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Please keep in mind the reality of money in ancient times.
Roman Currency & Costs
Today we’re going to discuss how much things cost and what certain salaries were in the year 15 BC. It is rather difficult to say for certain exactly what things cost and how much people made in 15 BC because the documentation does not appear to exist on the Internet.
However, there are good references to base some assumptions on. For today’s discussion, we are basing our reference point on what is known as Diocletian’s “Edict of Maximum Prices” issued in 301 AD and applying a fraction to those costs to make them relative to our time period – essentially we’re accounting for 300+ years of inflation.
Based on the research I did, if we use 1/6th the 301 AD costs we come up with a very close approximation of costs that will suffice for our role play. I want to stress here, because this is going to be published, that what we are going to discuss today is for the purpose of our role play. The costs are close enough to be somewhat realistic but are in no way to be considered as factual based. The 301 edict is an actual historical reference point however the factor I am using today to convert to 15 BC is strictly based on a few historical references I found.
First of all, the basics: The main currency in Rome was the denarii (singular denarius) which were silver alloy coins. Aurei were gold pieces and were worth roughly 25 Denarii. They were rarely used because of their high value and were most commonly used to pay out bonuses. They also had coins called sesterce which was worth a quarter of a denarii. If we convert the value of a denarii into today’s value one could consider a denarii worth around $20.
4 Sesterce’s = 1 Denarii
25 Denarii = 1 Aurei
First let’s look at what people earned. As in today’s world salaries varied by the level of skill and education a person had. Aside from skilled labor and professional’s, even slaves and gladiators earned money. More on slaves later. First let’s look at what common trade’s people would earn.
Trade’s People — Brick Makers
Under the category of common laborers we find occupations such as brick makers who earned money based on how many bricks they made and how they made them. A brick maker making fired bricks would earn 1 sesterce for the preparation of and firing of 4 bricks. For sun dried bricks a brick maker would earn 1 sesterce for every 8 bricks he prepared.
Cabinet makers, carpenters and blacksmiths on the other hand would earn as much as 8 denarii a day.
Brick Maker earns
1 sesterce for prep & firing of 4 bricks OR
1 sesterce for 8 sun dried bricks
(probably because they weren’t as strong as fired bricks)
Cabinet makers, carpenters & Blacksmiths = 8 denarii a day
Professionals such as Advocates
On the professional level, an advocate (what we call lawyers today) would charge 40 denarii just for opening a case and another 150 denarii to plead the case. So you can see how difficult it would be for a common laborer to afford an advocate. At 8 denari per day a common laborer would have to give up almost a month’s salary to afford an advocate to represent him.
Advocates (lawyers) earn
40 denarii to open a case & 150 denarii to plead the case
A teacher in ancient Rome would have lived in the home of a wealthy patrician, who would have provided the teacher with food and clothing appropriate to the house. The teacher would not have had much spending money, but would have lived comfortably just the same. Their salaries were paid monthly, per student and increased based on the level of education. An elementary school teacher would have earned 8 denarii per month, an arithmetic teacher 15 denarii per month, someone who taught Greek or Latin literature or geometry earned 30 denarii per month with a teacher of rhetoric (public speaking) earning 40 denarii per month.
Teachers paid monthly per student based on level of education.
Elementary School Teachers = 8 denarii per month
Arithmetic Teachers = 15 denarii per month
Greek or Latin Literature or Geometry Teachers = 30 denarii per month
Rhetoric (public speaking) Teachers = 40 denarii per month
Soldiering was one of the best ways a Roman male could provide for his family. The base wage was low, not enough to live on really. However, four times a year, a soldier received a “donative” or bonus greater than his annual base pay. Additionally, soldiers received an annual “annona” subsidy for grain purchases. The best soldiers hoped to be recruited to the Praetorian Guard, the soldiers who guarded the emperor. These soldiers were paid roughly 3 times the base wage of the average soldier, and likely enjoyed many additional privileges as well.
A soldier’s annual base pay was around 300 denarii. He also got a quarterly donative, or bonus of around 400 denarii. Additionally they received an annual grain annona (1 per year) worth 100 denarii. Additionally, every soldier received a grain allotment of 30 modii of wheat per year that would be worth 500 denarii (1 modius=8 liters dry measure so 30 modii would be 240 liters). So in total value a soldier would earn around $2,500 denarii per year, about double what a common laborer would earn.
Soldiers also had high expenses in their profession, but they still came out much better than the average citizen even after expenses. The soldiers were expected to pay for much of their own equipment, rations, and clothing. They even had to pay part of the cost of burial for their fallen from their unit. Examples of what a soldier had to pay for would be his boots at 15 denarii, shoes at around 10 denarii, and a saddle at 85 denarii.
- 300 denarii a year
- 1600 denarii a year bonus (400 denarii as a quarterly donative (bonus))
- 100 denarii worth of grain annona per year
- 500 denarii worth of wheat per year
- 2,500 denarii total value per year (but the cash was only actually 1900 denarii)
Soldier’s expenses were his own
Now let’s talk about the cost of things. Let’s look at the cost of a slave first.
The cost of slaves could vary widely according to the qualifications of the slave. If a slave was weak and could not do much work then he would fetch very little or if it was a very capable slave which could do a lot then the cost was high. Some people bought young untrained slaves which they trained to be able to sell the slaves at a profit. Other slaves could be bought from a price of 500 denarii to as high as 875,000. This is a demonstration of the difference in wealth between slave owners.
Interestingly, slaves could buy their own slaves and sell them to their owners or keep them to help them in the labor. The cost of slaves could be the following:a nurse and two children could be sold for 1,800 denarii. The Romans admired beauty such that a pretty girl could reach from 2000 to 6000 denarii. A music girl cost 4000 denarii. Later on in the empire people were prepared to spend vast amounts on just a slave boy.
Records from Pompeii show a slave being sold at auction for 6,252 sestertii (1563 Denarii). A writing tablet from Londinium (Roman London), dated to c. 75–125 AD, records the sale of a Gallic slave girl called Fortunata for 600 denarii, equal to 2,400 sestertii, to a man called Vegetus.
Now let’s take a look at food but first we need to understand what the Roman diet was like. Most Romans did not eat huge meals. Meat was eaten very rarely by the common. But when they did eat meat they ate much the same kind of meat we eat today; beef, chicken, veal and pork. However, their main food was pottage. Pottage is a kind of thick stew made from wheat, millet or corn. Sometimes they would add cooked meat, offal or a sauce made out of wine. Food for the common people consisted of wheat or barley, olive oil, a little fish, wine, home grown vegetables, and if they were lucky enough to own a goat or cow or chickens, cheese and a few eggs.
As the Republic grew and the Empire expanded the Romans came into contact with food from other countries. They used herbs and spices to flavor their food and began eating more fish, especially shell fish. Vegetables were plentiful and most of the Roman’s recipes included vegetables. They also ate a lot of fruit, especially grapes, and made wine. The Romans ate their food with their fingers. They used knives made from antlers, wood or bronze with an iron blade to cut their food. They also had spoons made from bronze, silver and bone which they used to eat eggs, shellfish and liquids.
A Typical Roman’s Food for the day:
Breakfast or ientaculum – This would be eaten early, probably as soon as the sun rose and would include bread and fresh fruit.
Lunch – probably taken around noon. Lunch was only a small meal as it was thought a large meal would make one fall asleep in the afternoon. It would include some of the following – a little cooked meat – ham or salami, salad, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, vegetables and bread.
Dinner or cena – This would begin at about four in the afternoon and could continue into the night. The starter would be either a salad or dish of small fish. The main course of fish, cooked meat and vegetables would be served next. The dessert would consist of fresh fruit and cheese. Sometimes small cakes sweetened with honey would be served.
Now let’s take a look at what food cost.
As already mentioned, grain formed the foundation of the common Roman’s diet. It was not uncommon for grain to be the only thing a poor Roman ever ate. The cost of baking bread was very high to a poor Roman, so if no access to a communal, public oven could be had, the grain would be crushed and made into a porridge known as ‘puls’ that was likely similar in taste and texture to modern polenta. While we take it for granted today, meat was an extravagant luxury that most Romans could not afford to indulge in.
For a modius (8 liters dry measure) of wheat, salt barely, beans, chickpeas, lentils or millet a Roman would have paid 15 dinarii. Barley, beans, peas or rye would have cost around 10 denarii for a modius.
A head of cabbage or lettuce would have cost 1-2 ½ denarii and a libra of dessert grapes, 1 denarii.
As for meat, 1-2 denarii would buy a libra of beef, freshwater fish, goat, lamb or pork.
As for drink, wine was the most prevalent drink and would cost 3-4 denarii for one sextarius (1 sextarius= 0.546 liters).
Clothing & Fabrics
Clothing was an expensive proposition. One libra (Roman pound or 11.6 oz), of fine silk could cost more than a dozen human beings. It seems absurd to us today, but such was the case, because ancient Romans lacked the production machines of today that make cheap fabric possible. For the commoners, fashion was not a consideration. Clothing was utilitarian, had to be durable, and was patched until finally the garment became the thing from which patches were taken for its replacement.
There is unfortunately little reference available on the cost of clothing perhaps because it was mostly made in the home. I’m sorry to say that I was not able to find any reference as to the cost of fabric other than the cost of silk which I mentioned. So we’ll have to make some references based on other goods and services.