What Is a Denarius?

Ancient Roman Denarius coins

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A denarius (plural denarii) is an ancient Roman coin made of silver. Like most countries, ancient Roman coins represented a portion of a larger denomination. The smallest denomination issued at the time was the as (plural asses). A denarius functioned similarly to the United States penny in today's commerce. It was originally equal to 10 asses, hence its name means "containing ten," although its value and silver content decreased through the centuries of Rome's existence. At first, a denarius contained an average of 4.5 grams or 1/72 of a Roman pound of silver. By the end of its useful lifetime, the Roman emperor reduced its content to an average of 3 grams. The denarius was struck from approximately 211 BCE during the Second Punic War to 244 CE.

History of the Denarius

Illustration of Denarius coins in a case
Illustration: The Spruce / Chloe Giroux

Over its approximate 400 years of being issued, the denarius lost much of his purchasing power due to inflation. When it was first issued a year's pay for a commander in the Roman army was about 10 asses. Four hundred years later, the pay rose to 1,500 denarii (or 24,000 asses). This silver coin usually depicted an Emperor wearing a laurel wreath on the obverse. The reverse varied in topics depending upon the current political environment of Rome.

In the third century A.D., the coin was no longer issued by the ancient Roman empire. The term "denarius" was still used to refer to a variety of coins made in areas of the world that were once under the control of the Roman Empire. There are also several biblical references that refer to this denomination.

Fun Fact

The silver Roman denarius is thought to be based on the small silver Greek coins that were used in Italy around the 4th century B.C. The Romans later produced their own coin, the "quadrigati," named after the Roman quadriga that appeared on its reverse.

Value of a Denarius

It is difficult to come up with an equivalent value of currency commonly in use today. Given that this coin is over 2000 years old, the range of products and services available to the common man today is different than it was back then. Some classical historians have discovered that a common day's pay for unskilled labor was equal to one denarius. Roman infantry soldiers were paid slightly less and Roman officers were paid slightly more.

If we were to base the value on the relative price of silver, a denarius weighs on the average 0.10 Troy ounces. With silver selling at approximately $20 per Troy ounce, this would have a value of approximately two dollars in today's currency. Therefore, it was a relatively low valued coin when it was in circulation over 2000 years ago.

Today's coin collectors must be aware that there are counterfeit denarii on the market. Many of them originate from counterfeiters in China. An extremely rare denarius in excellent condition can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. A common denarius in circulated condition or one that has been damaged by being buried in the ground can sell for less than $100.