How much it costs to raise an army in Ancient times?

Jun 2018
4
Makati, Philippines
I've been curious about ancient wars that drain money from city's coffers. How much would it cost to train, raise and maintain, say a phalanx army for example? How much would it cost to raise a legion? How much a war usually costs?

Philip II put a lot of money to drill the phalangites. Romans got private investors in First Punic War.

Speaking of First Punic War, i have a more specific question. How much would it cost to raise 50,000 mercenaries? How would it differ if in some point, Carthage reformed and drill their troops, like what Xanthippus did, and raise 50,000 trained men? I want to get some rough estimates in denarii or talents.
 
Oct 2018
2,092
Sydney
Speaking of First Punic War, i have a more specific question. How much would it cost to raise 50,000 mercenaries? How would it differ if in some point, Carthage reformed and drill their troops, like what Xanthippus did, and raise 50,000 trained men? I want to get some rough estimates in denarii or talents.
Probably a very great amount, but I don't know enough about ancient finance to give you an estimate. I think Dexter Hoyos provides an estimate in Truceless War (2007). But note that, despite a Roman habit of exaggerating the size of enemy armies, in neither the First nor Second Punic Wars is Carthage reported to have fielded 50,000 mercenaries. If I recall correctly, Carthage's armies in the First Punic War (unlike their fleets) are not presented as being very large, albeit with staggering numbers of elephants. Xanthippus fielded a force of 16,000 men that included African and citizen levies. The army that rebelled in 241 BC consisted of 20,000 or so men, including Libyan levies and Numidian allies. In the Second Punic War Carthage was able to draw upon Spanish levies and allies, Numidian levies and allies, and Libyan levies. One imagines that Carthage paid levies and allies less than they paid professional mercenaries who had traveled to Carthage, New Carthage or Lilybaeum for employment.
 
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Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
5,009
Dispargum
Probably the biggest cost was in lost productivity. Most ancient armies were militias where the men set aside their peacetime occupations and served in the army for the duration of the national emergency. If the men were no longer working their farms and trades then there would be a shortage of food and manufactured goods. Depending on how the taxes were structured, if nothing was being produced there might be nothing to tax so no money was coming in. We know that some societies only went to war during those times of the year when men were not needed on the farms. From this we can infer that a war during harvest season was so prohibitively expensive that societies could not afford to make war at those times. Other times of the year, especially in the winter, farmers were idle and war caused relatively little economic disruption.
 
Mar 2018
984
UK
For most states and most of history (up to the last couple of centuries) raising military forces was the number one expense. By far.

From various estimates of the Roman economy, the amount the state spent on the military during the Principate is about 550-700 million sesterces per year, while all other expenditure (subsidies, construction, administration, gifts, diplomacy, imperial court, etc...) amounts to ~250 million sesterces. So some 70% of all the states expenditure went towards the army. It should be noted that this is possibly the most peaceful time of the ancient world, and at this point the Roman empire had a very low fraction of it's total manpower involved in military activity. Various estimates of Roman taxation suggest that the state took about 5% of GDP as direct or indirect taxes. So from this, we can estimate that 3-4% of the economy went towards defense. For comparison, NATO asks that all member states spend 2% of GDP on defense (most fall below it, the USA far above it). I should stress that these kind of comparisons are not entirely meaningful as the Roman economy was far less monetized than ours; for example, does one count towards GDP the output of a farmer who eats half of what he grows?

Anyway, taking the variable amount of Principate legions together with the numerous Auxiliary forces, and taking into account the later were paid less, we can roughly say that the empire had a standing army roughly equivalent to 40 regular legions. From the numbers above, we can guesstimate that a professional imperial legion cost some 15 million sesterces per year to maintain. This is about 3000 sesterce per man. Note that during this period the regular legionary is about 1000 sesterce, so the rest of the money goes towards various things like officers, rations, equipment (even if some was paid for by the soldiers themselves), horses, retirement bonus and all the rest.

The cost of actually raising a legion is different. Not only do you have to pay the men and replace the wear-and-tear of the equipment, but you potentially have to fabricate all the weapons and armour from scratch, unless you have a militia-type army where the soldiers bring their own. The cost of this depends entirely on the manufacturing basis available. However, it take much less than a year for a workman to produce all the equipment one soldier would need, so this is probably a smaller cost, but not entirely negligible.

If you want a figure for how much it costs to raise an imperial legion in 100AD for one year, I suggest 20 million sesterces is probably a reasonable ball park figure. Translating that to 3 centuries earlier during the Punic wars might be tricky, but this was a period of relatively low inflation so if we assume the price of silver stays the same, this is some 450 talents of silver. We know from other sources that a Trireme cost about 1 talent of silver per month to maintain. This rough analysis suggest that a legion was about as expensive as a fleet of 40 trireme. That seems like a sensible number to me.


Source: https://www.princeton.edu/~pswpc/pdfs/scheidel/041201.pdf and references therein
 

Edratman

Forum Staff
Feb 2009
6,792
Eastern PA
Probably the biggest cost was in lost productivity. Most ancient armies were militias where the men set aside their peacetime occupations and served in the army for the duration of the national emergency. If the men were no longer working their farms and trades then there would be a shortage of food and manufactured goods. Depending on how the taxes were structured, if nothing was being produced there might be nothing to tax so no money was coming in. We know that some societies only went to war during those times of the year when men were not needed on the farms. From this we can infer that a war during harvest season was so prohibitively expensive that societies could not afford to make war at those times. Other times of the year, especially in the winter, farmers were idle and war caused relatively little economic disruption.
I think that point cuts both ways.

The lack of supply trains meant that the armies needed to pillage to survive, which means that wars were timed to correspond to the periods when some harvests were available and grass is plentiful. So spring is out, for planting purposes, but early summer to early winter are the prime time, a period that jeopardizes the fall harvest back home. I have no idea how the manpower absence at that crucial time was offset.
 

Matthew Amt

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
3,074
MD, USA
Keep in mind that a lot of ancient armies were not state-supplied. In a citizen army like Archaic or early Classical Greece, or Republican Rome, eligible citizens were required to turn out for military duty, and provided their own equipment and (at least in some systems) a certain amount of rations as well. So there wasn't much that the state needed to supply.

Even in the early Roman Empire, legionaries were, strictly speaking, required to equip themselves, though they were apparently issued gear and then the cost was deducted from their pay over the course of their enlistment. There were deductions for their food and clothing, too. So the state fronted the costs but recouped them. Though keeping a full-time army was certainly a huge part of the economy!

And obviously, once you move from a militia system to professional troops, whether full-time or mercenaries, state costs go up a LOT. Longer campaigns were certainly more of a drain than the short inter-city tiffs that most hoplites fought in.

BUT as to actual numbers, I don't know what might be known! I would caution against trying to compare to any modern economic system, but there may be references to some gross amounts.

Matthew
 
Sep 2019
187
Vergina
Plutarch has some interesting info on Alexander's Army in 334:
As to the number of his forces, those who put it at the smallest figure mention thirty thousand foot and four thousand horse; those who put it at the highest, forty-three thousand foot and five thousand horse. To provision these forces, Aristobulus says he had not more than seventy talents; Duris speaks of maintenance for only thirty days; and Onesicritus says he owed two hundred talents besides.
Footnote:
in 2007, a talent would be about $15,600.
 

Caesarmagnus

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
3,680
Australia
You don't much lose productivity from raising an army of Roman head count scum, they're not tilling the fields or something.
 

Dan Howard

Ad Honorem
Aug 2014
5,151
Australia
in 2007, a talent would be about $15,600.
That is a nonsense number. Nobody even knows how much a talent weighed. Estimates today range from 30 to 50 kg. At today's spot price a talent of silver would be anywhere from $17,000 to $28,000. And that doesn't mean anything because precious metal was valued differently than it is today. Better to compare it to a day's wages. During the Pelopponesian war, a talent was valued at the amount needed to pay a trireme crew for a month.
 
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Sep 2019
187
Vergina
That is a nonsense number. Nobody even knows how much a talent weighed. Estimates today range from 30 to 50 kg. At today's spot price a talent of silver would be anywhere from $17,000 to $28,000. And that doesn't mean anything because precious metal was valued differently than it is today. Better to compare it to a day's wages. During the Pelopponesian war, a talent was valued at the amount needed to pay a trireme crew for a month.
Interesting info thanks. Yeah, I'm not sure how Perrin or Thayer got that number. Plutarch mentions Bucephalus selling price was thirteen talents. If Alexander only had seventy on hand in 334, that seems like a very expensive horse.