Pay for a legionnaire soldier in the Roman army increased substantially over time, from 225 denarii a year around the turn of the millenium to 600 denarri in the early 200s.
The amount of silver in a denarii was also steadily reduced over that same time. That is called inflation, which as we know from other reading, was driven by Roman Emperors intentionally debasing the currency as a way to help finance the empire.
First, let’s look at the declining value of a denarius. Here is the silver value of each coin, measured as the number of denarii minted from each pound of silver, along with my point estimate of the year of the change:
Another indication of average pay for Roman foot soldiers can be found in Wikipedia’s articleImperial Roman Army.
This pay rate applied during the reigns of Emperors Augustus and Vespasian, which means until about 81 A.D. After that point, debasement of the currency led to inflation and rising pay for soldiers. More on that later.
For general framework, this is the pay structure in effect during the time of the New Testament.
Eventually bullion became a store of value. This would have been in the form of silver coins usually, with gold being used sometimes. The coins had value because their precious metal not because of the particular coin.
This is a different framework from today where coins and bills have value because the government says so. It would be extremely rare to encounter a coin today that has precious metal equal to its face value. To further the contrast if you happen to have an old coin that has lots of silver in it (that would be dimes, quarters, half dollars, and dollars dated 1964 and earlier in the United States) their value is a large multiple of the face value. If those coins happen to be in fairly good condition their value is an extreme multiple of their face value.
The contrast in the Viking Age and medieval era is coins had value because of the precious metal they contained. Thus the bullion value was the means of exchange. As an aside is also a store of value and a unit of measure. That is the definition of money.
In terms of economic life, Viking Age: Everyday life during the extraordinary era of the Norsemen, by Kirsten Wolf, points out geography affected the size of settlements. On the coasts of Denmark and Sweden there were villages, meaning a group of three or more farms. In contrast, across most of Norway, the interior of Sweden, and the island colonies, the typical settlements were individual farms.
Fish were obviously a major component of the diet, particularly since there were a lot of fish and they were close in to land.
Author points out blacksmiths, who made tools and implements, had high prestige and had some of the richest grave goods.
Imports and exports
Author thinks that fur was one of the main exports. Slaves captured on raids were another major export.
Major imports would have been salt, spices, wine, silk, pottery, and glass. Weapons and semi precious stones would have been other major imports. Silver flowed into Scandinavia as the result of both trading and raiding.
Author says the pottery, wool cloth, and glass would have been imported from Western Europe. Silk came from Byzantium. Much of the silver came from the Muslim world.
What is the going price for sheep? We can use that information to develop some very rough approximations of prices during the Viking age.
My conclusion at the end of this post:
$150 – looks to be about the best estimate for a productive ewe
$200 – price for a productive ewe, rounded off to a single significant digit and giving more weight to the more analytically focused articles found.
Follow along as this city boy sorts out prices for sheep. I learned a lot along the way.
11/1/17 (article written in 2002) – Countryside Daily –Raising Sheep: Buying and Caring for Your First Flock– This was the most helpful of a number of articles I read. It is focused on someone who wants to start raising sheep on a small acreage or someone wanting to become a part-time farmer. The focus on a small flock makes for a good comparison to ancient days when farmers would not be running hundreds of animals that would be raising what could be tended to by a family.
Article gives background on how to get started, including where to get animals and what to look for when starting a herd.
Here are some rough estimates of prices as of 2002:
$200 – $250 – a younger ewe (female) in the ideal age of two years up to four years.
Higher than $200-250 range – a bred ewe, (for us city boys that means female which has a higher price because you will quickly have yield from the ewe, specifically a new lamb)
Less than the $200 – $250 range – an older ewe, aged five years and higher – lower price because there are less productive years left
$75-$150 – lambs
$100-$150 – ram (lots of options exist, including borrowing ram for a friendly neighbor, renting a ram, buying one and selling them after the breeding season)
Here is some technical breakout, which of course is new info for me:
In that post I calculated that the implied value of a bound New Testament, hot of the press from the first printing, cost something in the range of about $900 in terms of today’s currency.
I’d like to work through what that implies about the value of gold back then.
What is a Gulden?
It is a gold coin used in Germany. A few minutes of research does not quite explain its weight or purity. The most helpful thing I found is an article from Money Museum which describes a number of Medieval Currencies:
One of the fascinating things to consider about the Viking and Roman ages is what economies looked like without a banking system or even a rudimentary financial system.
Ponder just a few of the implications.
Merely having coins allowed for trade that was more complex than barter.
There was no way to transfer money over distances. To move wealth required carrying precious metals or tradable goods. Returning from a successful trade mission or raiding expedition meant you carried your wealth with you.
There was no way to store wealth in any sort of financial intermediary. No banks. No Credit Unions. No money market accounts. No Schwab or Vanguard to hold your stocks. No stocks at all. Not even bearer bonds. No government securities for safety.
No, instead if you had wealth you needed to hold silver or gold. Putting it under the mattress or anywhere in the house or even in the area of the farm buildings made your wealth subject to theft by whatever marauder or king’s representative that meandered through. Instead you would bury your wealth.
Minting of silver and gold coins shows the foundational purpose of money:
medium of exchange,
store of value, and
unit of account.
The Viking age shows all three quite well.
That is where the large number of hoards of buried treasures come into play.