After developing a few points of reference for comparing ancient finances to now, I can get back to pondering the value of loot Alexander the Great stole while on his military rampage, I mean campaign.
Following estimates of how much loot Alexander the Great hauled away is from Professor Frank Holt’s book The Treasures of Alexander the Great: How One Man’s Wealth Shaped the World which I previously mentioned. (Can you tell I enjoyed his book?)
(Cross post from Attestation Update.)
I will revise my previous calculation of Alexander’s haul from Susa and then develop a point estimate for the value of proceeds from his biggest sacking.
Approximate value of the haul from looting Susa, the capital of Persia
The loot from Susa is described by Prof. Holt, and converted to a current value, as follows:
- 40,000 Talents of uncoined bullion, or raw silver
- 10,000 Talents of gold coins, which I will assume is expressed as the equivalent in silver
- 50,000 Talents – haul at Susa, estimated by Prof. Holt
- 400 years wages per talent, for a skilled laborer, adjusted for Great Enrichment at a factor of 40; could be as high as 80 or even 100
- 20,000,000 years wages
- 200,000 centuries of wages for an average worker
- $70,000 – average annual compensation package for a skilled construction worker today, calculated here
- $1,400,000,000,000 – really rough approximation of current wages today for skilled construction workers which would be vaguely comparable to loot hauled off from Susa
- $1.4 trillion – point estimate
That would be something roughly comparable to an invader attacking Germany, conquering the country without destroying any of the infrastructure, and pulling back after stealing all the public stock listed on the country’s exchange. Basically expropriating all the stock on the market. Stealing the entire German stock market.
That valuation is likely underestimated by three factors, at least:
- Perhaps the better comparison for skilled construction worker then would be an IT worker today.
- Perhaps the Great Betterment has produced an improvement in our wealth and standard of living by factor of 80 or 100 instead of my assumption of 40.
- The above calculation does not include the value of artwork, tapestries, clothing, animals, spices, or anything of value other than precious metals.
Alexander’s biggest individual haul
Prof. Holt tells us that Persepolis was the site of Alexander’s most lucrative looting. The author cross references several reports and estimates the haul was 120,000 talents.
This was a mixture of gold and silver, with one ancient source specifically saying it is a combination of both metals measured in silver equivalent. This would not include other valuables such as animals, pottery, artwork, gold & silver embossed serving utensils, and other things that would otherwise be luxurious valuables at the time.
The analysis compared this haul to the reported number of animals used to carry the loot back to Greece.
There were reportedly 20,000 mules and 5,000 camels. The professor calculates that would have been a train about 70 miles long. Traveling 13 to 15 miles a day the lead of the train would be five days ahead of the tail.
Ponder logistics for a moment. Think of the number of guards needed to protect the train. Think of the number of mule wranglers. Ponder the amount of fodder to feed the animals and the food to sustain the troops and animal wranglers. How many more workers would have been needed just to keep the animals and soldiers supplied?
My guess would be that the haul from Persepolis would represent the following:
- 120,000 talents
- 400 years salary per 1 talent
- 48,000,000 years salary looted from Persepolis
- 480,000 centuries of wages
- $70,000 – average annual compensation package for a skilled construction worker today
- $3,360,000,000,000 – rough approximation of current wages for skilled construction workers that would be vaguely comparable to the value of loot hauled off from Persepolis
- $3.36 trillion
That would be something roughly comparable to an invader attacking Japan, conquering the country without damaging the economy, and pulling back after stealing all the public stock listed on the country’s exchange. Basically looting all the stock on the market. Stealing the entire Japanese stock market.
Alexander’s looting of Susa and Persepolis would be somewhat similar to a modern conqueror taking the entire stock market of Germany, and then the entire stock market of Japan.
Here are my calculations of some of the data used for the calculation.
So, how can we compare today’s wages with 100 years or 2,300 years ago?
The Great Betterment of the last 200 years, as Professor Dierdre McCloskey explains the concept in her book Bourgeois Equality, has produced an increase in value of goods we consume by a factor of 40 or 60. Perhaps we are 100 times better off than people living any time before about 1800.
Previously discussed that an Athenian Talent was roughly equal to the pay a skilled construction worker would earn in 10 years.
With the Great Betterment, a year’s pay today is worth about 40 times what a year’s pay was in Alexander’s time (or just about any time earlier than 1800).
Proportionate betterment today compared to 200 years ago, based on Prof. McCloskey’s calculations of how much better off we are today than 200 or 2,300 years ago:
- 40 fold increased value of goods and services = 400 years pay in 1 Athenian Talent
- 44 fold increase, which is specific point estimate from Dr. McCloskey = 440 years pay in a talent
- 66 fold increase = 660 years pay
- 100 fold increase = 1,000 years pay in each Athenian Talent
I will use the more modest 40 times improvement in economic value enjoyed today.
Compensation for skilled construction worker
- $70,000 – approximate total compensation package for a skilled construction worker today.
Stock market capitalization as reference point for ancient finances
The value in US dollars for all stock listed on the stock market in a country in 2012:
- $18.7 trillion – US
- 3.6 T – Japan
- 3.0 T – UK
- 1.8 T – France
- 1.5 T – Germany
- 1.2 T – South Korea
- 1.0 T – Spain
- 0.5 T – Mexico
Total wealth held by American households as reference point for ancient finances
- $76 trillion – net wealth held by individuals in the US during 1st quarter of 2016
- $10 trillion – loss in net wealth held by individuals during the Great Recession of ’07-‘09, calculated as the 86% of the decline in net wealth held by individuals ( 67T – 55T = 12T decline, x .86% = 10.3T, rounded to 10T ).