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June 17, 2024
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The Purchasing Power of Ancient Coins


Purchasing Power of Ancient Coins.

By Blanchard and Company, Inc. ……
 

What was the purchasing power of ancient Greek and Roman coins at the time, and how does it compare to their purchasing power today? While often asked, they’re not easy questions to answer, even for researchers on ancient coinage. The starting point for this discussion is to understand that these kinds of comparisons are very difficult to make, especially in exact terms, because they often involve comparing things that are not comparable.

The Ancient World vs. Modern Times

The main problems are that surviving records of wages and prices in ancient times are spotty at best, and few of the items that an average Roman might purchase are still commonly bought today apart from food staples like bread.

But bread played an even larger role in diets back then when it was inexpensive and people consumed more of it each day–two pounds per adult male per day in fact.

Third, prices and wages varied throughout the various parts of the Roman Empire.

This is totally different from today’s global economy as one writer on ancient coins notes: “In our global economy, almost everything is instantly convertible into cash, we can state precise exchange rates. What is today’s value of a U.S. dollar in terms of an ancient Athenian drachmai, or ancient Roman sestertii?”

To address these questions, those who study the topic look at what could be purchased with different denominations of bronze, silver, and gold coinage back then. This, too, is not easy to determine since ancient writers who might have discussed such matters in detail rarely did so because they were privileged elites who saw talking about money as vulgar. This helps explain the poor records on these issues that exist today.

But it is important to try to make these comparisons because ancient money, unlike modern fiat money, is basically “commodity money” that determines value based on the supply and demand of the precious metals in the coins. Modern currency is instead valued by the government that issued the money. It is based completely on the willingness of people to accept it rather than its intrinsic value.

Bullion Equivalent Value

One way of trying to understand what could be purchased in ancient times with their coinage is to consider it in terms of bullion value, or the value of the precious metal in silver and gold coins of the period.

Ancient Roman Coins Highlight Heritage Showcase Auctions

For example, a seven-gram ancient Greek gold stater (a very popular coin that can set today’s collector back thousands of dollars) that was issued in the time of Alexander the Great would be worth about $512. An eight-gram Roman gold aureus from the time of the Julius Caesar has about $585 worth of gold in it at today’s price.

As for silver coins, they were almost pure at the time rather than alloyed with other metals (like copper) as they have been in modern times to make them harder for use in commerce. The silver in an Athenian tetradrachm (the most important ancient trading coin in the Mediterranean area for centuries and probably the most popular ancient Greek coin) would be worth about $14.50.

But using the “bullion equivalent value” to try to determine the purchasing power of ancient coins at the time is not a very good way to make this comparison over centuries of human history. For one thing, mining gold required a great deal of slave labor in ancient times. And refining the metal meant using charcoal-fired furnaces as opposed to modern gold mining that use lots of heavy equipment and technology.

Labor Equivalent Value

A better way to look at the issue might be to consider labor equivalent value, or how much a typical worker would receive for a day’s work in the coinage of the time.

In ancient times, bronze coins that were of the lowest value were generally used to purchase daily necessities like bread and gold coins were used by the elites to buy slaves and luxury goods. We know from many sources that a silver drachma in ancient Greece or a silver denarius in ancient Rome was the wage a typical minimum wage worker would have received at the time.

But again, there are limits to each way of comparing. In this case, we are limited by the fact that labor played a much larger role in ancient economies compared to modern ones that use machines and computers to an increasing extent.

Soldier’s Pay

A third way to approach the question of the purchasing power of ancient coins is to look at the pay of soldiers in the ancient world. In the fourth century BCE, Greek hoplites (armored infantry) typically were paid a silver drachma per day, sometimes with a second drachma to cover the cost of a servant while they are on military campaigns. If computed into an annual salary, this was the equivalent of receiving 1,540 grams of silver or 103 grams of gold per year.

Roman Imperial. Domitian silver denarius
Roman Imperial. Domitian silver denarius.

As for Roman soldiers, they were paid 225 denarii per year in the first century BCE, which was raised to 300 denarii under the emperor Domitian in the late first century CE. That would amount to 972 grams of silver or 64.8 grams of gold. This shows that Greek soldiers were clearly paid better.

If one then considered the modern U.S. soldier’s pay and converted it into silver and gold, we find that they are paid much better than either ancient Greek or Roman soldiers.

Other records show that a Roman legionary soldier was paid three bronze asses per day. The as was equal to 1/16th of a denarius, the primary silver coin of ancient Rome.

This enabled him to buy enough bread for a whole year with the pay he received in two months. Prices of goods at the time tended to remain stable with wages, which keeps inflation down.

Currency Devaluation

During the latter part of the Roman Empire in the third century CE, there was runaway inflation that not only impoverished many people but also ruined the faith that Romans had in their currency.

To address this economic mess in the fourth century, Emperor Diocletian thought that he could simply issue wage and price edicts to make them fall in line throughout the Roman empire. This did not work well in the 1970s either when there was rampant inflation, and the Nixon Administration tried price and wage controls.

Diocletian issued an “Edict on Maximum Prices”, recalling the old coinage and issuing a new denomination known as a nummus or follis. It was supposed to have the purchasing power of the denarius of the Roman Empire.

He also created a new unit called a denarius communis or d.c. and a new, high-quality silver coin called an argenteus worth 100 d.c. was issued – along with a gold aureus worth 1,200 of the unit.

But the effort failed miserably, and the edicts became unenforceable and were eventually ignored.The new coins continued to lose purchasing power and were debased to reflect the change.

An earlier devaluation took place in 214 CE with the introduction of the antoninianus that was supposed to be worth two denarii, but its actual purchasing power was closer to that of one denarius. The new coin was 50% heavier but the extra weight came from alloy, which meant that the silver content of the debased coins was about the same as that of the coins from the earlier part of the third century.

Another example is the Roman sestertius, which was originally a small silver coin during the Roman Republic but later evolved into a large bronze coin that was equal to 1/4th of a denarius, as it was devalued over time.

Conclusion

On one hand, ancient economies, like those of the modern world, were subject to the vicissitudes of economic cycles. In other words, they, too, had to deal with inflation, recession, and–in some cases like under Diocletian–with the devaluation of a currency’s purchasing power and the debasement of its currency.

On the other hand, it appears that inflation generally was better contained in the ancient world than in the modern world. And the relatively greater success at containing inflation in the ancient world probably had a lot to do with the fact that their money (especially in earlier centuries) was based on its intrinsic value much more than on the faith and credit its citizens had in the currency.

Finally, more so than for ancient silver coins, the relative purchasing power of ancient gold coins has remained rather stable over time because of their high intrinsic value.

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