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When studying Ancient Rome, it is only natural to wonder what the price of everyday items might have been.  In order to fully understand the price of an item, you must also consider the wages workers received at the time the item was purchased.

Before you study the information below, it is helpful to understand that professions were valued differently in ancient times than they are today.  Likewise, the value of items was different then than now.  For instance, in today's world, one might spend 20% of their total income on food, but in ancient times the cost may have been 50% or more of one's total income.  In fact, during parts of the history of Rome, food costs were so high that without free wheat subsidies from the government, the common people would not have been able to survive!  These subsidies were known as ‘doles' and according to AEJ Morris'sHistory of Urban Form[1970 George Godwin LTD], up to 1/3 of the citizens of the capital city received this public assistance.

Grain formed the foundation of the common Roman's diet.  It was not uncommon for grain to be the only thing a poor Roman ever ate.  The cost of baking bread was very high to a poor Roman, so if no access to a communal, public oven could be had, the grain would be crushed and made into a porridge known as ‘puls' that was likely similar in taste and texture to modern polenta.  While we take it for granted today, meat was an extravagant luxury that most Romans could not afford to indulge in.

Clothing was another expensive proposition.  One‘libra'(Roman pound, just under of a modern pound, 326 grams), of fine silk cost more than a dozen human beings.  It seems absurd to us today, but such was the case, because ancient Romans lacked the production machines of today that make cheap fabric possible.  For the commoners, fashion was not a consideration.  Clothing was utilitarian, had to be durable, and was patched until finally the garment became the thing from which patches were taken for its replacement.

Historically, the cost of living has expanded to consume all of the income that is available to the majority of the people in the society.  As technology has enabled faster production, technology has also introduced new things to consume the income the increased productivity creates.  The ancient Romans did not have many things to pay for in comparison to life today, yet it was every bit as much a struggle for them to survive as it is today, and probably, it was even more of a struggle.

As you read the data below, consider what you might have been in ancient Rome.  Would you have been a carpenter?  A mason?  Would you have been fortunate enough to receive an education and become an advocate (ancient equivalent of the modern lawyer)?  Pick your profession, and then take a look at the kind of food and clothing you would have been able to afford.  You might gain a new appreciation for modern life!

All the prices and wages are listed indenariicommunes, which were not actually silverdenariias we usually think of when discussing ancient Roman coinage. Denarii communes, or d.c., were notational currency.  What this means is, an exchange rate was given, telling how much of the currency in circulation at that time (nummi) it took to equal one d.c.  This made it easy to change the value of the money in circulation, without having to rewrite and redistribute the entire edict.  A series of exchange tables are at the end of this handout.

* FOR YOUNGER STUDENTS - SEE SHORTER VERSION  pp 9 and 10 *

Wages in 301 AD in theRoman Empire

All data based on Diocletian's "Edict of Maximum Prices" issued in 301 AD

General Laborers

brick maker, for every 4 fired bricks and preparation of the clay....................... 2
brick maker, for every 8 sun dried bricks, and preparation of the clay............... 2

clerk (based on specified bath attendant wage)................................................. 25

farm laborer, with maintenance......................................................................... 25

lime burner, with maintenance........................................................................... 50

mule driver, camel driver, with maintenance...................................................... 25
sewer cleaner, working a full day, with maintenance.......................................... 25

shepherd, with maintenance.............................................................................. 25

water carrier, working a full day, with maintenance........................................... 25

all other general labor....................................................................................... 25

Skilled Laborers

barber, per customer....................................................................................... 2

cabinet maker, with maintenance...................................................................... 50

carpenter, with maintenance, daily.................................................................... 50

stone mason, with maintenance......................................................................... 50

figure painter, with maintenance........................................................................ 150

fuller (Wool weaver), per cloak........................................................................ 175

marble paving and walls custodian, with maintenance........................................ 60
wall mosaics worker, with maintenance............................................................ 60
model maker, with maintenance........................................................................ 75

other plaster worker, with maintenance................................................. 50

parchment maker, for a quaternion, white or yellow parchment......................... 40

shipwright of a river vessel, with maintenance.................................................... 50

shipwright of a seagoing vessel, with maintenance............................................. 60

tessellated floormaker , with maintenance......................................................... 50

wagon blacksmith, with maintenance................................................................ 50
wagonwright, with maintenance........................................................................ 50

wall painter, with maintenance.......................................................................... 75

Professionals

advocate, for opening a case............................................................................ 250
for pleading a case........................................................................................... 1000

scribe, for the best writing 100 lines.................................................................. 25

for second quality writing..................................................................... 20

secretary......................................................................................................... 35
notary, for writing a petition or legal document.................................................. 10

Teachers in AncientRome

A teacher in ancient Rome would have lived in the home of a wealthy patrician, who would have provided the teacher with food and clothing appropriate to the house.  The teacher would not have had much spending money, but would have lived comfortably just the same.  These are salaries indenariiper month, per student.

elementary teacher............................................................................... 50

arithmetic teacher................................................................................. 75

Greek, Latin literature or geometry....................................................... 200

teacher of rhetoric (public speaking)..................................................... 250

Soldiers in Ancient Rome

Soldiering was one of the best ways a Roman male could provide for his family.  The base wage was low, not enough to live on.  Four times a year, a soldier received a "donative" greater than his annual base pay.  Additionally, soldiers received an annual "annona" subsidy for grain purchases.  The best soldiers hoped to be recruited to the Praetorian Guard, the soldiers who guarded the emperor.  These soldiers were paid roughly 3 times the base wage of the average soldier, and likely enjoyed many additional privileges as well.

Soldiers had high expenses in their profession, but they still came out much better than the average citizen even after expenses.  The soldiers were expected to pay for much of their own equipment, rations, and clothing.  They even had to pay part of the cost of burial for their fallen from their unit.

Soldiers' Pay:     

average Roman soldier,annually........................................................................ 1800

Praetorian Guard, annually............................................................................... 5500

annual grain annona (1 per year)....................................................................... 600

donative (4 per year)....................................................................................... 2500

Additionally, every soldier received a grain allotment of

30 modii of wheat per year that would be worth................................... 3000

Total Annual Pay for an average Roman Soldier............................................... 15,400

For a Praetorian Guard.................................................................................... 19,100

Compare that to a general laborer working 305 days a year.................................................. 7625

Soldiers' Costs:

boots, without hobnails.................................................................................... 100

shoes, soldiers................................................................................................. 75

saddle............................................................................................................. 500

polisher, for a sword........................................................................................ 25
       for a helmet.............................................................................................. 25
       for an axe................................................................................................. 6
       for a double axe........................................................................................ 8
       for a sword scabbard................................................................................ 100

Prices in 301 AD in theRoman Empire

All data based on Diocletian's "Edict of Maximum Prices" issued in 301 AD

The Edict of Maximum Prices was an attempt to control runaway inflation and poverty in the Empire.  The penalty for exceeding the prices of the Edict was severe: death.  Not satisfied to execute just the seller, Diocletian decreed that the buyer was to be executed as well.  As a final measure, if a seller refused to sell his goods at the stated price, the penalty was death.

Food

 

Dry Foods

Prices refer to one modius unless otherwise indicated. 1 modius=8 liters dry measure.

alfalfa seed...................................................................................................... 150

barley.............................................................................................................. 60

barley, cleaned................................................................................................ 100

beans.............................................................................................................. 60

beans, crushed................................................................................................. 100

chickpeas........................................................................................................ 100

flaxseed........................................................................................................... 150

hayseed........................................................................................................... 30
lentils............................................................................................................... 100

millet, crushed.................................................................................................. 100
millet, whole.................................................................................................... 50

oats................................................................................................................. 30

peas, crushed.................................................................................................. 100
peas................................................................................................................ 60

rice, cleaned.................................................................................................... 200
rye.................................................................................................................. 60

salt.................................................................................................................. 100
sesame............................................................................................................ 200

wheat.............................................................................................................. 100


Fruits & Vegetables

cabbage or lettuce, head.................................................................................. 1-2 ½

dessert grapes, libra......................................................................................... 1

fenugreek, modius............................................................................................ 100

peaches, one, up to.......................................................................................... 1-2 ½

Prices in 301 AD in theRoman Empire

Food (continued)

Meats and Fish

Prices refer to one libra unless otherwise noted. 1 libra=326 grams or just under pound.

beef................................................................................................................. 8

chicken............................................................................................................ 60

fish, freshwater................................................................................................ 12

second quality...................................................................................... 8

fish, saltwater................................................................................................... 25

second quality...................................................................................... 16

goose, fattened................................................................................................ 200

not fattened......................................................................................... 100

goat................................................................................................................. 12

lamb................................................................................................................ 12

pheasant, depending on variety......................................................................... 125-250

pork................................................................................................................ 12

sausage, depending on variety.......................................................................... 10-16

Wine, Beer & Oil

Prices refer to one sextarius.  1 sextarius=1.14 Pints or .546 liters

beer, Celtic or Pannonian................................................................................. 4

Egyptian.............................................................................................. 2

Aminean, Falernian, Picene, Sabine, Tiburtine regional wines............................ 30

aged wine........................................................................................................ 24

second quality...................................................................................... 16

chrysattic wine................................................................................................. 24
Maeonian wine, boiled down one-third............................................................. 30
must, boiled down........................................................................................... 16
must, boiled down one-half.............................................................................. 20
rose wine......................................................................................................... 20

spiced wine..................................................................................................... 24
wine with wormwood...................................................................................... 20
vin ordinaire (ordinary wine)............................................................................. 8

olive oil, fresh.................................................................................................. 40

second quality...................................................................................... 24

liquamen (fish sauce seasoning)........................................................................ 16

second quality...................................................................................... 12

vinegar and wine vinegar.................................................................................. 6

Prices in 301 AD in theRoman Empire
ClothingFabric

Prices are per item or libra for raw materials.

African cloak................................................................................................... 500

Dalmatian tunic................................................................................................ 2000

hooded cloak, Laodicean................................................................................. 4500

soldier's winter tunic........................................................................................ 75

wool from Tarentum........................................................................................ 75

white silk......................................................................................................... 12,000

purple silk..................................................................................................... 150,000

Purple silk was to be used only at the direction of the Emperor under penalty of death.

Boots and Shoes

boots for mule drivers or farm workers, without hobnails.................................. 120
boots for soldiers, without hobnails................................................................... 100

women's boots................................................................................................ 60
patrician's shoes.............................................................................................. 150
senatorial shoes............................................................................................... 100
equestrian's shoes............................................................................................ 70
soldier's shoes................................................................................................. 75

Sandals and Gallic Sandals

double-soled Gallic sandals for farm workers................................................... 80
single soled Gallic sandals................................................................................ 50
Gallic sandals for runners................................................................................. 60
women's oxhide sandals double-soled.............................................................. 50

 Image

Sketch by  Marvin Tameanko of actual Roman Jug  found during

 an excavation inLondon.   It is inscribed / addressed to

"TheTempleofIsisinLondon"
Exchange Rates of Currency toDenarii Communes
From 297 to 308 A.D.

                                   Number ofDenarii Communesexchanged for:

               Period

Coin (mat'l.)      

293-300

300-301

301-307

       Aureus(gold)

600

1200

2400

Argenteus(silver)
 

25

50

100

Nummus (billon)
 

5

12.5

25

Radiate (billon)
 

2

2.5

5

Laureate (bronze)
 

1

1

1

Base Currency Unit

To determine the buying power of the currencies above for a given time period, compare the exchange rate of the actual currency to the prices or wages listed on the preceding pages indenarii communesusing the formula below:

(Price from list in d.c.) X (Number of coins exchanged perd.c.from chart above) = Cost or Wage in actual currency

 
Suggestions for further reading

 Tenney Frank,Economic Survey of AncientRome  (Baltimore, 1940)

 Jo-Ann Shelton,As The Romans Did   (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998)

SHORTER  VERSION  FOR  YOUNGER  STUDENTS

Wages and Food Costs in AncientRome

Common Food Items

and their Prices in 301 AD

During the reign of Diocletian

Barley, Rye

60 Denarii per Modius

Beans, Crushed

100 Denaris per Modius

Beans, Whole

60 Denarii per Modius

Beef, Mutton or Goat

8 Denarii per Libra

Beer

2 to 4 Denarii per Libra

Cabbage and Lettuce

1 to 2 Quintarius

Cheese

8 Denarii per Libra

Chickens

30 Denarii

Eggs

1 Denarius

Fish, River

8 to 10 Denarii per Libra

Fish, Sea

15 to 25 Denarii per Libra

Goose

100 to 200 Denarii

Ham

20 Denarii per Libra

Honey

10 to 40 Denarii per Sextarius

Lentil Beans

100 Denarii per Modius

Sausage

10 to 16 Denarii per Libra

Olive Oil

40 Denarii per Sextarius

Peaches

1 to 2 Quintarius

Pheasant

125 to 250 Denarii

Pork or Lamb

12 Denarii per Libra

Rice, cleaned

200 Denarii per Modius

Salt

100 Denarii per Modius

Wheat

100 Denarii per Modius

Wine

16 to 30 Denarii per Sextarius

Common Professions
and Their Wages
In Ancient Rome

Artist, mosaic worker

50 - 60 Denarii per day

Barber

2 Denarii per customer

Bath Attendant

20 -25 Denarii per day

Carpenter

50 Denarii per day

Farm Laborer

25 Denarii per day †

Fortune Teller

20 - 25 Denarii per day

Fuller (Wool weaver)

175 Denarii per cloak

Linen Weaver

20 - 40 Denarii per day †

Manual Laborer

25 Denarii per day

Messenger

18 - 20 Denarii per day

Scribe

1 Denarius per 5 - 7 lines

Secretary

30 - 35 Denarii per day

Skilled Tradesman

35 - 75 Denarii per day

Stone Mason

50 Denarii per day

Teacher, elementary

50 Denarii per month ‡

Teacher, advanced

250 Denarii per month ‡

Soldiers in AncientRome:

Soldiering was one of the best ways a Roman male could provide for his family.  The base wage was low, not enough to live on.  Recognizing the importance of the soldiers, the emperors paid what can be equated to a quarterly bonus.  Four times a year, a soldier received a "donative" greater than his annual base pay!  Additionally, soldiers received an annual "annona" subsidy for grain purchases.  Furthermore, the best soldiers may have been recruited to the Praetorian Guard, the soldiers who guarded the emperor.  These soldiers were paid roughly 3 times the base wage of the average soldier.  Praetorian Guards were respected and feared, even by the emperor himself, and likely enjoyed many additional privileges as well.

Soldiers' Base Pay:                1800 Denarii per year               Praetorian Guard:         5500 Denarii per year

Annual Grain Annona:             600 Denarii per year

Donative (4 per year)             2500 Denarii

Grain allotment                      30 Modii of wheat per year

†  Some employers supplemented the salaries of these professions with "Keep".  That meant that the worker was allowed to retain some of what they produced- usually scrap or in the case of grain, what could be carried from the ground at day's end.  This was a huge benefit to the worker... and perhaps the source of the phrase "Earns his keep."

‡  The teaching professions were paid the amount shown per student.  Teaching was done in the homes of the wealthy patrons who hired the teacher for one-on-one educating.  The style resembled today's tutoring more than the Greek or current models of classrooms of many students.  Thus, teachers were paid poorly.  It is assumed that room and board were often provided.

©2002 Mike Dalka.  Permission is hereby granted to reproduce and distribute this document for any noncommercial educational purpose.  Distributed by Ancient Coins for Education, Inc., a nonprofit corporation. PO Box 3115, Burbank, CA 91508