The rarity of records regarding the prices of individual goods or services makes it quite difficult for us to determine how much and for what we had to pay in the vast times and areas of the Roman Empire. Wages related to military issues are slightly better documented.
It should also be emphasized here that both inflation and recession acted in a way similar to the modern world – often caused by political reasons (new ruler, state instability, bad harvest or even the introduction of new money); all of this could affect the prices of individual goods and services. In addition, the prices of a given item were influenced by the location – in production areas, prices were lower (even many times) than in urbanized areas, such as Rome or other large cities. The rising prices were also heavily influenced by the gradual resignation from the expansionist wars that brought Rome, at the end of the Republic, a large amount of money, loot and masses of slaves.
At the time of the Republic, it was a silver coin equal to 1/4 denarius (2.5 asses); while during the empire, the bronze (or copper) coin introduced by the emperor Octavian was already equal to 4 asses.
To understand the prices in ancient Rome, you need to understand what the basic denominations and coins were. Below I present the monetary conversion rate used in the empire throughout the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, which will allow you to better understand the amounts given later.
- 1 aureus = 25 denarii
- 1 denarius = 4 sesterce
- 1 sesterce = 2 dupondius
- 1 dupondius = 2 asses
- 1 as = 2 semis
- 1 semis = 2 quadrants
Prices in sources
We know from Martial1 that 2 asses were a very low price; Seneca the Younger2, in turn, claimed that this amount allowed to ensure a “feast” for a poor person or a captive. It should therefore be noted that the sources may be mutually exclusive.
We also have a lot of information about prices from selected ancient sources. For example, Marcjalis’ rare first book of Epigrams cost 20 sesterces3, and a copy of his 13th book is only 4 sesterces. As you can see, books in Roman times did not cost much. On the other hand, Pliny mentions in his letters that Juvenal – a Roman satirical poet from the turn of the 1st and 2nd centuries CE – lived in comfortable conditions. His fortune was approximately 400,000 sesterces; he also owned several slaves and a silver-plated tray.
Pliny the Elder reports that Cicero was supposed to buy a rare table for one million sesterces; similarly, in the time of Augustus, Gallus Asinius had a table for one million one hundred thousand sesterces4. A pair of pigeons, according to Varro (1st century BCE), cost a thousand sesterces, when in Nero’s time, it could have cost 4 thousand sesterces.
Admission (balneaticum) to public baths was sometimes free, and sometimes only required a small amount – 1 quarter of an hour (quadrans), or 1/4 of as5. The payment was made to the term manager (balneator). Children under a certain age could always use the baths free of charge.
In 62 BCE Cicero was to buy a house from Licinius Crassus, located in a prestigious place – on the Palatine – until for 3.5 million sesterces. For this, the famous orator was forced to take out a large loan; which was normal in the ancient world. Thanks to Pliny the Younger, we know that the income from renting a small country estate at the turn of the 1st and 2nd centuries CE was 100,000 sesterces per year6.
In the book Sitty von Reden, Money in Classical Antiquity, we find a very interesting comparison of grain prices in the 3rd BCE – 1st century CE.
Price for modius (8.73 liters)
c. 100 BCE
Originally, the basic coin used by the Romans in transactions was an As. With time, it gave way to the sestertius created during the Second Punic War. As can be seen above, grain prices have changed over the years. There is a clear increase in price during the competition with Hannibal, which resulted from the destruction in Italy and the need to import grain from Egypt. You can also see a decrease in the price of grain after the end of the Second Punic War, which in turn resulted from the enormous contributions that Rome made to Carthage and the economic improvement of the Roman state.
In the 2nd-1st centuries BCE, an amphora of cheap wine was to cost 20 sesterces (5 denarii). According to Polybius in Sicily, a fertile and wealthy island, 1 medimnos (approx. 6 x modius) of barley cost 1 drachma; similarly hare/goat; lamb 3-4 oboles; fat pig 5 drachmas (the equivalent is Roman victoriatus), sheep 2 drachmas, harnessed ox 10 drachmas.
We learn a lot about the expenses of ordinary citizens of course from Pompeii. It was there in one of the houses that the Roman “graffiti” survived; the resident calculates his expenses on the wall for the next five days (prices in asses):
- 6th day: cheese 1, bread 8, oil 3, wine 3;
- 7th day: bread 8, oil 5, onion 5, bowl 1, bread for a slave (?) 2, wine 2;
- 8th day: bread 8, bread for a slave (?) 4, husked oats 3;
- 9th day: good wine 1 denarius, bread 8, wine 2, cheese 2;
- 10th day: (?) 1 denarius, 2 bread, 8 for woman, 1 denier wheat, 1 cucumber, 1 date, 1 incense, 2 cheese, 1 sausage, 4 soft cheese, 7 oil.
Researchers believe that this home cost estimate proved that low-class people could have survived for really little money, Seneca recalled. The cost of maintaining one family (here probably 3 people + 1 slave) was around 8 asses.
Interesting information was also left by the tombstone of Lucius Calidius Eroticus and his wife Fannia Voluptatis. The object was found in Isernia, in southern Italy, and dates back to the 1st-2nd century CE. The tombstone inscription says:
Calidius Eroticus made [this monument] for himself and Fannia Voluptas while still alive.
– Innkeeper! Let’s work out the bill!
– You’ve had a sextarius of wine, and bread: one as. Relish, two asses.
– The girl, eight asses.
– That’s okay too.
– Hay for the mule, two asses.
– That bloody mule will be the ruin of me.
As the researchers note, it is possible that the tombstone also served as an advertisement for an inn and, as you can see, playful dialogue.
The male and female nicknames themselves are interesting. Acclaimed historian Mary Beard translates the nicknames Eroticus and Voluptatis as “Mr Hot Sex” and “Madame Gorgeous”.
Edict of Diocletian of CE 301
In the 1st and 2nd centuries CE prices were relatively stable, but in the third century CE, as a result of a deep economic crisis, there was a great deal of inflation (mainly due to the lower quality of the coins). To prevent this from happening, in 301 CE Emperor Diocletian issued a special edict
The edict Diocletian with maximum prices from CE 301, known as Edictum Diocletiani et Collegarum de Pretiis Rerum Venalium, was intended to combat the progressive inflation in the Roman Empire by setting maximum prices on more than 1,400 products, slaves or services. The edict has survived to our times partly due to fragments of inscriptions (in Greek and Latin) on stone slabs found mainly in the eastern territories of the Empire, in 42 places.
List of maximum prices for products and services
In the edict, we will find subsequent chapters in which products or services are grouped. Interestingly, local goods were also included. Below are some examples of prices or earnings from given groups.
It is worth mentioning that the denarius at that time became a computing coin:
- aureus – 1600 denarii
- argenteus = 100 denarii
- follis = 20 denarii
- 1/4 of follis = 4 denarii
- Legumes and grains
- Wheat – 100 denarii for about 17 liters
- Barley – 60 denarii for 17 liters
- Millet, shelled – 100 denarii for about 17 liters
- Spelled – 100 denarii for about 17 liters
- Sesame – 200 denarii for 17 liters
- Cumin, refined – 200 denarii for about 17 liters
- Wine, beer
- Normal wine – 8 denarii for 0.5 liters
- Sabine wine – 30 denarii for 0.5 liters
- Wheat beer – 4 denarii for 0.5 liters
- Oil, salt, vinegar, honey
- Extra virgin olive oil, first quality – 40 denarii for 0.5 liters
- Vinegar – 6 denarii for 0.5 liters
- Garum, first quality – 16 denarii for 0.5 liters
- Salt – 100 denarii for about 17 liters
- Honey, good quality – 40 denarii for 0.5 liters
- Pork – 12 denarii for about 300 g
- Beef – 8 denarii for about 300 g
- Beef sausage – 10 denarii for about 300 g
- Fattened goose – 200 denarii
- A pair of chickens – 60 denarii
- Thrushes – 60 denarii for 10
- Peacock – 300 denarii
- A pair of ducks – 40 denarii
- Rabbit – 40 denarii
- Wild boar meat – 16 denarii for about 300 g
- Fish, seafood, cheese
- Sea fish, not bony – 24 denarii for about 300 g
- River fish, second quality – 8 denarii for about 300 g
- Salted fish – 6 denarii for about 300 g
- Oysters – 100 denarii for 100 pieces
- Dried cheese – 12 denarii for about 300 g
- Sardines – 16 denarii for about 300 g
- Vegetables, fruit, eggs, milk
- Good quality lettuce – 4 denarii for 5
- Cabbage, second quality – 4 denarii for 10
- Beets, larger ones – 4 denarii for 5
- Garlic – 60 denarii for 17 liters
- Turnips, smaller – 4 denarii for 20
- Radish, larger – 4 denarii for 10
- After, larger – 4 denarii for 10
- Eggs – 4 denarii for 4
- Asparagus, wild – 4 denarii for 50
- Melon, large – 4 denarii for 2
- Watermelon – 4 denarii for 4
- Small apples – 4 denarii for 40
- Figs – 4 denarii for about 300 g
- Sheep’s milk – 8 denarii for 0.5 liters
- Wages of artisans
- Manual worker, with maintenance – 25 denarii per day
- Mason, with maintenance – 50 denarii per day
- Wall painter, with maintenance – 75 denarii per day
- Constructor of terracotta figurines, with maintenance – 75 denarii per day
- Baker, with maintenance – 50 denarii per day
- Shepherd, with maintenance – 25 denarii per day
- Hairdresser – 2 denarii per client
- Mule driver, with maintenance – 25 denarii per day
- Veterinarian, hoof clipper and hoof grooming – 6 denarii per animal
- Armorer, for sharpening a sword used – 25 denarii for a sword
- Notary for writing a petition or drawing up a document – 10 denarii for 100 lines
- Tailor, for cutting and finishing the coat (type caracalla) – 25 denarii apiece
- Gymnastics instructor – 50 denarii for a month of care for the mentee
- Arithmetic teacher – 75 denarii for a month of care
- Cloakroom in a private bathhouse – 2 denarii for each patient
- Babylonian leather, first quality – 500 denarii
- Goatskin, the largest, unburned – 40 denarii
- Sheepskin hat, complete – 200 denarii
- Sheepskin, the largest, tanned – 30 denarii
- Tanned Hyena Skin – 60 denarii
- Deer hide, tanned, top quality – 100 denarii
- Wolf skin, tanned – 40 denarii
- Seal skin, tanned – 1500 denarii
- Lion skin, tanned – 1000 denarii
- Shoes, sandals
- Boots for soldiers, no reinforcement – 100 denarii
- Shoes for senators – 100 denarii
- Shoes for the mule driver – 60 denarii
- Sandals for farming – 80 denarii
- Gallic sandals for couriers – 60 denarii
- Babylonian sandals – 120 denarii
- Men’s slippers, first-class quality – 60 denarii
- Women’s flip-flops, first-class quality – 50 denarii
- Leather goods
- First quality travel bag – 1500 denarii
- Military saddle – 500 denarii
- Sack, first quality – 120 denarii
- Camel and goat products
- Bristles – 6 denarii for about 300 g
- Fir board, 50 cubits long – 50,000 denarii
- Oak board, 14 cubits long – 250 denarii
- Ash plank, 14 cubits long – 250 denarii
- Combs, spindles – equipment for working with hair
- Boxwood comb – 12 denarii
- Wooden items/products
- 30 ranks – 150 denarii
- A portion of firewood for mule – 30 denarii for 98 kg
- Wooden vehicle parts and parts; tools
- Axis non-rotating – 200 denarii
- Clamp, inverted – 45 denarii
- Sleeper wagon – 7500 or 400 denarii (depending on type)
- Freight wagon – 6000 or 3500 denarii (depending on the type)
- Shovel – 4 denarii
- Manual grinder – 250 denarii
- Large sieve – 200 denarii
- Round brick – 4 denarii
- Ivory, needles, glass
- Ivory – 150 denarii for about 300 g
- Indian turtle shell – 100 denarii for about 300 g
- Alexandria glass – 24 denarii for about 300 g
- Second quality sewing needle – 2 denarii
- Inland transport
- Fee for one person – 2 denarii per mile
- Fee for the entire van – 12 denarii per mile
- Down, feathers and lining
- Goose down – 100 denarii for about 300 g
- A peacock feather, better – 2 denarii
- Willow down – 1000 denarii for 30 kg
- Vulture Feather – 6 denarii for 25
- Writing ink – 12 denarii for about 300 g
- Military coat, the best quality – 4000 denarii
- Cover used as a tent – 2500 denarii
- White bed cover – 1600 denarii
- Cloak of wool from the city of Mutina or Laodicea, with a purple stripe – 15,000 denarii
- Short coat – 1000 denarii
- Cover from Africa – 1500 denarii
- Wages for embroiderers
- An embroiderer working with pure silk, with maintenance – 25 denarii per day
- Wages for weavers
- Linen weaver, good quality, with maintenance – 40 denarii per day
- Wages for fullers
- For an unadorned tunic made of thicker wool – 20 denarii
- For a new light coat made of wool from the city of Mutina – 250 denarii
- White unprocessed silk – 12,000 denarii for approximately 300 g
- Purple dyed wool – 50,000 denarii for about 300 g
- Taranto wool, washed – 175 denarii for about 300 g
- Combed linen, non-spun, first-class – 24 denarii for about 300 g
- Len, others
- Len, others
- Fabrics and purple
- Gold and silver
- Gold, pure, in bars or coins – 72,000 denarii for about 300 g
- Silver, pure, in bars or coins – 6000 denarii for about 300 g
- Male aged 16-40 – 30,000 denarii
- Woman aged 16-40 – 25,000 denarii
- Male aged 40-60 years – 25,000 denarii
- Woman aged 40-60 – 20,000 denarii
- Boy / girl aged 8-16 – 20,000 denarii
- Boy up to 8 years of age or male over 60 years of age – 15,000 denarii
- A girl under 8 or a woman over 60 – 10,000 denarii
- Cattle and draft animals
- Cow, good quality – 2000 denarii
- Sheep, good quality – 400 denarii
- Ass to ride – 15,000 denarii
- Donkey to wear – 7000 denarii
- Camel of Arabia, good quality – 12,000 denarii
- Racehorse – 100,000 denarii
- A bull, of good quality – 5000 denarii
- Marbles and other stones
- White marble – 75 denarii for 0.028 m3
- Green marble – 150 denarii for 0.028 m3
- Gray granite from Claudianus mons in Egypt – 100 denarii for 0.028 m3
- Porphyry from Egypt – 250 denarii for 0.028 m3
- Wild animals
- Ostrich – 5000 denarii
- Bear, first class – 25,000 denarii
- Wild boar, first class – 6000 denarii
- Lion, First Class – 150,000 denarii
- Leopard, first class – 100,000 denarii
- Parchment, papyrus
- Red wax – 25 denarii for about 300 g
- Palm fiber basket – 4 denarii
- Adhesives, spices, dyes, fragrances and more
- Saffron from Arabia – 2000 for about 300 g
- Good quality incense – 100 denarii for about 300 g
- Pepper – 800 denarii for about 300 g
- Dried ginger – 250 denarii for about 300 g
- Rose oil, first quality – 80 denarii for about 300 g
- Rose honey – 75 denarii for about 300 grams
- Sea and river transport
- Alexandria – Rome/Ostia – 16 denarii for about 17 liters of goods
- Nicomedia – Rome – 18 denarii for about 17 liters of goods
- Sicily – Rome/Messana – 6 denarii for approx. 17 liters of goods
- Spain – Rome – 10 denarii for about 17 liters of goods
- Rome – Achaya/Corinth – 14 denarii for about 17 liters of goods
- Rome – Syria – 18 denarii for 17 liters of goods
Earnings of ordinary Romans
For comparison, it is worth paying attention to what earnings could be counted on by ordinary Romans – craftsmen, manual workers and entrepreneurs. The previously mentioned signs from Roșia Montană, Romania, are a great source of information about prices and expenses in everyday life. For example, a tablet from 164 CE confirms hiring 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 denarii additional for Memmius’ children. Tablet from 159 CE confirms the purchase of half of the house for 300 denarii (1200 sesterces). However, he also mentions from the tablets that the young piglet cost 5 denarii (20 sesterces), bread 2 denarii (8 sesterces), and five lambs cost 18 denarii (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.
Diocletian’s edict from 301 CE is one of the most valuable sources for Roman prices. However, it is believed that the prices shown in the text were in fact much higher. We must, therefore, analyze the prices with which we were “beaten” and presume to what extent the presented values correspond to the real market prices of ancient Rome.
Wage in the Roman army
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 were 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.
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 Emilius Scaurus paid 700,000 sesterces to a certain Attius of Pisaurum for the grammar of Daphnis7. The dependence of money on skill is well illustrated by Cicero, who states that the student of actor Roscius – the slave Panurgus – originally cost 4,000 sesterces, but after teaching him how to act, he gained in price and it already cost 100,000 sesterces8.
Moving on to prices for a typical slave to work in the field or at home; Cato the Elder (234-149 BCE) believed that a slave should never cost more than 6,000 sesterces9. During imperial times, the price was usually between 1200-1500 sesterces, and Horace himself believed that 2000 was a good price for a slave10.
Found in present-day Romania, at 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 tablets, dated to 135 CE, is a contract regulating the purchase of a slave girl for 205 denarii (820 sesterces). Another tablet from 142 CE approves the sale of a slave boy for 600 denarii (2,400 sesterces).
Roman prices converted into “zloty”
In 2013, researchers from the Center for Research on the Antiquity of Southeastern Europe of the University of Warsaw tried to assess how much Roman goods could cost Polish zlotys and what wages were received in the 1st century CE in the Roman Empire. In their estimates, the researchers tried to take into account the value of the aggregate and the purchasing power of money11. Examples of earnings:
- bricklayers and bakers – around 6,000 PLN monthly,
- cloak cleaner – 3,000 PLN per month,
- painter of frescoes – 18,000 PLN per month,
- teacher for each student – PLN 30,000 PLN per month,
- annual legionary’s pay – about 27,000 PLN,
- winner of the chariot race – PLN 1.5 million once.
Prices for basic goods:
- sewing of the robe – up to 6,000 PLN,
- first-quality sandals – 12 thousand. PLN,
- half a kilogram of bread – PLN 8,
- 0.5 l of wine – PLN 30
- ticket to the bathhouse – PLN 2,
- 0.5 kg of beef – PLN 900,
- half a kilo of pork – PLN 1400,
- goose – 20,000 PLN,
- 0.5 kg of salt – PLN 1200,
- one apple – approx. PLN 40
- slave – from 190,000 to 280,000 PLN.
As Professor Piotr Dyczek points out:
When making such estimates, it is necessary to take into account not only the value of the metal but also the purchasing power of money. Only then can such a calculation be risked. However, it must be remembered that it can only serve to emphasize certain relationships, it cannot be said that it was so.
High prices of vegetables or fruit are caused by the lack of suitable production sites and their low profitability. Crops often fell victim to pests. In general, it was a luxury product, moreover, the diet of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire was completely different from the ideas about the Mediterranean diet. The basis was bread, olive oil and olive products as well as figs which provided a lot of energy due to the high sugar content.
In ancient Rome, there was a social welfare system that provided the poorest inhabitants with free monthly rations of bread and oil. This, in turn, translated into low bread prices.