How rich Ancient cities were?

Jun 2018
4
Makati, Philippines
I've been curious about the financial side of Ancient empires. Specifically, the government funding and revenue of city-states.

How rich were the prominent cities of Ancient world like Republic of Rome, Carthage? How rich were city-states like Syracuse, Athens and Sparta?

How much were there in cities' coffers? From where they get these money from? What are the main revenues other than tax? How taxation works etc.

And how do they spend this?


I'm hoping for numbers or estimation in costs in currencies like talents, denarii, sesterces etc.
 
Sep 2019
187
Vergina
Reported wealth of major Achaemenid cities on capture by Alexander:

Persepolis: 120,000 talents
Susa: 50,000 talents
Ecbatana: 26,000 talents
Pasargadae: 6,000 talents
Damascus: 3,100 talents
 
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Sep 2013
649
Ontario, Canada
A quantity of silver or gold went for far more than they currently trade on the world market at, since we've long abandoned the bimetallic currency system. But wealth had much more intrinsic value in ancient times. It's very difficult to make a comparison between ancient and modern economies.

But going by the statement in the Old Testament that a denarius would pay a labourer for an entire day (8 hours) of work, we can work out a rough equivalency. Using US minimum wage ($7.25/hour in some States) we can figure that a coin containing 4.5 grams of pure silver equal to 16 sesterces in the time of Augustus was roughly equivalent to about 58 USD today. That works out to about $3.62 USD per sesterce.

One hundred denarii (each being 4 sesterces) would make up a trading unit called a mina. Sixty minas would be a Roman talent of 6,000 denarii and would be worth 24,000 sesterces. This was an immense sum of money to an individual, in a time when a legionary serving in the army would earn 900 sesterces per year.

To be considered truly rich, you were probably a member of the equestrian order, worth about 400,000 sesterces (almost 17 talents) or a Senator with a minimal wealth requirement of 1,000,000 sesterces. But there's rich, and then there's filthy rich. This included the likes of Marcus Licinius Crassus and his 170 million sesterces (7,100 talents) who paid off the debts of Caesar who owed 20 million sesterces (830 talents) in 61 BCE, as well as Pompey the Great who paid 3.5 million sesterces (145 talents) for his mansion in Rome.

But it was all peanuts on the Empire scale, for in the public Roman Treasury at the death of Augustus held 4,000 silver talents, or about 100 million sesterces. In addition, to his personal fortune of 150 million sesterces, one-third of which went to Livia and the rest to Tiberius. Seems like a lot, but it was really a trifling amount for an Empire the size of which the Romans possessed, and reflects how much Augustus spent on public works and Games and conquest. The Imperial revenue would vary, but it has been estimated that it earned somewhere between 400 million to over a billion sesterces a year, all of which would be spent on public works, government administration, imperial expenses, bread and circuses for the people, and most of all, the army.

His successor Tiberius would pursue a very different agenda, and be despised for holding nearly no Games at all during the whole of his reign, and followed a policy of diplomacy and consolidation rather than military; the three Legions lost in Germany were never replaced. The result? After more than twenty years of rule in the Treasury was some 2.7 billion sesterces (100,000 talents); the most the Roman Empire would ever have until matched by Antoninus Pius during the prosperity of the second century.

A colossal sum, to be sure, but one which paled in comparison to the riches accumulated by other rulers. Such as the silver reserves of the Chinese Wang Mang Emperor of 23 CE, who possessed 160,000 silver talents. Or the 200,000 silver talents seized from the treasuries of Darius II by Alexander the Great at Susa, Ecbatana, and Persepolis.
 
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Caesarmagnus

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
3,680
Australia
Rome would have been fantastically wealth on the upper ends by late Republican times. Crassus, for all his fame, wasn't the most wealthy guy in Ancient Rome, even in his own lifetime probably. I imagine Caesar after Gaul was much richer than he'd ever been, and Pompey was probably at least as wealthy if not more. The Senatorial census requirement was small potatoes for the mega rich of Rome, who were preposterously wealthy, as by extension was the city itself relative to most ancient cities. Crassus fortune was hard to calculate in today's standards, but the gold itself would be worth 11 billion today (remember, Tiberius left his heir 14 times that amount, which was by no means all there was because his personal fortune and Rome's treasury were different things).
 
Last edited:
Mar 2015
922
Europe
Rome would have been fantastically wealth on the upper ends by late Republican times. Crassus, for all his fame, wasn't the most wealthy guy in Ancient Rome, even in his own lifetime probably. I imagine Caesar after Gaul was much richer than he'd ever been,
So did lots of Romans.
Both sides were surprised when Caesar invaded Temple of Saturn - they expected Caesar to be adequately funded out of Gallic loot, and were surprised to find he must have spent it to be so desperate.
 
Sep 2013
649
Ontario, Canada
It's an important distinction that the public Treasury of an Empire or State is separate from the personal treasury of its ruler or most valuable citizen. During his reign Vespasian was an energetic administrator who taxed everything in sight, and he once remarked that it had taken 20 billion sesterces to put the Empire back on its feet. That amount of money, equivalent to all of the gold and silver in circulation across the entire Roman Empire at the time, underpinned the whole Roman economic system. By that yardstick, since it personally belonged to him as conqueror, Alexander the Great is probably the best contender for the richest man ever produced by the ancient world.

For in addition to his sacking of the cities of the Persian Empire, he also extracted tribute and material concessions as King of Kings. He had spent and mismanaged much of it, but his personal wealth when he died was probably in the neighborhood of 250,000 silver talents. In fact he left behind so much fortune that a full century after his death there was still enough remaining for his successors to coin another 4,000 talents.

But in the Roman Empire the rulers were conscious of the display of wealth. It didn't reflect on them well to show they were better off than the Senators who were supporting the imperial government. Augustus fixed it at 150 million sesterces, and though he could have easily sacked the Aerarium for his projects and emergencies, he never dared to do so. Unlike Nero, and Caracalla, and Caligula, who themselves came to a bit of a sticky end for their mismanagement.

However, private citizens or freedmen could still become quite wealthy, in the Imperial period even more so than the Emperors. The freedman of Claudius, Narcissus, had about 400 million sesterces. Herodes Atticus was the richest man in Athens in the reign of Hadrian. The Emperor travelled to the city to coordinate publics work projects with his family, which was so fabulously wealthy that the father of Herodes paid out of his own pocket 16 million sesterces for the completion of an aqueduct.

But overall I agree that the richest Romans were likely the ones who lived in the last century of the Republic, when plunder and tribute was flowing into the city in a river of gold and silver. In particular, the plunder of Gaul was immense. Velleius states that in 29 CE the tribute which Julius Caesar forced upon Gaul (some 40 million sesterces) was equivalent to the rest of the Empire as a whole. Add to this the booty described by ancient writers (Appian, B. Civ. 2 2.102) being moved in the procession of the Quadruple Triumph of 46 BCE, which was some 60,500 silver talents, or about 1.5 billion sesterces. About half of this was still in the Aerarium at the Ides of March in 44 BCE, the 700 million sesterces which Cicero writes about going missing while Mark Antony was in charge as Consul.

There are no reliable estimates of the personal wealth of Julius Caesar which I've ever seen, but he may very well have been the richest Roman who ever lived. Some writers I've looked at have attempted to quantify it. Jaczynowska (1962, page 491) and Davis (1910, page 70) had amounts ranging from 600 million sesterces to as much as 1.75 billion sesterces.

But all Caesar's loot was in Gaul when he crossed the Rubicon, and he arrived at Rome pretty much flat broke. He had no recourse but to open the Aerarium in order to fund his new operations. Pompey actually left it behind, thinking Caesar wouldn't dare, but that was a colossal blunder because Caesar was no longer playing by the rules at that point, and had been cornered into finally making the all-or-nothing grab for absolute power.
 
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Caesarmagnus

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
3,680
Australia
So did lots of Romans.
Both sides were surprised when Caesar invaded Temple of Saturn - they expected Caesar to be adequately funded out of Gallic loot, and were surprised to find he must have spent it to be so desperate.
This is a bizarre post with I assume some kind of anti-Caesar agenda. Why should Caesar pay for Rome's wars out of his own personal fortune? Why would he leave loot in temples for his enemies to steal (like Pompey's legate Cassius did before departing for Greece)? If the other side is going to spend it you're just as entitled to.
 
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Caesarmagnus

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
3,680
Australia
But all Caesar's loot was in Gaul when he crossed the Rubicon, and he arrived at Rome pretty much flat broke. He had no recourse but to open the Aerarium in order to fund his new operations. Pompey actually left it behind, thinking Caesar wouldn't dare, but that was a colossal blunder because Caesar was no longer playing by the rules at that point, and had been cornered into finally making the all-or-nothing grab for absolute power.
Some of the stuff you say is well considered and worth reading... then there's stuff like this, that is flatly wrong. Rome had an international banking system, and doubtless Caesar had access to plenty of banks and bankers in Gaul. The idea his money was "stuck" in Gaul somehow, and that he came to Rome "broke" is ridiculous, money he had in Gaul he could get in Rome via the equivalent of notes of credit and so on no doubt. The idea Caesar was "forced" to take Rome's money because he was broke is almost as wrong as the claim he "wasn't playing by the rules". Pompey's side was the one who had been breaking all the rules, and only left the Treasury because they forgot it. Pompey did not leave it because "he didn't think Caesar would dare take it", that is utter fiction, contradicted by the source material (and common sense). Cassius, his legate, actually looted a bunch of temples on the way to Greece, probably after hearing of the treasury debacle. Why should Caesar pay for Rome's wars out of his own wealth anyway? The treasury should pay. The other side sure thought so.
 
Sep 2013
649
Ontario, Canada
The Temple of Saturn was considered sacred, and anything couldn't be removed from it without the express permission of the Roman Senate. It was also an affront to the gods who were the protectors of the city, and people would've gotten angry.

So Pompey left it behind, figuring that Caesar should get the blame. But he erred in leaving far too much of it behind. He didn't forget about it! It just didn't turn out the way he expected it, the people coming instead to support Caesar throughout Rome and Italy.

But Caesar just didn't give a damn about any of that, he needed the physical money to pay his men. He didn't arrive in Italy with a war chest, just a single Legion. If he could just write notes and get credit and raise money, then why bother looting the Aerarium at all?

The answer, he was in unconsolidated enemy territory, and Pompey and the Senate were on the move, so no time to write up some contracts and get some cash. And yes, Caesar wasn't playing by the rules because neither were Pompey and his supporters who forced him to do the same.
 

Caesarmagnus

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
3,680
Australia
The Temple of Saturn was considered sacred, and anything couldn't be removed from it without the express permission of the Roman Senate. It was also an affront to the gods who were the protectors of the city, and people would've gotten angry.

So Pompey left it behind, figuring that Caesar should get the blame. But he erred in leaving far too much of it behind. He didn't forget about it! It just didn't turn out the way he expected it, the people coming instead to support Caesar throughout Rome and Italy.

But Caesar just didn't give a damn about any of that, he needed the physical money to pay his men. He didn't arrive in Italy with a war chest, just a single Legion. If he could just write notes and get credit and raise money, then why bother looting the Aerarium at all?

The answer, he was in unconsolidated enemy territory, and Pompey and the Senate were on the move, so no time to write up some contracts and get some cash. And yes, Caesar wasn't playing by the rules because neither were Pompey and his supporters who forced him to do the same.
What you have written here is utter fiction for the most part. I want a source to prove the following claim (a primary source); "That Pompey left the treasure behind hoping Caesar would get blamed". The sources tell us Pompey, when he realized the treasury hadn't been emptied, ordered the consuls to empty it; which they refused to do. Pompey therefore clearly wanted the treasury, and had over a month to take it. There's basically universal agreement he forgot it, contrary to your fictionalized version of history. Then we have this nonsense about physical money, as though Rome didn't have an international banking system. Caesar could, if he wanted, have had the "physical money" advanced to him in Rome by bankers, when you were rich in Rome you had notes of credit to withdraw money across most of the major centers of the Roman world. Again, why exactly would he want or need to pay for his army from his own personal fortune? It is bizarre to think he should have. Any claim Pompey expected Caesar to "play by the rules" is comical, not only because Pompey had flouted them (and was in the process of doing all the things you accuse Caesar of doing and more), but because once there's a Civil War and Caesar is crossing the rubicon how can you expect he'll "follow the laws", only a child could be so naïve. Pompey wasn't, because he ordered the treasury emptied once he remembered it (and his legate looted a number of other sacred temples for funds).