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Ancient Wages and Prices

The Purchasing Power of Ancient Coins

Also see Doug Smith's Buying Power of Ancient Coins

When examining an ancient coin, it is human nature to ponder what an ancient man or woman could have purchased with that coin. Unfortunately, that not an easy question to answer.  The Roman denarius, for example, was used for centuries.  The purchasing power of a denarius would have changed over that time.  (Consider how much the value of a U.S. Dollar has changed in 100 years).  Also, just as they do today, prices would have varied by place and time of year.  Some things were probably more expensive in Rome than in a country village. Fruit would have been cheaper right after harvest. Our knowledge of ancient prices and the purchasing power of ancient coins is limited. Much is lost. For many coin types, we don't even know ancient name for the denomination. Fortunately we do have some useful and interesting information.

The most widely quoted wages are a denarius a day for a common soldier and 2 denarii per day for a praetorian. Those wages were increased over time by some emperors, including  Septimius Severus and Caracalla.

In his Coinage and History of the Roman Empire (vol. 2, p. 21), Vagi reports that "around the time of its destruction in A.D. 79 the average pay of a laborer in Pompeii was about 8 asses (half a denarius) per day, though actual salaries ranged from 5 to 16 asses per day.  Skilled miners in rural Dacia earned wages of 6 to 10 asses, which were supplemented by free room and board values at 2 to 3 asses per day, bringing their true salaries more in line with the workers at the resort town of Pompeii."

Vagi (vol. 2, p. 23) reports that during the period of wage and price controls initiated by Diocletian, "a daily salary for a baker was set at a maximum of 50 denarii, that of a farm worker at half that amount, 25 per day." and "a haircut would cost a maximum of two denarii, a pound of pork 12 denarii, and approximately a liter of common wine 16 denarii.  Better wine (called Falernian wine) would cost...a maximum of 60 denarii per liter."

According to an ad by the Jonathan Kern Company, during the reign of Severus Alexander "the denarius at this time could buy twelve large loaves of bread. A serving of table wine cost 1/16 of a denarius, while vintage wine cost 1/4 denarius.  In the holy land, an amphora of olive oil from Galilee cost one denarius.  A bunch of grapes or ten figs cost 1/16 denarius. An ox sold for 100 denarii, a calf 20 denarii, and a ram 8 denarii.  5 Sparrows cost 1/8 denarius. A scribe, a highly educated man, earned 12 denarii a week.  He ate and drank for 4 denarii a week, and his clothing cost him about 200 denarii a year."

David Hendin's Guide to Biblical Coins lists some 1st - 2nd century A.D. prices:

Olive oil, one amphora - 1 denarius
Wine, 100 ordinary bottles - 10 aurei.
Bread, one loaf - 1/12 denarii.
Ox - 100 denarii.
Calf - 20 denarii.
New born donkey foal - 2 to 4 denarii.
Ram - 8 denarii.
Lamb - 4 denarii.
Clothing made of sacking which could last for about four years - 4 denarii.

Some interesting information was discovered on wax tablets found in the gold mines at Alburnus Maior, Dacia.

A plate dated 135 A.D. is a contract for a girl slave named Passia, sold for 205 denarii. Another dated 142 A.D. is for a boy slave Apalaustus, sold for 600 denarii.

Another priced a woman at 420 denarii. (note: slaves in Egypt were cheaper).

A contract dated 20 May 164 A.D. hired Memmius, son of Asclepius, for mine work until the Ides of November (a total of 176 days). The contractor (Aurelius Adiutor) provided food and paid 70 denarii, plus a 10 denarii bonus for the labor of Memius' children.

A half of a house was bought for 300 denarii in 159 A.D. (probably a humble house)

On some obscure occasion, someone bought 5 lambs for 18 denarii, a young pig for 5, and an unspecified quantity of white bread for 2 denarii.

2nd - early 3rd century A.D. inscriptions included the following:

A funeral monument and funeral (inscribed on the monument) - 400 denarii.

Paving a portion of a plaza - 50,000 sestertii.

At Apulum, the fronton of the building for the colegium fabri was 6000 sestertii.

At Ulpia Traiana, a flamen donated 80,000 sestertii for the annona on the occasion of his election.

Diocletian, in a failed attempt to curb the rampant inflation of the times, issued an Edict on Maximum Prices. This document survives and gives the price of goods from all over the Empire at that time. Silk was by far the costliest textile, but cloaks from the Nervii retailed for 10,000 denarii against cloaks from Africa which retailed at 1,500 denarii. The rates of pay, for various professions, are also recorded. For example, laborers, herdsmen, mule-drivers and sewer-cleaners got 20 - 25 denarii per day, enough to buy two pounds of pork, or three pints of plain wine. Three days work would buy a cheap pair of shoes, nearly a month, a shirt. Carpenters, bakers, plasterers and tessellated floor workers all get double this, about the same as an elementary school teacher, who is paid 50 denarii a month per pupil. A scribe of the best writing got 25 denarii per 100 lines. With rarer skills and higher education the rates rise considerably. A figure painter earned 150 denarii a day, a teacher of rhetoric 250 a month per pupil, an advocate 1,000 for pleading a case. In practice, most likely a herdsman would be paid below his maximum, whereas the tessellated floor worker or figure painter could probably expect to exceed theirs. It should be noted that the denarii mentioned in Diocletian's edict were money of account and not actual silver denarii, which no longer circulated.  It is not yet known how many of these "denarii" a large follis was worth, but the advanced figure is five.  An argenteus was worth five folles or 25 denarii. The prices for the sale of individual items which no one may exceed are listed below:

                                                                                                Denarii

      I.    Wheat                              1 army modius                           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