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Currency and the Collapse of the Roman Empire

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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.

Roman Debasement

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 Consequences

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.

The Effects

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.

The Collapse

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.

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The World’s Gold and Silver Coin Production vs. Money Creation

In 2019, the value of global money creation was over 500 times higher than the world’s gold and silver coin production combined.

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World's Gold and Silver Coin Production

Global Gold & Silver Coin Production vs. Money Creation

Note: Data has been updated to correct a previous calculation error pertaining to Japanese Yen money supply.

Both precious metals and cash serve as safe haven assets, intended to limit losses during market turmoil. However, while modern currencies can be printed by central governments, precious metals derive value from their scarcity.

In this infographic from Texas Precious Metals, we compare the value of the world’s gold and silver coin production to global money creation.

Total Production Per Person, 2019

We calculated the value of global currency issuance in 2019 as well as precious metal coins minted, and divided by the global population to get total production per person.

Throughout, global money supply is a proxy based on the 5 largest reserve currencies: the U.S. dollar, Euro, Japanese Yen, Sterling Pound, and Chinese Renminbi.

2019 ProductionOuncesDollar ValueDollar Value Per Person
Global Gold Coins7,204,982$10.9B$1.42
Global Silver Coins97,900,000$1.8B$0.23
Global Money Supply$4.3T$556.33

All numbers are in USD according to exchange rates as of December 31 2019. Gold and silver values are based on the 2019 year close price of $1,510.60 and $17.90 respectively.

The value of new global money supply was 390 times higher than the value of gold coins minted, and 2,400 times higher than silver coins minted.

Put another way, for each ounce of minted gold coin, the global money supply increased by more than $593,000.

Change in Annual Production, 2019 vs. 2010

Compared to the start of the decade, here’s how annual production levels have changed:

 20102019% change
Global Silver Coins (oz)95,900,00097,900,0002.1%
Global Gold Coins (oz)6,298,3317,204,98214.4%
Global Money Supply (USD)$2,936,296,692,440$4,268,993,639,92645.4%

Annual increases to global money supply have increased by half, far outpacing the change in the world’s gold and silver coin production.

Even more recently, how has production changed during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The COVID-19 Effect

In response to the global pandemic, central banks have enacted numerous measures to help support economies—including issuing new currency.

The global money supply increased by more than $6.8 trillion in the first half of 2020. In fact, the value of printed currency was 930 times higher than the value of minted gold coins over the same timeframe.

Investors may want to consider which asset is more vulnerable to inflation as they look to protect their portfolios.

Want to learn more? See the U.S. version of this graphic.

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Visualizing U.S. Money Supply vs. Precious Metal Production in the COVID-19 Era

Amid trillions in COVID-19 stimulus, this graphic compares new U.S. dollars printed to U.S. precious metal coin production.

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U.S. Precious Metal Coin Prduction

U.S. Precious Metal Coin Production in the COVID-19 Era

Gold and silver have played an important role in money throughout history. Unlike modern currencies, they can’t be created out of thin air and derive value from their scarcity.

In the COVID-19 era, this difference has become more prominent as countries print vast amounts of currency to support their suffering economies. This graphic from Texas Precious Metals highlights how the value of U.S. precious metal coin production compares to U.S. money creation.

Year to Date Production

In this infographic, we have calculated the value of money supply added as well as bullion minted, and divided it by the U.S. population to get total production per person. Here’s how the January-September 2020 data breaks down:

 Total (Ounces)Dollar ValueDollar Value Per Person
U.S. Gold Ounces826,000$1.6B$4.79
U.S. Silver Ounces22,261,500$544M$1.65
U.S. Money Supply$3.4T$10,250.16
U.S. Debt$3.8T$11,578.36

Gold and silver dollar values based on Oct 5, 2020 spot prices of $1,915.93 and $24.47 respectively.

The value of new U.S. money supply was more than 2,100 times higher than the value of new gold minted. Compared to minted silver, the value of new U.S. money supply was over 6,000 times higher.

Production Per Day, Per State Over Time

Here’s how production has changed on a per day, per state basis since 2010:

 20102020 YTD (Jan-Sep)Min-Max Production, 2010-2019 
Minted Gold Coins 78oz61oz12oz-78oz 
Minted Silver Coins 1,945oz1,631oz899oz-2,633oz 
U.S. Dollars$19M$255M$19M-$50M 

Year to date, U.S. precious metal coin production is within a normal historical range. If production were to continue at the current rate through December, gold would be above historical norms at 81 ounces and silver would be within the normal range at 2,175 ounces.

The issuance of U.S. dollars tells a different story. Over the last nine months, the U.S. has already added 400% more dollars to its money supply than it did in the entirety of 2019—and there’s still three months left to go in the year.

A Macroeconomic View

Of course, current economic conditions have been a catalyst for the ballooning money supply. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. government has issued over $3 trillion in fiscal stimulus. In turn, the U.S. Federal Reserve has increased the money supply by $3.4 trillion from January to September 2020.

U.S. Money Supply

Put another way, for every ounce of gold created in 2020 there has been $4 million U.S. dollars added to the money supply.

The question for those looking for safe haven investments is: which of these will ultimately hold their value better?

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