Currency and the Collapse of the Roman Empire
Currency and the Collapse of the Roman Empire
The Money Project is an ongoing collaboration between Visual Capitalist and Texas Precious Metals that seeks to use intuitive visualizations to explore the origins, nature, and use of money.
At its peak, the Roman Empire held up to 130 million people over a span of 1.5 million square miles.
Rome had conquered much of the known world. The Empire built 50,000 miles of roads, as well as many aqueducts, amphitheatres, and other works that are still in use today.
Our alphabet, calendar, languages, literature, and architecture borrow much from the Romans. Even concepts of Roman justice still stand tall, such as being “innocent until proven guilty”.
How could such a powerful empire collapse?
The Roman Economy
Trade was vital to Rome. It was trade that allowed a wide variety of goods to be imported into its borders: beef, grains, glassware, iron, lead, leather, marble, olive oil, perfumes, purple dye, silk, silver, spices, timber, tin and wine.
Trade generated vast wealth for the citizens of Rome. However, the city of Rome itself had only 1 million people, and costs kept rising as the empire became larger.
Administrative, logistical, and military costs kept adding up, and the Empire found creative new ways to pay for things.
Along with other factors, this led to hyperinflation, a fractured economy, localization of trade, heavy taxes, and a financial crisis that crippled Rome.
The major silver coin used during the first 220 years of the empire was the denarius.
This coin, between the size of a modern nickel and dime, was worth approximately a day’s wages for a skilled laborer or craftsman. During the first days of the Empire, these coins were of high purity, holding about 4.5 grams of pure silver.
However, with a finite supply of silver and gold entering the empire, Roman spending was limited by the amount of denarii that could be minted.
This made financing the pet-projects of emperors challenging. How was the newest war, thermae, palace, or circus to be paid for?
Roman officials found a way to work around this. By decreasing the purity of their coinage, they were able to make more “silver” coins with the same face value. With more coins in circulation, the government could spend more. And so, the content of silver dropped over the years.
By the time of Marcus Aurelius, the denarius was only about 75% silver. Caracalla tried a different method of debasement. He introduced the “double denarius”, which was worth 2x the denarius in face value. However, it had only the weight of 1.5 denarii. By the time of Gallienus, the coins had barely 5% silver. Each coin was a bronze core with a thin coating of silver. The shine quickly wore off to reveal the poor quality underneath.
The real effects of debasement took time to materialize.
Adding more coins of poorer quality into circulation did not help increase prosperity – it just transferred wealth away from the people, and it meant that more coins were needed to pay for goods and services.
At times, there was runaway inflation in the empire. For example, soldiers demanded far higher wages as the quality of coins diminished.
“Nobody should have any money but I, so that I may bestow it upon the soldiers.” – Caracalla, who raised soldiers pay by 50% near 210 AD.
By 265 AD, when there was only 0.5% silver left in a denarius, prices skyrocketed 1,000% across the Roman Empire.
Only barbarian mercenaries were to be paid in gold.
With soaring logistical and admin costs and no precious metals left to plunder from enemies, the Romans levied more and more taxes against the people to sustain the Empire.
Hyperinflation, soaring taxes, and worthless money created a trifecta that dissolved much of Rome’s trade.
The economy was paralyzed.
By the end of the 3rd century, any trade that was left was mostly local, using inefficient barter methods instead of any meaningful medium of exchange.
During the crisis of the 3rd century (235-284 A.D), there may have been more than 50 emperors. Most of these were murdered, assassinated, or killed in battle.
The empire was in a free-for-all, and it split into three separate states.
Constant civil wars meant the Empire’s borders were vulnerable. Trade networks were disintegrated and such activities became too dangerous.
Barbarian invasions came in from every direction. Plague was rampant.
And so the Western Roman Empire would cease to exist by 476 A.D.
About the Money Project
The Money Project aims to use intuitive visualizations to explore ideas around the very concept of money itself. Founded in 2015 by Visual Capitalist and Texas Precious Metals, the Money Project will look at the evolving nature of money, and will try to answer the difficult questions that prevent us from truly understanding the role that money plays in finance, investments, and accumulating wealth.
Charted: 30 Years of Central Bank Gold Demand
Globally, central banks bought a record 1,136 tonnes of gold in 2022. How has central bank gold demand changed over the last three decades?
30 Years of Central Bank Gold Demand
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Did you know that nearly one-fifth of all the gold ever mined is held by central banks?
Besides investors and jewelry consumers, central banks are a major source of gold demand. In fact, in 2022, central banks snapped up gold at the fastest pace since 1967.
However, the record gold purchases of 2022 are in stark contrast to the 1990s and early 2000s, when central banks were net sellers of gold.
The above infographic uses data from the World Gold Council to show 30 years of central bank gold demand, highlighting how official attitudes toward gold have changed in the last 30 years.
Why Do Central Banks Buy Gold?
Gold plays an important role in the financial reserves of numerous nations. Here are three of the reasons why central banks hold gold:
- Balancing foreign exchange reserves
Central banks have long held gold as part of their reserves to manage risk from currency holdings and to promote stability during economic turmoil.
- Hedging against fiat currencies
Gold offers a hedge against the eroding purchasing power of currencies (mainly the U.S. dollar) due to inflation.
- Diversifying portfolios
Gold has an inverse correlation with the U.S. dollar. When the dollar falls in value, gold prices tend to rise, protecting central banks from volatility.
The Switch from Selling to Buying
In the 1990s and early 2000s, central banks were net sellers of gold.
There were several reasons behind the selling, including good macroeconomic conditions and a downward trend in gold prices. Due to strong economic growth, gold’s safe-haven properties were less valuable, and low returns made it unattractive as an investment.
Central bank attitudes toward gold started changing following the 1997 Asian financial crisis and then later, the 2007–08 financial crisis. Since 2010, central banks have been net buyers of gold on an annual basis.
Here’s a look at the 10 largest official buyers of gold from the end of 1999 to end of 2021:
|Rank||Country||Amount of |
Gold Bought (tonnes)
|#7||🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia||180||3%|
The top 10 official buyers of gold between end-1999 and end-2021 represent 84% of all the gold bought by central banks during this period.
Russia and China—arguably the United States’ top geopolitical rivals—have been the largest gold buyers over the last two decades. Russia, in particular, accelerated its gold purchases after being hit by Western sanctions following its annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Interestingly, the majority of nations on the above list are emerging economies. These countries have likely been stockpiling gold to hedge against financial and geopolitical risks affecting currencies, primarily the U.S. dollar.
Meanwhile, European nations including Switzerland, France, Netherlands, and the UK were the largest sellers of gold between 1999 and 2021, under the Central Bank Gold Agreement (CBGA) framework.
Which Central Banks Bought Gold in 2022?
In 2022, central banks bought a record 1,136 tonnes of gold, worth around $70 billion.
|Country||2022 Gold Purchases (tonnes)||% of Total|
Türkiye, experiencing 86% year-over-year inflation as of October 2022, was the largest buyer, adding 148 tonnes to its reserves. China continued its gold-buying spree with 62 tonnes added in the months of November and December, amid rising geopolitical tensions with the United States.
Overall, emerging markets continued the trend that started in the 2000s, accounting for the bulk of gold purchases. Meanwhile, a significant two-thirds, or 741 tonnes of official gold purchases were unreported in 2022.
According to analysts, unreported gold purchases are likely to have come from countries like China and Russia, who are looking to de-dollarize global trade to circumvent Western sanctions.
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