The augustalis was the first gold coin of commercial importance struck in western Christendom after the disappearance in the eighth century of the old Roman Imperial coinage.
The Emperor Frederick II (1194–1250), the most gifted, innovative, and scholarly ruler of the age, first struck the augustalis in 1231, preceding by about 20 years the European return to large-scale gold coinage. Frederick II’s gold coinage is often judged an extension of Islamic and Byzantine gold coinage, rather than Western European coinage, depriving Frederick II of credit for minting the first European gold coinage after the disappearance of European gold coinage in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless the augustalis was an important step in the reintroduction of gold coinage to Western Europe.
Frederick II was emperor of what was later called the Holy Roman Empire, which Voltaire described as “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” The Empire encompassed what is now Austria, the Czech Republic, eastern France, Germany, large parts of Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Sicily, and Switzerland.
After the Carolingian reform in the eighth century, the silver denier was the highest denomination of coin minted in Europe. The shilling and pound were imaginary denominations that passed as multiples of the denier. As trade grew, and the purchasing power of silver fell, Europe needed coinage of greater value.
Probably an annual tribute extracted from Tunisia by treaty supplied the sizable quantities of gold coinage and gold dust that enabled the imperial mints of southern Italy to coin the augustalis. The new gold coin bore an image of the emperor on one side and an eagle on the other side. The coin contained 4 1/2 grams of gold alloyed with an admixture of silver at a rate of 2 1/2 carats of silver per 20 1/2 carats of gold and a bit of copper. The total weight of the coin was 5.28 grams. The alloyed composition of the augustalis was not uncommon at the time, and the scrupulously maintained weight of the augustalis made it more attractive than the pure gold Islamic dinar. In France, England, and the Holy Land, the augustalis displaced the tar, a coin that Lombard princes in southern Italy and Sicily struck as a quarter of a dinar.
The augustalis maintained its popularity for 50 years, but was supplanted by the pure gold coinage that Genoa and Florence first minted in 1252. From Genoa and Florence gold coinage quickly spread to the rest of Italy and Europe. France and England had issued gold coins before the end of the century, and Germany began gold coinage in 1328.