Use of Gold and Silver in Roman Times

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Gold and silver have always been considered precious metals, and the ancients knew just exactly how precious these metals were, if not due to their scarcity, then due to their malleability, workability, and resistance to tarnishing and corrosion. It is these properties that make gold and silver precious metals to this day. The most common depiction of gold and silver in ancient civilizations portrayed in films is its use as currency, and while it may be hard to believe that the majority of the currency issued during ancient times was indeed made from gold and silver, evidence can be found in the former glorious empire of the olden days that goes by the name of Rome.

The use of gold and silver in the Roman Empire held very different connotations from that of other ancient civilizations. Where other civilizations used gold and silver as the means to create objects reserved for religious and elite use, the Romans used gold and silver not for the seemingly mystical properties that is commonly attributed to it by other ancient civilizations, but for the fact that it was a well-known and highly respected commodity that transcended cultural boundaries. In other words, Romans used gold and silver for money, as it could easily be accepted anywhere in the world. When Rome rose from a small kingdom to become a republic, and later on, a vast and powerful empire, the use of gold and silver for Roman currency became more common. The use of gold and silver as currency can be traced back to the middle of the third century BC, where it was the general currency of the realm, known as the aureus (made of gold), and the denarius (made of silver). Aside from gold and silver, Rome also issued coins minted from less precious metal such as copper and bronze. Their mastery of metalworking also allowed them to alloy metals and issue them as different currencies all throughout the varying stages of their rise and eventual fall.

Roman gold and silver currency usually carried with it the image of the then ruling monarch, a feature that would later be incorporated in nearly all of the currencies of the known world. Prior to the use of the image of its rulers however, Rome as a republic issued gold and silver currency that carried a bust of Roma, the symbolic representation of Rome herself, along with religious icons attributed to some deity or other. After the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire, the iconography of Roman currency began to incorporate the images of whoever currently reigned. To ensure uniformity, mints were developed under the close scrutiny of the Republic, and later on the Emperor himself, although the purity of Roman currency later declined as the empire grew, with the most common silver coin (the denarius, later referred to as the antoninianus or double denarius) experiencing a debasement that would later affect its overall value, strongly representing the current strength or weakness of the Empire itself.

Aside from the use of gold and silver as means of currency, Romans also employed their metallurgical craft to the creation of jewelry and royal regalia in much the same vein as other ancient civilizations. The most common use for gold and silver as a means to personal adornment and ornamentation however can be found in the varied examples of military regalia made from such precious metals. Because Rome became an autocratic state that valued its military strengths, the use of gold and silver as awards, decorations, and as adornment for its high-ranking military became common. Examples of such military decorations awarded to members of the state or to high-ranking soldiers were the corona muralis or mural crown, made of gold; and the corona civitas or civil crown, made with either gold or silver. While Rome had its fare share of religious icons and idols made from gold and silver, these were usually given second place to the two metals’ primary importance as currency. It should be understood, however, that the employment of gold and silver as well as other metals as currency was by no means elicited by a social or military ‘need’, but by an idealism on the part of the Romans who wished to emulate, if not surpass the civilization of the Greeks.

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