Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The relative value of ancient coinage

Here's one of the things I did last night instead of working on my thesis: I took the values in 1891 British Pounds assigned by James Gow (Companion to School Classics, 3rd ed.) to Athenian and Roman coinage and converted the value to 2005 U.S. dollars.

Rome, 49 BC (when Caesar introduced the Aureus):

Aureus (gold) (= 100 sesterces) = $127.53
Denarius (silver) (= 4 sesterces) = $5.10
Sestertius (brass) (= 2 dupondii)= $1.28
As (copper) (= ¼ sesterce) = $0.32

Attic money (age undefined):

1 talent = $30,067.15
1 mina = $500.63
1 drachma = $4.79
1 obol = $0.79

The copper chalchous, 1/8 an obol, would be worth about a dime.

I have no idea how accurate this is, but it does account for inflation from the 1891 values. Gow apparently based his calculations upon the quantity of silver used in certain coins and then the relative value of these coins to others.

If it's accurate, it puts things into perspective, for example when Gow says that an artisan in the age of Pericles earned 1 drachma a day (= $4.79 US), and that a juryman made 2 obols (= $1.58).

Of course it's impossible to say what the values were in different times and places, but a ballpark is better than a desert.


Bill Jennings said...

When I tried to do something similar, I was basing my calculations on the purchasing power of coins in Pompeii (so, roughly 79 CE). Using the price of bread, a denarius then is worth (roughly) $20, which is a significantly different amount.

Atriades said...

Now this is what the world needs instead of the dollar versus the yen! I have always hated not being able to give an answer to the question about what a sestertius is actually worth now. I wonder if there's a way we could get a converter going so that people could always have a ready answer to this question. If so, I would link to it immediately!