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Pecunia olet? – first Roman money

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman mosaic showing oxen
Roman mosaic showing oxen

Pecunia non olet – money does not stink – according to legend, this word was committed by the emperor Vespasian by cutting off the complaints of his son, Titus, to donate income to the imperial treasury from taxing public toilets.

The etymology of the word “pecunia” – “money” tells us, that for today’s townsman sitting comfortably in a possible air-conditioned room in front of a computer screen, the first Roman money would be somewhat smelly.
However, before we get to the clue, that is, the stories about the beginnings of the Roman currency, it is worth remembering that the beginnings of Rome are quite simple farmers and shepherds living in the hills near the Tiber River. Living on the slopes of the Palatine, Esquiline or Quirinal, villagers of the Iron Age were not too rich in metal – hence the limited trade in those days had to be based on something else.

Pecus – sheep and oxen: this was the currency of the first Romans. For modern man unaccustomed to natural smells, this is definitely not something smelly, but a resident of ancient Rome, even a powerful republican senator from the 4th century B.C. he was above all a farmer and saw nothing wrong in following the plow. From the word pecus (cattle) comes pecunia – money.

The agrarian nature of Roman society persisted for a very long time – even at the time of the fall of the Republic, military leaders (Julius Ceasar for example) took care of providing their veterans with land plots after their service. Nevertheless, in those days no longer paid by the honest sheep or hardworking oxen.

The development of Latin settlements from the Palatine or Quirinal caused that, in addition to pecus, their cash equivalents began to appear in circulation, as we would say today. But the agricultural entrepreneur from Esqiline could say that aurum et argentum nihil me est – because the currency was none of these precious metals but a weighed bronze nugget called aes rude. Aes, as, was also the name of a later small Roman coin, but in those days there were no coins in Latium (and if they appeared was only as imports, probably of great value).

It wasn’t until 289 BCE triumviri monetales, officials to oversee the state mint, were formed in Rome. Late, considering that the money economy has long been very good in the Mediterranean at that time. Well, it seemed that the descendants of the shepherds from the Tiber at that time were not interested in trade, especially long-distance trade – it was possible that, as avid farmers, they even felt a kind of disgust at obtaining income from evil trade speculation. Suffice it to say that in the treaties with Carthage – then not yet a sworn enemy of the Republic – concluded in the 4th century B.C. The Romans give up on foreign trade, giving African traders a monopoly in the Western Mediterranean. This was soon to change, but for that time the rulers of the Italian city-state (or rather a large state organism covering most of the Apennine Penisula) as I mentioned ・ were not interested.
Especially the new Roman mint did not even produce real coins. It is true that archaic lumps of bronze managed to transform first into more regular ingots and then into rectangular labelled plaques made of cast bronze (aes sigantum – this money was the first to produce this mint), but still to find out the value of this tile had to be weighed ・ signing the currency nobody come up with the value of that means of payment there.

But soon it was changed: the mint began to cast, not yet minting, real coins. They were round aeses (aes grave) weighing one pound (libra = c.a. 272 grams) and marked with the number “I”. In addition, these coins were decorated with busts of the deities of Janus and Mercury, and then – and this pattern became the most popular in the times of the Republic – Janus on one and ship’s bow on the other.

These coins no longer smelled like primaeval pecus – at least in a literal sense, because an early Roman farmer would probably have a different opinion about this – and soon Rome also became a leading trading power in the Mediterranean. But this is a completely different story.

Author: Adam Adamas
  • M. Cary, H. H. Scullard, Dzieje Rzymu, Warszawa 1992
  • A. Kunisz, Numizmatyka rzymska [w] Vademecum historyka starożytnej Grecji i Rzymu Warszawa 1982

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