Roman Republic - The Decussis

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The origin of cast coinage is to be sought in the first millennium BC in Italy, where copper was plentiful, silver rare and gold non-existent. From about 280 Rome began to issue large round cast coins - an amalgam of the central Italian idea of a heavy metal currency, and the Greek idea of denominated round bronze coins. However, unlike the fiduciary Greek bronze issues, the Roman coins were initially of full intrinsic weight, clearly denominated with symbols and pellets, and based on the Roman libral as standard, theoretically of about 324 grams - the equivalent of 12 unciae or 188 scruples. This form of currency was obviously intended for circulation in the bronze-using economies of central Italy, which Rome now dominated; indeed, it was widely imitated throughout Etruria, Umbria, Picenum and central-southern Italy. Later retariffed in approximately 270 BC to 10 unciae for practical purposes, the bronze as and its fractions remained the dominant form of currency at Rome, with only periodic small-scale issues of silver being produced for specific purposes. By the end of the third century however, Rome found it necessary to adopt the more sophisticated Hellenistic monetary system of gold, silver and bronze coinage in order to finance the state’s military operations in southern Italy.

The economic crisis provoked by the massive military expenditure incurred at the onset of the Second Punic War (218-201) necessitated one of the earliest recorded monetary devaluations in antiquity. Pliny tells us that the as became uncial in 217 BC (NH 33.13.45), but this is demonstrably wrong - the devaluation was semilibral, which halved the debts incurred in the Latin heartland and rendered the bronze coinage fiduciary. The Hannibalic War went from bad to worse from the Roman perspective, so much so that by 214 the weight of Roman bronze coinage went into freefall, with the semilibral standard being abandoned to what modern numismatists call the post-semilibral standards. Complete collapse of the Roman monetary system followed.

The post-semilibral decussis was a cast coin swansong and the largest and heaviest Roman coin ever issued, besides the early Roman quadrilateral currency bars which were probably produced for the distribution of spoils at the time of the Pyrrhic War in the 270s. Struck on what seems to be a quadrantal standard and tariffed at 10 asses, the bronze as was therefore now reduced to a weight of about 108g, very close to the weight of the Sicilian bronze litra (see Jones, A Dictionary of Ancient Greek Coins, p. 133). Importantly, the decussis provides us with the first evidence of an official equation built into the Roman currency system; prior to it there were only ad hoc relationships between the bronze and sporadic silver coinages. Crawford relates that ‘since for the denarius system the Romans decided to make the silver unit worth ten asses, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that when the decussis was produced it was worth the same as the then existing silver unit’ - referring to the unique 1/10 quadrigatus (RRC 28/5). If this is correct, then the value ratio of silver to bronze was 1:120 - the same as that displayed by the subsequent denarius system, and a ratio that was normal for the Hellenistic world (see Price, Essays to Robinson, Early Greek bronze coinage, 103).

An inescapable deduction is that as the Roman Republic coined and distributed silver on a scale unparalleled in the Greek world, bronze became relatively more valuable, leading to a rash and abortive attempt to restore the bronze coin as one of intrinsic value - which had the undesired effect of putting pressure on the silver quadrigatus coinage, which was heavily debased. Only from 212, in the wake of the sack of Syracuse, did silver bullion again become plentiful - it is significant that in 210 BC the sum of 2,400,000 denarii was provided for Scipio’s Spanish expedition, which equates to 10,800 kilograms of silver. Yet the fragility of the Roman economy and monetary system under the intense pressure of total war is graphically illustrated by the fact that by 206 pay for the army was already in arrears. Nonetheless, the vast quantities of metal gained from the spoils of successful campaigning between 212 and 206, along with the levying of metal from private individuals and the use of the gold from the aerarium sanctius allowed for a successful restoration of a pure silver coinage and the creation of a unified Roman monetary system for the first time, with clearly denominated relationships between gold, silver and bronze.

This monumental coin can be assessed with a significant degree of certainty as being the direct precursor for the pure silver denarius, being the product of the first attempt to implement a new intrinsic-value coinage compatible with the extant Sicilian monetary system. Though it would soon be superseded by the pure silver denarius, the decussis marks an important turning point in Roman coinage.

Cast Æ Decussis. Rome, circa 214-212 BC. Head of Roma right, wearing griffin-crested helmet; behind, mark of value X / Prow of war galley left, with fighting platform on deck; below, scrolled acrostolium, apotropaic eye, oar box, central beam ending in upper ram, below which, triangular box ending with rostrum tridens; above, mark of value X. Crawford 41/1; Kent-Hirmer pl. 7, 15; Sydenham, AG 67; Vecchi, ICC 100; Haeberlin p. 117-118, 1-3, pl. 46, 1-3; 1075g, 110mm, 12h.

Fine earthy green patina, well cast, Extremely Fine.
One of four examples; the finest and only one in private hands.

Ex Numismatica Ars Classica 54, 24 March 2010, lot 150.