The Romans

The Romans have a unique place in the history of gold. Their growing empire after 300 BC was gradually aided by a substantial increase in gold supplies, which ultimately reached perhaps ten tonnes (320,000 troy oz) annually after 100 AD, not just the highest level to that date, but one not achieved again for over one thousand years. To the Romans, gold was not only for jewellery, which became almost commonplace, but for coinage. The Roman empire brought the widespread use of gold coins throughout the Western world, from the shores of the Mediterranean up through France and Spain to Britain (which was a Roman colony from 43 AD to 410). The evidence keeps turning up in coin hoards dug up even today across Europe. Archaeologists found a cache of 43 gold Roman aureii in a deposit box in the City of London in 2000; the coins, now on display in the Museum of London, dated between 65 and 174 AD and would have been the equivalent of the Roman legionary soldier's pay for nearly four years. The British Museum in London, which has one of the world's most comprehensive collections of gold coin, has hundreds of Roman coins from other hoards.

The significance of the Roman coins is that previously the metal had never been abundant enough to underpin a far-reaching monetary system. Gold had been used in coins in Lydia (western Turkey) in the 6th century BC and also in Greece under Alexander the Great, but silver had always been more plentiful and used extensively there. The Romans first issued silver and copper coins by 300 BC, but only struck gold coins in times of national emergency. However, after the Emperor Augustus, 31 BC - 14 AD, gold coins bearing the emperor's head were struck regularly and in quantity. Gold coins excavated from the ruins of Pompeii, destroyed by Vesuvius in 79 AD, suggest that the gold coins in circulation were worth twice as much as the combined circulation of silver and copper coins. Gold coins paid for many of the empire's expenses, particularly the wages of its 400,000 soldiers (gold coins stamped with a cohort's number have been found). But coin was used not just by the emperor or his generals, but by wealthy citizens and merchants. And, as the hoards indicate, gold coin was stored as savings. This was quite different from its use in elaborate ornaments that were a symbol of wealth and power for the living and the dead in earlier civilisations. Gold was money throughout the Roman empire.

As that empire extended, so it gave the Romans control over more regions with gold production. Their early conquest of Egypt gave them access to African gold; in Spain after 100 AD they developed substantial mines (the same deposits have been tapped again in the 1990s with modern technology) while, to the east, gold mines in Rumania were one of the temptations encouraging the Emperor Trajan to take over the country in 106 AD. The high tide of production was between 100 and 300 AD, and while annual output fluctuated considerably as rich new deposits were worked out, it probably averaged between five and ten tonnes (160,000 - 320,000 oz). Cumulatively, this put a significant amount of gold into circulation, not least because the Romans tried to enforce strict limits to how much gold could be buried with the dead.

Roman writers remarked on the abundance of gold. Lucian noted the extravagance of women. "On their wrists and arms gold snakes which ought to be real live ones" he wrote "the gold goes right down to their feet and there are bangles around their ankles." Petronius reports on a woman named Fortunata who had a hairnet of pure gold wire and claimed she had 6½ pounds (Roman) of gold ornaments - 2.1 kilos (67.5 troy oz). And a fresco of the first century AD from Pompeii shows a woman wearing more jewellery than clothes. The ruins of Pompeii have provided the best examples of Roman goldsmiths' work, which can now be seen in Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

Initially, Roman jewellery adopted the delicate style and technique of the Etruscans, whom they had brought into their political system by 250 BC, but soon imposed their own solid, simple tastes. Earrings were the vogue. Signet rings and seals in gold were engraved with illustrations of a hedonistic lifestyle to give the wearer status. Roman engineering achievements, such as aqueducts, were depicted in elaborately made ornaments. "For the first time architecture shows through into jewellery" noted jewellery historian Graham Hughes. For the first time, too, coins were made an integral part of jewellery (a design still seen in Saudi Arabia today).

Coin fabrication must have taken a substantial part of the gold available. The main gold coin, the aureus, was usually 950 fine (22 carat) and weighed 7.3 grams (0.23 troy oz); 45 aurei weighed one Roman pound (libra). Although it was too valuable for most daily transactions, they were used by administrators, traders and for army pay (one aureus was a month's pay for a legionary). In Britain, one aureus would buy 400 litres (28.57 gallons) of cheap wine or 91 kilos (200 pounds) of flour. Silver and copper coins were used for small purchases. A smaller gold coin, the solidus, weighing 4.4 grams (0.14 troy oz) was introduced after 300 AD, possibly because gold supplies were declining as the Roman empire passed its peak. The solidus survived as the main gold coin of the Mediterranean world after the fall of Rome, being minted by Byzantine emperors in Constantinople (as the 'bezant') until after 1100 AD, but long before that, its true gold content was increasingly debased and few were made. A new widely circulated, acceptable gold coin came only with the Venetian ducat in 1285. For that reason the Roman empire stands out as a landmark in the history of gold.

While the Museo Archeologico in Naples has a wonderful collection of gold from Pompeii, the British Museum in London also has a good showcase of Roman jewellery and, in its HSBC Money Gallery, a comprehensive display of Roman gold coins explaining how they fit in the evolution of money.

See also: library/history and library/jewellery.