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An indication of Persian wealth from the book of Esther

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Drawing of Persian daric gold coin. Alexander would have looted tons of these. Image courtesy of Adobe stock.

Drawing of Persian daric gold coin. Alexander would have looted tons of these. Image courtesy of Adobe stock.

The number two man in the Persian Empire offered a bribe of 10,000 talents to the king in return for permission to kill off all the Jews living under the authority of the king. Today’s question: what would the amount of that bribe be worth in today’s money?

The Old Testament book of Esther tells the story of Haman plotting to kill all the Jews living in the Persian Empire.  Esther then told King Xerxes about the plot. The King executed Haman and allowed the Jews to defend themselves from those planning to exterminate them. The Jews survived. Those who expected to slaughter them did not. That is the short version. For the full details, check out the book of Esther.

Hers is a wonderful story of realizing God put you in a place to do a job that only you can do. So many other delightful and encouraging aspects of the story. If you haven’t looked at it lately, check it out.

There is one particular verse in the story which overlaps my discussion of Alexander the Great looting the Persian Empire.

Timing

The events in Esther took place approximately 460 BC. There are several theories of when the book was written but it obviously took place before Greece conquered Persia. The Persian empire fell to Alexander the Great in 331 BC.

Thus the story in the book of Esther took place somewhere in the range of about 130 years before Alexander the Great conquered and looted all of Persia.

The bribe

Esther chapter 3, verses 8 through 11 say:

Then Haman said to King Xerxes, “there is a certain people dispersed and scattered among the peoples and all the provinces of your kingdom whose customs are different from those of all other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the King’s best interest to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued to destroy them, and I will put ten thousand talents of silver into the royal treasury for the men who carry out this business.”

So the king took his signet ring from his finger and gave it to Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews. “Keep the money,” the king said to Haman, “and do with the people as you please.” (New International Version, used with permission)

There is a delightful footnote in the Zondervan Study Bible which cites Herodotus saying the annual income for the Persians was 15,000 talents.

The king declined a bribe of 10,000 talents.

Herodotus was a Greek historian who was born around 484 BC and died somewhere around 425 BC. In very rough terms, he was a contemporary of Esther.

The note goes on to say that it is most likely this money would be plunder expected to be gathered from the estates of all the Jews which would be slaughtered. It is possible that Haman, as number two man in the entire kingdom, had a huge amount of wealth on his own, but it seems to me that it would be unlikely he would accumulate in just a few years wealth equal to two-thirds of the annual income of the kingdom.

The expected plundering of the wealth of all the Jews is in contrast to what the Jews did when they defended themselves. As is mentioned three times, in verses 9:10, 9:15, and 9:16, the Jews did not touch the plunder of their blood enemies that the king gave them permission to kill.

Presumably Haman was thinking he would raise much more than the 10,000 talents from all the plunder, even after having to share some of the proceeds with those doing the killing. As my wild guess that means the wealth of the Jews living in the Persian Empire was far greater than 10,000 talents.

The purpose of all this discussion is an effort to quantify the offered & declined bribe as well as the annual income of the Persian Empire.

I have learned from Prof. Holt’s book that ancient references usually measured things in terms of silver equivalent. He also says several times that amounts were often times rounded off. So perhaps it is only 8,000 or as much as 12,000 talents offered and annual revenue of the Empire was maybe 12,000 talents or 18,000 talents. I’ll go with 10,000 and 15,000.

Value of annual income of Persian empire

Herodotus reports the Persian Empire had annual income of 15,000 talents. Current value would be:

  • 15,000 talents – annual income
  • 400 years – current year’s income in one Talent for a skilled construction worker taking into consideration the phenomenal expansion in wealth due to the Great Betterment
  • 6,000,000 years – number of years income for a skilled construction worker in the Persian Empire’s annual revenue
  • 60,000 centuries – number centuries salary in annual revenue
  • $70,000 – average annual compensation package for a skilled construction worker today, see reference below
  • $420,000,000,000 – rough approximation of annual income of Persian Empire estimated by Herodotus expressed in current wages for skilled construction workers
  • $420 billion or $0.42 trillion

Approximate value of the offered bribe

Here is my estimate of the value of the bribe Haman offered and King Xerxes declined:

  • 10,000 talents – bribe offered by Haman to King Xerxes to gain permission to kill off every Jew in the Persian Empire
  • 400 years – current year’s income in one Talent for a skilled construction worker taking into consideration the phenomenal expansion in wealth to do the Great Betterment
  • 4,000,000 years – number of years income for a skilled construction worker in the Persian Empire’s annual revenue
  • 40,000 centuries – number centuries salary in annual revenue
  • $70,000 – average annual compensation package for a skilled construction worker today, calculated here
  • $280,000,000,000 – rough approximation of bribe offered by Haman to King Xerxes expressed in today’s wages for skilled construction workers
  • $280 billion, or $0.28 trillion

That amount represents several items. It is the amount of the bribe offered by Haman. That is presumably the amount of plunder he was going to give to the king allowing for what would be kept by the murderers and what he would keep for himself.

As a result, some number greater than that $280B would represent a current value of Haman’s estimate of the wealth that could be stolen from all of the Jews.

To put that into more perspective, in 2012 the value in US dollars of all stock listed on the stock exchange was $1.0 trillion in Spain and $0.5 trillion in Mexico. Comparing income to wealth isn’t a great comparison, but I will go with it.

That puts the income of the Persian empire somewhere in the range the market capitalization of Mexico.  The bribe was somewhat less than the market cap of the Mexican stock market.

Imagine offering a bribe to the head dictator of a country equal to two-thirds of the country’s stock market capitalization.

Reference points:

Here are my calculations of some of the data used for the calculation. I will repeat them so that this post can stand on its own.

So, how can we compare today’s wages with 100 years or 2,300 years ago?

The Great Betterment of the last 200 years, as Professor Dierdre McCloskey explains the concept in her book Bourgeois Equality, has produced an increase in value of goods we consume by a factor of 40 or 60. Perhaps we are 100 times better off than people living any time prior to 1800.

Previously discussed that an Athenian Talent was roughly equal to the pay a skilled construction worker would earn in 10 years.

With the Great Betterment, a year’s pay today is worth about 40 times what a year’s pay was in Alexander’s time (or just about any time prior to around 1800).

Proportionate betterment today compared to 200 years ago. Based on Prof. McCloskey’s calculations here is a calculation of how much better off we are today than 200 or 2,300 years ago.

  • 40 fold increased value of goods and services = 400 years pay in 1 Athenian Talent
  • 44 fold increase, which is specific point estimate from Dr. McCloskey = 440 years pay in a talent
  • 66 fold increase = 660 years pay
  • 100 fold increase = 1,000 years pay in each Athenian Talent

I will use the more modest 40 times improvement in economic value enjoyed today.

Compensation for skilled construction worker

  • $70,000 – approximate total compensation package for a skilled construction worker today.

Stock market capitalization as reference point for ancient finances

The value in US dollars for all stock listed on the stock market in a country in 2012:

  • $18.7 trillion – US
  • 3.6 trillion – Japan
  • 3.0 T – UK
  • 1.8 T – France
  • 1.5 T – Germany
  • 1.2 T – South Korea
  • 1.0 T – Spain
  • 0.5 T – Mexico

Total wealth held by American households as reference point for ancient finances

  • $76 trillion – net wealth held by individuals in the US during 1st quarter of 2016
  • $10 trillion – loss in net wealth held by individuals during the Great Recession of ’07-‘09, calculated as the 86% of the decline in net wealth held by individuals ( 67T – 55T = 12T decline, x .86% = 10.3T, rounded to 10T ).

Written by Jim Ulvog

June 23, 2016, 12:42 pm at 12:42 pm

Posted in Economics, Other stuff

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