Featured Prices in Seleucid Babylon

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Magnus Maximus, Jul 3, 2020.

  1. Magnus Maximus

    Magnus Maximus Dulce et Decorum est....

    As collectors of ancient coins I feel that we sometimes forget that the little discs of metal we collect were used in day to day financial transactions. Certainly when I look at a tetradrachm to buy on VCoins or at an auction, I don't stop and think "How many liters of dates or pounds of bronze could my coin buy in 261 BCE?"
    As general rule of thumb in the ancient world, and indeed until the time of industrialized farming, most of a person's salary would have been spent on food. While manufactured goods would have been very expensive due to the fact that they all had to be made by hand. In addition prices generally fluctuated from region to region and depended on the quality of local harvests.

    Luckily we have a decent picture of what prices were in the Roman Republic/Empire due to the large amount of surviving source material. Unfortunately the early to mid Hellenistic age is not as lucky, as very few documents survive intact from the period. One of the few surviving documents from the early Seleucid Empire are the Babylonian Astrotronomical Diaries written in cuniform by Babylonian priests and astronomers. Author R.J. van der Spek published an article on the commodities of ancient Babylon based on his observations reading the diaries. I am glad that Van der Spek took the time to read through the diaries as they are about as interesting as getting a tooth extracted.

    The most interesting thing I've gleaned from Van Der Spek's paper is that shekels(roughly a didrachm) were very high valued coins.
    Here are some excerpts from his paper:

    • In 321 BCE workmen were paid 4 shekels( 2 tetradrachms or 8 drachms) per month to clean up debris of a temple in Babylon.

    • "...assumption that wages in the Seleucid period were somewhere between 1 and 4 shekels per month for the common wage earner.."
    • One shekel(Didrachm) could purchase 180 liters of barley grain.

    • An average scribe earned roughly 2 shekels( 1 teradrachm) per month of service.

    • "Small change is a recurrent problem in Antiquity, in Greece as well as in Babylonia. Other products than silver functioned as money, especially barley. As a matter of fact: wages were very often paid in barley. Silver was accepted as the more or less fixed reference point, so it was useful to know what the exchange value of barley was in relation to the shekel."

    • "prices during Alexander and especially during the wars of the successors (330-300) are exceptionally high, that during the Seleucid rule (300 - 141) the prices despite some disturbances are fairly stable, tend to decrease rather than to rise, and that only the coming of the Parthians created a new equilibrium of much higher prices."
    I have no new coins to show off, but here are two coins that would have circulated in Seleucia/Babylon at the time.
    Seleucus I Nikator
    AR Stater(double shekel)
    311-281 BCE
    15.89 grams


    Antiochus II Theos Tetradrachm
    Struck 261-246 BCE at Seleucia on the Tigris
    16.87 grams
    28mm in diameter.
    Obverse depicts Antiochus II's father, Antiochus I Soter.


    I warn you, this is pretty dry read!:bookworm:

    Feel free to post anything related to Babylon or ancient prices!
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  3. EWC3

    EWC3 (mood: stubborn)

    Facinating – thanks! - opens all kinds of doors

    Led me to this which I had not seen before


    at 120 Karsha = 9950g yields = 20 mina = thus a mina of 497.5g (note the small chip on the base)

    The BM official weight of Darius (1/3 mina) weights to a mina standard of 500.19g

    Since the BM weight is perfect it looks like the achieved accuracy might have been better than 0.5% on this 10 KG weight…..(!)

    Has anyone seen this investigated further? These days it would be easy to scan and model the Persepolis piece and calculate its pre-damage weight. (even in my youth one could have a good shot at this with a bit of plasticine and a big enough volume can).

    Rob T
  4. Limes

    Limes Supporter! Supporter

    Very interesting to read! Thank you for posting this.

    Well, I have no idea about Babylonian prices, but I would like to share something interesting regarding prices in Roman times. There's probably lots of information available about what things would have cost in those days, but as a coincidence I'm now reading the book by Mary Beard on Pompeii, which contains some interesting info on prices found in Pompeii. According to tablets of a banker (?) found in Pompeii in 1875, a mule was sold to for 520 sestertii (130 denarii), a certain slave for 6252 sestertii (1563 denarii!), and according to other findings, a visit to the local brothel one denarius. That slave would have been quite expensive, if I may cuely say so, as according to other sources, a slave could have been bought for 205 and 600 denarii.
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  5. FitzNigel

    FitzNigel Medievalist Supporter

    what was the time period of your documents? I don’t know any exact numbers, but I imagine slaves were quite cheap following the Punic wars and Rome’s expansion eastward. But once many of those wars of expansion slowed down, and fewer slaves were taken captive, the price probably went back up again. So is there a wide time difference between the documents reporting the different slave prices? (If not, he/she must have been one exceptional slave!)
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  6. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter I dig ancient coins...

    In Gladiator there is one brief mention of prices:

    Proximo tells the trader he'll give him "2000 for the men and 4 for the beasts, that's 5 for an old friend." I'm assuming the reference was to sestertii rather than denarii.

    Also, "After hours of bidding, Sulpicianus promised 20,000 sesterces to every soldier; Julianus, fearing that Sulpicianus would gain the throne, then offered 25,000"
    Last edited: Jul 4, 2020
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  7. Pavlos

    Pavlos You pick out the big men. I'll make them brave!

    Great write up and coins. When buying a coin, not only the beauty I admire but also the historical interest behind it. It is always interesting to know what the coin could have been used for or what it could buy.

    Shekel is rather confusing to me, it is the 8.6g (didrachm) one as you mentioned in your write up, but later on Shekels were issued with the weight of around 14g, the Phoenician standard as we know it. What is the difference?
    Chartage seems to have issued shekels as well but then around 7.2g. I am all very confused. Perhaps @Alegandron knows more?

    Seleukid Empire. Alexander I (Balas), 152/1-145 BC. AR Tetradrachm. Tyre mint. Dated SE 167 (146/5 BC).
    Diademed and draped bust of Alexander Balas right.
    Reverse: Eagle standing left on prow of galley, palm-branch over right shoulder; club surmounted by monogram to left, ΙΞΡ (date) and monogram to right.
    Reference: SNG Spaer 1545-1546; Newell, Tyre 79; Houghton 749.
    13.73g (Phoenican standard)
    Last edited: Jul 4, 2020
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  8. Magnus Maximus

    Magnus Maximus Dulce et Decorum est....

    Thats a good question. I am not sure why a Babylonian Shekel is 8.6g while a Carthagenian/Phoenician shekel is 7.6 grams.
    @EWC3 is pretty good with coin weights so maybe he would have an idea.
    ancient coin hunter likes this.
  9. Alegandron

    Alegandron "ΤΩΙ ΚΡΑΤΙΣΤΩΙ..." ΜΕΓΑΣ ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΣ, June 323 BCE Supporter

    Nice coin and write up!

    Makedon Alexander III - Alexandrine Babylon Di-Shekel Tet 24mm 16.35g LIFETIME 328-311 Baal - Lion
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  10. Magnus Maximus

    Magnus Maximus Dulce et Decorum est....

    I had your coin in mind when I was reading that paper. Go out and buy you 180 liters of barley grain, my friend!:D
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  11. Alegandron

    Alegandron "ΤΩΙ ΚΡΑΤΙΣΤΩΙ..." ΜΕΓΑΣ ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΣ, June 323 BCE Supporter

    I...am...HUNGRY !!!
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  12. EWC3

    EWC3 (mood: stubborn)

    On the shekel - well I am not strong on etymology and things are hectic here - so here is my off the cuff thought - please differ if you know more

    I think “shekel” is mostly a kind of figment of translation. Just like we might translate “libra” as “pound” (when it is c. 326g not 454g) or the Chinese liang as “ounce” (when it is c. 37g not 31g or 28g)

    Perhaps this dates back to when the Bible was viewed as the main source of ancient historical knowledge?

    My impression is that historically the “real/original shekel” might have been a pre-coinage Judean standard of c. 11.33g in use about 600 BC.

    Thus the others are just rough cognates – often similar to the ‘stater’ as a coin weight.

    In this Babylonian price document the translator assumes prices are fixed in the old Sumerian weight system – which had 60 shekels of c. 8.33g in a mina (pound) of c. 500g. But I think the Sumerians actually called that c. 8.3 g unit a “gin”. [That troubled me a little – as when coins arrive only the gold is struck to that standard under Darius. Silver was struck to a different “pound” and “shekel”. Actually a “shekel” of 2 sigloi would be 11.1g and rather similar to the “real” Judean shekel. But for sure the writer knows more than me……]

    On Carthaginian standards - I think they started with a pound/mina of about 470g decimal split into 50 - like the Egyptians - giving a “kite/kadet” of c. 9.4g. Later I think they they used the same pound but went binary – so - a kind of “quarter ounce” …... c. 470g/64 = c. 7.3g

    I have the Campanian higher at about 7.6g. That seems to resemble a binary quarter ounce to the Persian (c. 500g) rather than the Egyptian/Syrian (c. 470g)……

    In haste

    Rob T
    Last edited: Jul 6, 2020
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