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:
Some interesting information was discovered on wax tablets found in the gold mines at Alburnus Maior, Dacia.
2nd - early 3rd century A.D. inscriptions included the following:
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: