History/Medieval Studies 303
Imperial currency was based on a gold SOLIDUS (in Greek nomisma), struck at 72 to the Roman pound (4.48 grs.) and 99-99.5% fine. Gold fractions of SEMIS (1/2 solidus) and TREMISSIS (1/3 solidus) were minted. Each soldius was reckoned as composing 24 carats (siliquae), divisions by weight against which ceremonial silver denominations were struck. In 615 Heraclius reintroduced a large silver coin, the HEXAGRAM (6.75 grs.), exchanged at 12 to the solidus, when he coined ecclesiastical plate during the Persian War
In 395 fractional bronze currency consisted a single, tiny denomination called a NUMMUS (in Greek nummia), measuring 15 mm. in diameter and minted at 216 to the pound (1.50 grs.). This coin, the wretched suvivor of the numerous abortive currency reforms of the fourth century, was reckoned by the thousands to the solidus. Nummi were usually traded in bags of the hundreds or thousands. In 445 the nummus (at 288 to the Roman pound or 1.12 grs.) was fixed at 7,200 to the solidus. The rate doubled to 14,400 nummi to the solidus when Leo I (457-473) halved the weight of the nummus (0.56 grs. or 576 to the Roman pound).
In 498 Anastasius (491-518) recoined nummi into large bronze multiples based on the FOLLIS (called in Greek slang an obol), which was tariffed at forty nummiae. The follis headed a chain of denominations bearing on the reverse Greek numerals as value marks. The FOLLIS was struck at 36 to the Roman pound (8.5 grs.) so that the exchange was 1 SOLIDUS = 420 FOLLES = 16,800 NUMMIAE. The fractions of HALF-FOLLIS (20 nummia), DECANUMMIA (10 nummiae) and PENTANUMMIA (5 nummiae) were also minted. In 512, Anastasius doubled the weights of the follis (17.5 grs.) and its fractions; the new exchange was 1 SOLIDUS = 210 FOLLES = 8,400 NUMMIAE. Coins of 498-512 circulated at half their face value so that the follis of 40 nummiae passed as a piece of 20 nummiae. In 539, Justinian (527-565) again increased the weight of the follis (22.0 grs) and set the exchange at 1 SOLIDUS = 180 FOLLES = 7,200 NUMMIAE, the rate imposed in the Law of 445. War and inflation in 542-578 compelled emperors to lower the weight of the follis to half its Justinianic weight and to fix the exchange at 1 SOLIDUS = 288 FOLLES = 11,520 NUMMIAE.
WEIGHT & VALUE OF FOLLIS, 498-641
The emperors Constans II (641-668) and Constantine IV (668-685) minted
folles that averaged 3.5 to 5.0 grs. during the Arabic, Avar, and Lombard
wars. In 668-674, Constantine IV briefly revived large sized bronze denominations,
striking a heavy follis (17.5 grs.) probably tariffed at the standard of
512 of 210 folles = 1 solidus. Wars and inflation ruined this reform too,
and the follis fell to 25% of this value. Many heavy folles of Constantine
IV were quartered and restruck as folles (4.5 grs.) in the reign of Justinian
MILITARY WAGES. Between the joint reign of Valentinian I (364-375) and Valens (364-378) and Heraclius (610-641), annual wages of 9 solidi were paid to each cavalryman and 5 solidi to each infantryman, but salaries were a fraction of military costs. Salary and provisioning of a soldier was perhaps reckoned annually at 30 solidi and another 6 solidi were added to cover clothing and equipment. War horses were reckoned as costing 20 to 25 solidi per year; their initial purchase price at 7 to 10 solidi. Soldiers received most of their pay in bronze folles at the following rates:
MILITARY SALARIES, 498-542
Laborers at Constantinople and in Levantine cities during the sixth and early seventh century received daily wages of 3 to 5 folles, the price of 1 modius of wheat. Since most work was seasonal, many laborers worked for wages only 4 months per year, earning 360 to 600 folles. Sometimes laborers could demand higher wages. In 506, when Anastasius rushed construction on the fortress of Daras, he offered daily wages of 35 folles per man and 70 folles (= 1 gold tremissis) for each man with a draft animal (Zach. Myt., Chron. VII. 6).
PRICES. The best index of purchasing power is the price of wheat; 48 modii of wheat represented two-thirds of the annual caloric intake of an adult male. In markets commodities were priced in the numbers of modii or sextarii per solidus, and then small purchases were priced based on the exchange rate of the follis to the solidus. In 365-600, the imperial government fixed the rate of 1 solidus per 30 modii of wheat in tax collection, but in markets prices ranged between 40 and 60 modii per solidus.
In 498-542, 1 modius of wheat cost between 2.5 and 6 folles (depending on the rate of exchange) or the equivalent of a soldier's daily wage. The modius of wheat was baked into 15 to 18 loaves of 1 pound each. Debasement and inflation produced higher prices. The Paschale Chronicle in 578-618 records that 1 modius of wheat cost between 10 and 12 folles (weighing 11.00 grs.). Therefore, the minimum annual allotment of wheat for an adult male cost 120-144 heavy folles (weighing 18 to 22 grs.) during the early sixth century. During the later sixth and early seventh century, prices rose to 450-540 folles (weighing merely 11.0 grs.). The prices suggest that the annual cost of wheat of an adult male rose from 1/2 solidus to nearly 1-1/4 solidi during the period 498-615.
In the early sixth century, a follis (weighing 18 to 22 grs.) purchased the daily subsistence of an adult male (bread, oil, and vegetables); ascetics needed a half-follis. In 600 inflation raised the price to 2 folles (weighing 11.0 grs.); after 615 it rose to 5 folles (weighing 3.5 to 5 grs.). In Nisibis of the mid-sixth century, the Sassanid silver dirhem (4 grs. and exchanged at 12 to 14 folles at the rate of 539) bought daily subsistence for two adult males (bread, oil, and fish).
Prices of the early Byzantine age reveal a remarkable similarity to the stable pricing of the high Roman Empire (31 B.C.-235 A.D.). The Justinianic follis of 538-542 (22.0 grs.) approximated the purchasing power of the Augustan sestertius (a brass coin weighing 25.0 grs.). The lighter follis of 578-615 (11.0 grs.) had roughly the same purchasing power as the Augustan as (a copper coin weighing 10.5 grs.).
Prices, however, often soared to prohibitive levels during times of famine. In the Mesopotamian city of Edessa during the famine of 499-500, the price of 1 modius of wheat in the first year jumped to the catastrophic price of 105 folles or 1/4 solidus; this was 7.5 to 8 times greater than the average price. In the second year of the famine, the price rose to 130 folles per modius. Prices of other commodities soared. One pound of meat sold for 2.5 folles and one egg sold for 1 follis--prices that were many times in excess of customary rates.
|Dr. Kenneth W. Harl
Office: History 211 (504)862-8621
Fax: (504) 862-8739