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From the aes rude to the aes grave

Map of the peoples of the Italian peninsula [1]

Map of the peoples of the Italian peninsula

During the first millennium BC, the Italian peninsula played a key role in Mediterranean history. As early as the 8th century BC, Etruscan cities sprang up as major commercial powers which were for a long time able to trade on a level footing with the Carthaginians and the Greeks. Their predominance was only eclipsed by the emerging power that Rome was becoming at the turn of the 3rd and 4th centuries BC. Rome was soon to exert its hegemony over the whole peninsula and then later over a large part of Europe, too. It is nevertheless surprising to note that, despite their respective importance, the Etruscans and the Romans did not mint their own coins until later. However, they were found to have a pre-monetary system which featured bronze or copper ingots cast in a more or less rough shape, which the Romans were to call aes.

Although there is evidence of precious metal coins dating from the 6th century among the Greek settlers in the south of Italy and in Sicily, the Etruscans, and even the Romans, did not adopt the currency until much later. Since their economy was heavily based on agriculture, they estimated their prosperity in head of cattle, real estate, movable property or even expressed as a quantity of copper or bronze, both which could be found in abundance in the peninsula. Trade, whether national or international, was done through barter or by payment in metals.

Aes rude [2]

Aes rude

These metals came in different forms, depending on the era and the regions. The oldest specimens were just unworked lumps of copper or bronze and could be found almost everywhere in the Italian peninsula. Latin authors referred to them aes rude, a sufficiently explicit term considering that aes means bronze in Latin and rude is the word for rough or unworked. They were obtained by melting the metal, had no standard weight and were not connected with any central issuing state. There is archeological evidence that they were used from the 8th century, only to be abandoned completely during the 4th century. It is generally considered that, as well as their function as a means of payment and of capital formation, these fragments could serve as a raw material for making metal objects.

As they were not practical to exchange, these metals were later melted down into the form of rectangular ingots. The earliest pieces were found in Etruria and in Umbria between the 4th and 5th centuries BC. They continued to be issued by private individuals, were embellished with drawings and weighed between 600g and 3kg.

Rome was to draw inspiration from the ingot shape to establish its own currency system, the aes signatum. It was based on ingots made of cast bronze (aes) and stamped (signatum) on each side. They nevertheless differ from the Etruscan and Umbrian models in so far as the representations vary and are chosen by a central issuing state, Rome. Their weight fluctuated between four and five Roman pounds (i.e. between 1280 and 1600 g). Payments of smaller amounts were made by cutting smaller fragments, as in the case of the oldest ingots. There is still fierce debate about the actual date the aes signatum first appeared, with some tending to put it in the 5th century and others leaning more towards the 3rd century. In all cases, they dated from a time of major socio-economic change among the Roman people as evidenced by certain laws which from then onwards started imposing fines calculated in head of oxen, while at the same time specifying their equivalence in bronze. So, it was known that an ox was worth 1000 aes and a sheep 10 back in the 5th century.

Facsimile of an aes signatum portraying an ox and belonging to the British Museum [3]

Facsimile of an aes signatum portraying an ox and belonging to the British Museum

The effigy of the aes signatum delivered a very precise message. Some of the ingots were illustrated with an ox which is an unquestionable reminder of the fact that oxen used to be the principal source of wealth in days gone by.

An as embossed with the head of the god Janus [4]

An as embossed with the head of the god Janus

The year 289 BC saw the arrival in Rome of the aes grave, which took the form of a cast bronze disc. It is regarded as the very first genuinely Roman currency. The reference unit was the coin called an as, which had a standardised weight and was initially based on a Roman pound of 320g. It was divided into sub-units according to a duodecimal system; thus, a semis was worth half an as, while an uncia worked out at a twelfth. Each of these monetary units featured a very precise portrayal. The as coins are recognisable from the bearded face of the god Janus on the obverse. On the reverse of most aes grave coins features a rostrum (the front of a ship), as can be seen from the semis on exhibit in the showcases of the museum, recalling the maritime power of the Romans.

According to some sources, at the beginning of the 3rd century, an as was enough to pay for either a large bottle of wine, which was a luxury product at the time, or two nights with a meal at an inn. A slave could buy his freedom for 10,000 as, while a man was considered to be rich if he had assets worth more than 100,000 as and poor if his wealth fell below 15,000. The as very soon underwent large devaluations and saw its weight drop to 20g after the Second Punic War (201). This major crisis led to a much-needed currency reform with the creation of new silver coins.

Caestecker Jean-Christophe
Museum Guide