All Commentary
Tuesday, August 8, 2023

The Roman Emperor Who Tried to Bring Monetary ‘Reform’ to the Empire—and Failed Miserably

The lesson of Aurelian? Beware of false reformers.

Image Credit: Giovanni Dall'Orto., Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons

The terms “reform” and “reformer” conjure up positive, appealing impressions. It is widely assumed that to reform something is to fix it, and that the reformer is enlightened, courageous, far-sighted, or all three. But often as not, so-called reforms fix nothing and the reformers turn out to be charlatans, no better than the scoundrels who preceded them.

In 1913, “banking reform” foisted a central bank on America that we know as the Federal Reserve System. In its first century, its erratic monetary policies delivered a Great Depression, a host of recessions, and a massive decline in the value of its own banknotes. If that’s “reform,” I prefer non-reform any day of the week. Perhaps reformers should embrace their own Hippocratic Oath, expressed in Latin as Primum non nocere, which in English means, “First, do no harm.”

The decline and fall of the ancient Roman Empire produced countless reformers. The good and serious ones were few and far between and neither they nor their reforms made much of a difference. I recently wrote about one of them, a statesman named Pertinax whose improvements lasted little more than his fleeting, three-month tenure. Romans embraced the “bread and circuses” of the welfare/warfare state so thoroughly that, short of a startling reversal in public opinion, no leader could succeed unless he pandered to the mob.

One of the many false Roman reformers worth noting is an emperor named Aurelian, who ruled for five-and-a-half years from 270 A.D. to 275. A career military man, he had succeeded in reuniting some fracturing parts of the Empire long under assault by foreign tribes, thereby earning him the Senate’s honor as “Restorer of the World.” But his domestic economic program was window-dressing at best.

For decades, the Roman state distributed free or subsidized grain to keep “the masses” content. Recipients were expected to grind the grain and bake it into bread on their own. Aurelian “reformed” the system by putting the government in the bread-baking business. Those on the dole could then get freshly baked loaves requiring no effort but the eating. Aurelian also added subsidized wine as well as “free” salt, pork, and olive oil. The public was essentially bought and paid for, largely silent against tyranny so long as the handouts continued. (I hope that rings a bell.)

From a string of emperors before him, Aurelian inherited a policy of monetary debauchery. The gold content of the coin known as the “aureus” was occasionally reduced but relatively few were minted. In everyday trade, ordinary citizens used the “denarius,” which was almost pure silver before Emperor Nero commenced its debasement in the middle of the First Century A.D. The resulting price inflation by the 270s demanded a policy change. Amid the chaos, Aurelian championed himself as a monetary reformer who promised to bring order and end inflation.

What was Aurelian’s monetary reform? For the government’s own use, he put a trace of silver and gold back into a few coins. But for everybody else, it was a different story. He ordered the existing mass of coins (many sizes and weights of declining precious metal content) to be replaced by just two coins, neither of which contained any silver at all. According to historian Max Shapiro in The Penniless Billionaires, they “were made entirely of copper and were ‘washed’ during minting in a light, silver-like solution, which gave them a silvery finish.” Shapiro explains what happened next:

Of course, Aurelian’s attempted reform accomplished nothing; it merely abetted inflation. Now that no silver was required in coinage, money roared out of the mints in a greater flood. Prices leaped upward anew as people tried to convert increasingly worthless coins into goods.

During Aurelian’s reign, government employees at the imperial mint in the capital city staged the only recorded rebellion of mint workers in ancient Rome. They had routinely pocketed stolen silver and replaced it with junk metals in the coins the mint produced. But Aurelian put a stop to it because he apparently felt that cheating the public should be an imperial monopoly. That ignited the revolt, which the emperor quashed by executing the official in charge of the operation, as well as many of the workers.

Like most dictators, Aurelian thought he was special. Inscribed on some of the coins he minted, and which bore his image, was the phrase, deus et dominus natus, meaning “god and born ruler.”

The “reforms” of Aurelian came to nought because they were hardly reforms in the first place. They were simply clever new methods of power, theft, and corruption. In subsequent decades, Rome experienced continued bouts of runaway inflation as well as destructive price controls that only accentuated the chaos and decline. In 275, Aurelian himself was “reformed” when his elite Praetorian Guard sliced him to pieces.

The city of Orléans in north-central France takes its name from Aurelian and, by extension, so does New Orleans in the U.S. state of Louisiana. But if any statues of this duplicitous reformer exist in either city, I humbly suggest they can now, in good conscience, be removed or at least adorned with this inscription: “He helped bankrupt and destroy his country by expanding the welfare state and corrupting the currency to pay for it.”

I hope you just heard the ring of yet another bell.

For Additional Information, see Are We Rome?


  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is lawrencewreed.com.