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Debasement and Inflation in the western Empire during the third century CE

Daniel Hoyer

Debasement and Inflation in the western Empire during the third century CE

This paper presents the results of a study tracking the debasement of imperial currency during the third century CE, concentrating on the denarius and sestertius. These were the most commonly used denominations in the Roman imperial monetary system and also the ones which were subject to the most severe manipulations in terms of the purity of the metal used to produce the coins as well as the weights to which they were minted. In this paper I establish that fiscal, military, and political problems which plagued much of the Empire at this time led to the debasement of these coins which, in turn, caused wide-spread inflation. This debasement and its economic effects, however, were not felt uniformly throughout the Empire, but there were regional differences in the timing and intensity of the problems. Admittedly, the idea that any part of the Roman world experienced inflation during the imperial period is itself controversial, as is the notion that there would be significant regional patterns in economic performance. Nevertheless, as I will demonstrate in the talk, this is precisely what the evidence reveals.

In the presentation, I will show the results of statistical analyses run on a database of over 21,000 denarii and sestertii collected from various regions in the western Empire which I have built. By employing statistical analysis on this numismatic material, I am able to track with a great deal of precision the rate of debasement undergone by these denominations in the different regions. These analyses illustrate that the coinage which circulated in northern Gaul and in Britain, areas that experienced several military conflicts and political upheaval during the third century, was significantly lighter than that which circulated in more peaceful regions such as Africa and Spain. Further, I connect these findings to broader historical patterns, arguing that the debasement experienced in northern Europe led to a period of inflation which had devastating effects on economic productivity and fiscal security in that region. Conversely, Africa and Spain suffered less severe inflation and, therefore, were able to maintain relatively active (?) regional economies until the last decades of the century. These are both novel findings and have tremendous ramifications for our understanding of this tumultuous period in Roman history.

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Inflation and Commodity-Based Coinages in the Later Roman Empire

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