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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 Most Powerful Reserve Currencies

Here are the reserve currencies that the world’s central banks hold onto for a rainy day.

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The World’s Most Powerful Reserve Currencies

When we think of network effects, we’re usually thinking of them in the context of technology and Metcalfe’s Law.

Metcalfe’s Law states that the more users that a network has, the more valuable it is to those users. It’s a powerful idea that is exploited by companies like LinkedIn, Airbnb, or Uber — all companies that provide a more beneficial service as their networks gain more nodes.

But network effects don’t apply just to technology and related fields.

In the financial sector, for example, stock exchanges grow in utility when they have more buyers, sellers, and volume. Likewise, in international finance, a currency can become increasingly entrenched when it’s accepted, used, and trusted all over the world.

What’s a Reserve Currency?

Today’s visualization comes to us from HowMuch.net, and it breaks down foreign reserves held by countries — but what is a reserve currency, anyways?

In essence, reserve currencies (i.e. U.S. dollar, pound sterling, euro, etc.) are held on to by central banks for the following major reasons:

  • To maintain a stable exchange rate for the domestic currency
  • To ensure liquidity in the case of an economic or political crisis
  • To provide confidence to international buyers and foreign investors
  • To fulfill international obligations, such as paying down debt
  • To diversify central bank portfolios, reducing overall risk

Not surprisingly, central banks benefit the most from stockpiling widely-held reserve currencies such as the U.S. dollar or the euro.

Because these currencies are accepted almost everywhere, they provide third-parties with extra confidence and perceived liquidity. This is a network effect that snowballs from the growing use of a particular reserve currency over others.

Reserve Currencies Over Time

Here is how the usage of reserve currencies has evolved over the last 15 years:

Currency composition of official foreign exchange reserves (2004-2019)
🇺🇸 U.S. Dollar 🇪🇺 Euro🇯🇵 Japanese Yen🇬🇧 Pound Sterling 🌐 Other
200465.5%24.7%4.3%3.5%2.0%
200962.1%27.7%2.9%4.3%3.0%
201465.1%21.2%3.5%3.7%6.5%
201961.8%20.2%5.3%4.5%8.2%

Over this timeframe, there have been small ups and downs in most reserve currencies.

Today, the U.S. dollar is the world’s most powerful reserve currency, making up over 61% of foreign reserves. The dollar gets an extensive network effect from its use abroad, and this translates into several advantages for the multi-trillion dollar U.S. economy.

The euro, yen, and pound sterling are the other mainstay reserve currencies, adding up to roughly 30% of foreign reserves.

Finally, the most peculiar data series above is “Other”, which grew from 2.0% to 8.4% of worldwide foreign reserves over the last 15 years. This bucket includes the Canadian dollar, the Australian dollar, the Swiss franc, and the Chinese renminbi.

Accepted Everywhere?

There have been rumblings in the media for decades now about the rise of the Chinese renminbi as a potential new challenger on the reserve currency front.

While there are still big structural problems that will prevent this from happening as fast as some may expect, the currency is still on the rise internationally.

What will the composition of global foreign reserves look like in another 15 years?

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Currency

Why Gold is Money: A Periodic Perspective

Gold has been used as money for millennia. People often attribute this to beauty, but there are basic physical properties for why gold is money.

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Why Gold is Money

The economist John Maynard Keynes famously called gold a “barbarous relic”, suggesting that its usefulness as money is an artifact of the past. In an era filled with cashless transactions and hundreds of cryptocurrencies, this statement seems truer today than in Keynes’ time.

However, gold also possesses elemental properties that has made it an ideal metal for money throughout history.

Sanat Kumar, a chemical engineer from Columbia University, broke down the periodic table to show why gold has been used as a monetary metal for thousands of years.

The Periodic Table

The periodic table organizes 118 elements in rows by increasing atomic number (periods) and columns (groups) with similar electron configurations.

Just as in today’s animation, let’s apply the process of elimination to the periodic table to see why gold is money:

  • Gases and Liquids
    Noble gases (such as argon and helium), as well as elements such as hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, fluorine and chlorine are gaseous at room temperature and standard pressure. Meanwhile, mercury and bromine are liquids. As a form of money, these are implausible and impractical.
  • Lanthanides and Actinides
    Next, lanthanides and actinides are both generally elements that can decay and become radioactive. If you were to carry these around in your pocket they could irradiate or poison you.
  • Alkali and Alkaline-Earth Metals
    Alkali and alkaline earth metals are located on the left-hand side of the periodic table, and are highly reactive at standard pressure and room temperature. Some can even burst into flames.
  • Transition, Post Transition Metals, and Metalloids
    There are about 30 elements that are solid, nonflammable, and nontoxic. For an element to be used as money it needs to be rare, but not too rare. Nickel and copper, for example, are found throughout the Earth’s crust in relative abundance.
  • Super Rare and Synthetic Elements
    Osmium only exists in the Earth’s crust from meteorites. Meanwhile, synthetic elements such as rutherfordium and nihonium must be created in a laboratory.

Once the above elements are eliminated, there are only five precious metals left: platinum, palladium, rhodium, silver and gold. People have used silver as money, but it tarnishes over time. Rhodium and palladium are more recent discoveries, with limited historical uses.

Platinum and gold are the remaining elements. Platinum’s extremely high melting point would require a furnace of the Gods to melt back in ancient times, making it impractical. This leaves us with gold. It melts at a lower temperature and is malleable, making it easy to work with.

Gold as Money

Gold does not dissipate into the atmosphere, it does not burst into flames, and it does not poison or irradiate the holder. It is rare enough to make it difficult to overproduce and malleable to mint into coins, bars, and bricks. Civilizations have consistently used gold as a material of value.

Perhaps modern societies would be well-served by looking at the properties of gold, to see why it has served as money for millennia, especially when someone’s wealth could disappear in a click.

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