Ancient finances, the Alexander the Great chapter

Image: Flickr by Carole Raddato
Image: Flickr by Carole Raddato

Image: Flickr by Carole Raddato

The Wall Street Journal has a delightful review by James Romm:  Conqueror and Squanderer. The review is of The Treasures of Alexander the Great: How One Man’s Wealth Shaped the World by Frank Holt.

(Cross post from Attestation Update.)

I have a growing interest in ancient finances. Try thinking about how to run a large operation, such as an empire or an army on campaign when there is no banking system and no means of storing wealth other than controlling territory or possessing gold or silver. There is no way to gain any sort of liquidity. Your ability to buy something is limited to the gold in your hand.

How you pay your army today here in the field or buy supplies for 20,000 troops when your wealth is in the form of tons of gold which is a two-month march behind you?

Review points to credible reports that taking all the loot out of the Persian capital of Persepolis required 25,000 pack animals. As you ponder the astounding wealth, think for a moment of how to transport it. I picture having two animals side-by-side spaced out at what I will guess is 15 feet from animal to animal. At my assumed spacing the mule train would be 35 miles long.

How do you feed that many animals every day for the couple of month long walk home? How do you keep the 6,000 or 12,000 mule wranglers honest? How do you maintain security over a 35 mile long trail of precious metals and sundry valuables? How do you make sure all the goodies (or at least the vast majority of it) makes it back to your capital?

Check out the review. It is fun.

So much fun that I bought the book and am three chapters in. The start of the book explains how very difficult it is to quantify the wealth involved with the accuracy that we moderns expect.

I hope to write several more posts on the book. In the meantime, consider just this one teaser:

Appendix A accumulates the known incidents of gathering loot. Author calculates the amount is

69(X) + 216,820 talents

The “X” represents an unknown amount of treasure looted in one specific city or incident. The “X”s include proceeds from selling off anywhere from a small number of slaves up to 30,000 slaves.

One talent is 25.8 kilos, or 56.88 pounds. Those measures of talents are in silver. Thus the known portion of the loot, which is the far smaller part of the calculation, would be 12,332,700 pounds of silver. The 69(X) would be far larger than the 12M pounds.

The annual tribute from conquered lands is estimated at cumulative 79,677 talents plus the value of livestock and supplies. That would be another 4,500,000 pounds of silver plus all the horses, mules, and cows.

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