Constantine’s Monetary Reform
I think Constantine’s greatest and most lasting contribution was his transformation of the monetary system. This new system stabilized the economy of the Empire, had a lasting impact for almost a millennia and I think provides some insight into what he was attempting to accomplish with all his administrative reforms.
The Roman monetary system experienced a severe decline in the third century. Inflation was high and many sections of the economic system resorted to using a barter system. Previous attempts to stabilize the currency had limited impact. Aurelian’s reform in the 270’s created a revolt. Diocletian’s reform two decades later tried to stop the debasement of metal in the coins and set price and wage maximums in order to curb inflation. This resulted in shortages and a widespread black market economy.
Constantine introduced the gold solidus with a gold content of 1/72 of a pound and became the basis for a new monetary system. The coin was minted in large volumes and was successful over a large geographic range as well as a great span of time. The solidus as the basis of the Roman/Byzantine monetary system became the principal unit of exchange in international trade and despite periods of instability, did not experience any serious depreciation in its value until the decline of the Byzantine Empire in the eleventh century.
While many have pointed out the importance of Constantine’s religious and military reforms, it is possible that without the economic reforms and a stable monetary system that encouraged widespread trade his other reforms would have had less impact. The monetary system of the West continued to decline through debasement of coinage, loss of assets to the East and the new Christian Churches, and the widespread use of barter and trade. These increased the problems with political cohesion and control that further compromised the economic system—leading to a downward spiral of political, military and economic decline for the West.
- Two-Tier Monetary Systems & Local Currencies (armstrongeconomics.com)