Rome’s Runaway Inflation: Currency Devaluation in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries
By the beginning of the fourth century, the Roman Empire had become a completely different economic reality from what it had been at the beginning of the first century. The denarius argenteus, the empire’s monetary unit during the first two centuries, had virtually disappeared since the middle of the third century, having been replaced by the argenteus antoninianus and the argenteus aurelianianus, numerals of greater theoretical value, but of less and less real value.
The public excesses in the civil and military budgets, the incessant bribes and gifts, the repeated tax increases, the growth of the state bureaucracy, and the continuous requisitions of goods and precious metals had exhausted the Roman economy to incredible levels. To cap this disastrous reality, inflation had risen from 0.7 percent per year in the first and second centuries to 35.0 percent per year in the late third and early fourth centuries, impoverishing all social strata of the empire by leaps and bounds.
In 301, Diocletian sought to put an end to this out-of-control situation by promulgating the Edictum de pretiis rerum venalium (Edict Concerning the Prices of Goods for Sale), which prohibited, on pain of death, the raising of prices above a certain level for almost thirteen hundred essential products and services. In the preamble to the edict, economic agents were blamed for inflation, labeled as speculators and thieves, and compared to the barbarians who threatened the empire.
Most producers and intermediaries, therefore, opted to stop trading the goods they produced, to sell them on the black market, or even to use barter for commercial transactions. This weakening of supply drove real prices even higher, in an upward spiral that further deteriorated the complex Roman economic system. Just four years later, in 305, Diocletian himself, overwhelmed by his political and economic failures, abdicated in Nicomedia and retired to his palace in what is today Split, Croatia.
A year after Diocletian’s abdication, a young Constantine, son of the tetrarch Constantius Chlorus, was proclaimed emperor by his troops at Eburacum, now York, England. Six years later, in 312, he took control of the West and then, in 324, also of the East, reunifying the empire once again under his rule. Considered the new Augustus, Constantine, like the first emperor, carried out an ambitious and far-reaching monetary system reform. In 310, he created a new solidus, lowering its weight to 4.5 grams and titling it 96–99 percent pure gold. This coin became the n
Article from Mises Wire