Ancient Currency

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Lucus Eques
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Ancient Currency

Post by Lucus Eques » Thu Aug 18, 2005 1:58 am

I've been reading a lot about sesterii and aurei and asses and the like, and I know how an as was a quarter of a sesterius, and a sestertius was a quarter of a denarius — but is it possible to equate these denominations with our modern currency? Naturally, in a world completely removed from our own, there are different things that are bought and sold, and it goes without saying that technology has completely altered the price of something as simple and common as paper — but I believe there must be a way of getting round estimates of what things cost back then. There are some things that have always been bought and sold: like bread, for instance, which has been made the same way for thousands of years. Can anyone think of other examples? And are there records of a Roman or even a Greek grocery list from ancient times?
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Post by Carola » Thu Aug 18, 2005 4:59 am

Bread or other prepared food might not even be a good example because of the fact that all these items had to be made by hand, even the flour had to be ground by animal or human power. Perhaps all we could equate was what it cost to eat for a week compared to wages (ie if it cost someone $50 to buy groceries now, and they earned $500 a week, then they spend 10% of their wages on food.) So then we need to see what % of wages the Romans or ancient Greeks spent to feed themselves and I guess that is about as close as we can get to finding some sort of equivalent value.
I think that mass production, machine power and higher living standards make this a very difficult comparison of costs now vs 2000 years ago.

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Post by Bert » Fri Aug 19, 2005 12:07 am

Maybe there is a record of how much bread the Spartans could buy for an iron bar. :)

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Post by edonnelly » Fri Aug 19, 2005 11:26 am

Lucus,
Might you, by chance, be wondering if someone stole say 90 sesterii from you, how much that would equate to in our money?

I was wondering that, too, but I don't know the answer.

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Post by Yhevhe » Fri Aug 19, 2005 1:16 pm

Sometimes in Discovery Channel, or The History Channel, they use some kind of conversion to know how many X person spent on Y in US$. Would be useful to know how they do it. (maybe writing to someone in the channel?)

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Post by ThomasGR » Fri Aug 19, 2005 6:32 pm

All those currencies are very difficult to compare and get conclusions. The greatest difficulty arises because the economical system was quite different than today, and secondly, even if currency was already invented for some centuries, most people still exchanged goods for other goods. A better approach is to count how many pounds of grain one litre of wine costs. But even in that case the comparison is hard due to slavery. Slaves were the cheapest labour force, so to produce grain or wine did not cost much, and most people would just exchange those goods for free. At the end, people who couldn’t afford to have slaves, they simple became one.

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Post by Eureka » Sun Aug 21, 2005 2:39 am

Bert wrote:Maybe there is a record of how much bread the Spartans could buy for an iron bar. :)
It's probably easier to threaten the baker with the iron bar and just take the bread.
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Re: Ancient Currency

Post by Democritus » Sun Aug 21, 2005 5:07 pm

Lucus Eques wrote:... but is it possible to equate these denominations with our modern currency?
I agree with ThomasGR. I don't think it's possible.

In fact, in many cases, I don't think it's possible to do this when comparing two modern currencies. It doesn't make sense to say that residents of some poor country subsist on X dollars per year... because the fact is, they don't use dollars there, and the prices and availability of commodities might differ wildly. The basket of things you can buy inside the U.S. for X dollars is quite different from the basket of things you can buy in other countries using the amount of local currency that X dollars can be exchanged for. To put it more simply, theoretical currency equivalencies generally just make no sense. They gloss over so much detail that they are not useful.

It might make more sense to look at what one ounce of silver would buy, since silver was certainly in use as a medium of exchange, and particular examples of exchanges could be found. But again, the price of everything, including silver and the things it buys, might fluctuate a great deal from decade to decade. A big war might cause the price of grain to rise, but the presence of a local silver mine could depress the buying power of silver.

Lucus Eques wrote:There are some things that have always been bought and sold: like bread, for instance, which has been made the same way for thousands of years. Can anyone think of other examples? And are there records of a Roman or even a Greek grocery list from ancient times?
I don't remember ever reading about a grocery list, but I suspect that such things are described, in some places. It would be quite intereseting to investigate ancient prices. Descriptions of military campaigns often note the wages paid to soldiers and the amount of money spent for various supplies. That could be considered a "grocery list" for this purpose. :)

If you are looking for a fertile area of scholarship, this might be a good one. It's just my armchair opinion, but it seems to me that historians are often not terribly interested in economics, and economists who look at ancient history are mostly just looking for evidence to support their own ideology. There might be a lot to learn by an honest look at ancient economics, including commodity prices, taxation, etc.

(But I am certainly no expert so I really have no clue. Perhaps some scholars have already pursued inquiries like this, I don't know.)

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Post by PhilipF » Sun Aug 21, 2005 7:48 pm

Try this link , it gives prices and wages in ancient Rome , let me know if it is useful .
Philip

http://www.ancientcoins.biz/pages/economy/

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Re: Ancient Currency

Post by Bert » Sun Aug 21, 2005 8:47 pm

Democritus wrote:
Lucus Eques wrote:... but is it possible to equate these denominations with our modern currency?
I agree with ThomasGR. I don't think it's possible.
...............
You can't come up with an exact equivelant but surely it is possible to come up with an approximation.
It is interesting to find out what references to money mean.
There are records indicating how much a common labourer earned per day. (This is where approximation comes in: One labourer is more "common" than another.)
You are right that it is meaningless to say that the average person in country X earns $2.50/day (Or earns enough money to buy $2.50). It does mean something if you find out that the common staple food /person/day costs appr. $2.00 while the average daily income is $2.50

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Post by ThomasGR » Mon Aug 22, 2005 5:51 am

It's important to note here that slodiers in ancient Rome rarely were paid in Dinars (if ever!), but rather in salt. (Hence the words "soldier" (sal dare) or salary). This salt they changed with other goods, even in Rome, and in provinces far away from Rome, Dinars weren't of any worth. Free farm workers in the province were paid with shares at the product, and craftsmens with goods which they then traded with other goods.

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Post by Kasper » Mon Aug 22, 2005 6:27 am

ThomasGR wrote:It's important to note here that slodiers in ancient Rome rarely were paid in Dinars (if ever!), but rather in salt. (Hence the words "soldier" (sal dare) or salary). This salt they changed with other goods, even in Rome, and in provinces far away from Rome, Dinars weren't of any worth. Free farm workers in the province were paid with shares at the product, and craftsmens with goods which they then traded with other goods.
Really? with salt? How much salt? So apart from all their weapons and gear, they were dragging bags of salt around? How much salt did an army then take along to pay for their soldiers during a campaign? How could you keep track of how much salt you had and someone hadn't taken a handful while you were asleep?

I'm truly amazed....
Last edited by Kasper on Mon Aug 22, 2005 6:53 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Post by Eureka » Mon Aug 22, 2005 6:43 am

Kasper wrote:
ThomasGR wrote:It's important to note here that slodiers in ancient Rome rarely were paid in Dinars (if ever!), but rather in salt. (Hence the words "soldier" (sal dare) or salary). This salt they changed with other goods, even in Rome, and in provinces far away from Rome, Dinars weren't of any worth. Free farm workers in the province were paid with shares at the product, and craftsmens with goods which they then traded with other goods.
Really? with salt? How much salt? So apart from all their weapons and gear, they were dragging bags of salt around? How much salt did an army then take along to pay for their soldiers during a campaign? How could you keep track of how much salt you had and someone hadn't taken a handful while you were asleep?

I'm truly amazed....
Me thinks an urban myth has been posted.
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Post by ThomasGR » Mon Aug 22, 2005 1:34 pm

It is an urban legend? :shock:
Well another legend says, soldiers most times were paid with portion of state land, if he had the luck to survive some ten or twenty years of military service.

Well I can tell you a story from my childhood. Often my mother gave me a dozen of eggs to go to the grocer to get some kilos of rice. So how much did rice cost? What I did never understand till this age is, what did the grocer do with the eggs? He must have gathered all the eggs of the village, refrigirators didn't exist, and often after some days the eggs went rotten.

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Post by benissimus » Mon Aug 22, 2005 11:27 pm

"soldier" is not from sal but rather from "solidus", which implies pay by coin (at least at the time when they adopted the ancestor of the word "soldier"). "salary" is indeed from sal though.
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Post by Phylax » Tue Aug 23, 2005 12:05 am

Really? with salt? How much salt?
It would depend on whether they were "worth their salt" ...
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Post by Bert » Tue Aug 23, 2005 12:39 am

Phylax wrote:
Really? with salt? How much salt?
It would depend on whether they were "worth their salt" ...
:D I like that.
Is that where that saying comes from?

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Post by Eureka » Tue Aug 23, 2005 11:24 am

ThomasGR wrote:It is an urban legend? :shock:
It does look like so many other historical myths: i.e.

* The exclamation, "bloody" means "by our lady".

* The two finger gesture dates back to Agincourt, when French soldiers threatened to cut those fingers off any captured English archers.

* The word f*** is the acronym fornication under the consent of the king.

...and so many more.


The common thread is the linking of something from the present to something from the past in a suspiciously entertaining way.
ThomasGR wrote:Well another legend says, soldiers most times were paid with portion of state land, if he had the luck to survive some ten or twenty years of military service.
Land for service is not a myth, and it's nothing unusual.
ThomasGR wrote:Well I can tell you a story from my childhood. Often my mother gave me a dozen of eggs to go to the grocer to get some kilos of rice. So how much did rice cost? What I did never understand till this age is, what did the grocer do with the eggs? He must have gathered all the eggs of the village, refrigirators didn't exist, and often after some days the eggs went rotten.
Are you joking?
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Post by ThomasGR » Wed Aug 24, 2005 7:11 pm

"Are you joking?"

I am? :?: No, it's one of my earliest memories I have from my childhood. Often I ask my mother about it, but she couldn't tell me either.

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Post by bingley » Thu Aug 25, 2005 2:16 am

Perhaps he gave the eggs to the wholesaler he got his rice from, or the rice farmers if you grew up in a rice-growing area.

Parts of Diocletian's edict on price controls for various goods can be found here:

http://www.fh-augsburg.de/~harsch/Chron ... _ep_i.html

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