If you asked a Roman to answer the question, ‘why do you have coins?’. The answer is likely to have to have been some variation of ‘to pay for stuff’. Such an imaginary conversation between a time traveling researcher (T.T.R.) with a per chance for the Socratic method might continue:
T.T.R. – Where did you get the coins?
Imaginary Roman – It’s none of your business, but it happens that these particular ones were a gift from my friend Memmius.
T.T.R. – Was he using them to pay for something? Was he buying you?
Imaginary Roman – Don’t be rude. He’s my friend. I help him; he helps me. He just happens to be a bit better off. He knows the price of grain is up this season.
T.T.R. – Ok. Ok. Where did he get the coins do you suppose?
Imaginary Roman – He’s got lots of state contracts for roads and supplying the army and stuff. I sometimes do him a favor and go check on these projects for him when he’s really busy in the law courts and similar stuff. He’s a good friend to have.
T.T.R. – So the state bought some roads off your friend. Where did the state get them?
Imaginary Roman – It’s more complicated than that. These arrangements aren’t all about money you know. The magistrates take all aspects of these projects very seriously and the contractors are very patriotic. The auspices need to be right and the character of the individual and the source of the materials. Why do you care so much about the coins anyway? It isn’t like the really big payments are even made with coins. The bankers and creditors and treasury have other ways and means. We’re not some backward place without resources you know. This is ROME.
T.T.R. – Let’s say my interest is more historical. I want to understand what makes Roman coins special. Can you tell me how coins are made?
Imaginary Roman – – a pause – I’ve never seen a coin made, but I assume it’s a bunch of slaves owned by the state or a state contractor.
T.T.R. – So slaves. You all get you coins from slaves.
Imaginary Roman – You remind me of that crappy Greek play about the guy thinking about bugs and clouds and other ridiculous stuff. Did Memmius set you up to this? Or Gradius? Or Lucretius? It’s just his style.
T.T.R. – Ok. Right. No, no joke. Forget I mentioned the slaves. Why does the state make new coins are the old ones not good enough? Surely you could just use ones already used by other people?
Imaginary Roman – I’m no expert, but I can’t imagine there are enough coins for all the things we’re doing. The army gets bigger each year. More and more people in the city means more and more money is needed for grain. Didn’t you see all the construction?
T.T.R. – So that’s it: a practical magistrate would just spend any old coin if they could, even one from Carthage.
Imaginary Roman – Ha! Get outta town. Pay our soldiers with their coins after we showed them the whatfore with Scipio! My father’s father saw all their gear come in. I bet they melted it all down and I bet most if it is still in the treasury. Some of those carts were piled nearly three stories high with candelabras and dishes and statues and stuff. That man even send Phalarus’ Bull back to Akragas! That made them lazy Greeks sit up and take notice. I saw it the last time I was down checking out one of Memmius’ grain contracts. Total truth. If there was a Scipio worth the name alive today, we’d have less headaches out East and better discipline right here at home.
T.T.R. – Got it. Slightly different question. Why does each coin seem to have different picture on it? Isn’t that confusing?
Imaginary Roman – What would they be confused with? A denarius is a denarius is a denarius. From Gades to Syria and back. Everyone knows what Roman coins are and what their worth.
T.T.R. – So the pictures…
Imaginary Roman – Oh these? It’s like decorations everywhere in the city. We honor the gods as they have honored us and continue to honor us–Jupiter, Sol and Salus all be praised. It’s good to be respectful. Rome didn’t get where it is today without divine blessing.
T.T.R. – This one has a guy in a toga next to a trophy on it, is that a god too…
Imaginary Roman – For someone interested in history you can’t even seem to read. That says Paullus, it must be Aemillius Paullus destroyer of the Macedonian Kingdom.
T.T.R. – Is he a god? Are you worshipping him by putting him on a coin?
Imaginary Roman – No, he’s an ancestor. The pious man knows to honor our ancestors along side the gods. We Romans could teach the world a thing or two about fidelity. If you’re not faithful you get nowhere in this world…