Gold Roman Coins

It’s difficult to assess how much an ancient coin was worth, compared to today’s currency.  For obvious reasons, there is little to compare against.  The answer to the old music-hall joke ‘How much does a Greek urn?’ can be only estimated from a set of figures, compiled by Aristotle in Athens in the 4th century.  4.3 gms of silver was one drachma and this seems to have been the average daily amount paid to jurors, those who attended the council assemblies, soldiers and sailors.  In fact, the one drachma a day standard applied to workers of varying skills, from manual labourers to carpenters and even to sculptors and stonemasons.  The pecking order of pay, as we know today, didn’t exist in quite so strict a hierarchy then.  Each man, whether providing muscle power or artistic input was regarded as an essential part of, say, a building project and was paid on the same level as everyone else involved.  

Prices for goods varied from season to season and had to take into account good and bad harvests and the supply of commodities from outside sources.  For example, olive oil could vary in price from 1 to 2 drachmas per khous (six pints), pigs could be bought for 1˝ drachma or as much as 8 drachmas – supply and demand being operative.

The Roman monetary system, until the 3rd century was complicated, based on the Greek drachma and included bronze coins as well as the more traditional silver. Around 212BC, a new silver denomination was introduced. This basic Roman coin was the denarius.  It was re-tariffed in 141BC and evolved into fractions of a denarius from silver down through bronze coinage.

The bronze lower denominations of roman coins, under Augustus, were as follows:

Sestertius – one quarter denarius
Dupondius – half sestertius
As – quarter sestertius
Semis – half as
Quadrans – quarter as

The gold coin, the aureus, produced in quantity by Julius Caesar bore a value of 25 denarii

In the 3rd century BC, the Roman Empire underwent a period of serious inflation.  Prices rose astronomically and the coinage was debased as a result.  The difference in wages between skills now became more defined and a picture painter could command a daily rate of 160 denari, while a farm labourer had to manage on just 25 denari. By this time, the price of olive oil was about 40 denari for a pint of the best and a pound of chicken, 60 denari.  Ancient Romans could shell out 100,000 denari for a first class racehorse but just 30,000 denari for a male slave, superior horseflesh being far more valuable than the common man. Not much changes.