Ancient Prices and Gold

March 19, 2000

Introduction

Ancient price and wage data was collected to satisfy my own curiosity, and is presented for those readers with a similar interest in the past. For the modern investor, this article contains two facts of relevance.

Firstly, the table below, constructed as an aid to comparing prices from various periods, shows that gold and silver inventory, on a per capita basis, has been declining in recent decades, in spite of the high production numbers. This is the result of population growth exceeding the growth of inventory. In the case of silver, the decline is significant, returning us to a level comparable to late antiquity (ie. less than 7 oz/person). In addition, the present cumulative silver production figure does not accurately reflect the effective inventory number, since billions of ounces have been consumed by industry and photography.

Secondly, there is a difference between real and nominal inflation, and we have experienced both over the past 4,000 years. Rising per capita monetary stock of gold and silver results in a corresponding rise in prices and wages in terms of gold and silver, which is real inflation. Nominal inflation occurs when the money supply increases in the absence of an increase in gold and silver. This can happen by printing unbacked paper money, as we do today, or by reducing the gold and silver in the coinage, as happened in ancient Rome. Either case results in rising prices and wages in terms of the official monetary unit (paper or coinage) as that unit deteriorates vis-a-vis gold and silver. Therefore, the lessons of Roman economic history have some value to the modern world, particularly since the Romans debased their money over a very long period.

Estimated World Gold & Silver Inventory on a Per Capita Basis

Date

World Population

(billions)

Cumulative Gold Production (billions ounces)

World Gold Inventory Per Person (ounces)

Cumulative. Silver Production (billions ounces)

World Silver Inventory Per Person (ounces)

Ag:Au Ratio *

2000BC

.08

0.01

0.10

0.1

1.00

10:1

1200BC

.09

0.02

0.22

0.2

2.20

10:1

600BC

.10

0.04

0.40

0.4

4.00

10:1

300BC

.15

0.08

0.40

0.9

4.50

11:1

500AD

.30

0.19

0.59

2.2

6.90

12:1

1500AD

.50

0.30

0.60

4.1

8.20

14:1

1800AD

.98

0.45

0.46

7.4

7.60

16:1

1900AD

1.65

0.81

0.49

13.2

8.00

16:1

1950AD

2.52

1.99

0.79

23.2

9.21

12:1

1975AD

4.00

2.97

0.74

29.9

7.48

10:1

2000AD

6.00

4.34

0.72

40.9

6.82

9:1

Table 1. Historical gold & silver inventory on a per capita basis

*Ag:Au Ratio column = cumulative silver production divided by cumulative gold production.

Gold & Silver Production

The Calcholithic, 3500BC to 3200BC, was a period of incipient copper use, a transition between the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. A few metal objects, including some gold beads, date from before 3500BC, and the World Gold Council states that gold mining started c.4000BC. Quantities of all metals were negligible until the Bronze Age, however. The Silver Institute, likewise, dates silver mining from 4000BC, and states: "A concentrated effort to mine silver began sometime after 3000BC." By 2000BC, the World Gold Council estimates annual world gold production at no more than one ton, with five to ten tons produced annually in Roman times, and a drop off during the Dark Ages http://www.gold.org/Ginfos/Gi2pro.htm . The Silver Institute estimates silver production over 1 million ounces annually after 600BC.

Based on this limited information, and extrapolating backward from the known modern inventory and production numbers, I estimate that gold inventory in 2000BC was no more than 10 million ounces, roughly 1/10 ounce per person. Silver inventory was probably no more than one ounce per person. Given the fairly stable population of ancient times, improved mining techniques caused an exponential growth of per capita inventory in subsequent centuries, but this growth rate moderated and eventually went negative as population growth accelerated in recent times.

See A Case For Silver http://www.goldeagle.com/editorials_99/mbutler101899.html and Silver Revisited http://www.gold-eagle.com/editorials_99/mbutler110799.html for more information on production figures. Early population figures are from http://www.dieoff.org with later figures from http://www.popin.org/pop1998/4.htm.

Problems With the Numbers

Besides inaccuracy in the early production estimates, other factors reduce the value of the above table. First and foremost is the difference in inventory from one region to another, with the largest distortion due to the high proportion of production in the New World. From 1500 to 1700AD, the gold and silver brought from the Americas was three times the amount previously in Europe1 and most of the real inflation over the past 4,000 years occurred during those two centuries. European wages in the 1400s were not much different than wages in ancient Greece or Rome2, but were several times higher by 1700.

Also, during periods when wealth is concentrated in fewer hands, the upper classes keep a higher percentage of existing gold and silver in jewelry and other fabricated items (see http://myron.sjsu.edu/romeweb/LATEROME/art4.htm ). When that happens, the gold and silver available as money is significantly reduced.

Still, the above table does provide a crude overview.

Bronze Age Mesopotamia

During the 3rd millennium BC, gold and silver were used primarily for decoration, ornamentation, and a store of wealth. The Babylonian invention of the steelyard scale allowed accurate measurement of weight, and this facilitated a monetary revolution, since gold and silver could now serve as units of account.

According to the Babylonian system of weights, 1 talent (30 kg) = 60 minas, one mina (504 grams) = 60 shekels, and one shekel (8.4 grams) = 20 gerahs. True monetary systems did not exist until the development of coinage c.700BC, however, and prices before 700BC refer to specific weights of metal. Nb. One troy ounce = 31.1 grams. Prices in silver are as follows:

Mesopotamia Circa 2000BC

From Financing Civilization http://viking.som.yale.edu/will/finciv/cap14.html

  • One sheep cost 2.6 to 16 grams.
  • A female slave cost 52 to 192 grams.
  • Urban property (one square meter) cost 1.3 to 22 grams.

From http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/mesopotamia-contracts.html Ancient History Sourcebook. This site provides samples of ancient contracts, with examples below:

  • 2300BC. One slave was purchased for 10 shekels.
  • 2000BC. A house fronting a street with adjoining land was purchased for 4 ½ shekels.
  • 2000BC. A house was leased for one year for 1 shekel.

Mesopotamia after 1780BC

The Code of Hammurabi c.1780BC dictated a number of fines, fees, prices and wages, complete text and commentary at http://fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/hamcode.html .

The builder of a house received 2 shekels per sar (36 square meters), with doors and other woodwork apparently not included (law 228). The builder of a boat of 60 gur (18,000 liters) received 2 shekels (law 234). Daily wages for various crafts and seasons ranged from 4 to 6 gerahs (laws 273-274), roughly 1/4 shekel. Therefore, Babylonian workers earned about 2.1 grams or 1/15 ounce silver per day. Note also that houses must have been simple structures that could be completed with 8 days of labor or less. Bounty for capture of a runaway slave was 2 shekels (law 17) about 10% of the slave's cost. A veterinarian performing a serious operation on an ass or ox received a fee of 1/6 shekel (law 224). The table below shows fees for medical services by class of patient.

Class of Patient

Cost of Surgery

Cost of Medical Treatment

Amelu – upper class

10 shekels

5 shekels

Muskinu – lower class

5 shekels

3 shekels

Ardu – slave

2 shekels

2 shekels

Table 2. Babylonian medical fees – laws 215, 216, 217, 221, 222 and 223

Credit and finance were well established during Bronze Age Mesopotamia, and there is at least one example of a complete credit collapse in 1788BC. See Financing Civilization http://viking.som.yale.edu/will/finciv/chapter1.htm and a Brief History of World Credit and Interest Rates http://peicommerce.com/RESEARCH/ECONOMY/WRLDINT1.HTM

For the sake of brevity, I dropped a section on the early Iron Age. For anyone interested in examining Biblical prices, I will mention that the Hebrew shekel was 14.1 grams of silver. This larger size, still at 20 gerahs per shekel 3, is probably due to the higher per capita inventory of silver near the end of the second millennium BC.

Classical Greece

Athenian and Persian Monetary Systems

Authority

Denomination

Standard

Weight

Metal

Equals

Athens

Decadrachma

Attic

43.25 grams

Silver

10 drachmas

Athens

Tetradrachma/stater

Attic

17.20 grams

Silver

4 drachmas

Athens

Drachma

Attic

4.30 grams

Silver

6 obols

Athens

Obol

Attic

0.72 grams

Silver

 

Persia

Daric

Persic

8.35 grams

Gold

20 siglos (25 drachmas)

Persia

Siglos

Persic

5.55 grams

Silver

Gold:Silver ratio of 13:1

Table 3. Monetary systems of ancient Athens and Persia

One Attic talent = 60 minas = 6,000 drachmas. Under the Attic standard 1 talent = 25,800 grams, or 829 troy ounces of silver.

State Revenues of Athens and Persia

Annual revenues of Persia in 480BC were 15,964 Attic talents (13.2 million oz silver). This represented the revenues derived from 20 Satrapies or provinces (Greek Coinage & Measures – http://homeport.tcs.tulane.edu/~august/H310/handouts/Coinage.htm ). Annual revenues of the Athenian Empire at the start of the Peloponnesian War were 600 talents4.

Wages and Prices

Greek mercenaries in the Revolt of Cyrus the Younger (401BC) were paid 1 daric/month (8.35 grams gold) later raised to 1.5 darics/month 5. During the Peloponnesian War (ended 404BC) an Athenian hoplite (heavy infantry) and his squire each earned 1 drachma per day6. Greek rowers on triremes in the 5th century also earned 1 drachma/day or 4.3 grams silver (see http://myron.sjsu.edu/romeweb/TRANSPRT/shiptrav.htm ) . Athens provided welfare for disabled veterans, incapacitated workers, and orphans under 18. Orphans received 2 obols/day ( http://www.greekciv.pdx.edu/sport/public/publicwo.htm ). 55 pounds of grain (1 medimnos) cost 5 drachmas 7. The prize for victors in the Olympic games c.560BC was 500 drachmas8.

Rome

The Roman Republic

Silver money came late in Roman history. For the first few centuries, the Roman monetary system was based on the Aes Rude, with 1 As equaling a pound of bronze. Middle class citizens had net worth between 15,000 and 100,000 ases. Patricians had more, while Plebeians had less9.

The silver didrachm was introduced in 280BC, weighing 7 grams of silver and representing 3 ases. Bronze coinage consisted of the As (300 grams), a 1500 gram Aes Signatum bar = 5 As, Semis = ½ As, Triens = 1/3 As, Quadrans = ¼ As, Sextans = 1/6 As, Uncia = 1/12 As, and Semiuncia = 1/24 As. Note that we derive "ounce" from the uncia.

From the very beginnings of this system, Rome began tinkering with it, continually reducing the weight of its coinage. A monetary reform in 225BC introduced the gold stater worth 48 Ases, three new silver coins to replace the didrachm, and smaller bronze coins than before. The As was reduced to 140 grams.

After continued debasement, another monetary reform in 211BC introduced the denarius of 4 grams silver, the ancestor of the modern penny, worth 10 Ases. The As, still the Roman unit of account, was reduced to 48 grams of bronze. The table below shows the basic monetary system c.100BC.

Denomination

Equals

Denarius - 3.5 grams silver

4.0 sestersis (10 ases)

Sestersius

2.5 ases

As

 

Table 4. Monetary system in the late Roman Repubic

Some first century BC data comes from inscriptions found in Rome (from Innkeeper, the Bill http://pub.xplore.it/nerone/ARCHIVO/arch32.htm ). Craftsmen earned 12 ases per day. This equated to 4.2 grams of silver, twice the daily wages in Babylonia. Legionaries before Caesar earned 5 ases per day. After Caesar they earned 10 ases per day. A meal of stew and wine at an inn cost 3 ases – 2 for the stew, 1 for the wine. Hay for mule at the inn cost 2 ases, while a prostitute at the same inn cost 2 to 8 ases .

Imperial Rome

In the early days of the empire, around 30 BC, Augustus established a gold standard that remained intact until 64AD. Nero then reduced the weight of the denarius to 3.36 grams, while reducing the fineness from 98% to 93.5% silver. Modest as this initial debasement was, it set a precedent for future emperors to follow. By 250AD Roman coins were only 40% silver, and by 270AD they contained virtually no silver at all. Prices rose accordingly. From the beginning to the end of the second century, the price of a measure of wheat soared from 7 or 8 drachmas to 120,000 drachmas – see http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/diocletian-control.html .

In 301AD, the Emperor Diocletian issued an edit dictating the ceiling price of some 800 items, but these price controls failed miserably, in spite of capital punishment for violation of the edict. The edict specified that a pound of gold was worth 50,000 denaris, but the relationship fell to 100,000 denaris/pound of gold by 307AD, 300,000 denaris/pound of gold by 324AD, and an incredible 2.1 billion denaris/pound of gold by the middle of the 4th century (See http://www.ex.ac.uk/~Rdavies/arian/amser/chrono2.html ). For more on the collapse of the Roman money economy see "How Excessive Government Killed Ancient Rome" http://www.cato.org/pubs/journal/cjv14n2-7.html -

Edward Gibbon provides a number of prices in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Many are stated in British pounds, which I believe equaled ¼ oz of gold in his day (1 sovereign). Other prices are stated in drachmas, probably following Greek commentaries that translated Roman prices into the Attic system10. Some of Gibbon's figures from the first two centuries AD are provided below.

  • A Praetorian Guardsman (emperor's guard) under Augustus earned 2 drachmas/day.
  • After 20 years service legionaries received 3,000 denaris or equivalent land.
  • The annual salary of a philosopher was 10,000 drachmas (1,382 oz silver).
  • Pertinax, as procurator of Dacia (governor of the Balkans) earned 1,600 pounds/year (6,560 oz silver).
  • A learned slave sold for many hundreds of pounds.
  • Butcher's meat, previously 2 denaris/lb, cost 8 denaris/lb in the second century.
  • 70 pounds of brass cost 1 ounce of silver.
  • An aqueduct cost 3,000,000 drachmas or 100,000 pounds (410,000 oz silver).
  • The annual games of the theater, amphitheater, and circus in Rome and Constantinople cost 160,000 pounds (656,000 oz silver).
  • Silk cost its weight in gold.

Observations

The rise in per capita gold and silver inventory caused significant real inflation over the past four millenia. Nineteenth century daily U.S. wages (at $1.00 or 25 grams silver) were twelve times Babylonian wages of ¼ shekel (2.1 grams silver). But the Romans introduced us to another form of inflation that was nominal rather than real. Prices rose to staggering levels as the coinage was debased and eventually made worthless. Much as I hate to say it, the Roman example also shows that nominal inflation can go on for centuries before the system disintegrates entirely.

Between the Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans, western civilization has three parents, and it is most unfortunate that we obtained our concept of money from the latter. If the twentieth century fiat money experiment fails in our lifetimes, it will be fascinating to see what prices and wages become in gold and silver, but it will most likely be a very unpleasant experience – not something to forward to.

Footnotes

  1. W.West and R.West, Early Progress (Allyn & Bacon, 1934), Ch. XLII, p. 607.
  2. Colin Platt, The English Medieval Town (Granada Publishing, 1979). Also see Internet Medieval Sourcebook – Economic Life http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbooklj.html for a number of good URLs. Many prices are stated in solidi (eg. the annual wage of a barber's apprentice in 1248 was 40 solidi). The solidus was a 4.54 gram gold coin introduced by Constantine in the 4th century that continued to function in the east when the western empire fell. See particularly http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/medievalprices.html for English prices and wages. Note that a medieval British pound was literally a pound of sterling silver.
  3. Exodus 30:13.
  4. Thucydides, Book II, Chapter VI.
  5. Xenophon, The Anabasis.
  6. Thucydides, Book III, Chapter IX.
  7. Greek Coinage and Measures – see URL above. The 20,000 man Persian garrison of Egypt 480BC received 120,000 medimnoi of grain annually, worth 600,000 drachmas.
  8. Rollin's Ancient History (London, 1839), Vol. 2, Ch. 8, p. 233.
  9. Martin Armstrong, The Monetary History of the Roman Republic, http://peicommerce.com/HISTORY/ROME-REP/REP-1.HTM .
  10. Sometimes Gibbon states prices in both Greek and British money, with a conversion rate of 30 drachmas per British pound. From this, we can infer that a British pound of the 1700s was worth roughly 129 grams (or 4.1 ounces) of silver (30 drachmas X 4.3 grams).
Gold is found in nature in quartz veins