NGC Ancients: Nero's Economic Woes

Posted on 10/12/2021

Nero struggled to find solutions as Rome plunged into economic crisis in A.D. 64.

Nero (who ruled A.D. 54-68) is one of the most famous of all Roman emperors. Whether it’s for his persecution of early Christians or supposedly playing a fiddle while Rome burned, he is a familiar face to many. However, his decision to reform the empire’s coinage in A.D. 64 by reducing its intrinsic value is lesser known, but had a large impact on imperial finance, especially in the eastern provinces.

The post-reform aureus above features a mature portrait of Nero and an enthroned Zeus. The weight of the aureus dropped about 2% in the reform.

During Nero’s reign the empire suffered a fiscal crisis starting around A.D. 62, stemming from costly conflicts in Britian and Armenia, along with natural disasters and other factors. This crisis worsened during the great fire of Rome in A.D. 64, when a large part of the capital was destroyed and the expense to rebuild was enormous.

To deal with this new financial pressure, Nero began to produce imperial copper and brass coinage, which had not been struck in quantity for nearly two decades. He also precipitously decreased the intrinsic value of his precious metal coinage. The weight of the aureus dropped by about 2% (to 45 aurei per Roman pound) and the denarius by about 7% (to 96 denarii per Roman pound).

Minted in A.D. 60 or 61, the pre-reform denarius above shows a relatively youthful portrait of Nero and the goddess Roma inscribing a shield while standing on a pile of arms and armor.

This post-reform denarius from near the end of Nero’s reign, A.D. 67 to 68, has a mature portrait opposite an aquila between two standards.

Nero’s debasement strategy was employed to an extreme in the eastern provinces, where unimaginable quantities of tetradrachms in Egypt and Syria were recalled and melted, only to be replaced just as rapidly with new coins of a markedly lower silver content.

This occurred most dramatically at Alexandria in Egypt, where in A.D. 65/6 the silver content fell from about 23% to about 15%. The new output of coins was enormous. It has been suggested that the profits Nero accrued from the conversion at Alexandria – alone – was enough to fund the rebuilding of Rome after the great fire.

The copper as above, minted around the time of the great fire, shows the emperor playing a lyre on the reverse. Nero was especially devoted to music and poetry and often staged plays and performances. While he may have understood this design as a way to show his enjoyment of music, many who believed he had set the fire purposely to clear land for his new palace, and ‘fiddled’ as Rome burned, might have seen it in a different light.

While this coin has the radiate crown that is so commonly seen on brass dupondii, the reverse of the coin has an I in the exergue, a mark of value indicating it is a copper as.

The silver tetradrachm above, with Nero’s portrait and a standing eagle, was minted in Antioch in A.D. 64. The precious metal coins of Antioch were struck in massive quantities, and the reduction of their intrinsic value by Nero contributed greatly to the imperial coffers.

Minted in Nero’s regnal year 5 (A.D. 58/9), the above tetradrachm is of a higher silver content than the ones issued a few years later. This coin features the laureate head of Nero on the obverse and his seated figure on the reverse, wearing a radiate crown.

Not surprisingly, the Alexandrian tetradrachms from Nero’s regnal years 10 through 14 (A.D. 63/4 to 67/8) are incredibly common. The scholar Erik Christiansen, in his work The Roman Coins of Alexandria (Denmark, 1988), notes that in studying tetradrachms of Nero’s regnal year 12, he identified 1019 different dies out of the 1032 coins he examined.

Considering this was just one year, and was a limited sampling within that year, one quickly comes to realize how many new tetradrachms Nero had struck. Indeed, Christiansen notes that fully one-third of the coins in each Alexandrian tetradrachm hoard found at the turn of the last century was Neronian!

So plentiful were Nero’s tetradrachms that in the early 20th century, examples of the most common types, along with heavily worn pieces, were typically sent to the melting-pot since their bullion content was of at least as great as the value of those coins to collectors. That circumstance is hard to imagine in today’s world, where there is such strong collector demand for Roman Egyptian tetradrachms.

Our final coin, a tetradrachm from Nero’s regnal year 13 (A.D. 66/7), features a galley with dolphins below. Just by looking at the surfaces of this Egyptian tetradrachm and the one shown prior, one would have a difficult time recognizing the difference in metal purity.

As we’ve seen, the coinage reforms under Nero had an immediate and lasting impact on the finances of the empire. With the funds now available to Nero, he began to rebuild Rome along with a large palace to himself. Future emperors would also follow his example and continue to reduce the purity of coins whenever financial difficulties fell upon them.

All photos courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

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