The Wrong Stuff

Cheats, of course, long precede the advent of the Greek invention of money six centuries before the birth of Christ. It is hard to imagine that there was ever an age when man did not yield to the temptation of taking a better deal than he should have merited when chimps - and far down the evolutionary line - will routinely steal from their community members. The Roman moral code was burned into the psyche of its people at an early age with a long list of desirable virtues. There was loyalty and honor of course. Self-sacrifice, duty, labor and a long list of macho qualities were expected of the boy while the virtuous Roman lady was to adhere to ideals of demureness, loyalty and modesty while simultaneously being expected to be fertile mothers committed to domestic servitude. But if there were any Thou Shalt Not Steal imperatives these were reserved to the hushed scolds of a family's confines yet altogether unworthy of being committed to the stone tablets that instilled the important values.

It is in this light perhaps not too surprising to find that Roman coins are peppered with evidence of cheating. While counterfeiting took many forms, in Roman coinage the most famous examples are the silver fourrées; a French term meaning "stuffed" which figuratively indicates the nature of a coin whose bulk is made up of scrap metal and only bearing a thin plating of actual silver. Clearly, the motive here was for the ancient bearer to stiff the seller much in the same way a phony $20 dollar bill made in Mexico may hopefully pass the scrutiny of a cash register manned by a teenager.

So far none of this is an eye-opener. What is controversial, and perhaps an idea so far not postulated, is that rather than the efforts of amateurs and freelance ne'er do wells it may have been the Roman government who was doing most of the cheating. Groupthink reflexively attributes the fourree to enterprising individuals whose skill at imitating official product must have been good enough to fool the watchdogs for personal profit. But there are several problems with this theory.

In the first case there was the powerful disincentive over the consequences of getting caught with a handful of bogus coins. Roman law, as you can imagine, had little in the way of "due process" when it came to these shenanigans. If justice was meted swiftly and harshly to noblemen and commoners alike - and whether actually guilty or innocent - then little mercy could be expected from getting caught red-handed with contraband of this kind. The sheer effort expended in producing these lookalike coins meant a huge investment in both time and money to get any sort of meaningful output going. And you needed top engravers too - the very sort that the official mints would have been seeking to employ. While there is no reason to suspect that it was out of the question for an individual to accomplish this feat successfully, the obstacles to overcome would scarcely make the project profitable. More likely, it would have required organized crime to pull it off. The Roman economy though was always the empire's Achilles' heel and the state could have been expected to have spent a disproportionate amount of its resources in combating efforts to undermine it - just as is the case in the U.S. today where counterfeiting dollars consistently ranks as among the most likely of crimes to land you in jail.

Not that counterfeiting in general was dangerous or uncommon in the Roman age and in its marketplaces. It was, in fact, teeming with fake stuff. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder frequently mentions the nature of the second-rate being passed off as the real thing with pained tips on how to spot the suspect. Those crafty Romans were good at manufacturing all manner of knockoff luxury goods from high-end food to jewelry to wall paint - and none of it apparently illegal as such. If you got less than you bargained for that was your problem. Caveat emptor indeed!

To dabble in a bit of Victorian sleuthing we are reminded that once you do away with the impossibles then we are left with the truth however unlikely it may be. If individuals would not likely have formed any great part of the black market in phony coins, and the Roman mob would have likely targeted far less risky money-making ventures, then the only extant conclusion is that it was the government itself who was likely in on the take.

Evidence towards this is subtle and circumstantial but compelling nonetheless. First of all there was constant pressing need, and endless temptation, to swell the treasury reserves to pay for grand building projects or make soldier payroll; this last example being notoriously dangerous to miss! While it's possible that a policy of swindling the public directly via executive mandate was the rule, as was the case with Nero's silver downgrade coinage in 64 AD, more likely the action typically happened farther downstream with mid-level functionaries who could have both the means and inclination to effect schemes whereby a die here and there could be procured at the mint and put to surreptitious use.

While fourrees are found with styling clues that differ from official guidelines, particularly evident in the sometimes corrupted legends of early imperial denarii, by and large the norm is that they are perfect copies of their contemporary prototypes and only evident to modern collectors when the surface is breached to show the cheap metal core underneath or a scale shows it to be too far outside of the normal weight range. On another aspect, I know of no fourree which is die linked to another coin known to be genuine - an indication that would clearly prove governmental involvement - but this can easily be explained as being the first rule of the savvy counterfeiter for to do otherwise, to mix the signature of his handiwork with bogus and legit product alike, would only implicate him into a speedy, summary execution once the link was found. Keeping the two lines of operation separate at a minimum gives the outfit a certain degree of plausible deniability.

In conclusion, there is little reason to believe that in ancient times government officials were any less corruptible than our modern counterparts. It seems they, and only they, had the means to fabricate superficially credible pieces on an industrial scale and, really, the mind can't even come close to numbering all the reasons why they would have chosen to do so.