The Common People of Rome

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Usually a price list is not of engrossing interest, but the tables of Diocletian furnish us a picture of material conditions throughout the Empire in his time which cannot be had from any other source, and for that reason deserve some attention. This consideration emboldens me to set down some extracts in the following pages from the body of the edict:

In the tables given here the Latin and Greek names of the articles listed have been turned into English. The present-day accepted measure of quantity--for instance, the bushel or the quart--has been substituted for the ancient unit, and the corresponding price for the modern unit of measure is given. Thus barley was to be sold by the kastrensis modius (=18½ quarts) at 100 denarii (=43.5 cents). At this rate a bushel of barley would have brought 74.5 cents. For convenience in reference the numbers of the chapters and of the items adopted in the text of Mommsen are used here. Only selected articles are given.

1 Wheat    
2 Barley 74.5 cents
3 Rye 45 "
4 Millet, ground 74.5 "
6 Millet, whole 37 "
7 Spelt, hulled 74.5 "
8 Spelt, not hulled 22.5 "
9 Beans, ground 74.5 "
10 Beans, not ground 45 "
11 Lentils 74.5 "
12-16 Peas, various sorts 45-74.5 "
17 Oats 22.5 "
31 Poppy seeds $1.12  
34 Mustard $1.12  
35 Prepared mustard, quart 6 "

(Unit of Measure, the Quart)

1a Wine from Picenum 22.5 cents
2 Wine from Tibur 22.5 "
7 Wine from Falernum 22.5 "
10 Wine of the country 6 "
11-12 Beer 1.5-3 "

(Unit of Measure, the Quart)

1a Oil, first quality 30.3 cents
2 Oil, second quality 18 "
5 Vinegar 4.3 "
8 Salt, bushel 74.5 "
10 Honey, best 30.3 "
11 Honey, second quality 15 "

(Unit, Unless Otherwise Noted, Pound Avoirdupois)

1a Pork 7.3 cents
2 Beef 4.9 "
3 Goat's flesh or mutton 4.9 "
6 Pig's liver 9.8 "
8 Ham, best 12 "
21 Goose, artificially fed (1) 87 "
22 Goose, not artificially fed (1) 43.5 "
23 Pair of fowls 36 "
29 Pair of pigeons 10.5 "
47 Lamb 7.3 "
48 Kid 7.3 "
50 Butter 9.8 "

1a Sea fish with sharp spines 14.6 cents
2 Fish, second quality 9.7 "
3 River fish, best quality 7.3 "
4 Fish, second quality 4.8 "
5 Salt fish 8.3 "
6 Oysters (by the hundred) 43.5 "
11 Dry cheese 7.3 "
12 Sardines 9.7 "

1 Artichokes, large (5) 4.3 cents
7 Lettuce, best (5) 1.7 "
9 Cabbages, best (5) 1.7 "
10 Cabbages, small (10) 1.7 "
18 Turnips, large (10) 1.7 "
24 Watercress, per bunch of 20 4.3 "
28 Cucumbers, first quality (10) 1.7 "
29 Cucumbers, small (20) 1.7 "
34 Garden asparagus, per bunch (25) 2.6 "
35 Wild asparagus (50) 1.7 "
38 Shelled green beans, quart 3 "
43 Eggs (4) 1.7 "
46 Snails, large (20) 1.7 "
65 Apples, best (10) 1.7 "
67 Apples, small (40) 1.7 "
78 Figs, best (25) 1.7 "
80 Table grapes (2.8 pound) 1.7 "
95 Sheep's milk, quart 6 "
96 Cheese, fresh, quart 6 "

(Where (k) Is Set Down the Workman Receives His "Keep" Also)

1a Manual laborer (k) 10.8 cents
2 Bricklayer (k) 21.6 "
3 Joiner (interior work) (k) 21.6 "
3a Carpenter (k) 21.6 "
4 Lime-burner (k) 21.6 "
5 Marble-worker (k) 26 "
6 Mosaic-worker (fine work) (k) 26 "
7 Stone-mason (k) 21.6 "
8 Wall-painter (k) 32.4 "
9 Figure-painter (k) 64.8 "
10 Wagon-maker (k) 21.6 "
11 Smith (k) 21.6 "
12 Baker (k) 21.6 "
13 Ship-builder, for sea-going ships (k) 26 "
14 Ship-builder, for river boats (k) 21.6 "
17 Driver, for camel, ass, or mule (k) 10.8 "
18 Shepherd (k) 8.7 "
20 Veterinary, for cutting, and straightening hoofs, per animal 2.6 "
22 Barber, for each man .9 cent
23 Sheep-shearer, for each sheep (k) .9 "
24a Coppersmith, for work in brass, per pound 3.5 cents
25 Coppersmith, for work in copper, per pound 2.6 "
26 Coppersmith for finishing vessels, per pound 2.6 "
27 Coppersmith, for finishing figures and statues, per pound 1.7 "
29 Maker of statues, etc., per day (k) 32.4 "
31 Water-carrier, per day (k) 10.9 "
32 Sewer-cleaner, per day (k) 10.9 "
33 Knife-grinder, for old sabre 10.9 "
36 Knife-grinder, for double axe 3.5 "
39 Writer, 100 lines best writing 10.9 "
40 Writer, 100 lines ordinary writing 8.7 "
41 Document writer for record of 100 lines 4.3 "
42 Tailor, for cutting out and finishing overgarment of first  
quality 26.1 "
43 Tailor, for cutting out and finishing overgarment of second  
quality 17.4 "
44 For a large cowl 10.9 "
45 For a small cowl 8.7 "
46 For trousers 8.7 "
52 Felt horse-blanket, black or white, 3 pounds weight 43.5 "
53 Cover, first quality, with embroidery, 3 pounds weight $1.09  
64 Gymnastic teacher, per pupil, per month 21.6 cents
65 Employee to watch children, per child, per month 21.6 "
66 Elementary teacher, per pupil, per month 21.6 "
67 Teacher of arithmetic, per pupil, per month 32.6 "
68 Teacher of stenography, per pupil, per month 32.6 "
69 Writing-teacher, per pupil, per month 21.6 "
70 Teacher of Greek, Latin, geometry, per pupil, per month 87 "
71 Teacher of rhetoric, per pupil, per month $1.09  
72 Advocate or counsel for presenting a case $1.09  
73 For finishing a case $4.35  
74 Teacher of architecture, per pupil, per month 43.5 cents
75 Watcher of clothes in public bath, for each patron .9 cent

1a Hide, Babylonian, first quality $2.17  
2 Hide, Babylonian, second quality $1.74  
4 Hide, Phoenician (?) 43 cents
6a Cowhide, unworked, first quality $2.17  
7 Cowhide, prepared for shoe soles $3.26  
9 Hide, second quality, unworked $1.31  
10 Hide, second quality, worked $2.17  
11 Goatskin, large, unworked 17 cents
12 Goatskin, large, worked 22 "
13 Sheepskin, large, unworked 8.7 "
14 Sheepskin, large, worked 18 "
17 Kidskin, unworked 4.3 "
18 Kidskin, worked 7 "
27 Wolfskin, unworked 10.8 "
28 Wolfskin, worked 17.4 "
33 Bearskin, large, unworked 43 "
39 Leopardskin, unworked $4.35  
41 Lionskin, worked $4.35  

5a Boots, first quality, for mule-drivers and peasants, per    
pair, without nails 52 cents
6 Soldiers' boots, without nails 43 "
7 Patricians' shoes 65 "
8 Senatorial shoes 43 "
9 Knights' shoes 30.5 "
10 Women's boots 26 "
11 Soldiers' shoes 32.6 "
15 Cowhide shoes for women, double soles 21.7 "
16 Cowhide shoes for women, single soles 13 "
20 Men's slippers 26 "
21 Women's slippers 21.7 "

8a Sewing-needle, finest quality 1.7 cents
9 Sewing-needle, second quality .9 cent

1 Transportation, 1 person, 1 mile .9 cent
2 Rent for wagon, 1 mile   5 cents
3 Freight charges for wagon containing up to 1,200 pounds, per    
  mile   8.7 "
4 Freight charges for camel load of 600 pounds,    
  per mile   3.5 "
5 Rent for laden ass, per mile 1.8 "
7 Hay and straw, 3 pounds   .9 cent

1a Goose-quills, per pound 43.5 cents
11a Ink, per pound 5 "
12 Reed pens from Paphos (10) 1.7 "
13 Reed pens, second quality (20) 1.7 "

1 Military mantle, finest quality $17.40
2 Undergarment, fine $8.70
3 Undergarment, ordinary $5.44
5 White bed blanket, finest sort, 12 pounds weight $6.96
7 Ordinary cover, 10 pounds weight $2.18
28 Laodicean Dalmatica [i.e., a tunic with sleeves] $8.70
36 British mantle, with cowl $26.08
39 Numidian mantle, with cowl $13.04
42 African mantle, with cowl $6.52
51 Laodicean storm coat, finest quality $21.76
60 Gallic soldier's cloak $43.78
61 African soldier's cloak $2.17

1a For an embroiderer, for embroidering a half-silk  
  undergarment, per ounce   87 cents
5 For a gold embroiderer, if he work in gold, for finest  
  work, per ounce   $4.35
9 For a silk weaver, who works on stuff half-silk, besides  
  "keep," per day   11 cents

2 For working Tarentine or Laodicean or other foreign wool,    
with keep, per pound 13 cents
5 A linen weaver for fine work, with keep, per day 18 "

4 Fuller's charges for a cloak or mantle, new 13 cents
6 Fuller's charges for a woman's coarse Dalmatica, new 21.7 "
9 Fuller's charges for a new half-silk undergarment 76 "
22 Fuller's charges for a new Laodicean mantle. 76 "

1 White silk, per pound $52.22

1 Genuine purple silk, per pound $652.20
2 Genuine purple wool, per pound $217.40
3 Genuine light purple wool, per pound $139.26
8 Nicæan scarlet wool, per pound $6.53

1 Washed Tarentine wool, per pound 76 cents
2 Washed Laodicean wool, per pound 65 "
3 Washed wool from Asturia, per pound 43.5 "
4 Washed wool, best medium quality, per pound 21.7 "
5 All other washed wools, per pound 10.8 "

7a Coarse linen thread, first quality, per pound $3.13
8 Coarse linen thread, second quality, per pound $2.61
9 Coarse linen thread, third quality, per pound $1.96

1 Pure gold in bars or in coined pieces, per pound 50,000 denarii
3 Artificers, working in metal, per pound $21.76
4 Gold-beaters, per pound $13.06

Throughout the lists, as one may see, articles are grouped in a systematic way. First we find grain and vegetables; then wine, oil, vinegar, salt, honey, meat, fish, cheese, salads, and nuts. After these articles, in chapter VII, we pass rather unexpectedly to the wages of the field laborer, the carpenter, the painter, and of other skilled and unskilled workmen. Then follow leather, shoes, saddles, and other kinds of raw material and manufactured wares until we reach a total of more than eight hundred articles. As we have said, the classification is in the main systematic, but there are some strange deviations from a systematic arrangement. Eggs, for instance, are in table VI with salads, vegetables, and fruits. Bücher, who has discussed some phases of this price list, has acutely surmised that perhaps the tables in whole, or in part, were drawn up by the directors of imperial factories and magazines. The government levied tribute "in kind," and it must have provided depots throughout the provinces for the reception of contributions from its subjects. Consequently in making out these tables it would very likely call upon the directors of these magazines for assistance, and each of them in making his report would naturally follow to some extent the list of articles which the imperial depot controlled by him, carried in stock. At all events, we see evidence of an expert hand in the list of linens, which includes one hundred and thirty-nine articles of different qualities.

As we have noticed in the passage quoted from the introduction, it is unlawful for a person to charge more for any of his wares than the amount specified in the law. Consequently, the prices are not normal, but maximum prices. However, since the imperial lawgivers evidently believed that the necessities of life were being sold at exorbitant rates, the maximum which they fixed was very likely no greater than the prevailing market price. Here and there, as in the nineteenth chapter of the document, the text is given in tablets from two or more places. In such cases the prices are the same, so that apparently no allowance was made for the cost of carriage, although with some articles, like oysters and sea-fish, this item must have had an appreciable value, and it certainly should have been taken into account in fixing the prices of "British mantles" or "Gallic soldiers' cloaks" of chapter XIX. The quantities for which prices are given are so small--a pint of wine, a pair of fowls, twenty snails, ten apples, a bunch of asparagus--that evidently Diocletian had the "ultimate consumer" in mind, and fixed the retail price in his edict. This is fortunate for us, because it helps us to get at the cost of living in the early part of the fourth century. There is good reason for believing that the system of barter prevailed much more generally at that time than it does to-day. Probably the farmer often exchanged his grain, vegetables, and eggs for shoes and cloth, without receiving or paying out money, so that the money prices fixed for his products would not affect him in every transaction as they would affect the present-day farmer. The unit of money which is used throughout the edict is the copper denarius, and fortunately the value of a pound of fine gold is given as 50,000 denarii. This fixes the value of the denarius as .4352 cent, or approximately four-tenths of a cent. It is implied in the introduction that the purpose of the law is to protect the people, and especially the soldiers, from extortion, but possibly, as Bücher has surmised, the emperor may have wished to maintain or to raise the value of the denarius, which had been steadily declining because of the addition of alloy to the coin. If this was the emperor's object, possibly the value of the denarius is set somewhat too high, but it probably does not materially exceed its exchange value, and in any case, the relative values of articles given in the tables are not affected.

The tables bring out a number of points of passing interest. From chapter II it seems to follow that Italian wines retained their ancient pre-eminence, even in the fourth century. They alone are quoted among the foreign wines. Table VI gives us a picture of the village market. On market days the farmer brings his artichokes, lettuce, cabbages, turnips, and other fresh vegetables into the market town and exposes them for sale in the public square, as the country people in Italy do to-day. The seventh chapter, in which wages are given, is perhaps of liveliest interest. In this connection we should bear in mind the fact that slavery existed in the Roman Empire, that owners of slaves trained them to various occupations and hired them out by the day or job, and that, consequently the prices paid for slave labor fixed the scale of wages. However, there was a steady decline under the Empire in the number of slaves, and competition with them in the fourth century did not materially affect the wages of the free laborer. It is interesting, in this chapter, to notice that the teacher and the advocate (Nos. 66-73) are classed with the carpenter and tailor. It is a pleasant passing reflection for the teacher of Greek and Latin to find that his predecessors were near the top of their profession, if we may draw this inference from their remuneration when compared with that of other teachers. It is worth observing also that the close association between the classics and mathematics, and their acceptance as the corner-stone of the higher training, to which we have been accustomed for centuries, seems to be recognized (VII, 70) even at this early date. We expect to find the physician mentioned with the teacher and advocate, but probably it was too much even for Diocletian's skill, in reducing things to a system, to estimate the comparative value of a physician's services in a case of measles and typhoid fever.

The bricklayer, the joiner, and the carpenter (VII, 2-3a), inasmuch as they work on the premises of their employer, receive their "keep" as well as a fixed wage, while the knife-grinder and the tailor (VII, 33, 42) work in their own shops, and naturally have their meals at home. The silk-weaver (XX, 9) and the linen-weaver (XXI, 5) have their "keep" also, which seems to indicate that private houses had their own looms, which is quite in harmony with the practices of our fathers. The carpenter and joiner are paid by the day, the teacher by the month, the knife-grinder, the tailor, the barber (VII, 22) by the piece, and the coppersmith (VII, 24a-27) according to the amount of metal which he uses. Whether the difference between the prices of shoes for the patrician, the senator, and the knight (IX, 7-9) represents a difference in the cost of making the three kinds, or is a tax put on the different orders of nobility, cannot be determined. The high prices set on silk and wool dyed with purple (XXIV) correspond to the pre-eminent position of that imperial color in ancient times. The tables which the edict contains call our attention to certain striking differences between ancient and modern industrial and economic conditions. Of course the list of wage-earners is incomplete. The inscriptions which the trades guilds have left us record many occupations which are not mentioned here, but in them and in these lists we miss any reference to large groups of men who hold a prominent place in our modern industrial reports--I mean men working in printing-offices, factories, foundries, and machine-shops, and employed by transportation companies. Nothing in the document suggests the application of power to the manufacture of articles, the assembling of men in a common workshop, or the use of any other machine than the hand loom and the mill for the grinding of corn. In the way of articles offered for sale, we miss certain items which find a place in every price-list of household necessities, such articles as sugar, molasses, potatoes, cotton cloth, tobacco, coffee, and tea. The list of stimulants (II) is, in fact, very brief, including as it does only a few kinds of wine and beer.

At the present moment, when the high cost of living is a subject which engages the attention of the economist, politician, and householder, as it did that of Diocletian and his contemporaries, the curious reader will wish to know how wages and the prices of food in 301 A.D. compare with those of to-day. In the two tables which follow, such a comparison is attempted for some of the more important articles and occupations.

Articles of Food[90]

  Price in 301 A.D. Price in 1906 A.D.
Wheat, per bushel 33.6 cents $1.19[91]  
Rye, per bushel 45 " 79 cents[91]
Beans, per bushel 45 " $3.20  
Barley, per bushel 74.5 " 55 cents[91]
Vinegar, per quart 4.3 " 5-7 "
Fresh pork, per pound 7.3 " 14-16 "
Beef, per pound 4.9 " { 9-12 "
      {15-18 "
Mutton, per pound 4.9 " 13-16 "
Ham, per pound 12 " 18-25 "
Fowls, per pair 26 "    
Fowls, per pound     14-18 "
Butter, per pound 9.8 " 26-32 "
Fish, river, fresh, per pound 7.3 " 12-15 "
Fish, sea, fresh, per pound 9-14 " 8-14 cents
Fish, salt, per pound 8.3 " 8-15 "
Cheese, per pound 7.3 " 17-20 "
Eggs, per dozen 5.1 " 25-30 "
Milk, cow's, per quart     6-8 "
Milk, sheep's, per quart 6 "    

Wages Per Day

Unskilled workman 10.8 cents (k)[92] $1.20-2.24[93]
Bricklayer 21.6 " (k) 4.50-6.50
Carpenter 21.6 " (k) 2.50-4.00
Stone-mason 21.6 " (k) 3.70-4.90
Painter 32.4 " (k) 2.75-4.00
Blacksmith 21.6 " (k) 2.15-3.20
Ship-builder 21-26 " (k) 2.15-3.50

We are not so much concerned in knowing the prices of meat, fish, eggs, and flour in 301 and 1911 A.D. as we are in finding out whether the Roman or the American workman could buy more of these commodities with the returns for his labor. A starting point for such an estimate is furnished by the Eighteenth Annual Report of the Commissioner of Labor, on the "Cost of Living and Retail Prices of Food" (1903), and by Bulletin No. 77 of the Bureau of Labor (1908). In the first of these documents (pp. 582, 583) the expenditure for rent, fuel, food, and other necessities of life in 11,156 normal American families whose incomes range from $200 to $1,200 per year is given. In the other report (p. 344 f.) similar statistics are given for 1,944 English urban families. In the first case the average amount spent per year was $617, of which $266, or a little less than a half of the entire income, was used in the purchase of food. The statistics for England show a somewhat larger relative amount spent for food. Almost exactly one-third of this expenditure for the normal American family was for meat and fish.[94] Now, if we take the wages of the Roman carpenter, for instance, as 21 cents per day, and add one-fourth or one-third for his "keep," those of the same American workman as $2.50 to $4.00, it is clear that the former received only a ninth or a fifteenth as much as the latter, while the average price of pork, beef, mutton, and ham (7.3 cents) in 301 A.D. was about a third of the average (19.6 cents) of the same articles to-day. The relative averages of wheat, rye, and barley make a still worse showing for ancient times while fresh fish was nearly as high in Diocletian's time as it is in our own day. The ancient and modern prices of butter and eggs stand at the ratio of one to three and one to six respectively. For the urban workman, then, in the fourth century, conditions of life must have been almost intolerable, and it is hard to understand how he managed to keep soul and body together, when almost all the nutritious articles of food were beyond his means. The taste of meat, fish, butter, and eggs must have been almost unknown to him, and probably even the coarse bread and vegetables on which he lived were limited in amount. The peasant proprietor who could raise his own cattle and grain would not find the burden so hard to bear.

Only one question remains for us to answer. Did Diocletian succeed in his bold attempt to reduce the cost of living? Fortunately the answer is given us by Lactantius in the book which he wrote in 313-314 A.D., "On the Deaths of Those Who Persecuted (the Christians)." The title of Lactantius's work would not lead us to expect a very sympathetic treatment of Diocletian, the arch-persecutor, but his account of the actual outcome of the incident is hardly open to question. In Chapter VII of his treatise, after setting forth the iniquities of the Emperor in constantly imposing new burdens on the people, he writes: "And when he had brought on a state of exceeding high prices by his different acts of injustice, he tried to fix by law the prices of articles offered for sale. Thereupon, for the veriest trifles much blood was shed, and out of fear nothing was offered for sale, and the scarcity grew much worse, until, after the death of many persons, the law was repealed from mere necessity." Thus came to an end this early effort to reduce the high cost of living. Sixty years later the Emperor Julian made a similar attempt on a small scale. He fixed the price of corn for the people of Antioch by an edict. The holders of grain hoarded their stock. The Emperor brought supplies of it into the city from Egypt and elsewhere and sold it at the legal price. It was bought up by speculators, and in the end Julian, like Diocletian, had to acknowledge his inability to cope with an economic law.

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the common people of rome