March 25, 2014

A Roman “Aureus” minted by Emperor Septimius Severus in 193 CE. At nearly 8 grams, the Aureus was truly an imperial coin – the embodiment of Rome’s wealth and power.

Credit: Helen Hall / Wikipedia
Credit: Helen Hall / Wikipedia

In this post, I argue that precious metal currency was a fundamental factor that kept together the Roman empire and gave to the Romans their military power. But the Roman mines producing gold and silver peaked in the first century CE and the Romans gradually lost the capability of controlling their resources. In a way, they were doomed by “peak gold.”

When I heard for the first time that the Roman Empire fell because of the depletion of its silver and gold mines, I was skeptical. Compared to our situation, where we are facing the depletion of fossil fuels, the Roman case seemed to me to be completely different. Gold and silver don’t produce energy, they don’t produce anything useful. So, why should the Roman Empire have fallen because of something we might call “peak gold”?

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