Lex Aternia-Tarpeia of 454 b.c. (Rome)

With the Lex Aternia-Tarpeia of 454 b.c., sometimes called the Tarpeian law, the Romans took a historic step toward replacing livestock money with metallic currency. In 454 b.c. Rome sent three commissioners to Athens to study Athenian laws. Before Solon’s reform of Athenian law in 600 b.c. the laws of Draco had provided for payment of fines in cattle and sheep. One of Solon’s contributions to Athenian law was a provision that allowed fines expressed in cattle and sheep to be paid in metallic money. Among the outcomes of the Roman commissioners’ visit was the Tarpeian law. Prior to the Tarpeian law the Romans fixed fines in livestock. Culprits guilty of minor offenses paid a fine of 2 sheep, while grave offenses drew fines ranging up to 30 oxen.

According to the Tarpeian law, payments defined in oxen could be paid in copper asses. The Roman aes or as began as a pound of copper, although it suffered the fate of many metallic currencies as the copper content was steadily reduced by law. It may have been measured in lengths of rods and was not coined until the fourth century b.c. The Tarpeian law valued an ox at 100 copper asses, and a sheep at 10 asses. In 452 b.c. the Romans drew up a constitution, the Twelve Tables of Law, which again called for penalties to be paid in copper and gold units without mentioning cattle.

Probably a major factor pushing the Romans toward greater reliance on metallic currency was the need to pay soldiers and government expenses in a more acceptable currency. Coins had circulated in Greece since the eighth century b.c. and Athens had begun coining money at the end of the seventh century.

Nearly 20 years after the Tarpeian law, in 430 b.c., the Roman Senate enacted the Lex Julia-Papiria, which mandated that metallic currencies replace payments in cattle. According to Cicero, this law came about because “the Censors had, through the vigorous imposition of fines of cattle, converted many private herds to the public use,” and therefore “a light tax in lieu of a fine of cattle was substituted.”

Compared to other Mediterranean societies, the Romans were slow to adopt metallic currency and coinage. Nevertheless, copper slowly superseded cattle as the principal standard of value, and the Romans sought to preserve the link between the cattle standard and the copper standard by stamping the first Roman copper coins with figures of cattle. The copper standard of the ancient Romans has left some vestige in modern language. In English the words “estimate” and “esteem” are derived from the Latin word astimare, which originated from expressing values in copper asses.