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FORVM`s Classical Numismatics Discussion Board  |  Numismatic and History Discussions  |  History and Archeology (Moderator: David Atherton)  |  Topic: The value of a denarius in ancient and modern times 0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic. « previous next »
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Basemetal
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« on: November 01, 2007, 09:33:45 pm »

We so often see the question:
"So how much would a denarius, or sestertius or........buy in modern goods and services?"

A common answer is along the lines of not what it would buy, but addresses wages.
A denarius would be pay for a skilled (definition varies) laborer for one day.

Of course, in both ancient and modern times the economy varied so as to make the purchasing power of a denarius or the modern equivalent vary as well.

My question or discussion topic is:

Wouldn't pay for for a days labor buy goods and services be pretty much stable through the last roughly 2000 years when one only includes what the average ancient roman could have purchased?

And even though many millions of let's say, denarii were minted in such a society, the purchasing power would still  be more along the lines of a day's wages for a skilled worker during the U.S. Depression years, or even slightly greater  in areas that were not say "boom towns" because of gold and silver mines or other temporary and artificial economies?

25 cents was a good days pay(and less) during many years of the Depression.
Today, we would say: "25 cents?   Not worth much."
But during the Depression,  without listing prices for goods and services, 25 cents was a fair day's pay and would buy a surprising amount of goods and/or services.  I know that the Depression was a temporary time also, but it lasted longer than many emperors ruled.

Today, at least in the U.S., a days pay can vary from $58 and up.

So, could one fairly say as a ballpark figure: "A denarius was worth a day's pay for a skilled laborer. That would be roughly equivalent to a $50 bill".  And this at the lower end for a minimum wage 8 hour per day worker. It would average a bit more, I believe.

So in today's prices at least in the U.S. A denarius would buy (I'll use the old standbys and not include one's cable bill car payement, ect.)

1 denarius =

A lot of cheap wine. As much as 25 liters for cardboard box wine-the wine to drink when  you are drinking more than a case.. [Smiley] More for rarer, or less for  a smaller quantity.   
The services of a prostitute: Wellll....$50 would indeed buy such services in many, many places. Quality is so subjective.
A lot of baked bread.  Yes. Bread is cheap now, but so it generally was then. What with the equivalent of government subsidies.
A night's stay in an EconoLodge (an American chain of cheap motels)
General food products:  Cheap now-so a lot-if you don't bother with health or dietary restrictions.
The modern equivalent of a washerwoman (a coin laundry or even a drycleaners) for a fraction of that $50 dollar denarius
Jeans, a shirt, and sneakers, and a pair of socks (at somewhere like Wall-Mart).
Personal defense: Since we are talking equivalents,  as much as three or more quite serviceable knives as opposed to perhaps one.
They would have been more expensive in Roman times. Metal was scarcer.
Transportation:  $50 will get you a ways in a cab, think carriage,   And quite a long way on a ferry(boat). A horse, not really applicable, as a denarius would not come close to buying a horse, and renters tend to want them back, now and then.
Servants or bodyguards:  Personal servants(employees) come higher now what with that pesky lack of cheap slavery or you could perhaps hire free, desperate people that will not rob and kill you(maybe), but generally no.
Entertainment:  Well, wine and prostitutes sort of covers that(remember cable and similar have no equivalents).
Books=scrolls or live entertainment: Books were way more expensive even if available. One had to know how to read as well.  Commraderie was cheap then as now.  Chewing the fat with the guys was and is generally free. 
Entertainment  in the arenas or live entertainment:  Racing(gambling, sports competition) is about the same now, but the problems are the same.
Probably listening to a storyteller in the market then was cheap or free. Throw a quadrans in the hat.
One can buy a lottery ticket for as little as 1/50th of that modern denarius. One could place a bet on the Greens for as little.  Mind the children don't starve because of your addiction to gambling though, now as then. 

So, a denarius during the time of, say Trajan would buy roughly the equivalent of what it would buy for a skilled laborer during the early thirties, if adjusted for value, and also for the equivalent of what a skilled laborer (let's use MacDonald's clerk-and it is a skilled job) would make today(that $50 dollar denarius) with the exceptions of say, wine, and some foodstuffs, which would be cheaper today, long distance transportation, and weapons  being less expensive.
Today, servants would be more expensive.
Of course moderns have way more ways to spend their money. But the basics stay pretty much the same.

A denarius went a long way back then, if you didn't travel far, tolerated a limited diet, or need fancy weapons, got your future servants from the exposed infants on the trash heap, and were content with a jug of wine as opposed to a barrel, and just bet on the chariot races or the contestants in the arena in moderation.

Thanks in advance.
Bruce
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« Reply #1 on: November 02, 2007, 11:00:46 am »

I've just been reading Josephus -The Jewish War. In the introduction, the (English) translator G.A. Williamson in 1959, says "The talent, valued in Victorian times at £250, appears in these days of inflated prices as £1000, and the drachma -the 'penny' of the gospels and actually the daily wage of a labourer- being 1/6000 of a talent, is given the value of 3s 4d, or the nearest round figure." The trouble is that in the text we find such phrases as..."Lysanias, who had succeeded his late father, Ptolemy son of Mennaeus, by promising £1,000,000 and 500 women..." which apart from sounding very strange (the money not the women!) is also of course, no longer the correct amount.

The days wage that Williamson gives of 3s 4d, which was actually 1/6th of a pound, would now be more like £100. So I can say here and now that a denarius was worth about £100, $200 or a zillion Zimbawe washers, but if you are writing for posterity it is better to stick to the daily wage analogy. It's a sort of universal currency.
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« Reply #2 on: November 02, 2007, 12:05:09 pm »

Not necessarily, since a daily wage in a rich country pays for a lot of things (power, something towards the cost of running a car, insurance, etc. etc.) which would have been unimaginable in Roman times. On top of that, our economy is totally monetised; you can't get anything without money in some form. Back then, economies were always partly based on barter, at least in rural areas. I don't think there's a simple way of comparing the two.
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« Reply #3 on: November 02, 2007, 01:13:46 pm »

A farm worker in England gets a daily wage as does a farm worker in a third world country. The amount they each get is vastly different, as is what they can buy for it. But as a concept, it is for both of them a 'daily wage'. No need to bring what those wages will buy into the equation.
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« Reply #4 on: November 02, 2007, 01:30:52 pm »

There is, because a 'daily wage' in a traditional society has to buy food, probably for a family, pay rent, taxes, etc., and nothing more. In a modern western culture, it has to do that, plus a whole lot over. a real comparison would be with the amount needed to keep a person living a comparable lifestyle. If you try to compare values in rich and poor countries today, the problem becomes obvious. A relatively poor person in, say, the US or Britain, lives in a way comparable to a relatively wealthy person in a poor country. The very rich in both countries will have comparable lifestyles, but there's nothing to compare with the average farmer in the poor country, who lives in a way comparable to that of a Roman farmer. A denarius may have bought goods equivalent to the value of, say, £20-25 today, but who would be content with that as a daily wage? A family trying to live on that would be effectively destitute.
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« Reply #5 on: November 02, 2007, 01:55:26 pm »

We are not comparing the spending values, just what the person physically has in his hand, his day's wages. That's a pretty exact comparison. Comparing what those wages might have bought is interesting, but ultimately fruitless.
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« Reply #6 on: November 02, 2007, 03:50:10 pm »

All I know is that if I want to buy a really nice denarius today of say Julius Caesar....it will cost me at least a days wage maybe more! Cheesy
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« Reply #7 on: November 02, 2007, 04:17:27 pm »

If you can buy one of those every day, I hate you.  Sad
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« Reply #8 on: November 02, 2007, 04:38:18 pm »

lol
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« Reply #9 on: November 03, 2007, 10:21:09 am »

If you can buy one of those every day, I hate you.  Sad

I wish!
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« Reply #10 on: November 03, 2007, 12:52:38 pm »

If you can buy one of those every day, I hate you.  Sad
That's only if he gives up eating, living in a house and all those other little things he spends his daily earnings on. 
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« Reply #11 on: November 03, 2007, 05:45:26 pm »

Much less than a day's wage...

http://www.forumancientcoins.com/Auction/APViewItem.asp?ID=13150

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« Reply #12 on: November 03, 2007, 05:49:00 pm »

It's not an exact comparison at all. I could still choose to live in the UK or the US at the level of a Roman peasant if I wanted - I wonder what that would cost? Would you like to try it for a year, to give you a real comparison? Comparing values between countries even today is far harder than you imagine, since a 'basic' standard of living in one situation represents real wealth in another. We should know, since most of my in-laws are in Sierra Leone, which is officially the poorest country on earth.

Edit. Basic pay in Freetown is around 50 000 Leones per month, or approximately 2300 per day, assuming a five-day week. I just checked the exchange rate: 6400 leones to the £. That works out at 36p per day. The real question, of course, is what basic necessities cost over there. I don't have exact prices, but I know a day's pay won't buy a sack of rice. A week's pay won't buy a pair of shoes.

In 1st Century Rome, you could have bought a loaf of bread for a dupondius, or eght for your denarius, so it would have given a large family a very basic meal, and nothing more. A tunic would have cost 15 sestertii, or almost four days' pay. It's not comparable to a Western day's pay by a very long way.
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« Reply #13 on: November 05, 2007, 05:40:25 am »

Is it not possibile to link it to some metal? I mean, like "1 denarius could buy X grams of gold" for instance.
This might provide a better idea of the spending power... or not?
Beside, I would be happy if I'd be paid one denarius per day. And if my boss would give me an aureus instead of a promotion or bonus.  Grin
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« Reply #14 on: November 12, 2007, 08:22:28 am »

This topic pops up now and then. There really is not way to make a meaningful comparison. Our economic and social systems are too fundamentally different, at least if the Western lifestyle is compared to the Roman lifestyle.

How interesting is such a comparison, anyway? We have some idea about how much a Roman laborer might have earned and what this might have bought him.

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