Note on ancient monetary values

The coinage of the Roman Empire in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD was based on a golden aureus, silver denarii (25 to the aureus), and base-metal sestertii (100), dupondii (200), asses (400), semisses (800), and quadrantes (1,600). But many eastern cities continued to issue their own coins using a Greek system based on minas, drachmas and obols (with various multiples and fractions of these). In either case, the basic currency unit tended to be a silver coin – denarius or drachma/tetradrachma – but the weights of these could vary quite a lot (4.5 gm was about average for the denarius), and the actual silver content much more so (from 90 per cent to perhaps as little as 20 per cent). Larger amounts of money might, however, be expressed in terms of talents – though these were never coined – one talent being 26 kg of silver and therefore almost 6,000 denarii (or drachmae/tetradrachmae).

It is notoriously difficult to convert ancient monetary values into modern equivalents, especially since it is relative purchasing power, not nominal equivalents, that we are really interested in. A key question is: what constituted a living wage? Agricultural labourers received one denarius for a day’s work, and it has been estimated that a typical peasant family of six would have needed about 180 denarii a year for basic subsistence. The annual pay of Roman soldiers was 225 denarii for a legionary, 150 for an auxiliary cavalryman, and 75 for an auxiliary infantryman. Deductions may have been made for food, fodder, clothes, equipment, and the regimental burial club, but on the other hand soldiers had free accommodation, generous bonuses, and did not pay tax.

Richard Reece proposes a modern British equivalent of about £25 ($49) for a denarius (or drachma/tetradrachma), which would give £4,500 ($8,900) as the minimum peasant family income, £5,625 ($11,128) for legionary pay, £3,750 ($7,419) for auxiliary cavalry, and £1,875 ($3,709) for auxiliary infantry. One talent would, on the same reasoning, represent £150,000 ($296,775) in today’s values. These figures should not, of course, be compared with income levels in modern western societies, where the average standard of living is high; the ancient world was a pre-industrial society with much lower levels of material culture.

MAP 1 Ancient Latium and its neighbours, 7th–5th centuries BC

MAP 1Ancient Latium and its neighbours, 7th–5th centuries BC

MAP 2 Early Rome, 7th–5th centuries BC

MAP 2Early Rome, 7th–5th centuries BC

MAP 3 Central Italy during the Samnite Wars, 343–290 BC

MAP 3Central Italy during the Samnite Wars, 343–290 BC

MAP 4 Italy at the time of the wars against Tarentum and Pyrrhus, 282–275 BC

MAP 4Italy at the time of the wars against Tarentum and Pyrrhus, 282–275 BC

MAP 5 The Western Mediterranean at the time of the Punic Wars, 264–202 BC

MAP 5The Western Mediterranean at the time of the Punic Wars, 264–202 BC

MAP 6 The Eastern Mediterranean at the time of the Macedonian Wars, 215–146 BC

MAP 6The Eastern Mediterranean at the time of the Macedonian Wars, 215–146 BC

MAP 7 The Roman Empire in the Late Republic, 133–30 BC MAP 7 The Roman Empire in the Late Republic, 133–30 BC

MAP 7The Roman Empire in the Late Republic, 133–30 BC

MAP 8 The provinces of the Roman Empire in the mid 1st century AD MAP 8 The provinces of the Roman Empire in the mid 1st century AD

MAP 8The provinces of the Roman Empire in the mid 1st century AD

MAP 9 The Roman Empire from Augustus to Marcus Aurelius, 30 BC–AD 180 MAP 9 The Roman Empire from Augustus to Marcus Aurelius, 30 BC–AD 180

MAP 9The Roman Empire from Augustus to Marcus Aurelius, 30 BC–AD 180

MAP 10 Roman Britain

MAP 10Roman Britain

MAP 11 Imperial Rome

MAP 11Imperial Rome

MAP 12 The Roman Empire in Late Antiquity, 3rd–5th centuries AD MAP 12 The Roman Empire in Late Antiquity, 3rd–5th centuries AD

MAP 12The Roman Empire in Late Antiquity, 3rd–5th centuries AD

MAP 13 A new world order: the Mediterranean region in the late 5th century AD MAP 13 A new world order: the Mediterranean region in the late 5th century AD

MAP 13A new world order: the Mediterranean region in the late 5th century AD

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