Monday, 1 October 2012

The price of slavery

Everything has a price we're told. And as we know, the Romans weren't shy about putting a price on people. Just as the Greek world that preceded them, slavery ran the Roman economy. Slaves could easily make up half a city's population, and some households could afford dozens. But just how much did it cost to take away someone's freedom? What was the value the Romans put on their servant's labour? One account survives from Pompeii in 79AD, where a male slave was sold for 6,252 sesterces - $156,300 in today's terms. Around the same time a Gallic girl was sold in Britain for 2,400 sesterces - $60,000. By comparison a donkey cost 500 sesterces ($12,500), the average annual income was around 900 sesterces ($22,500), the weekly rent on a moderate inner city apartment was 38 sesterces ($961), a large bread loaf was 0.5 sesterces ($12.50), as was half a litre of wine. In other words, owning someone was no small matter. Just one slave could cost the same as a modern day luxury car, and social expectations meant most slaves were freed - or allowed to purchase their freedom - within a decade. Many Romans probably borrowed heavily to buy a slave...and considering bankruptcy could end in non-citizens having to sell themselves to pay down debts, the bizarre cycle of slave-owner to slave and back again would have been fairly common among the less fortunate...or perhaps it was karma.

But how's this for a little side note...if we fast forward to 1850, when Americans were earning $130 a year - the average slave was selling for $500 - which works out at $76,923 in today's values. So it seems commercial slavery managed to keep human worth pretty consistent - for the last 2000-years we've actually kept our value. Sad, but true.

Find out how much Calvus thought he was worth

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