How much is a sestertius?

Someone recently asserted in my hearing that books were expensive in antiquity.  This led me to wonder how much they sold for.  A look in book 1 of Martial produced a price of 6-10 sesterces (ep. 66), and that 10 sesterces was the dole that a rich man might give his client (ep. 11).  That dole seems to have been daily (Juvenal, Sat. 1), and equivalent to 100 quadrans, translated ‘100 farthings’ by the Victorian translator. 

But how much is a sestertius? 400,000 sesterces was the minimum property requirement of a Roman Knight – the business class.  Somehow I feel that a sestertius cannot have been more than a dollar or two, unless the daily dole was enormous, and the minimum fortunes of a Knight likewise.  Does anyone have any thoughts on this?


20 thoughts on “How much is a sestertius?

  1. I don’t have any real knowledge about this, but I just finished reading Tacitus’ “Annals” and he routinely talks about wealthy land owners(like the philosopher Seneca) having tens of millions of sesterces. Slavery was so commonplace in Rome at the time I’m sure the cost of labor that came from copying a book could been mitigated by using educated slaves. Given all of this, I would think a book would not have been very expensive for a Roman Knight to buy. Anyone else have other thoughts?

  2. Hey, Roger. I was hoping you’d get an authoritative answer, and I’d love to see more data. Please post again if you learn more along the way. For now, here’s my thoughts:

    It sounds like you’re saying a book could cost up to a full day’s wage. What’s the median salary in the US or UK these days? For a starting teacher, that might equal $120 to $200 a book. And personally, I think $40 hardbacks are “expensive”.

    Besides that, how many pages [lines?] were in the Martial book? And what do you mean by ‘client’? The situation would shift even more if we were talking about slaves and larger works. Cost and value being relative to the purchaser, of course.

    Again, thanks for bringing it up. Somebody’s gotta do a study on this, if they haven’t already…

  3. I’m still enquiring on this one.

    A book costing $200 may seem expensive, but try buying a copy of some academic books! The thing is, it starts to put a real price on things, and this is what I want to see.

  4. Good point Bill, but you have to consider that the average working salary in Rome may not reflect the average literate person’s salary. $200 for a book today is very pricy (and as Roger pointed out accurately reflects the price of many academic books). But if we were to compare the price of ancient books with a literate person’s wages it may not have been that bad. In either case, this is a very interesting discussion.

  5. What was meant in antiquity by “book” is very different from what we mean by “book”. Herodotus is 9 books so if we take the $200 per book then a copy of Herodotus’ work goes to $1800. I remember reading out there on the internet on a french site just how expensive books became after egypt (and its papyri) fell to the Arabs. One oxhide could supply 3 bi-folios, that would be 12 pages to write on. And oxhide was also sought for leather clothes. Tzetzes quoted from memory because he could not afford to buy the books he had read (and thus properly refer to them)

  6. From an email:

    At Pompeii, where prices need not be the same as in Rome, we find certain women’s sexual services on offer for as low as two asses = half a sesterce, though others charged as much as 16 asses = 1 denarius, and a rentboy made 105 and a half sesterces for a long session with two men; but of course the graffiti need not all have been written at the same time. Hedone’s bar would serve you plonk for an as, better wine for two, and Falernian for four.

    According to one price-list, a Roman pound (327.45 g) of oil cost 4 asses in the top line and 6 in the bottom (better quality?), the same weight of chaff fetched 5 asses, but a pound of hay would set you back 16; a day’s wages (for unskilled manual labour, I suppose) were 5, a pound of bran was worth 6 asses, and a _viria_ (a kind of bracelet worn by Celtic and Celtiberian men) probably 3. Those who have touched life in many places may make sense of these facts.

    Leofranc Holford-Strevens

  7. Thanks for keeping up with this one, Roger. Lining up these figures helped me think through it, so I’ll share that here. Everything said thus far, converted into sesterces:

    laborer’s wage 1.25 sesterces/day
    client’s dole 10 sesterces/day

    price list:
    drink A 0.25 ses
    drink B 0.50 ses
    hooker A 0.50 ses
    bracelet 0.75 ses
    drink B 1.00 ses
    1 lb oil A 1.00 ses
    1 lb chaff 1.25 ses
    1 lb oil B 1.50 ses
    1 lb bran 1.50 ses
    book A 6.00 ses
    book B 10.00 ses
    1 lb hay 16.00 ses
    hooker B 16.00 ses
    rentboy 105.50 ses

    My comments: Basic laws of supply and demand seem to apply here, adjusting for income and quality. Books sure look expensive compared to plonk, but not as much so for the client as for the laborer. Naturally, proprietary sex spans the whole range; apart from that, books are 2nd and 3rd most expensive so far.

    Your thoughts?

  8. Sorry, 2 typos should read:

    Drink C 1.00 ses (not Drink B)
    Hooker B 4.00 ses (not 16.00 ses)

    Figures. Like most men, my mistakes revolve around money, sex and alcohol. 😉

  9. you also have to remember books weren’t mass produced like they are today, and all of them had to be hand written and the bound in leather or something, so the price is actually quite reasonable.

  10. So are we coming to a figure yet? Further research of mine shows that 1 sestertius is about $5 USD. That seems about correct, thought it seems like it should be more.

  11. I learned that a load of treasure is around 4 million sestertius and to borrow 7 million ships it was the same amount. (Spartacus the movie:)) one of my favorites. Watched it with my wife.

  12. I’m afraid that at the moment I can’t pay any attention to this because of my domestic miseries. But if we can work out a figure, that would be good. It has to be done from purchasing power in some way, so ships and so on are a possible. But we have to look at both the top and bottom of the price range.

  13. Is it clear what the texts Dr. Holford-Strevens was referring to? I am having a hard time finding the data.

  14. Not to me; I presumed that it was somewhere in the corpus of material from Pompeii; probably from inscriptions or graffiti, I would guess.

    I have sent an email to Dr Holford-Strevens with an enquiry as to sources and publications (which I should have done back in the day, I know – my mistake).

  15. In Barry Strauss’ The Death of Caesar, he states that Caesar gave Servilla a pearl worth 6 million sestertius, or “the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars in today’s terms.” I cannot fathom that his calculation is correct. I’d like to hear from other. Thanks.

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