A fragment of the Edict on Maximum Prices (301), on display in Berlin
Part of the prices edict in Greek in its original area built into a medieval church, Geraki, Greece

Aurelian's attempt to reform the currency had failed; the denarius was dead. Diocletian restored the three-metal coinage and issued better quality pieces. The new system consisted of five coins: the aureus/solidus, a gold coin weighing, like its predecessors, one-sixtieth of a pound; the argenteus, a coin weighing one ninety-sixth of a pound and containing ninety-five percent pure silver; the follis, sometimes referred to as the laureatus A, which is a copper coin with added silver struck at the rate of thirty-two to the pound; the radiatus, a small copper coin struck at the rate of 108 to the pound, with no added silver; and a coin known today as the laureatus B, a smaller copper coin struck at the rate of 192 to the pound. Since the nominal values of these new issues were lower than their intrinsic worth as metals, the state was minting these coins at a loss. This practice could be sustained only by requisitioning precious metals from private citizens in exchange for state-minted coin (of a far lower value than the price of the precious metals requisitioned).

By 301, however, the system was in trouble, strained by a new bout of inflation. Diocletian therefore issued his Edict on Coinage, an act re-tariffing all debts so that the nummus, the most common coin in circulation, would be worth half as much. In the edict, preserved in an inscription from the city of Aphrodisias in Caria (near Geyre, Turkey), it was declared that all debts contracted before 1 September 301 must be repaid at the old standards, while all debts contracted after that date would be repaid at the new standards. It appears that the edict was made in an attempt to preserve the current price of gold and to keep the Empire's coinage on silver, Rome's traditional metal currency.[256] This edict risked giving further momentum to inflationary trends, as had happened after Aurelian's currency reforms. The government's response was to issue a price freeze.

The Edict on Maximum Prices (Edictum De Pretiis Rerum Venalium) was issued two to three months after the coinage edict, somewhere between 20 November and 10 December 301. The best-preserved Latin inscription surviving from the Greek East, the edict survives in many versions, on materials as varied as wood, papyrus, and stone. In the edict, Diocletian declared that the current pricing crisis resulted from the unchecked greed of merchants, and had resulted in turmoil for the mass of common citizens. The language of the edict calls on the people's memory of their benevolent leaders, and exhorts them to enforce the provisions of the edict, and thereby restore perfection to the world. The edict goes on to list in detail over one thousand goods and accompanying retail prices not to be exceeded. Penalties are laid out for various pricing transgressions.

In the most basic terms, the edict was ignorant of the law of supply and demand: it ignored the fact that prices might vary from region to region according to product availability, and it ignored the impact of transportation costs in the retail price of goods. In the judgment of the historian David Potter, the edict was "an act of economic lunacy". Inflation, speculation, and monetary instability continued, and a black market arose to trade in goods forced out of official markets. The edict's penalties were applied unevenly across the empire (some scholars believe they were applied only in Diocletian's domains), widely resisted, and eventually dropped, perhaps within a year of the edict's issue.Lactantius has written of the perverse accompaniments to the edict; of goods withdrawn from the market, of brawls over minute variations in price, of the deaths that came when its provisions were enforced. His account may be true, but it seems to modern historians exaggerated and hyperbolic, and the impact of the law is recorded in no other ancient source.

Partly in response to economic pressures and in order to protect the vital functions of the state, Diocletian restricted social and professional mobility. Peasants became tied to the land in a way that presaged later systems of land tenure and workers such as bakers, armourers, public entertainers and workers in the mint had their occupations made hereditary.


Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, vol. III, pp. 801—841, 1055—1058, 1909—1953, 2208—2211, 2328 (=Economic Survey of Ancient Rome, T.Frank, 5:307— 421)
and Transactions of the American Philological Association (1940) 71:157—74; Adapted in part from the translation of E. Graser

[Diocletian, Maximian, Constantius, and Galerius] declare:

As we recall the wars which we have successfully fought, we must be grateful to the fortune of our state, second only to the immortal gods, for a tranquil world that reclines in the embrace of the most profound calm, and for the blessings of a peace that was won with great effort. That this fortune of our state be stabilized and suitably adorned is demanded by the law-abiding public and by the dignity and majesty of Rome. Therefore we, who by the gracious favor of the gods previously stemmed the tide of the ravages of barbarian nations by destroying them, must surround the peace which we established for eternity with the necessary defenses of justice.

If the excesses perpetrated by persons of unlimited and frenzied avarice could be checked by some self-restraint—this avarice which rushes for gain and profit with no thought for mankind; or if the general welfare could endure without harm this riotous license by which, in its unfortunate state, it is being very seriously injured every day, the situation could perhaps be faced with dissembling and silence, with the hope that human forbearance might alleviate the cruel and pitiable situation. But the only desire of these uncontrolled madmen is to have no thought for the common need. Among the unscrupulous, the immoderate, and the avaricious it is considered almost a creed to desist from plundering the wealth of all only when necessity compels them. Through their extreme need, moreover, some persons have become acutely aware of their most unfortunate situation, and can no longer close their eyes to it. Therefore we, who are the protectors of the human race, are agreed, as we view the situation, that decisive legislation is necessary, so that the long-hoped-for solutions which mankind itself could not provide may, by the remedies provided by our foresight, be vouchsafed for the general betterment of all.

We hasten, therefore, to apply the remedies long demanded by the situation, satisfied that no one can complain that our intervention with regulations is untimely or unnecessary, trivial or unimportant. These measures are directed against the unscrupulous, who have perceived in our silence of so many years a lesson in restraint but have been unwilling to imitate it. For who is so insensitive and so devoid of human feeling that he can be unaware or has not perceived that uncontrolled prices are widespread in the sales taking place in the markets and in the daily life of the cities? Nor is the uncurbed passion for profiteering lessened either by abundant supplies or by fruitful years.

It is our pleasure, therefore, that the prices listed in the subjoined schedule be held in observance in the whole of our Empire.

It is our pleasure that anyone who resists the measures of this statute shall be subject to a capital penalty for daring to do so. And let no one consider the statute harsh, since there is at hand a ready protection from danger in the observance of moderation. We therefore exhort the loyalty of all, so that a regulation instituted for the public good may be observed with willing obedience and due scruple, especially as it is seen that by a statute of this kind provision has been made, not for single municipalities and peoples and provinces but for the whole world.

The prices for the sale of individual items which no one may exceed are listed below.


      I.    Wheat                              1 army modius a                          100

            Barley                               1 army modius                             60

            Rye                                  1 army modius                             60

            Millet, ground                     1 army modius                            100

            Millet, whole                       1 army modius                             50

            Panic grass                        1 army modius                             50

            Spelt, hulled                       1 army modius                           100

                                             .     .     .     .     .      .     .     .

            Beans, crushed                   1 army modius                           100

            Beans, not ground               1 army modius                            60

            Lentils                               1 army modius                           100

            Pulse                                 1 army modius                            80

            Peas, split                          1 army modius                           100

            Peas, not split                    1 army modius                             60

                                          .     .     .     .     .      .     .     .

            Rice, cleaned                     1 army modius                            200

            Barley grits, cleaned            1 modius                                   100

            Spelt grits, cleaned             1  modius                                  200

            Sesame                            1 army modius                            200

                                          .     .     .     .     .      .     .     .

      II.    Likewise, for wines:

            Picene                               1 Italian sextarius                        30

            Tiburtine                            1 Italian sextarius                        30

            Sabine                               1 Italian sextarius                        30

                                          .     .     .     .     .      .     .     .

            Falernian                            1 Italian sextarius                        30

            Aged wine, first quality         1 Italian sextarius                        24

            Aged wine, second quality     1 Italian sextarius                        16

            Ordinary                             1 Italian sextarius                          8

            Beer, Gallic or Pannonian       1 Italian sextarius                          4

            Beer, Egyptian                    1 Italian sextarius                           2

                                          .     .     .     .     .      .     .     .

      III.   Likewise, for oil:

            From unripe olives               1 Italian sextarius                        40

            Second quality                   1 Italian sextarius                        24

            Salt                                  1 army modius                          100

            Spiced salt                        1 Italian sextarius                         8

            Honey, best quality             1 Italian sextarius                       40

            Honey, second quality         1 Italian sextarius                       24

                                          .     .     .     .     .      .     .     .

      IV.  Likewise, for meat:

            Pork                                 1 Italian pound                           12

            Beef                                 1 Italian pound                            8

                                         .     .     .     .     .      .     .     .

            Leg of pork, Menapic or

            Cerritane, best                   1 Italian pound                           20

            Pork mincemeat                  1 ounce                                      2

            Beef mincemeat                  1 Italian pound                          10

            Pheasant, fattened                                                          250

            Pheasant, wild                                                                 125

                                         .     .     .     .     .      .     .     .

            Chickens                            1 brace                                    60

                                         .     .     .     .     .      .     .     .

            Venison                             1 Italian pound                          12

                                                      .     .     .     .     .      .     .     .

            Butter                               1 Italian pound                          16

                                         .     .     .     .     .      .     .     .

      V.   Likewise, for fish:

            Sea fish with rough scales    1 Italian pound                           24

            Fish, second quality            1 Italian pound                           16

            River fish, best quality         1 Italian pound                           12

            River fish, second quality     1 Italian pound                             8

            Salt fish                           1 Italian pound                             6

            Oysters                            100                                         100

                                         .     .     .     .     .      .     .     .

VII. For wages:

            Farm laborer, with maintenance (daily)                                   25

                                         .     .     .     .     .      .     .     .

            Carpenter, as above (daily)                                                  50

                                         .     .     .     .     .      .     .     .

            Wall painter, as above (daily)                                                75

            Picture painter, as above (daily)                                           150

                                         .     .     .     .     .      .     .     .

            Baker, as above (daily)                                                        50

            Shipwright working on a seagoing ship, as above (daily)             60

            Shipwright working on a river boat, as above (daily)                  50

                                        .     .     .     .     .      .     .     .

            Muleteer, with maintenance (daily)                                         25

            Veterinary, for clipping and preparing hoofs (per animal)              6

            Veterinary, for bleeding and cleaning the head (per animal)         20

            Barber (per man)                                                                  2

                                        .     .     .     .     .      .     .     .

            Sewer cleaner, working a full day, with maintenance (daily)        25

                                        .     .     .     .     .      .     .     .

            Scribe, for the best writing (per 100 lines)                               25

            Scribe, for second-quality writing (per 100  lines)                      20

            Notary, for writing a petition or legal document (per 100 lines)    10

                                        .     .     .     .     .      .     .     .

            Elementary teacher per boy (monthly)                                     50

            Teacher of arithmetic, per boy (monthly)                                 75

            Teacher of shorthand, per boy (monthly)                                 75

                                        .     .     .     .     .      .     .     .

            Teacher of Greek or Latin language

            and literature, and teacher of geometry, per pupil (monthly)      200

            Teacher of rhetoric or public speaking, per pupil (monthly)         250

            Advocate or jurist, fee for a complaint                                   250

            Advocate or jurist, fee for pleading                                      1000

            Teacher of architecture, per boy (monthly)                             100

            Check room attendant, per bather                                            2


        a   Castrenis modius, literally  “the modius of the army camps.”