Coin Quality, Coin Quantity, and Coin Value in Early China and the Roman World

19 Pages Posted: 2 Aug 2009 Last revised: 24 Aug 2010

Date Written: September 2010


Coinage developed in different ways in eastern and western Eurasia. In ancient China, early bronze ‘tool money’ came to be replaced by round bronze coins that were supplemented by uncoined gold and silver bullion; whereas in the Greco-Roman world, precious-metal coins dominated from the start, initially in the form of silver coins that were increasingly accompanied and eventually eclipsed by gold issues. The question of which factors determined the value of these coins has been debated for a long time. The Chinese tradition is often said to have favored a ‘chartalistic’ approach, and while a ‘metallistic’ perspective used be common among students of Greco-Roman coinage, putatively fiduciary elements of the Roman currency system are now receiving growing attention. In this paper I will argue that both the intrinsic properties of coins and the volume of the money supply were the principal determinants of coin value, and that fiduciary aspects must not be overrated. This principle is reinforced by the comparative study of two superficially quite different currency systems, in Warring States and Han China and in the Roman Empire.

Keywords: Roman economy, Chinese economy, Coinage, Money, Devaluation, Inflation

JEL Classification: B11, N10

Suggested Citation

Scheidel, Walter, Coin Quality, Coin Quantity, and Coin Value in Early China and the Roman World (September 2010). Available at SSRN: or

Walter Scheidel (Contact Author)

Stanford University ( email )

Stanford, CA 94305-2145
United States

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