Monday, May 28, 2012

A Note About Ancient Roman Money

Two Asses

Right up there is the price of female companionship in Pompeii - two asses. The one on the left is from the reign of Claudius, on the right Nero. Coins just like these would have been circulating in Pompeii in 69 CE.

"As" is a 3rd declension Latin noun that means "one" or "unit". "Asses" is the nominative plural. It's a small value coin though not the smallest. At the time we're interested in time Roman coinage went like this relative the denarius:

Quadrans                     64              bronze
Semis                        32              bronze
As                           16              bronze
Dupondius                     8              brass
Sestertius                    4              brass
Silver Quinarius              2              silver
Denarius                      1              silver

There were also a couple of gold coins: the gold quinarius and the aureus equal to 12.5 and 25 denarii respectively. In addition to the official state currency, large quantities of foreign coins, particularly very small denominations also circulated. Because the quadrans and semis were minted only occasionally, there was a chronic shortage of small change during much of the Roman era - see for example Pseudo-mints and small change in Italy and Sicily in the late Republic.

So what were these things worth? For a given time and place, we occasionally find a bit of graffiti or some accounting records that suggest purchasing power and there are even a few literary references. The well known Edict of Diocletian is frequently cited, but it is much later than the era we're discussing and one suspects it was honored more in the breech. In any case it's very difficult to extrapolate modern values from these few ancient data points for the simple reason that even though they had coins and what sort of looks like a money based economy - it wasn't like ours.

Nevertheless (because it's fun)...

One of the most amusing data points is the rather well known "tombstone" of one Lucius Calidius Eroticus and his wife Fannia Voluptas. Tombstone is quotations because recent research suggests that it was actually a humorous advertisement for an inn. A big hint would be the names. The guy's name means Lucius Hot Sex and his wife is Delightful Fannia. (Until very recently, archaeologists were a rather humor challenged bunch.) The object was found at Isernia, a town in central Italy northeast of Pompeii. It dates to roughly (50 - 150 CE) the same period as the eruption of Vesuvius.

The inscription reads:

L(ucius) Calidius Eroticus
sibi et Fanniae Voluptati v(ivus) f(ecit)
copo(!) computemus habes vini ((sextarium)) I pani(s)
a(sse) I pulmentar(ium) a(ssibus) II convenit puell(a)
a(ssibus) VIII et hoc convenit faenum
mulo a(ssibus) II iste mulus me ad factum

Lucius Calidius Eroticus made this for himself and for Fannia Voluptatis while living.
Innkeeper! Let us add up.
You have a pint of wine one (as), bread one as, relish two asses
That's right.
The girl 8 asses
That's right. 
and hay for the mule, two asses.
That darn mule will be my end.

So we have a meal of wine and bread with some sort of side dish; a pulmentarium or relish is basically anything eaten with bread. So you've got 4 asses for a meal. Using the well known "Big Mac Index" conversion we get $6.19 = 4 asses or $1.55/as (which makes a denarius about the equivalent of $25) based on the price of a Big Mac Meal here in Philadelphia. And, yeah, he might have overpaid for the girl.

A graffiti from Pompeii in the form of 5 days' expenses shows:

6th: cheese 1, bread 8, oil 3, wine 3
7th: bread 8, oil 5,onions 5, bowl 1, bread for the slave[?] 2, wine 2
8th: bread 8, bread for the slave[?] 4, grits 3
9th: wine for the winner 1 denarius, bread 8, wine 2, cheese 2
10th: ...1 denarius, bread 2, for women 8, wheat 1 denarius, cucumber 1, dates 1, incense 1, cheese 2, sausage 1, soft cheese 4, oil 7

Although it looks like the bread is much more expensive, this individual is apparently buying a full day's supply, possibly for more than one person. He does seem to be paying about the same for female companionship and the other corresponding prices seem to be in line with Mr. Hot Sex. 

 One might suspect inn keepers may have been gouging travelers when it came to "the girl".

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