Sep 9, 2013
Medieval Mondays: The Byzantine Solidus
The later Roman Empire saw serious economic upheavals and a debasement of the coinage. Emperors tried to pay their expenses by minting more coins with less valuable metal, but of course people noticed and this led to inflation.
The Emperor Justinian (ruled 306-337 AD) reversed this trend by creating the solidus, a pure gold coin set at 1/72 of a Roman pound (about 4.5 grams). This helped stabilize the economy, but didn't save the Western Roman Empire from being overrun by Germanic tribes in the following century.
In the east, Rome continued as the Byzantine Empire, and the solidus was the benchmark currency. The solidus was trusted everywhere, and has been found as far away as India and China. It remained unchanged until the 11th century, when Byzantium started having economic problems of its own and the coin was debased. Even so, the old solidi remained in circulation through most of the Middle Ages. We have lots of examples of this coin because, unlike many other coins, it was such a trusted currency nobody wanted to melt it down for its metal.
For more on medieval money, check out my post on small change in the Middle Ages.
Photo of a solidus from the reign of Julian (reigned 361-363 AD) courtesy Wikipedia.