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The Construction of Currency and Roman Imperialism

Colin Elliott

Some of the most successful studies of the development of money in ancient Greek societies have been emic in nature (von Reden 1995, Kurke 1999, Seaford 2004). The situation with Roman money, however, is starkly different, as the numismatic record along with other bodies of evidence, is routinely mined for indicators of economic or monetary “performance” (the size of the money supply, prices, purchasing power, etc) or to confirm/falsify the application of various monetary theories. Hand in hand with this “economic imperialism” (Maucourant 2012) has been the tendency to reduce the use and function of Roman currency into a unifying “Roman monetary system” – an economic monolith which is supposed to have been one of several homogenizing forces acting upon a multi-cultural Mediterranean. Few investigations of currency use in the Roman world have been interested in thinking about the way in which cultural contexts shaped the meaning of currencies in the individual societies of the Roman world. One notable exception is Joris Aarts’ (2005, as well as Aarts and Roymans 2009) investigations, which have affirmed the complex matrix of social and cultural meanings into which local people groups near the Rhine incorporated Roman currency. It is likely that future emic studies of currency-use in the Roman world will multiply the cultural frameworks of meaning into which Roman currency was incorporated.

In order to illustrate the value of emic studies of money-use in the Roman world, my own case study draws upon texts from the Nile Valley which offer insight into the ways in which culture and currency interacted in the region. My isolation of Roman Egypt is not accidental. Not only are emic studies of the area aided by a relative abundance of textual and archaeological evidence, but scholars have long known that both Roman and Ptolemaic overseers imposed a kind of fiat currency system; one which included strict controls on the uses of money. However, even within a system with supposedly rigid controls, a variety of sources – private contracts, loan receipts and dowries – show that people continued to use “unofficial” currencies (gold, silver, clothing, wine, wheat, etc.) as both media of exchange and stores of value. Some of these items were local surplus goods; others had consumption value; still others featured embedded cultural values which can only be understood with reference to local cultural framework. In short, my analysis confirms that official currency did not dominate this area as many scholars presume; rather, it was incorporated into pre-existing cultural patterns, symbols and routines, many of which were predicated on a social and economic “memory” of alternative moneys. If indeed, as I argue, meanings for money apart from those demanded by officialdom endured and perhaps even flourished in the region, then it seems all the more likely that that conceptions of money in the Roman world varied sharply across cultures, geographic regions, social classes and over time.

Session/Panel Title:

The Anthropology of Roman Culture: Models, History, Society

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