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Salary in ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Tombstone relief showing Roman butcher
Tombstone relief showing a Roman butcher

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 in the Roman state. 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.

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.

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