My discussion continues of how much wealth Alexander the Great looted while on his rampage around the world. These calculations are based on two books I’ve really enjoyed:
- Professor Frank Holt – The Treasures of Alexander the Great: How One Man’s Wealth Shaped the World
- Professor Deirdre McCloskey – Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World (I’m still working on her book – it is rather long)
(Cross post from Attestation Update.)
Loot from Persia
Prof Holt provides a couple of ancient estimates of the total haul in Persia. Here is a recap:
- ?? Babylon
- 50k talents – Susa
- 120k – Persepolis
- 6k – Pasargadae
- 26k – Ecbatana
That gives a point estimate of 202k talents. Back out some poetic license exaggeration and add an amount at Babylon about equal to Susa (author’s estimate) gives me an estimate of about 225k talents, give or take. That is only the precious metals without art, statuary, spices, clothes, pottery, or gold inlaid stuff.
In addition, Darius fled with maybe 8,000 talents, Alexander paid bonuses of around 12,000 talents to his soldiers, with another 2,000 talents to Thessalain soldiers. There was enough stray coins found a century later to mint 4,000 talents of coins. That is around another 26,000 talents or so of additional bullion. Add in the unquantifiable amount soldiers looted and all the non-bullion treasures means there was an incalculable amount of wealth looted from the Persian empire.
I’ll work with 202K point estimate, plus 50K from Babylon, less 25K for poetic license, plus 26K sundry disposition. That gets to a point estimate of 253K, with my very wild guess of a margin of error of minus 50K to plus 100K. Let’s work with a 250,000 Talent estimate. That means I’ll roughly estimate Alexander looted 250,000 talents of silver-equivalent from Persia.
Total haul during Alexander’s extended raid around the world
The total haul from looting is estimated by the Prof. Holt as 69( X) + 216,820 talents, where X is an unknown amount from one raid or battle. The total is unknown and unknowable.
Shortly after that estimate the author adds in tribute from conquered areas that were not looted in return for payments and loyalty.
Total proceeds from the wars is then estimated in a formula expressed as 81.67( X) +311,761.
The author guesses the grand total for his years of campaigning at something between 300,000 and 400,000 talents. With the fixed portion of the second estimate at 311k, I think the total would be well over 300k.
I will guess that the total is around 400,000 talents with a range of minus 50,000 talents to plus 150,000 talents.
So here are the point estimates:
- 250,000 Talents – looted from Persia
- 400,000 Talents – total loot during Alexander’s career
With the valuation of a Talent which follows, that would give these rough guesses:
- Persia – $7,000,000,000,000, or $7 trillion
- Grand total, including Persia – $11 trillion
To put that into context, the extended raid into Persia at $7T would be something comparable to stealing all the stocks listed on the Japanese stock market ($3.6T) plus the British stock market ($3.0T). The loot from all the other raids ($4T) would be roughly like stealing all the stock on the French market ($1.8T) plus the German market ($1.5).
Or, the total haul ($11T) would be in the range of stealing somewhere around 60% of the U.S. stock market value in 2012.
Using the guesses included my calculations, Alexander’s total haul ($11T) would be something in the range of one-seventh of the total wealth held by all Americans in 2016. About 14%.
The range of uncertainty in all the calculations is massive. The point estimates have large uncertainty. The actual loot does not include tapestries, statuary, clothes, food, and other non-bullion stuff. The impact of the Great Betterment could be quantified at 60 or 100 instead of 40. The better comparison of ancient skilled construction worker might be to an IT worker today instead of construction. The above values are on the low side, so you could adjust them up a long ways if you wanted to do so. I’ve shown my work so you can recalculate if you wish.
Here are supporting calculations:
My wild guess on the value of one Athenian Talent in today’s economy
I’ll go with this estimate:
- 1 – Athenian Talent
- 400 years – value of paid labor for skilled construction worker equivalent to one Talent – see discussion below
- $70,000 – approximate total compensation package for a skilled construction worker today – see discussion below
- $28 million – really rough estimate of value of an Athenian Talent
Here are my calculations of some of the data used for the calculation. I will repeat them so that this post can stand on its own.
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 prior to 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 prior to around 1800).
Proportionate betterment today compared to 200 years ago. Based on Prof. McCloskey’s calculations here is a calculation 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 trillion – 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 ).