As last year, just click on the image to the left to be taken to the A-Z website and links to other blogs taking part.
A is for As
Not ‘as you know, Bob’ but the Roman coin that was the standard unit of currency, plural asses. During the Republican era the as was a massive chunk of bronze. It’s telling to note that after about 70 years of carting these things around the Romans had a coinage reform and reduced the weight to a sixth of a Roman pound [approx 56 grams or 2 ounces].
As with all currency, the as had a chequered career. It veered from bronze to pure copper, back to a cheaper bronze mix, and gradually shrank in size. The silver denarius, originally worth ten asses, was revalued as 16 asses in 140 BC as a means of paying for the Punic Wars. Under the Imperium the as was devalued still further. During the rule of Diocletian, who presided over one of the biggest financial crises ever seen in Rome, wages fell and prices soared. Labourers who were paid 400 asses a month had to pay 170 a pound for pork. The ‘doles’ of wheat provided by the government was the only thing that kept many families going.
However, the as also contributed to everyone’s social life. We know this because we have contemporary evidence hand written by the people of the time. Barbers and bath houses wrote their tariffs on their walls. So did bars. For instance “You can get a drink here for an as. You can drink better wine for two asses. But for four asses you can drink Falernian” appears on the wall of the bar of Colepius on the Street of Augustus in Pompeii, just around the corner from the brothel.