Roman Heavy Metal: When the levy breaks

Roman Heavy Metal: When the levy breaks

Tax Day: April 15, 2014

Money does not stink: Does tax day have you stressed out? Discouraged? Frustrated? Confused? Me too. Taxes can really stink! I live in Massachusetts and am still trying to figure out how my down & out Subaru with 173,000 miles could be considered a "luxury item" for the ultimate "taxachussets" tax: excise tax. Then again, there certainly have been a fare share of odd taxes throughout history. Probably the most unusual is Roman Emperor Vespasian's pisser of a tax on urine! Pecunia non olet ( Latin for: "money does not stink") was established because merchants were collecting urine from Rome’s Cloaca Maxima (greater sewer) system and selling it as, an ingredient for tanning leather and of all things an ammonia to clean clothing! Gross!!! A urine cleaned woolen toga? No thank you! Believe it or not, pee was a hot commodity because urine ammonia has bleaching qualities. Imagine the job collecting the urine? Yuck! (I've included some other weird taxed items at the conclusion.) In fairness to Vespasian ( a widely well liked general turned emperor), he returned to find Rome  battered, beleaguered and broke after years of bloody battle. Like his predecessors, he used taxes to raise funds, including the urine tax. It helped balance the Roman deficit! As the story goes, Vespasian's son (and future emperor) Titus complained about this unusual tax. When his father picked up a coin and asked if it smelled, Titus replied it did not. Vespasian was reputed to have said,  "Pecunia non olet"  translated as : money doesn’t stink!

 A fantastic display of coins at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

A fantastic display of coins at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Days of Yore:  So how long have taxes existed? How long have we had currency? A wicked long time! Mesopotamians are credited with being the first to tax their citizens. They taxed everything from cattle to barley and recorded their taxes using cuneiform tablets. It helped the infrastructure of early civilizations just as it today today! Hammurabi's Code, the first known codification of law, provides insight into what life was like in the Ancient Near East. In Ancient Egyptian times, pharaohs had scribes who would audit households after a tax on cooking oil was implemented. The Ancient Athenians imposed a tax during times of war referred to as eisphora. In fact, the Greeks are credited with being among the first in western civilizations to create currency. When the war emergency was over, citizens were able to rescind and refund the tax. Athenians also required foreigners to pay a monthly tax called metoikon. By the time the Romans came to power, a tradition in coin making and taxation was well established in the Mediterranean. Modern historians blame the collapse of the 500 year old Roman Empire (in part) on crippling taxes in a failing economy.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Worth the Price of Admission: In my 7th Grade Art History class we explore the development of Roman coinage. In Ancient times, coins were commonly used in Egypt, Greece and throughout the Middle East & Asia. As products of political systems, each culture developed economic and monetary systems that reflected their individual spiritual beliefs, customs and political ideologies. Boasting an impressive and one of a kind user friendly permanent exhibit on Ancient Coins, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is literally a local treasure trove for coin enthusiasts! Magnified lenses make it possible to see details of each coin. Inspired by this new collection, I’ve included coin design into my curriculum. We visit this room where students can see coins that they studied in the classroom. My students particularly enjoy the “design your own ancient coin” interactive display.

Rendering Tender: I assign each of my 7th grade students a Roman emperor to research. I ask them to choose an achievement from their reign or a regional symbol and to design a coin for homework. I’ve included some of their amusing and interesting coins. I ask them to consider what the cultural significance of coinage is and how a coin can reflect individual customs, political ideologies or religious beliefs. For many born at the millennial, examining our own currency is an interesting exercise.

It's hard to imagine advising youngsters today to "save pennies". In fact, many of my students don't handle currency as frequently as I did as a kid. Checks, debit and credit cards have decreased the time we spend handling currency. I'm always surprised how many youngsters are not familiar with whose face adorns coins and dollars.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Display on how coins are made!

 "The Demareteion Master" : Dekadrachm with head of Arethusa. Sicily, about 470-465 BCE. Silver.  One of the most celebrated in the MFA, Boston. This female head surrounded by dolphins is believed to be Arethusa, a nymph who transformed into a fountain on Ortygia, the home island of Syracuse. Demarete, the wife of Gelon I ( leader of Syracuse) was involved in the creation of this coin’s design!

"The Demareteion Master" : Dekadrachm with head of Arethusa. Sicily, about 470-465 BCE. Silver.

One of the most celebrated in the MFA, Boston. This female head surrounded by dolphins is believed to be Arethusa, a nymph who transformed into a fountain on Ortygia, the home island of Syracuse. Demarete, the wife of Gelon I ( leader of Syracuse) was involved in the creation of this coin’s design!

 Roman Coin by 7th Grade Art History Student. 2014

Roman Coin by 7th Grade Art History Student. 2014

Time Line : Some brief highlights

650-600 BCE: The first coins were made out of electrum (a natural alloy of gold and silver) in Asia Minor. Towards the 6th century, animal imagery began to appear.

410-392 BCE: War time often stimulates an economy and so was the case around the 5th century BCE when the Carthaginians battled the Greek cities of Sicily. The created coins, often times depicting heroic battle scenes. The Sicilians ultimately surrendered.

264- BCE: The First Punic War marked the beginning of new designs in coins, which quickly came to be a source of symbolism and pride for both the Romans and the Carthaginians. The Second Punic War began shortly after Rome defeated Carthage and this time the Carthaginians were armed with elephants!

From Second Punic War. Silver shekel of Hannibal and war elephant.

by Parnell Nelson

Minted Julius: It has been said that the Romans were “born mature,” and as in so much of their art and architecture, the Romans were greatly influenced by the Greeks in the design of their coins. Whenever I think of Rome I can't help but think of the superb Monty Python film "Life of Brian" where they famously answer "What did the Romans ever do for us?"

I'd add to the list of what the Romans gave us: emperors on coins and the first super-mall!

How did they build so many of the most beautiful and noteworthy things? Taxes! Beginning with the Roman Republic, Romans established taxes on imports and exports called, portoria. All roads led to Rome, so it was an area abundant with trade. One of the most famous and ambitious emperors was Julius Caesar. A distinguished military genius, Julius Caesar returned to Rome and created a 1% sales tax. This was intended to help commerce. (Years later Trajan, with the help of famed architect Apollodorus of Damascus would design Trajan's Market near the Roman Forum. It could be considered the first super-mall!)

Julius Caesar was the first Roman emperor who issued that his face be put on the standardized Roman coins. By instituting this tradition, Caesar established the direct relationship between Roman emperor and Roman economy.  Over time, Roman emperors began to be treated more like deities. He was in the midst of creating reforms when he was famously assassinated on March 15, 44 BCE known as the Ides of March. To commemorate his stabbing in the senate, there was a coin issued. Brutus (one of the 60 who participated in the stabbing) had a coin issued on the anniversary of the assassination.  It features daggers and the abbreviations "EID MAR" (Ides of March) and a "cap of freedom" between the two daggers. A commemorative assassination coin! This gives us a glimpse of how symbolic coins were!

Meter Money: how classical coins were made

The earliest coins were made with a simple punch. Overtime they engraved more complicated and symbolic designs. Thus, the process of intaglio was born! They would heat blanks or "flans" using tongs. Planchets (a plain metal disc) were milled into coins. Dies were designed in reverse and then struck using the anvil. Dies were sometimes made out of iron, but ultimately bronze was used because it was easier to work with. Striking the coin would wear down the dies and during the Roman Era, it is believed in the 2nd century AD about 17 million Roman coins were issued! There were plenty of coins that ended up having a double strike on the coin or the axis of the strike off centered.

By Parnell Nelson

Roman coins did have intrinsic value. Their currency was called denarius and was made out of silver. During the Second Punic War in 211 denarius began to be minted. The word translates from Latin as meaning "containing ten" and alludes to the amount of asses/donkeys the coin would have been worth. Of top concern was authenticating the currency. The markings indicated that a coin was official.

Heavy Metal: Imagine having a satchel full of ancient coins? How much did they weigh? 4.5 grams per coin which actually isn't that far off from currency in the United States today. According the U.S Mint a minted nickel weighs 5 grams! As you would imagine, weights fluctuated along with the materials used to create the coins. As mentioned, the value of the currency correlated with the number of asses/donkeys. Wikipedia provides a succinct look at how the salaries were determined during Diocletian's rule in the 3rd century CE.

  • Farm laborer monthly pay, with meals = 400 asses
  • Teacher's monthly pay, per boy = 800 asses
  • Barber's service price, per client = 32 asses
  • 1 kg of pork = 380 asses (1 lb = 170 asses)
  • 1 kg of grapes = 32 asses (1 lb = 15 asses)

Making your Mark: Ancient Roman Mint

The Roman Imperial coins were made all over their vast empire in Mints. (A mint is a facility used to make coins.) Abbreviations can be seen which coincide the city in which the coin was minted. A letter P (pecunia is Latin for money) was often included as well.  Mints were necessary to authenticate the coin's markings and to ensure the coin was standardized in value. During the Roman Empire, there was a rule that no one was allowed to strike silver coins unless authorized. Like today, much secrecy surrounded the mints. As you would imagine, many regional or provincial artists created designs and individual markings not only to indicate where a coin originated from, but also as a way of making their mark. Emperors wanted to be recognized too! Taking Caesar's lead, portraits were issued by each of the subsequent Roman emperors. From then on out, the most important feature of the coin became a portrait of the emperor! As you would imagine, things could get out of hand. For example, the Senate decreed that all coins of Caligula be melted. (He wasn't popular!) A moral value was attached to these coins! Well... until.....

By Parnell Nelson

When the Levy Breaks: Inflation, Debasement of Currency

A levy is a legal seizure of your property if you fail to pay your tax debt. And it is important to pay your taxes! (A levee, of course, is a dike, embankment, flood-bank or stop-bank intended to prevent flooding.) For me, it's hard not to hear Led Zeppelin's epic song "When the Levee Breaks" when I consider the collapse of Rome, drowning in the excessive flooded sea comprised of debased coins under the sky of an inflated economy after centuries of over-ambition, corruption, and empirical hubris. How did it happen?

By Parnell Nelson

With each emperor came new coins circulating in commerce. Failed military campaigns, the expansion of the empire and pricey civil construction projects all contributed to the collapse. The massive size of the empire complicated matters and corruption was rampant. Roman leaders taxed citizens to help compensate. Around the 4th and 5th centuries CE, the strains of maintaining a huge bureaucracy resulted in massive inflation. Inflation (is a sustained increase in the general price level of goods and services in an economy over a period of time) was increasing and the people began to revolt. Only gold remained stable, but there was little access to gold at this time. Bronze was the hardest hit, degraded to little worth and smaller standards. A great deal of coins no longer were pure and mints gradually closed. The amount of silver which was once minted at 100% decreased to reportedly .02% silver!  Roman citizens lost respect for their local leaders. Outsiders seized opportunities to sack cities and start skirmishes. The once mighty and loyal legions of Roman soldiers were now comprised of hired foreign mercenaries with little allegiance to Rome.

They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.
— Jesus (Matthew 22:20-22)

Many historians believe that the rise of Christianity contributed to the fall of Rome. The Jews of Roman Judea protested for decades after a tax was imposed by the Romans following the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE. In the Bible, a crowd of Jewish people ask Jesus if they should comply. He calls the people hypocrites and then asks them to show him a Roman coin that would be suitable to pay the tax.  (See! Even Jesus needs to authenticate the coin to see if it was minted!) A coin is produced which bares the markings of Caesar and Jesus is quoted by Matthew in the Gospel as saying "Render therefore unto Caesar, the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's. " This is widely interpreted as the emergence of the separation between church and state and the calling for  a more limited government. Some believe Jesus was resolutely supporting the tax cooperatively, while others believe Jesus was protesting the tax with resistance as he was not interested in material things. Emperor Constantine issued The Edict of Milan legalized Christianity in 313 and, decades later, Christianity became the state religion in 380 CE. It has been suggested by few that traditional Roman values in civic virtues or pagan deities eroded at this time and that allegiances shifted towards the church. Some believe that there could have been less access to metal to make coins. Ultimately, the collapse of the coin coincides with the fall of Rome.

We can learn so much about economy by considering the origin. Today we are plagued with many questions about inflation, the value of coins and currency and our skyrocketing debt. We are fortunate to live in a country where tax dollars help pay for our schools and streets, libraries and parks. Like all things, it is important to have a balance. Taxes are important but sometimes can get out of hand! When we pause and consider what adorns our own currency, it is important to reflect on where we have drawn our influences. Benjamin Franklin put it best, "'Tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and taxes!" Happy Tax Season!

Bizarre Taxes Then & Now:

- fireplace tax (England:  established in 1660 repealed in 1689)

- window tax (England: established in 1696 and repealed in 1851)

- soap tax in Europe

- playing cards tax (England: removed in 1960)

- tax on beards (Russian Emperor Peter the Great established in 1705 with the aim to promote the clean-shaven look of Europe)

- printed wallpaper tax (England established in 1712 to prevent people from hanging patterns on the wall)

- candles (England: established in 1789 to prevent people from making their own candles, repealed in 1831)

-hat tax (In England of all places! Established in 1784 it resulted in new vocabulary for hat-makers and thus all headgear was taxed by 1804. Repealed 1811)

-Chinese Head Tax (Canada established in 1885 banning Chinese people from entering Canada altogether until 1923)

- Cow Flatulence Tax (Ireland & Denmark) A cow releases approximately 4 tons of methane gas a year which scientists believe has also contributed to global warming.

- Televisions (presently in England)

- Prepared foods (NYC today)

-Blueberries tax (currently in Maine)

-Naming your child (Sweden- until the chosen name has been approved by the tax authorities)

- Body piercings, pet grooming and gutter cleaning (Arkansas 6% tax today)

- Christmas Tree Decorations  and Christmas photos meant to be hung on walls (Every Christmas season in Texas) There is also a “pole tax” for anyone attending strip clubs.

- If you are over 100 years old and not dependent on anyone, move to New Mexico: you are tax-exempt there!

   Pecunia non olet    Card Game! Has anyone ever played this game?

Pecunia non olet  Card Game! Has anyone ever played this game?




Wayne Sayles is an outstanding resource for anyone looking to learn more about ancient coins and how to collect them!

O’Donnell, James J. “The Ruin of the Roman Empire” Ecco Publishing, 2008.

Sayles, Wayne G. "Ancient Coin Collecting". Krause Publications, 1996.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston : Michael C. Ruettgers Gallery of Ancient Coins

Online Resources:

Macquarie University, Australia's Center for Numismatic Studies