Digital History of the Economy of Ancient Rome
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During the Roman Republic, the economy was largely agricultural and based on trading grains, wine, and other commodities. Financial markets, established mostly by family wealth, extended credit for both personal use and public projects. In times of currency shortfall, Roman officials often responded by minting money, especially during the hardships created by the First Punic War.
During the early Roman Empire, the economy used money to denominate prices and debts, and a basic banking system was formed. Emperors issued coins stamped with their own likenesses to foster public goodwill and proclaim their wealth and power. The economy of the Empire was often unstable because of the imperial habit of coining money to fund public building works or costly wars.
Lacking a central bank, a banker would take deposits and lend money. As capital usually exceeded loan demand, and loans were made on ever-riskier terms. Roman senators and other elite were heavily involved in both borrowing and lending, and their personal fortunes formed the basis of their social and political influence.
The Antonine and the Severan emperors debased the coinage in trying to meet military payrolls. High inflation took hold during the reign of Commodus and eroded credit conditions, and in the mid-200s, the supply of gold and silver bullion shrank sharply. The crises of the third century disrupted long-distance trade and precious metals mining, and gold coinage was appropriated by invading enemies. This greatly hampered the money supply and the banks by the year 300. Although Roman coinage had long since become fiat money, general economic troubles worsened under Aurelian as bankers lost confidence in coinage issued by the government. Despite Diocletian’s introduction of a new gold coinage and price controls, the economy of the Empire never regained its former stature.
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