then dramatically captured in the mid third century. This has naturally left a large quantity of coinage from the third century in the destruction layers, and a higher rate of silver loss and non-recovery; it does not automatically represent an increased production volume at the Roman mint. Other factors, like monetary reform, and the decreasing silver purity of coinage may also have radically affected the archaeological coin record (p.109).
Katsari then goes on to detail other expenditures and incomes of the imperial government which may have resulted in the production or circulation of coin. The table on p. 68 charting the average time span of silver hoards shows interesting regional and chronological differentiation, which Katsari connects to the recall and reissue of coinage by the Roman government. Katsari concludes that non-military government expenditure was probably larger than has been assumed, but the evidence as it is presented does not really allow quantification of this idea.
In "Trimetallism and bimetallic laws" Katsari explores the possible effects of the debased silver currency of the third century on gold aurei. She argues that the pattern of gold aurei circulation changed in the third century: payment in gold appears to become a special honour, less gold is hoarded, and increasing amounts of aurei are found outside the boundaries of the Roman Empire. Katsari argues that the debased silver currency resulted in a gold aureus that was undervalued, leading people to treat the coin as bullion and to sell it outside the Empire for profit. The idea, based on comparative historical situations, is an interesting one, and goes some way to explaining the presence of gold aurei in India and Barbaricum in this period. Noticeably absent from this discussion were the enormous third century gold hoards of Egypt (Karnak, c. 1200 aurei, and Abukir, c. 600 aurei), perhaps a result of the author's focus on the East of the Empire (Northern Balkans, Greece, Asia Minor and Syria).
In the fourth chapter Katsari turns to a consideration of the bronze currencies of the East. She uses hoards, site finds and numismatic catalogues to suggest that the production of bronze also increased in the first half of the third century AD. The use of the last source (numismatic catalogues) for such a study is extremely controversial and needs more justification than the author provides. The charts demonstrate very different situations in different cities, and again it is not clear whether the bronzes included are from provincial mints, from the mint of Rome, or both (e.g. Chart 12 on p.115). Katsari then explains the quantity theory of money and its applicability to the situation in the third century. The Pergamos and Haydere hoards are used to demonstrate a change in circulation pools in this period, with denarii being replaced by antoniniani. The latter selection is a poor example: the Haydere hoard was dispersed on the market, and today we have fewer than half the original coins. The hoard has a strange composition compared to others in the region, and in fact is probably two separate finds.2 These problems are not explained to the reader.
Katsari then turns to a consideration of the Mylasa inscription, which deals with the problem of civic small change. Katsari argues that the increased production of silver in the third century required an increased production of bronze coins to match. The failure of earlier Severan emperors to produce large numbers of bronze meant that it fell upon the cities of the East to produce their own small change, resulting in the increased number of civic mints seen under Septimius Severus. Nonetheless, Katsari argues, adequate supplies of small change seem to have remained a problem in the third century. This is a purely economic interpretation of civic coinage, in contrast to the more culturally embedded interpretations that have featured in scholarship to date.3 Katsari then proposes a new restoration of the Mylasa inscription. I leave judgement on this to epigraphic experts.
Visibly absent from the entire discussion in this section is Buttrey's earlier work on small change in the West in the third century.4 It has long been recognised that before the reign of Severus Alexander, the Severan emperors do appear to have produced a smaller amount of bronze coinage. But as Buttrey has demonstrated, large amounts of Antonine bronzes meant that there was still an adequate amount of small change available, and since the drop in imperial bronze production appears to have begun under Commodus, it cannot be connected to the debased silver coinage under Septimius Severus. Overall this is a problem throughout the book: inadequate attention is paid to the situation in the West in devising broad ideas that are applied to the entire Empire, and the work does not adequately deal with the fact that coins could circulate well after the date they were struck.
Katsari then goes onto suggest that the billon antoniniani struck in the later third century actually functioned as small change after the termination of imperial bronze production under Aurelian (p. 154). This statement is false: bronze production in imperial mints continued well after Aurelian's reign. Katsari connects the drop in civic bronze production in the later third century to a larger decrease in civic benefactions that began as early as the Severan period (p.153): this seems to contradict her earlier economic approach to civic coinage. Moreover, the large output of inscriptions and civic building programmes under the Severans suggests that civic benefactions remained strong in this period.
Chapter 5 examines the textual evidence to explore the mechanisms by which coin moved through the Empire, and the degree of economic integration that might be traced. Katsari argues for the existence of different monetary circulation pools, which reflected the different trade routes of merchants. The evidence is unconvincing in this regard (perhaps because the data cited were not reproduced in the book). Katsari could have strengthened her case if these circulation 'pools' were matched by other 'pools' of data like pottery distribution, etc. But the broader implications for the distribution of other archaeological material are not discussed. Katsari's theory is further developed in Chapter 6, where she explores the use of bronze coinage, and suggests that merchants also used this currency, since 'trade' cities demonstrate a wider variety of different bronzes than 'non-trade' cities (p. 228-32). The theory seems compromised by Palmyra's relatively monotone bronze coinage. Katsari uses this to suggest that Palmyra and other cities with little variety in small change were more isolated commercially. This seems to contradict all other evidence that attests to Palmyra's importance as a trading hub with the East.5
Katsari concludes by suggesting that we adopt a perspective on the Roman monetary system that falls somewhere between metallism (in which a coin is connected to its metallic value) and chartalism (in which the coin is connected to state power), since both the state and the market played an important role in the Roman currency system. She terms this compromise 'Fiscal Metallism'. Overall the book demonstrates the potential of comparative history and economic theory to better understand coinage in the Roman Empire, but the discussion is let down by the problematic use and presentation of the material. The appendix of excavation and coin hoard publications will be of great use in future research. The production quality is excellent.
1. J. Casey, (1986). Understanding Ancient Coins. London: 89.
2. R. Ashton, (1991). "The Haydere hoard and other hoards of the mid-third century from Turkey", in Recent Turkish Coin Hoards and Numismatic Studies, ed. C. S. Lightfoot. Oxford: 94.
3. e.g. K. Harl, (1987). Civic Coins and Civic Politics in the Roman East AD 180-275. Berkeley; C. Howgego, V. Heuchert, et al., (eds.) (2005) Coinage and Identity in the Roman Provinces. Oxford.
4. Buttrey, T. V. (1972) "A hoard of sestertii from Bordeaux and the problem of bronze circulation in the third century A.D." American Numismatic Society Museum Notes 18: 33-58.
5. R. Stoneman, (1992). Palmyra and Its Empire. Ann Arbor: 31-79