“For over a thousand years, Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of a triumph – a tumultuous parade. . . The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. . . A slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”- Patton
Is it just me, or is that Tom Cruise’s profile on that coin?
In the spring of 407, a Roman citizen stood on the dock and watched as the last Roman Legionnaire placed his sandaled foot on the deck of a boat, preparing to cross the English Channel.
That last Roman soldier turned and looked back at the island as the sea winds blew on the fair spring day and powered his ship to Gaul (now France). He had voted for his new Emperor – Constantine III, a usurper and common soldier in Britain. Constantine III had decided to take his Legion across to set up power in Europe, and eventually march on Rome to solidify his claim to the throne. Constantine died in 411, beheaded after abdicating his power. Legend says that Constantine III was the great grandfather of Arthur, but those days are lost to history, and anything said about them would be nothing but speculation.
But the Roman on the dock, waving goodbye to the Legion, he is the one that has always fascinated me. What were his thoughts as he watched the ships containing virtually the entire organized military of Britain sail off?
“They’ll be back soon.” That’s always been my bet. He expected that the Legion would return after Constantine III took Rome. Or, worst case, another Emperor would send a Legion in – for the last 360 years the Romans had at least some presence in Britain.
The man, we’ll call him Marcus, walked back to his villa that overlooked the sea. He had central heating, and a personal bath that was likewise heated. He was fairly well off, as he made significant money importing plates from southern France and selling them to almost everybody. They were cheap, and everyone dropped plates, so he had a guarantee of repeat business.
The winter came, and the Legion didn’t return.
The spring came again, and with it came the Saxons, raiding in force. Again in 409 the Saxons raided.
And in 408 no plates came. The stone masons that Marcus had hired to build an addition to his villa didn’t show up. Marcus took his treasure of coins from his business, and buried them so that he wouldn’t lose them in the raids. He never told his son, Lucius where the coins were buried, so when Lucius buried his father five years later in the shadow of the burnt and wrecked villa, he was within two feet of hitting the pottery the coins were buried in. It wouldn’t have mattered much, since by that time coins were used less frequently, and most deals were built around bartering one thing for another. Without the army there, most people didn’t care all that much about the copper coins.
Lucius lived through 450, and heard of the last request for the return of the Legions to the Emperor in Rome as the Saxons decided to stay. The Emperor’s surviving Legions were busy elsewhere.
Rome never returned, even though on Rome’s version of Facebook®, FaceusLibrium™ some scribe wrote that under the “Relationship with Britain” box that “It’s Complicated.”
Wow, that was dark, am I right?
I’ve been thinking about Marcus for about 20 years. This is the first time I gave him a name, but I do know that there was a Roman citizen who watched as the last soldiers marched on to the boat, and I do know he expected them to be back – sooner rather than later. Rome was forever, right?
Some of the Roman roads in Britain are still in use today – the Romans were excellent engineers, and built to last, which shows that they never built dishwashers. Roman place names still echo down the centuries, not the least of which is Londinium, the Roman name for Scotland. Okay, I’m kidding, the Romans called Scotland “Jim,” because, well, why not.
But after the dark days started, things changed. Let’s take the plates that Marcus imported. That was a real thing. In the south of what is now France, an entire industry was created that made china plates and bowls, and these were shipped throughout the Roman Empire. Fortunately Pugsley didn’t work there, as he would have accidently broken scores of plates each day, but each time in a humorous way so that they would still love him, because after all, Jerry Lewis is considered a genius in France.
When Empire ended, so did the trade in plates and bowls. And archeologists love ceramic plates, because every family has their own little Pugsley that drops crockery day and night. (Truth be told, The Mrs. and I were out on the deck last night when we heard the tell-tale crash of plate under influence of gravity and a tile floor turning it into a future archaeologist’s Ph.D. dissertation, “Plate Fragments Dating from the Time of Emperor Pugsley Wilder the First.”) Trade itself also dropped off, since people are notoriously bad at sending their ships and cargo to places that have no money and no law.
Where I get too close to today.
One of the symptoms of the failing Roman Empire was its currency. The Romans had a currency known as the Denarius. This is not the same as Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons, and is not planning to invade Westeros. The denarius got its name because, (I swear I’m not making this up) it was originally worth 10 asses. Not just any asses, but the Roman bronze coin called the asses. Why, what did you think I meant when I said asses?
Anyhow, the Roman denarius was quite popular – it was silver, and was the more common coin used in Rome. It was so common that its name is still in use today – the Spanish word “dinero,” meaning “burrito with sour cream” is derived from the denarius. And as it was the common currency, it was how soldiers were paid and how most people bought wine and proto-Pez®. Rich people used gold to buy bigger things. (An aside: One coin name that amused me was the “solidus,” which gives me the thought that one Roman said to another, “Pray, Cassius, do me a solidus.”)
Back when the denarius was just getting started, it was really silver, 95%-98%, and was stable at that weight and purity for around 250 years. As you can see in the graph below? At the later stages of Empire the coin was worth nearly nothing, being smaller and having only 5% silver. The denarius is the ancestor to . . . the penny.
Would you buy this stock?
The Roman Empire was really strong – it had great Legions, and even better roads. For the Romans, the road was military technology, and the roads allowed their Legions to move farther, faster to the borders of Empire than the barbarians that they had to constantly fight possibly could. This consistently terrifying military allowed the Romans to rule an Empire for a long time, because it allowed them to also stipulate that Roman currency would have to be used. You might say he who has the gold, makes the rules? I’ll counter that with he who has the best military in the world says what gold is.
In that manner, a Roman Emperor finally decided that he’d stop using silver (except for a whiff) in the denarius. He could make the currency worth less, because he had Legions that were expensive, but could also be counted on to enforce the currency laws of the Empire. Essentially the Empire was so strong that it could use the military to enforce use of the currency. And this system worked for quite a while, (like everything) until it didn’t.
And what happened to all of the currency when the Romans issued the crappy, near worthless denarius? People took the good stuff and kept it. “Bad money drives out good,” is known as Gresham’s Law, which he sent in a letter to Queen Elizabeth I. Others had stated the law before he did, including Copernicus who wrote a whole book about it the year Gresham was born.
This has happened even in the United States, and recently. Back when we used to pretend our money had value, we used actual silver in the coins. Congress decided that was silly – if we had to spend money to make money, then we cut out the profit margin of government, so in 1960’s they passed an act that removed silver from US coinage. If you wonder why you never find a 1962 quarter in your change, it’s Gresham’s Law: everybody took all the coins that had actual value (the good) and replaced them with base metal coins (the bad). Bad money drives out Good. And that’s what happened with the Romans, too.
The Roman denarius was worth less than 1/2000th of its original value when it was discontinued, but all of the cool silver ones were melted down pretty early, because they were worth more than their face value, like a 1962 quarter is worth $3.36 of our current bad money, which is backed by . . . nothing, except the Army, Navy and Air Force. And the missiles.
But, back to Britain!
In Britain the archeologists looked at the plate parts. They found that 100 years after the Romans left, the king ate on plates that were . . . crappy. These plates, in fact, were worse in every respect to the plates that a common citizen of Roman Britain could buy quite cheaply 100 years earlier. The British had forgotten how to make plates, and had to figure that technology out all over again.
Literacy took a hit, too. If the Romans had a Department of Counting People Who Can Read, that information is lost to us, but when you look at excavated Roman cities, there was sufficient Roman literacy that graffiti artists would leave nasty “Your Momma” jokes almost everywhere. “Epaphra glaber es.” That translates to, “Epaphra, you are bald.”
Yikes, Epaphra isn’t very popular, but somebody also wrote that “Epaphra is not good at ball games.” But if we have enough people who would write on walls about the food, the barmaid, or their girlfriend, we had way more people who could read and write in Britain 100 years after the Romans left – it’s likely that Marcus could, and probably his son, Lucius could read as well. But reading became less important of a life skill than “not getting murdered by the Saxons” as time went on without Roman rule. If Lucius had a son, he’d not ever learn to read much at all.
It’s because of this that we end up not having much of a written record of Britain during this time frame – whereas we know Epaphra sucked at football and probably needed to wear a hat, we don’t even know when the Battle of Badon took place.
What happened there? Oh, just that maybe King Arthur defeated the Saxons in a comeback victory straight out of a Hollywood boxing movie. So we don’t know when. We at least know where, right? No. There are guesses, but the Battle of Badon details are lost to history, though some accounts (written hundreds of years later) said that Arthur mowed through the Saxons like a Doberman pinscher through a pot roast. I hope I get someone like that writing about me in 200 years . . .
One of the great things about civilization and a rule of law (besides this blog) is that it allows for us to have cool things, and not have the Saxons up in our face all of the time. But for forty years after the Roman Legions left, the people of Britain were hoping and expecting that they would come back. Our world is an interconnected web of commerce and information that allows our life to happen in amazing comfort.
And it’ll always be this way, right?