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Currency and Inflation in Late Antiquity

Filippo Carlà

Although Late Antique monetary systems have been widely studied, scholarly attention has been concentrated mostly on the monetary reforms, such as Diocletian’s and Anastatius’, and much less on the functions and relevance of currency in daily life in the different regions of the Late Roman Empire. The aim of this paper is to analyze, first of all, the monetary structure of the Roman Empire(s) from the late 3rd to the 6th century CE, in particular underlining the genesis of a system of parallel currencies, in which gold and divisional stopped having a fixed exchange ratio. In this way, gold, which was circulated on the basis of its pure intrinsic value, became legally a ware, whose price (pretium) changed daily in terms of divisional units of value. Secondly, the consequences and connections of this monetary structure with price phenomena, and in particular inflation processes, will be analyzed, both in economic terms, and in discursive presentations. Indeed, prices in gold show over the centuries a strong fixity, when contrasted to the steady growth of the prices expressed in divisional currencies. This caused on the one side the discursive and rhetorical creation of a polarization gold-bronze, most notably in the anonymous work de rebus bellicis, which wrongly lead scholars to think that silver did not play a relevant role in currency anymore; on the other side, this generated forms of adaptation in daily life, and a series of political responses which move from special change in accountancy (as visible e.g. in the evolution of the so-called gleba senatoria, or in the development of the accountancy model nomismatia x para keratia y) to the introduction of new accountancy units and new coins, such as the tremissis or the so-called light-weight solidi. The paper will thus demonstrate the political and economic dimensions of currency and monetary politics, both as response to the on-going economic change and as a tool adopted in order to regulate and determine it, and therefore the reactive but still “programmatic” nature of Late Antique monetary policies.

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Inflation and Commodity-Based Coinages in the Later Roman Empire

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