Prices in Ancient Rome

People probably have wondered about ancient prices for as long as they have been aware of the existence of ancient coins. There is no shortage of references to prices, expenses and values in ancient texts and inscriptions, but they tend to leave us with as many questions as answers. For instance, Diocletian's Edict is a valuable resource. However, its very existence suggests that there was tremendous pressure driving prices much higher than those quoted in its text. We are left with the question of how nearly its price levels reflected the actual prices realized in the market.

ANY attempt to understand prices in Ancient Rome, simply in terms of a "dollars to denarii" exchange rate, is bound to be confounded with inaccuracies. Manual labor was much less expensive in those days than it is in western, "developed" nations today, and manufactured goods existed then only in the original sense of the word, "made by hand". Of course, there was some streamlining of the process, e.g., the use of molds for ceramic and metal products, and perhaps for some glass products.

The only approach to understanding the ancient price structure(s) which makes any sense is a widespread reading of the prices for services, real estate, commodities, and labor, across a wide range of times and places within the ancient Mediterranean world. It has been asserted, for instance, that no reference exists to the price of a cow in Republican Rome. Whether that is true or not, there is much we do not know (and may never know) about ancient prices. However, as we grow more familiar with the prices that we do have, we may be able to make fair inferences about those we do not have.

A FEW EXAMPLES OF ANCIENT PRICES:

Daily wages 1/2 to 2 denarii (Bible/Rabbinic texts)
Everyday cloak 12 to 30 den.
Loaf of Bread about 1 As
Slave (usually) a few coppers to 200 den.
Cow 100-200 den.
2 sparrows 1 As (Matthew 10:29)
House rent 48 to 288 den. per annum.
From Daniel Sperber, "Roman Palestine,200-400: Money and Prices".

(1st-2nd cent.,C.E.):
Legionary's pay per annum HS1200 (HS = sesterces)
Legionary's bonus on discharge HS12,000
State price for a peck of grain HS 3 (Annals,XV:39)
Martial's new book HS20 (Martial,I:117)
Admission to bath 1 quadrans
Value of a small farm 100,000 sesterces (Pliny,VI:3)

Also, "Juvenal twice says that he could live comfortably as a single man on the income from [HS]400,000 invested capital, plus a few slaves and silver plate. Assuming that his income would be five per cent of his capital...", he could live comfortably on HS20,000 per year. from "The Letters of the Younger Pliny", tr. Betty Radice.

There is a grafitto from Pompeii, translated in #93 of Roman Civilization, Sourcebook II: The Empire, by Lewis and Reinhold, that appears to have been a lodger's accounting of expenses for five days, which I quote [numbers after items purchased refer to Asses] : 

6th [day]: cheese 1, bread 8, oil 3, wine 3
7th:
bread 8, oil 5,onions 5, bowl 1, bread for the slave[?] 2, wine 2
8th:
bread 8, bread for the slave[?] 4, grits 3
9th:
wine for the winner 1 denarius, bread 8, wine 2, cheese 2
10th:
...1 denarius, bread 2, for women 8, wheat 1 denarius, cucumber 1, dates 1, incense 1, cheese 2, sausage 1, soft cheese 4, oil 7

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This site was last updated: 9 August 2002.


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