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Prices and Coins in the Ancient World

By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..

When I was a kid, I walked to school both ways! When I was younger, movie tickets were only 50 cents! While these are a few of the stereotypical laments of many “older” folks, they speak to a series of deeper trends in our markets. Change is inevitable, and the value of goods and services is no different. What can a dollar buy today, a small candy bar? What did that snack cost 20 years ago?

And, if we really want to be adventurous, what would it have cost two thousand years ago?

Like many important early inventions, the first cornerstone of our economy–paper money–was first created in China almost 1,200 years ago during the reign of the Tang emperor Wuzong. Double-entry bookkeeping (and other accounting methods), the second cornerstone of our modern economy, was developed in the Republic of Venice by Luca Pacioli in 1494. Therefore, by reaching more than two thousand years into the past to study the economics of ancient societies, we are by necessity forced to look at the physical coins, local economies, and contemporary written sources. Of these sources, the latter is the trickiest because we need to untangle the personal motives of the authors and some of the sources come down to us only in fragments.

For example, one of the most common Roman sources used to describe the value of goods is Emperor Diocletian’s Edictum de Pretiis Rerum Venalium or “Edict on Maximum Prices”. Issued in 301 CE by the emperor, this edict attempted to halt rising inflation. With entries ranging from one modern kilogram of oats costing 30 silver denarii, to the daily wage of a standard silk worker to between 25 and 40 denarii per day, and one “first-class lion” for 150,000 denarii, the list includes prices for over 1,250 items.

Nevertheless, it failed – for two main reasons. First, the inflation the price ceilings sought to address had been caused by the severe debasement of the empire’s coinage, which continued periodically even after the edict was issued. And second, there was no effective widespread enforcement mechanism for the new price limits.

Fragment of Diocletian’s Edict, housed in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin.

While throughout history people relied on local markets and were not bound tightly by centralized government control, the question remains: what was money worth at different periods?

While military pay is generally well documented, the majority of people relied on civilian labor for their livelihoods. Therefore, it is important to look at the purchasing power of average civilian wages throughout the ancient world.

While as early as 1,500 BCE, gold became a “recognized exchange standard”, most of it was in the form of artwork or functional objects like those found in the Tell Basta Treasure in Egypt. Gold could not, however, sustain the Egyptian economy alone. Instead, grain, which bakers and brewers fashioned into edible products, fueled the workers. Eventually, the pharaonic government instituted a series of “bronze laws”, which mandated that wages must be kept low and only serve to cover the “bare necessities for keeping workers alive”. This depression of wages served to speed the final collapse of the economy under the Ptolemaic dynasty.

The Tell Basta Treasure. Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In Babylon, the Code of Hammurabi, which was instituted in 1,754 BCE, has some of the earliest extant wage control information. For example, the Code states that a field laborer is to be paid eight gur of corn, or approximately 2416 liters per year. A standard workman was to receive pay according to the following formula:

“[F]rom the beginning of the year until the fifth month he shall give six grains of silver per diem. From the sixth month until the end of the year he shall give five grains of silver per diem.”

Once coins gained popularity in the mid-seventh century BCE, it became much easier for governments to control their economies and for historians to gauge the value of general goods. Unlike many salaries in modern days, most non-military laborers throughout history were paid per diem. This practice enabled employers to lower their costs and maintain a workforce for the absolute minimum amount of time needed to complete a task. It is estimated that average unskilled laborers would have between two and three hundred working days per year.

From various archeological sources, scholars have been able to piece together a comparison between the purchasing power of unskilled and skilled workers’ daily wages from 329 BCE to the early Principate.

In 329 BCE, unskilled laborers in Eleusis, a town adjacent to Athens, earned 1.5 silver drachmai per day with which they could purchase 15.7 choenix of wheat, with each choenix equaling 1.09 modern liters. Concurrently, skilled workers earned 2.25 silver drachmai, which corresponds to 23.6 choenix of wheat. At this time, a drachma was worth almost 10.5 choenix of wheat.

Three hundred years later when Rome unseated the Ptolemies, wages remained relatively stagnant for unskilled labor. An average worker could expect to bring home approximately 1.29 Egyptian drachmai, which equals 3.75 choenix of wheat. At the same time, a skilled laborer would make 1.33 Egyptian drachmai per day, equalling 3.87 choenix of wheat.

These statistics prove that, over the centuries, there was a trend of coinage depreciation and a narrowing of the wage gap. Not only were coins worth less in 2 CE than in 329 BCE, but the wages of skilled laborers were comparatively lower as well.

Eleusis, Attica. AE17 c. 350-300 BCE.
AR Athenian drachm c. 392-300 BCE. Likely the type that Eleusis laborers would have been paid.

Interestingly, only four years later in 6 CE, an Egyptian skilled laborer could expect to earn 2.25 solidi per day, which equaled 14.6 choenix of wheat. Additionally, by the time of Diocletian’s Edict two hundred years later, the Egyptian wage was 24% less valuable than the Eleusinian wage in 329 BCE.

Another common marker of economic value in ancient economies was the price of slaves. In Athens around 409/6 BCE, a slave cost 180 drachmai, or half a year of skilled labor. In Egypt circa 1-2 CE, a slave could be purchased for 1,200 Egyptian drachmai, or approximately two and a half years of skilled labor. According to the Edict of Diocletian, a slave cost 30,000 drachmai, or approximately two years of skilled labor.

Dioclecian, silvered follis. C. 301 AD

Additionally, in Athens circa 400 BCE, one obol purchased a kantharos, which equals three liters of wine. And according to James Davidson, a professor of ancient history at the University of Warwick, prostitutes charged approximately three obols, or a hemi-drachm, for their services.

ATHENS: 454-404 BCE, AR obol

While price and wage controls have existed for thousands of years, the concept of a “just price” for goods was a Medieval concept set forth by Thomas Aquinas in an attempt to limit usury and to protect the common man. Prior to the development of this theory, scholars generally view attempts to regulate wages and prices as purely selfish efforts to maintain wealth and stability. However, this concept existed in the minds of consumers. In the early Roman Republic, approximately five one-pound loaves of bread cost one As, or one-tenth of a denarius. Under Julius Caesar, the price went up to five loaves per 1.67 Asses, and by Nero’s reign the same quantity cost as much as 6.4 Asses.

ROMAN REPUBLIC: PB aes formatum, uncertain Italian mint, ca. 400-300 BCE.

Unlike countries today, the Roman Empire was an unintentionally closed economy where the imports overwhelmingly consist of luxuries. Additionally, internal Roman prices did not even come close to matching external international prices. According to the historian Pliny, Rome’s Parthian “trading partners” and those in India and the Far East sold goods to roman merchants at extremely low prices. Scholars estimate that these merchants may have made profits of up to 10,000 percent.

PARTHIAN KINGDOM: Mithradates II, 121-91 BCE, AR drachm.

While estimating the value of goods and coins in Rome is difficult because it covered almost 700 years of tumultuous history, these statistics are only a drop in the bucket of human history. Corresponding Greek and Egyptian statistics are similarly broad. However, by providing a snapshot I hope they can serve as a guide to the further research of ancient economies.

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Tyler Rossi
Tyler Rossi
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University's Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies sustainable international development and conflict resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington, D.C., he worked for Save the Children, creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the U.S. from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).

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  1. No, no, no, you got it wrong! Trust me, here in the South we were bombarded by these idioms (and idiotdoms) as kids. It’s, “When I was a kid I had to walk to school, uphill, both ways, in the snow. It was freezing cold and the only way I had to keep warm was by carrying a hot potato in each of my pants pockets. Then, the only thing I had for lunch was those potatoes. And I was glad to get them!”


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