Thursday 9 May 2013

How do we compare ancient currency values?

Comparing ancient currency values with modern money is a rocky ride. A frequently used model for present day comparisons is the 'Big Mac' principle, where the cost of a certain internationally available burger can be compared by country to country and by each country's this way we can roughly guesstimate the buying power of our currency in a foreign environment. Obviously the Romans didn't have Big Macs, but we can still find parallels with some of the pricing. For starters, the Romans bought bread, just like we do - by the loaf. They also drank wine by the glass, just like we do. They also paid rent.

In the 1st-century BC a family-sized loaf of bread cost half a sesterce (2-as). My local bakery charges $5.60, suggesting one sesterce is worth $11.20.

A cup of Roman wine also costs 2-as. In my town, a glass of wine usually starts at about $8.00 suggesting one sesterce is worth $16.00.

Renting a Roman apartment would cost 38-sesterces/week, in this part of the country $400/week is common. This would suggest one sesterce is worth $10.50.

On that average of three prices, it looks like a 1st-century BC sesterce was worth $12.56 (relevant to me) - which would mean one denarius was worth $50.26, and one talent of silver was worth $251,333.33. Now in your part of the world your own currency might have different cost comparisons, and just like us, the Roman economy had inflationary pressures, which changed values from era to era. By the 1st-century AD when Pliny the Elder was around, it looks like the sesterce may have been worth something closer to $25. So considering how much our own currencies can change in value over the course of a few decades, don't underestimate how much the value of a sesterce changed over a few hundred years. For more on Roman currency read 'Ad Lib' available from Amazon, just follow the links

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