Thinking about the value of ancient money.
There has been much misguided thinking about the value of money in the ancient world (particularly in the Roman Empire). For example, there are the footnotes in the 1946 edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible that informed us that one denarius was worth 20 cents. (Mark 6:37 and John 6:7.) This footnote was carried into many editions of the RSV over decades.
How might we determine the value of a denarius? Ancient sources tell us that one denarius was about one day’s wage. Of course there was a range of payments, from about ½ denarius to about 2 ½ denarii per day. In addition, the worker usually received lunch. (Leonard Whibley, ed. A Companion to Greek Studies. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1905, p. 436. Even though the information is old, it is reliable.) If we think of one denarius as a day’s wage, we can use it to make some estimates.
In the New Testament, both Mark 6 and John 6, we are told that the disciples estimated it would cost 200 denarii to feed 5,000 men. How many were fed? Maybe 5,000, or maybe 10,000 (men and women), or maybe some other number. Let’s assume 200 denarii to feed 5,000. One denarius would feed 25 people.
Let’s think about money in the United States in 2023. What does lunch cost? Suppose we budget $7.00 per person (a fairly typical “fast food” cost) or $175.00 for 25 people. In other words, one denarius (a day’s wage) would equal $175.00, or a little less than $22.00 per hour for 8 hours. This is not an unreasonable wage in the U.S.A. in 2023. The ancient day’s wage had approximately the same purchasing power as the 21st century day’s wage.
Of course ancient people didn’t presume an 8-hour work day, but that is not relevant to the estimate we are doing. People always work by the day, regardless of how many hours society sets as the standard work-day. Note that workers in the Roman Empire worked approximately the same number of days per year as workers in 21st century U.S.A. The ancient workers didn’t have weekends, but they had a lot of holidays.
What about 1946 when the RSV was first published? Average non-farm income was about $2,600 (https://www2.census.gov/prod2/popscan/p60-001.pdf). Lets estimate that this represents 250 days of work per year (50 weeks x 5 days per week). This divides to $10.40 per day. In other words, a denarius in 1946 would be approximately $10.40, not $.20.
Let’s check this number by looking at Mark 6 and John 6. 200 denarii would be $2,080 ($10.40 x 200), and the per-person cost to feed 5,000 people would be between 41 and 42 cents ($2,080 divided by 5,000). What might lunch have actually cost in 1946 (perhaps at a dime-store lunch counter)? We’ll look at https://restaurant-ingthroughhistory.com/restaurant-prices/ where we find some references to fancy dining (maybe $1.50 per meal) and some references to ordinary lunch.
Here’s ordinary lunch in 1939 and 1949:
1939 Lunch at a Woolworth’s counter: “Today’s Feature Luncheon 25c – Cubed Minute Steak, Panned Gravy, Sliced Buttered Beets, French Fried Potatoes, Hot Cloverleaf Roll and Butter.”
1949 Jack Tar Grill, in a Galveston TX motor court, open 24 hours: Steaming Hot Casserole of Home-Made Chicken and Dumplings, Hot Rolls, 55¢; Hot Casserole of Ming Toy Chop Suey with Steamed Rice, Hot Rolls, 75¢.
Clearly it was possible to feed a person for 41 cents in 1946, so it makes sense that an ancient denarius was around $10.40 in 1946 U.S.A. money.
Now let’s look at the value of the Roman coin known as the “as.” Jerome Carcopino talked repeatedly about this coin in his classic book, Daily Life in Ancient Rome. Here is one quotation, discussing the entrance fee for a bath in Rome: “The fee charged . . . was microscopic: a quadrans, quarter of an as, or roughly half a cent . . .” (Yale Univ. Press, 2nd ed., p. 254.This was first published in the U.S. in 1940.)
Our question is, what would have been the value of one as, in U.S. money in 1940? We have to ask what an “as” was, and the answer is 1/16 of a denarius. Let’s think about 1949: if a denarius was equal $10.40, then an as was 65 cents, and it cost about 16 cents to enter the public baths. That was about half of the cost of lunch. Maybe this price was reasonable, but it was not microscopic.
Of course 1949 was post-war and 1940 was (in Europe, where Carcopino was writing) in the beginning of World War II. It becomes tricky to compare war-time Europe, Depression-era U.S.A. and first or second century Rome, but our basic point remains valid. Many people presume that ancient money was worth less than modern money, but if one considers any textual evidence as to how much a unit of ancient money would purchase, ancient money and modern money are very comparable.
You can find a good ancient money calculator at https://testamentpress.com/ancient-money-calculator.html
Unfortunately it attempts to compare ancient work hours to modern work hours, which seems unfair. Every society sets a standard for the work-day, so the worker has little control over how many hours are spent on a job during a day. It seems better to compare ancient days to modern days. (A typical Roman worker had a 6-hour work day.)
This calculator also, by default, calculates modern equivalents in terms of the Federal Minimum Wage, which is (for political reasons) not a living wage. The calculator does permit entering a different hourly wage, but keep in mind that it doesn’t calculate on the basis of an 8-hour work-day.
The ancient money calculator does a good job of explaining how various ancient coins related to one another.