The third century AD marked an era of transition for the Roman Empire. The continuous debasement of coinage caused a high inflation as prices of commodities were adjusted to fit the new value of the minted currency. It was a period in which trust in the government’s monetary authority dropped. By the end of this century, the quality of the last issue of Alexandrian coinage under the old system had deteriorated to such an extent that the last tetradrachms produced were heavily reduced in weight (c. 7–8g) and diameter (c.18mm) and contained virtually no silver. After 296, the Empire now had a gold aureus at 5.45g, silver argentus at 3.4g, and three denominations of billon coins (10g the largest). The gold coinage underwent a further reduction to 4.5 during Constantine’s reign and was finally termed a solidus in 312. Silver coins ceased to be minted soon after the reforms and the monetary system of Egypt consisted of two metals.
During the same time period, archaeological and textual evidence point to both an increase in “illegal” coin production, manifested by hundreds of thousands of clay coin molds, and a shortage of precious metal supply, evidenced by papyrological evidence from Egypt. The absence of gold hoards or even single coin-finds of solidi in Egypt prior to the 340s further reinforces the view that the imperial authorities were suffering from a deficiency in precious metal. What did this mean for the highly monetized local economy? The fiduciary and quotidian nature of the bronze coinage during this period represented little, if any, importance to the imperial authorities; nonetheless, it was one of the main modes of exchange in market transactions in the Egyptian countryside. In this paper I will argue that the level of interest in minting small value currency by the Roman authorities varied depending on the type of coinage being imitated, since gold and bronze currency played different roles in the economy. This led to an underproduction by the Alexandrian mint and forced local authorities to find a way to supply themselves with the means to support daily transactions, which lead to a widespread manufacture of imitation coinages.
Inflation and Commodity-Based Coinages in the Later Roman Empire