What is a Denarius?

Denarius of ancient Rome issued by Julius Caesar, depicting an elephant trampling a serpent.
This denarius of ancient Rome was issued by Julius Caesar, and depicts an elephant trampling a serpent. Photo courtesy of Harlan J Berk, Ltd.

Definition: 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). An as functioned very similar 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 211BC during the Second Punic War to 244AD.

Over its approximate 400 years of being issued, it lost much of his purchasing power due to inflation. When it was first issued a years 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. However, 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.

Additionally, there are also several biblical references that refer to this denomination.

Examples: The denarius is believed by scholars to have been a Roman soldier's daily pay.

Edited by: James Bucki