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War Finance: Hannibal ad portas!

May 6, 2004

Coins reveal how Hannibal bankrupted the Romans (British Archaeology)

Scientific analysis of Roman coins in the British Museum has provided new evidence that Hannibal, the audacious Carthaginian general, nearly bankrupted the Roman state during the Second Punic War in the late 3rd century BC.

The study has shown that both the weight and the silver content of Roman silver coins dropped dramatically in the 10-15 years after about 225 BC. The weight of bronze coins plummeted in the same period, and a gold coinage — a rare thing in all ancient states — was minted as an emergency measure.

This evidence for a dearth of precious metals adds to existing evidence for financial crisis in Rome. The number of coin hoards buried for security across Italy and Sicily is known to have dramatically increased around 215 BC, perhaps causing a shortage of private liquidity. Later Roman historians, such as Livy, describe how public funds also dried up in the period. Rome deferred payments to the army in 215-213, while senior officers volunteered to do without pay and sailors were paid out of contributions from wealthy individuals rather than the state.

The Second Punic War (218-201 BC), marked most famously by Hannibal's march across the Alps in 218, was a war fought for money as much as for power. While Rome relied on recycled foreign coinage and plunder for its precious metal, Carthage controlled the silver mines of Spain and was able to produce plenty of money to pay for its fleets and mercenaries. Rome's finances only improved with successes in Spain and Sicily, in particular after the capture of wealthy Syracuse in 212. A new coinage, based on the denarius, was introduced in 211. However, Rome's eventual victory led to plunder and reparations on a huge scale.

The museum's research, led by Andrew Burnett, has shown that Rome's silver quadrigati coins dropped in weight from about 6.5g of silver in 225 to about half that in 215, while the purity of the silver dropped from about 98 per cent typically to 80-90 per cent but often to a much lower figure — sometimes as low as 25 per cent with a heavy mixture of copper. Meanwhile bronze asses dropped in weight from about 280g to about 60g.

Rome's gold coins, produced from about 215 to about 205, portray the sacrifice of a pig — a ritual to make an oath binding. The scene reflects Rome's relief at the fact that most of its allies in Italy remained faithful during Hannibal's invasion.

Analysis of hoards across Italy, Sicily and Spain shows that all Carthaginian coinage in these areas was swept away after Rome's victory. It was melted down for recycling and replaced by Roman coins. Two generations later, when Carthage was finally erased after the Third Punic War in 146, all coinage in Carthage's homeland (modern Tunisia) was called in and melted down — an immense undertaking, reflecting Rome's intent to destroy not only the city but also all symbols of its former power

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