Roman currency debasement overlaid with cause of death for Roman Emperors.

The Money Project, from The Visual Capitalist, has a great visualization comparing the debasement of Roman currency with the cause of death & duration of reign for Roman Emperors.

Keep in mind that correlation is not causation.  The drop in average tenure and increased likelihood of being assassinated is not caused by debasing the currency alone. Instead the increased turmoil, civil war, deteriorating economy, and external pressures all combined in a massive mix of factors that led to both.

Visual Capitalist uses powerful visual content to help investors and business professionals understand the world. Focusing on topics such as markets, technology, energy, and the global economy, Visual Capitalist is currently one of the fastest growing online publishers in North America.

Having described all that, here is the visualization “Roman Currency Debasement Plotted vs. Cause of Death for Roman Emperors“:

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Contrast on the ability of the East and West parts of the Roman Empire to maintain a strong army and economic prosperity

Map of Roman Empire at its peak is courtesy of Adobe Stock.

At the conclusion of The Complete Roman Army, Adrian Goldsworthy provides a very brief summary of the role the army at the end of the western Roman Empire with a contrast to how the army helped sustain the eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire for another thousand years.

The Roman Empire in the west was gone by the fifth century while the Byzantine Empire lasted another millennium. By the way that provides a link between discussion on my blog of the Roman Empire and the Viking era.

Mr. Goldsworthy says at the end in the west its military was still stronger than its opponents. In spite of that strength, a combination of factors contributed to the end:

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Roman logistics

Roman soldiers attacking with spears” by Dale Gillard is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Complete Roman Army, by Adrian Goldsworthy, provides some background on logistics.


The Romans had an equation on how far an animal could go before it would eat its weight in food. This would provide a way to calculate how much feed would be necessary to move supplies the distance the army planned to travel.

The options for transport over land were mules and draft oxen. Mules were more flexible, could march as fast as the infantry, and had more mobility. Oxen had more power, but were slower, and would typically need roads or at least tracks for travel.

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The price paid for losing out to a Roman siege

Big wooden catapult at old Tighina fortress in Moldavia. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

The Complete Roman Army, by Adrian Goldsworthy, explains the rule of war on sieges during the Roman reign.

The cost of resisting a siege

On page 197 the book says there was a general convention which eventually developed into a law on how defenders would be treated if Romans surrounded a city or town and laid on a siege.

Up to the moment a Roman battering ram made contact with the wall the defenders could surrender on favorable terms.

After the first swing of the ram all bets were off.

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Pay stub for one particular Roman soldier

“My 2 ‘new’ Roman silver denarii from the rule of Marcus Aurelius, 1850 years ago” by J Wynia is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Complete Roman Army, by Adrian Goldsworthy, provides a pay sheet for one soldier as an illustration of the pay structure for the Roman army.

Pay sheet for one individual soldier

To illustrate the limited documents that survive, Adrian Goldsworthy quotes one document for a soldier in Egypt during 81 A.D. Comment in the book indicates this is one of the best examples of the few documents which are actually known.

Consider what little amount of documentation survives when there would have been three pay sheets for each of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers every year for hundreds of years. Of that massive amount of paperwork relatively few documents remain.

This particular soldiers is assumed to be an auxiliary since his gross pay is equal to 187.5 denarii instead of the 250 denarii for a Legionnaire.

Since this is a quotation of an ancient document I feel free to quote it either because the original document itself in public domain, or in the alternative under fair use.

Information from pay sheet on page 95:


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Background on Legionnaire pay in the Roman Army

Denarius issued by Julius Caesar – “Roman coin” by portableantiquities is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I found a lot of fun information on pay for Legionnaire soldiers serving in the Roman army in a book called The Complete Roman Army, by Adrian Goldsworthy, Thames& Hudson Ltd, London, copyright 2003.

Legionnaire pay

Page 94 describes some of what is known about pay of legionnaires. Here’s a summary of annual pay:

  • 112.5 denarii – pay rate before about 14 A.D. when Caesar doubled the pay
  • 225 denarii – pay rate after Caesar doubled pay, which pay increase was in place until in about 14 A.D.

(Updated to reflect Caesar wasn’t alive in 14 A.D., since he was alive from 100 B.C. to 44 B.C.)

Book says this was issued three times a year, likely on January 1, May 1, and September 1. Soldiers received 75 denarii each payday.

Later pay raises:

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Limits to our knowledge on the times of the Roman Army

About half a century of (re-enacting) Roman soldiers out on patrol. A century of soldiers usually was 80 at full strength. “Jerash, Jordan – Roman Army, Hippodrome” by eviljohnius is licensed under CC BY 2.0

My studies on Roman finances led me to a fantastic resource: The Complete Roman Army, by Adrian Goldsworthy, Thames & Hudson Ltd, London, copyright 2003. The book was a delight to read.

There are a number of things in the text I wish to describe on my blog. I will describe some highlights in the next few posts.

Limits of our knowledge

This book, along with others I have read, point out that there really is not a lot of information in the written record on the Roman era. While the Romans were solid bureaucrats, apparently keeping meticulous records, consider the format of their information.

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