Financial crises are not only the domain of modern times, as evidenced by Roman coins and Cicero's statements about them. Marcus Tullius Cicero was a Roman orator, writer, military commander and politician living at the turn of the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE. In 44 BCE, shortly before his death, Cicero mentioned coins of variable value in an essay on moral leadership. For many years, historians have tried to understand what the famous Roman meant by this.
One theory is that Gratidianus, a Roman praetor, set the exchange rate for the silver denarius for the bronze ace, as the authors explain. Another suggests, however, that he proposed a method of detecting counterfeit denarii and thus restored faith in the coin. The problem was the unclear choice of Cicero's words, so Butcher and the rest of the team analyzed the composition of the coins minted in these years.
Kevin Butcher of the University of Warwick and his colleagues say they have successfully solved this mystery. Before doing so, they analyzed the composition of the coins minted during Cicero's lifetime. In 91 B.C.E. the Roman state was on the verge of collapse, and two years later Rome was already plunged into a debt crisis. Trust in the denarius, the currency of that time, also decreased in society.
Thus, they estimated that before 90 BCE. The denarius consisted of pure silver, but five years later its content had dropped by 10 percent. For some coins, the ratio was even lower, at 86 percent. The depreciation of this currency coincides with other evidence pointing to Rome's financial problems. For example, in 89 B.C.E. the authorities there decided to sell public land in order to buy grain.
In 90 BC there has also been a huge increase in coin production, as shown by a spike in the number of dies used to make coins. There were 2,372 of them, while a year earlier 677, and a year later 841. However, when there was a civil war between Pompey and Julius Caesar, confidence in the coin dropped again. At that time, the authorities additionally taxed citizens. Perhaps Cicero's words that "coins were tossed so that no one could know what he had" referred precisely to the uncertainty about the silver content. Interestingly, in the period corresponding to the edict issued by Gratidianus, there was a sudden increase in the quality of minted coins, and the denarius was once again established as a highquality currency.