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When Sovereignty is not enough: Money Supply in 4th-Century CE Egypt

Irene Soto

Institute for the Study of the Ancient World

The political turmoil that characterized the Roman state during the 3rd century CE strongly affected the economic stability of the empire. The continuous debasement of coinage caused high inflation as commodity prices were adjusted to fit the new value of the minted currency and its diminished precious metal content. Subsequently, trust in imperial currency declined almost completely throughout the provinces. Even in Egypt, a province which had continued to function under a closed currency system since the conquest by Augustus in 30 BCE, papyrological evidence from the 260s orders bankers to accept the newly minted imperial coinage instead of the older ones which had a higher precious metal content.

            By the end of this tumultuous century, Diocletian, the new emperor, instituted drastic Empire-wide economic and political reforms that were meant to stabilize the economy. One of these major reforms was the institution of new coinage and the introduction of Egypt into the new currency system that the rest of the Empire utilized. The effect that this reform had on the production of the Alexandrian mint, the only “official” mint in Egypt is unclear. Archaeological evidence points to a high number of bronze nummi throughout the province, hinting at a continuous output. However, 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, apparent in papyrological evidence. Furthermore, when looking beyond the bronze coinage, the picture changes. 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 this 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 could have 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.

The large-scale quantity of these imitation coinages questions their “clandestine nature” as well as the role of the state in both supplying coinage and controlling the purity of the currency in circulation. What can we say about the sovereignty of a state and its monetary system when tolerated imitative coinage of low intrinsic value make a functioning monetary economy possible, in part, by privately minted coinage?

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Sovereignty and Money (Joint AIA-SCS Panel)

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