Attestation Update – A&A for CPAs

Technical stuff for CPAs providing attestation services

How much wealth was in the Roman treasury in 49 B.C.? How about annual tax revenue under Augustus?

with 6 comments

Hadn’t thought about that question too much, but when Jacob Soll mentioned it in his book, The Reckoning: Financial Accountability and the Rise and Fall of Nations, it got me thinking.

He gives the following info:

In his Natural History, Pliny states that in 49 BCE , the year Caesar crossed the Rubicon, the Roman treasury contained 17,410 pounds of gold, 22,070 pounds of silver, and in coin, 6,135,400 sesterces.

Soll, Jacob (2014-04-29). The Reckoning: Financial Accountability and the Rise and Fall of Nations (Kindle Locations 276-277). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

I don’t think in terms of pounds of gold or silver and I don’t know what a sesterce is or what it is worth. But I do know how to search the ‘net.

I share this on my Nonprofit Update blog and cross-post it here at Attestation Update because I enjoyed it and think it might be some fun trivia for accountants and people working in the faith-based community.

By the way, Prof Soll’s book is superb. Just got started reading it and think I will find lots of little tidbits to share. More on that idea in my next post.

How much is that worth?

Here’s my calculation of how much that would be worth at today’s market prices:

  • $267,480,276 – gold
  • $    5,180,270  – silver
  • $  88,963,300 – sesterces
  • $361,623,849 – rough estimate of value stored in Roman treasury in 49 BC.

So, about a third of a billion dollars.

Bonus: annual revenue for the Roman Empire

The Reckoning also tells us that Caesar Augustus reported the annual revenue for Rome was 500 million sesterces.

At my estimate of $14.50 for one sesterce, that would be annual revenue of $7.25 billion dollars.

Show your work

Remember your high school algebra teacher saying show your work? Here goes:

First, since we are talking precious metals, I will assume the weights are in troy pounds, which have 12 troy ounces to the pound. The troy system has been used to measure precious metals since Roman times.

Second, what in the world is a sesterce? It is a Roman coin equal to one-fourth of a denarius. It rhymes with disperse.

Third, let’s deal with a denarius. That is a coin used in the Roman era.  A denarius is mentioned in the bible as a day’s wage for common laborer; see Matthew 20:2 and John 12:5. Wikipedia suggests it was a day’s pay for an unskilled laborer or common soldier.

Let’s use the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. For an eight-hour day, which is standard in the U.S., that would be $58 a day. A sesterce would therefore be about $14.50.

So, here is my work:

gold

  • 17,410 pounds of gold
  • x 12 troy ounces to a troy pound
  • = 208,920 troy ounces
  • x $1,280.30 gold price per WSJ on 8/21/14
  • = $267,480,276 current value of gold then

silver

  • 22,070 pounds of silver
  • x 12 troy ounces to a troy pound
  • = 264,840 troy ounces
  • x $19.56 silver price per WSJ on 8/21/14
  • = $5,180,270 current value of silver then

coins

  • 6,135,400 sesterces
  • x $14.50 approximate pay for 1/4th day of unskilled labor
  • = $88,963,300 current value of sesterces then

You want inequality? Let me show you some real inequality

Inequality in pay has been around a long time. The Wikipedia article above says Julius Caesar doubled the pay for a common soldier to 225 denarii. A centurion was a commander of 100 soldiers. From comments in the Holy Bible, we know a centurion was in a powerful and prestigious position. The lowest pay for centurion was 3,750 denarii and the highest ranking centurions received 15,000 denarii, according to the Wikipedia article. That is a ratio of between 16.7:1 and  66.7:1.

I estimate a centurion would be comparable to a captain or major in the US military, or a second or third level supervisor in the business world. Think middle management.

If a denarius is equal to $58, that would put the range of centurion pay at between $217,500 and $870,000. Keep in mind, above the centurion would be a cohort, or maniple, commander (~600 men), then a legion commander (~6,000 men), and perhaps army commanders. I’m guessing there were a lot of people who got paid more than those amounts. Presumably Pontius Pilate would have been paid a multiple of the highest ranking centurions.

Your thoughts? Did I miss something?

How would you revise the calculations?

Written by Jim Ulvog

August 22, 2014, 10:49 am at 10:49 am

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6 Responses

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  1. First off I would like to say thank you for the effort you put into this. I always enjoy discussions like this. I have had many of these discussions and somethings I have come to realize when calculating currency from ancient times is that people usually forget that the value of precious metals is based off of scarcity. For instance if suddenly half the gold in the world disappeared over night and never returned, you could expect a double in gold prices. This same concept has to be applied to this problem. In 49bc the amount of gold on earth per person would be significantly smaller than in modern times. I believe currently there is .76 ounces of gold per person on earth. This fact means that all calculations without compensating for that will be off by a large amount. Seeing as we can’t know exactly how much gold per person there was in 49bc the best way I see to calculate gold worth by the ounce would be to use the Roman aureus as a baseline. It was worth 25 denari and weighed 8 grams. By my calculations would put the value of gold at 7000$ an ounce in today’s terms.

    Caleb Byars

    October 15, 2015, 15:30 pm at 3:30 pm

    • Hi Caleb:

      Thanks so much for sharing. The relative amount of gold per capita that had been excavated is a new way of looking at things. Cool!

      Just want to make sure I understand your point – you calculate that an ounce of gold in circa 49 BC would be equivalent to $7,000 in today’s currency?

      If you have a moment, could you show your work of getting from an aureus to US$?

      For other readers, you can find more info on the aureus gold coin here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aureus. That article says it was 1/40th of a roman pound and a sestertius was set at 1/100th of an aureus. Article has good info on the inflation in Rome in the 300s.

      Caleb, thanks for stretching my brain!

      Jim

      Jim Ulvog

      October 15, 2015, 15:52 pm at 3:52 pm

      • If my understanding of scarcity is correct I believe that gold per person mined would have to come into the calculations. My calculations where based on an article I read years ago that placed a denari and roughly 80$ and sestertius at 20$ so in that respect my calculation will be a little off from your estimates of there value. And from then it’s pretty simple, 1 aureus=25 denari, 80×25=2000
        An aureus weighed 8 grams in 49bc which roughly comes out to 3.5 aureus to an ounce. 2000×3.5=7000. My base prices might be off here but my logic seems to be sound. With this in mind you can calculate it compensating for different prices of denari. I’m glad I could add something to the discussion as I greatly enjoy talking about all things Roman especially intelligent discussions

        Caleb Byars

        October 16, 2015, 13:15 pm at 1:15 pm

      • Hi Caleb:
        Your comments prompt a lot of ideas.
        I’ll rephrase your calculations:
        Sestertuis = 1/4th denarii = $20
        Denarii = 1/25 aureus = 4 sestertius = $80
        Aureus = 1/3.5 ounce gold = 25 denarii = $2,000
        Gold = 3.5 aureus = $7,000
        Will roll the rest of this into a new discussion.
        This is fun!
        Jim

        Jim Ulvog

        October 16, 2015, 18:11 pm at 6:11 pm

  2. Caleb: Conversation continued at this post: More ideas on the wealth in the Roman treasury back in 49 B.C.

    Jim Ulvog

    October 19, 2015, 7:18 am at 7:18 am

  3. […] you wish. As a simple start, let’s look again at Wikipedia. Took a previous look at the Denarius here and […]


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