Let’s take a look at the Roman Denarius. I’ve taken an interest in ancient currency and monetary issues lately, particularly as it give some insight into biblical times.
From about 200 BC until about 64 AD the Roman Denarius was about 3.9 grams, at 95% or 98% purity.
There is a comment that Tiberius slowly increased the fineness to 97.5% to 98%. Tiberius accumulated a hoard of 675 million denarii.
Nero, who reigned from 37 AD through 68 AD debased the gold aureus from 8.18 grams of gold to 7.27 grams.
Article says 25 silver denarii are equal to 1 gold aureus.
How much was a denarius worth?
Here are a few hints to provide a frame of reference for the value of Roman silver coins.
According to the Wikipedia article, in 44BC a legionary’s pay was doubled to 225 denarii per year by Julius Caesar. Before that the pay was 112.5 denarii a year.
Article says the lowest pay for a centurion was 3,750 denarii a year with the highest paid centurion earning 15,000.
A common laborer is generally considered to have earned about 1 denarius a day. That would put annual income for common laborer at about 312 denarii a year for 6 days a week and 52 weeks a year.
In the parable of the laborers in the vineyard found in Matthew 20:2, a day laborer is described as being hired at one denarius for the day.
Ounces of precious metals
Now let’s convert from grams to ounces:
- Denarius – 3.9 grams = 0.137568 ounces
- Under Julius Caesar the 95% to 98% purity level would give silver content of around 0.1307 to 0.1348 ounces of silver
- Aureus – 8.18 grams = 0.288541 ounces
- Aureus – 7.27 grams = 0.256417 ounces
Wikipedia says for an Aureus that is the gold content, not the weight of the coin.
Article also says there weren’t a lot of gold coins minted until Julius Caesar.
For comparison, here is the weight of current American coins:
- 2.500 grams – 0.0883 ounces – penny
- 5.000 grams – 0.1763 ounces – nickel
- 2.268 grams – 0.0800 – dime
- 5.670 grams – 0.2000 – quarter-dollar
- 11.340 grams – 0.4000 – half-dollar
For another reference, here is the weight and silver content of US coins from 1964 and earlier:
- Weight – silver g – silver oz – coin
- 2.500 g – 2.250 g – 0.07234 oz – dime
- 6.250 g – 5.625 g – 0.18084 oz – quarter
So if you want a rough feel of a denarius in terms of weight, think about an American nickel. If you want to approximate the silver content, picture two of those old Roosevelt or Mercury head dimes.