In two of my books “The Riddle of a Murdered Slave” and “Massilia“, as well as in their soon-to-be-published sequel, I described the life of the ‘normal’ Romans, following the death of Emperor Nero (69 A.D. ).
I wanted to write a story that described the daily reality of the Romans: the reality of ordinary people rather than that of their elites. What I didn’t want to do was a study of living standards; my books are fictional mystery novels and should remain so. However, I will try to fill this gap in this post, in order to better understand the economics of Rome in 69 AD. … and perhaps also give you the desire to discover my books.
The price of rye grain was the basic index of the Roman economy
The common man fed on grain. This was so important that it had become the basic index of economic life in Rome, and could induce riots. The unit of measurement was the modius (about 8.7 litres) – A modius of rye could provide about 10kg of bread. In the first century under the Emperor Nero, and immediately after, it cost between 1 and 1.5 denarius or about 20 asses (1 denarius was worth 16 asses) to procure
Using the amount of grain consumed daily by a Roman legionary as a reference, it is inferred that an adult man needed about 1.5 kg of bread per day. As a result, an individual had to spend approximately 0.17 denarius (median value) or about 3 asses per day to barely feed themselves. At the same time, workers earned between 5 and 16 asses a day (see this previous post) which did not allow for the feeding and housing of a family. The poor population of Rome therefore depended on the grain largesse dispensed by the Emperor. These distributions of grain must therefore be seen as the predecessor of our social benefits.
How do we get beyond that?
In the year 300 A.D., the value of money was devalued to about 1% of what it was worth in the first century A.D. A major economic crisis was raging and prices soared. To resolve and mitigate these impacts, Emperor Diocletian issued an edict to control prices and combat inflation. The edict provided a list of commodities whose prices were imposed by and under state control. This list is very useful to historians, because it allows us to get a broader idea and understanding of what it was like to be in Rome at the time of Emperor Vespasian (a year after Nero’s death).
Pork should have cost around 8 asses per kilo (compared to 8 euros/kg in supermarket today), and 4 eggs (1.3 euros for four) or 2 kg of figs (1.6 euros/kg) had to cost about an as. In the same way, cheese of common consumption probably cost no more than 2 asses per Roman pound (324g).
The Romans didn’t just eat at home. They used to have lunch out, when they were working. The practice was well established and we know the indicative cost in one of the many popinas, or public kitchens, that offered food. A meal cost about 3 asses, including drinks. At that price we did not eat a dish of tripes, like one of my characters has when he investigates Senator Tiberius Claudius. Unfortunately, the meal consisted of a simple soup. The wine, on the other hand, cost 1 as (a pitcher of one third of a litre of table wine).
Just as it is today, it was also necessary to find accommodation. In Rome many were tenants and the rent varied greatly depending on the quality of the accommodation and the neighbourhood. To speak only of the most affordable, it will be said that a tenant had to pay between 50 and 250 denarius per year for a slum. A luxurious apartment like the one Gnaeus Pontus is building in my novels, would have cost his tenant about 30,000 denarius a year.
Pompeii as an archaeological blessing
The destruction of Pompeii gives us other sources of information. One house in ruins, bore engraved on its walls, the list of what its owner had paid for on a daily basis:
- Day 6: cheese 1, bread 8, oil 3, wine 3
- Day 7: bread 8, oil 5, onions 5, bowl 1, bread for slave 2, wine 2
- Day 8: bread 8, bread for slave 4, semolina 3
- Day 9: wine 1 denarius, bread 8, wine 2, cheese 2
- Day 10: … 1 denarius, bread 2, for women 8, wheat 1 denarius, cucumber 1, dates 1, incense 1, cheese 2, sausage 1, soft cheese 4, oil 7
The following list was also still found in these same ruins:
|1 modius (6.5kg)||Rye||2 asses|
|1 modius||Wheat||30 asses|
|1 modius||Lupins||3 asses|
|1 pound (0.327kg)||Oil||4 asses|
|1 sextarius (0.355l)||Wine from the country||1 asse|
|1 sextarius (0.355l)||Quality wine||4 asses|
|1 pound||Bread||1 asse|
|Cleaning a tunic||16 asses|
In short, we can assume that an as was equivalent to a euro in the first century of our era. This is an approximation and far from being accurate, especially when it comes to housing, but it provides a quick and simple benchmark for comparing living standards and being able to appreciate salaries I have provided different example of salaries for different occupations in a previous article.
I hope this will be of help and be of some interest to all those interested, like me, in ancient Rome. I wanted to satisfy all those who asked me for more information on how I evaluated the cost of living in my novels. I hope that I’ve succeeded.
* Approximate value found in supermarkets in season