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Richest men and wages in ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Slave market, Gustave Boulanger
Slave market, Gustaw Boulanger

The social inequalities prevailing in ancient Rome have always been large and only strengthened with the progressive territorial expansion of the Empire. Based on the preserved sources, we are able to collect information about how large disproportions prevailed in Roman society, and how much wealth or earnings could be obtained by citizens. I will try to present selected professional groups and their “outstanding” representatives. The property or earnings will ideally be compared with the earnings of an ordinary Roman soldier, slave prices and selected goods.

The sestertius coin, which was 1/4 of the denarius value, will mainly be used in the presentation of prices or earnings.

Wage in the Roman army

Roman legionaries

When considering prices in ancient Rome, it is also worth looking at what pay a Roman legionary could count on. Thus, the wages of the Roman army gradually increased over the years. Writers in the 2nd century BCE Polybius reports that the soldier received a daily wage of 2 oboles, which was about 120 denarii per year (480 sesterces). Julius Caesar (mid-1st century BCE) raised the wage to 225 denarii (900 sesterces), which was sustained during the reign of Octavian Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE). In Domitian (81-96 CE) it increased to 1,200, in Septimius Severus (193 -211 CE) to 2400, from Caracalla (211-217 CE) to 3600 sesterces and Maximinus Thrax (235-238 CE) raised the pay to 1,800 denarii (7,200 sesterces). A centurion (commander of a centuria) could always count on a much higher salary, compared to an ordinary legionary, and so during the reign of Domitian, he could count on an annual salary of 1800 sesterces (compared to 1200 legionaries). In the 2nd century CE, the centurion’s salary was already 15,000 sesterces, which proves how much support the emperors had in the army and how much attention they paid to the morale and support of the army. In addition, the progressive “deterioration” of money, by reducing the value of precious metals in coins by successive rulers, caused the prices and expected remuneration to rise up.

Prices of slaves

Mosaic showing the master beating a slave.

Slave prices naturally varied throughout history and depended on the skill and uniqueness of the enslaved person. Educated or skilled slaves could cost really large sums of money. For example, in 115 BCE consul Marcus Aemilius Scaurus paid 700,000 sesterces to a certain Attius of Pisaurum for a grammar named Daphnis1. The dependence of money on skill is well illustrated by Cicero, who states that actor Roscius’ apprentice – slave Panurgus – originally cost 4,000 sesterces, but after teaching him to act, he gained at price and it already cost 100,000 sesterces2.

Moving on to prices for a typical slave who worked in the field or at home; Cato the Elder (234-149 CE) believed that a slave should never cost more than 6,000 sesterces3. During the time of the Empire, the price was usually 1200-1500 sesterces, and Horace himself believed that 2000 was a good price for a slave4.

Found in what is now Romania, in Roșia Montană (Roman centre Alburnus Maior), on the site of a former Roman gold mine, wax tablets show us what prices for slaves were in the 2nd century CE. One of the plates, dated 135 CE, is a contract regulating the purchase of a slave girl for 205 denarii (820 sesterces). Another plaque from 142 CE authorizes the sale of a slave boy for 600 denarii (2,400 sesterces).

It is also worth emphasizing that lowering the value of money and progressing inflation caused prices to go up. Below are the preserved provisions of the Edict on the maximum prices of Emperor Diocletian from 301 CE:

Slave in the Edict on the maximum prices of Emperor Diocletian

Price

Male 16-40 years old

30,000 denarii (120,000 sesterces)

Female aged 16-40

25,000 denarii (100,000 sesterces)

Male 40-60 years old

25,000 denarii (100,000 sesterces)

Female 40-60 years of age

20,000 denarii (80,000 sesterces)

8-16-year-old boy/girl

20,000 denarii (80,000 sesterces)

Boy under 8 or male over 60

15,000 denarii (60,000 sesterces)

Girl under 8 or woman over 60

10,000 denarii (40,000 sesterces)

As we can see, the purchase of slaves was not cheap and only people from the richer social class could afford such “luxury”.

Politicians and owners of latifundia

Marcus Licinius Crassus was certainly one of the richest Romans in history. He was killed in 53 BCE shortly after the battle of Carrhae by the Parthians who, according to ancient sources, poured liquid gold into his throat5.

Of course, the greatest wealth could be accumulated by the owners of latifundia, estates, and above all by active politicians who, taking high positions (especially the governorship of the provinces), could multiply their possessions. The famous Roman politician Marcus Licinius Crassus (114 – 53 BCE) was certainly the richest Roman 1st century BCE, if not the richest in the whole history of Rome. He made a lot of money in construction, silver mining, and interest-bearing loans. He organized a “fire brigade” for the city of Rome. When the fire broke out, Crassus and his “firemen” (a unit of 500 slaves) appeared on the spot and first bought the burning building and the ground for a song, and only then his men started putting out the fire. Thus, he became the owner of a large part of Roman properties. Crassus also multiplied wealth in a more traditional way, trading slaves.

According to Pliny the Elder, Marcus Licinius Crassus had a fortune of 200 million sesterces6. Cicero was to buy a house from him in 62 BCE, which was located in a prestigious place – on the Palatine Hill – for 3.5 million sesterces. For this, the famous orator was forced to take out a large loan; what was normal in the ancient world.

Doctors

Doctors were among the specialists who were not respected during the Roman Republic, because usually foreigners, especially Greeks, were not trusted. However, with the gradual transformation of the Republic into the Empire, the attitude of society and the elite changed. This could mean, first of all, a chance for good earnings. Naturally, there was a huge stratification among doctors, where some enjoyed great incomes, while others barely made ends meet. It was mainly due to qualifications, but also knowledge.

Medical devices
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An example of a wealthy physician was a certain Stertinius Xenophon, who was the personal medic Caligula, Claudius and Nero. Through his long work at the imperial court, he managed to earn 600,000 sesterces per year. During Claudius’ reign, he managed to double his salary from 250,000 to 500,000 sesterces. In this way, the court physician would be able to pay the annual wages of over 600 legionaries. Interestingly, high-ranking imperial officials received a maximum of 200,000 sesterces, which emphasizes how strong Xenophon managed to achieve. It is worth noting that Xenophon did not go down in history because of his medical skills, but rather became famous for his wealth and immorality. According to Tacitus, he was to take part in an attempt to kill Claudius.

According to Tacitus:

[…] the poison was sprinkled on an exceptionally fine mushroom; though, as a result of his natural p415 sluggishness or intoxication, the effects of the drug were not immediately felt by Claudius. At the same time, a motion of his bowels appeared to have removed the danger. Agrippina was in consternation: as the last consequences were to be apprehended, immediate infamy would have to be braved; and she fell back on the complicity — which she had already assured — of the doctor Xenophon. He, it is believed, under cover of assisting the emperor’s struggles to vomit, plunged a feather, dipped in a quick poison, down his throat: for he was well aware that crimes of the first magnitude are begun with peril and consummated with profit.

Tacitus, Annales, XII.67

Finally, at the time of his death, Xenophon accumulated a fortune of 30 million sesterces7.

Teachers

Young Nero.
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The teaching profession was initially rather despised by the ancient Romans, and the prevailing belief was that it was the pater familias who should take responsibility for the development of their children. People for this profession were recruited mainly from slaves or freedmen, most often of Greek origin, who almost monopolized this profession. The parents themselves paid for the education, which was often associated with the teachers getting a starvation salary. Often people working in this profession looked for additional jobs to be able – under normal conditions – to lead their existence. With time, however, some schools, or rather teachers, gained a certain prestige, which could ultimately result in the patronage of a wealthy Roman, paying him a salary (honorarium).

Teachers, like doctors, had different material positions. Those with the basic knowledge were usually slaves and could not count on high wages. However, rhetoricians and philosophers with greater knowledge and respect could count on really favourable financial conditions. Rhetoricians (learning to pronounce) and grammarians (learning to write and comprehend content) in particular enjoyed the best job opportunities because they taught Romans in good houses the necessary skills to be successful in the public sphere.

From ancient sources we know the figure of Lucius Apuleius, a grammar employed by the equite Eficius Calvinus for 400,000 sesterces per year8, or about 33,000 sesterces per month. Another grammar, in turn, was Marcus Verrius Flaccus who was hired by Emperor Augustus for 100,000 sesterces a year to teach his grandchildren9.

On the other hand, however, we have an example of a certain Marcus Pompilius Andronicus, a grammar and epicurean who earned so little that he was forced to sell all his works for 16,000 sesterces to a man, who then published them under his name10.

Athletes

Winner of the chariot race on the Roman mosaic.

Ancient Romans loved gladiator fights and chariot racing. Victorious warriors or charioteers became true icons in the Mediterranean world. Interestingly, only slaves and former prisoners of war did not go to the arena. Often the prospect of gaining enormous fortune and fame pushed free-born Romans to the sands of amphitheatres/circuses.

A great example is a certain Gaius Apuleius Diocles, who was probably born a free man. He probably came from a lower social class and was illiterate. Little is known about his youth and no reliable information is available about her, but it was he who became the highest-paid athlete in ancient history. Around the age of 18, he began his sports career as a professional coachman, he participated in chariot races in Circus Maximus – the largest and oldest circus of ancient Rome. The first two years did not bring significant achievements, he won his first race at the age of 20. Initially, he played in the “white” team, after six years he moved to the “green” team, and in 131 CE he joined the “red” team. During his – for those times – exceptionally long career, he took part in 4257 races, in which he won 1,462 times. He ended his career at the age of 42, and he was a cart for 24 years; he most often raced in a quadriga, i.e. a cart drawn by four horses, less often a two-horse chariot, he also used six-horse carts. He was also the first coachman to win a seven-horse carriage race.
Gaius Apuleius Diocles during his career managed to accumulate a huge fortune, which amounted to about 36 million sesterces11.

Gladiators also enjoyed great fame and could gain considerable fortune. We know from Suetonius’ message the story of how Emperor Tiberius promised 100,000 sesterces to each of the veteran gladiators if they returned to the arena12. This proves how much interest they enjoyed among the people. In turn, Nero’s favourite gladiator – a certain Spiculus – received from him an exclusive house as a gift13.

Actors

Mosaic showing a tragic and comedy mask.

Roman actors had a bad reputation, and their morals often faced the modest and decadent lifestyle of Roman society. Most often, the actors were slaves or liberators from the East, due to the fact that Roman law did not see any performances of Roman citizens on the stage. The actors’ performances could be lewd, highly sexual and offensive, leading to criticism by the conservative Roman society.

However, the lack of a good opinion about the actors’ profession did not prevent the actors from being popular. With the conquest of Greece in the 2nd century BCE and the gradual Hellenization of Rome, the popularity of theatrical performances in society grew, leading to many actors enjoying the favour of the Roman elite. We know by name the comedy actor Quintus Roscius (1st century BCE), who earned 500,000 settlements a year14. Roscius was born a slave, but redeemed himself from captivity and achieved enormous success. For one performance in a play, he received a salary of 1,000 denarii (4,000 sesterces). Dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla was so delighted with Roscius that he gave him a golden ring as a symbol of equites’ status. At the end of his life, Roscius was rich enough to perform on stage for free.

It should also be mentioned the figure of Clodius Aesopus, who appeared on stage as a tragic actor, at the same time as Roscius, and also became a very wealthy and recognizable figure.

Earnings of ordinary Romans

Tombstone relief showing a Roman butcher.

In comparison, it is worth paying attention to what earnings could be counted on by ordinary Romans – craftsmen, manual workers and entrepreneurs. The aforementioned tablets from Roya Montană, in Romania, is a great source of information on prices and expenses in your daily life. For example, a tablet from 164 CE confirms the employment of a certain Memmius to work in the mine for 176 days. The employer undertakes to provide food and pay 70 denarii (280 sesterces) per day and 10 deniers additional for Memmius ‘ children. A tablet from 159 CE confirms that half of the house is purchased for 300 denarii (1,200 sesterces). However, he also mentions from the tablets that the young piglet cost 5 deniers (20 sesterces), bread 2 denarii (8 sesterces), and five lambs cost 18 deniers (72 sesterces).

A great help in getting to know the living conditions of the Romans is the aforementioned Edict on the maximum prices of Emperor Diocletian from 301 CE, which set maximum prices to prevent progressive inflation. For example, blue-collar workers, shepherds, mule drivers and sewage cleaners could only earn 20-25 denarii per day (80-100 sesterces). For this amount, they could buy about 2 libra (about 600 g) pork. Craftsmen, e.g. carpenters, bakers or mosaic makers, received 40-50 denarii per day (160-200 sesterces). A painter received 150 denarii (600 sesterces) per day, and a lawyer received 1,000 denarii (4,000 sesterces) for appearing in the trial.

Prices in the Roman world

Finally, sample prices from the Edict of Diocletian from 301 CE.

  • 1 sextarius (approx. half a litre) of good quality mature wine – 24 denarii;
  • 1 sextarius (approx. half a litre) of inferior quality mature wine – 16 denarii;
  • 1 sextarius of good quality honey – 40 denarii;
  • 1 chicken breast – 60 denarii;
  • 1 libra (approx. 300 grams) fish – 12 denarii;
  • 1 sextarius (approx. half a liter) of Gaul/Pannonia beer – 4 denarii;
  • 1 modius (approx. 9 litres) of wheat – 100 denarii;
  • 1 modius (approx. 9 liters) lentils – 100 denarii;
  • 1 libra (approx. 300 grams) of butter – 16 denarii;
  • 1 libra (approx. 300 grams) grape – 1 denarius;
  • 1 cabbage or lettuce – 0.5 denarius;
  • 1 sextarius (approx. half a litre) of fresh olive oil – 40 denarii;
  • 1 sextarius (approx. half a liter) garum – 16 denarii;
  • military winter tunic – 75 denarii;
  • wool from Tarentum – 75 denarii;
  • white silk – 12,000 denarii;
  • women’s shoes – 60 denarii;
  • shoes for senators – 100 denarii;
  • soldier’s boots – 75 denarii.
Footnotes
  1. Pliny the Elder, Natural history, VII.39
  2. Cicero, Pro Sexto Roscio Amerino
  3. Plutarch, Cato the Elder, 4.4
  4. Horace, Satires, 2.7..43
  5. Cassius Dio, Roman history, 40.27
  6. Pliny the Elder, Natural history, XXXIII.10.134
  7. Tacitus, Annales, XXIX.4
  8. Suetonius, De grammaticis​, 3
  9. Suetonius, De grammaticis​, 17
  10. Suetonius, De grammaticis​, 8
  11. Inscrption CIL VI, no. 10048
  12. Suetonius, Tiberius​, 7
  13. Suetonius, Nero​, 30
  14. Pliny the Elder, Natural history, VII.39
Sources
  • Ancient Wages and Prices. The Purchasing Power of Ancient Coins, "Forum Ancient Coins"
  • Gregory S. Aldrete, Daily Life in the Roman City: Rome, Pompeii and Ostia
  • Matthew Dillon, Lynda Garland, The Ancient Romans: History and Society from the Early Republic to the Death of Augustus
  • Oliver Goldsmith, Goldsmith's Roman History
  • M. A. Speidel, Heer und Herrschaft im Römischen Reich der Hohen Kaiserzeit, Stuttgart 2009
  • Vindolanda Charitable Trust
  • Thomas Wiedemann, Greek and Roman Slavery

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