So, how can we compare today’s wages with 100 years or 2,300 years ago?

What does that tetradrachm from Alexander the Great representing pay for two days of a skilled construction worker represent today? Image courtesy Adobe Stock.
What does that tetradrachm, from the era of Alexander the Great, representing pay for two days of a skilled construction worker, represent today? Image courtesy Adobe Stock.

The following numbers are based on purchasing power parity, which is a tool economists use to compare countries across currencies and across time.

(Cross post from Attestation Update.)

Average income across the planet is now $33 a day, which is also about equal to average income in Brazil today or in the US back in 1941.

Income in places like the US and Sweden are 3 or 4 times the planet average.

Average income per person was about $3 a day from about 1800 all the way back until humans first appeared on the planet.  Dr. McCloskey says daily income sometimes in some places rose to $6 or $8 for a while but slipped back to the $3 range.

For illustration of what $3 per day looks like, consider Haiti or Afghanistan. In those two places, the current PPP income is $3.

So where does that leave us for a comparison? Consider this purchasing power parity analysis.

  • $3 – For all of history until about 1800 average daily income was about $3.
  • $33 – Today average income is about $33 in Brazil or a worldwide average.
  • $132 – Today average income in the US and Sweden is 3 or 4 times higher than the world average. The specific days point is $132 a day in the US in 2011.

Going from $3 to $132 is an increase by a factor of 44.


How much has our economic wellbeing improved from that our of distant ancestors?

A view of economic progress. Ponder the productivity improvement and resulting increase in wealth to go from this:

Image courtesy of
Image courtesy of

To this:

Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.
Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

The overall standard of living has increased by a factor of somewhere between 30 and 100 in the last 200 years.

The little side trip in this post and the next will lead me back to my discussion of ancient finances in general and Alexander’s haul from his military campaigns in particular.

(Cross post from Attestation Update.)

Writing in Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World, Professor Deirdre McCloskey says it this way: the two centuries after 1800 the trade-tested goods and services available to the average person in Sweden or Taiwan rose by a factor of 30 or 100. Not 100 percent, understand— a mere doubling— but in its highest estimate a factor of 100, nearly 10,000 percent, and at least a factor of 30, or 2,900 percent. The Great Enrichment of the past two centuries has dwarfed any of the previous and temporary enrichments.

Let me phrase that another way. The value of what is enjoyed today by an average person is roughly equal to what 30 or 100 people had two centuries ago. That means the constant dollar value of what is consumed and enjoyed has grown by a factor of somewhere between 30 and 100.


Are you richer today than John D. Rockefeller was in 1916? The answer is, um, yes.

Would you trade your place in life today for life occupying the Gould-Guggenheim mansion when it was completed in 1912? Even if a billion dollars was tossed into the trade? Photo by Adobe Stock.
Would you trade your place in life today for life occupying the Gould-Guggenheim mansion when it was completed in 1912? Even if a billion dollars was tossed in to sweeten the swap? I would not make the trade.  Photo by Adobe Stock.

I suggest you are in fact richer today than John Rockefeller was 100 years ago. If it were possible for Prof. Don Boudreaux to switch places with John Rockefeller’s life and even if he could have a billion dollars after he arrived back in 1916, he would not make the switch. He would rather live as a comfortable professor today than be a billionaire 100 years ago.

(Cross post from Attestation Update.)

I agree.

Here are three posts to explain this strange idea: first, what life was like 100 years ago, why Prof Boudreaux would not make the switch, and then why Coyote Blog wouldn’t either.

(This post may seem to be out-of-place on my blog discussing accounting and auditing topics. This discussion is part of my enjoyable research on ancient finances and a related thread of how much life has improved over the last 200 years. Since I discuss finance at this blog, it actually fits.)

An article in The Atlantic on 2/11/16 describes America in 1915: Long Hours, Crowded Houses, Death by Trolley. The article is drawn from a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics: The life of American workers in 1915If you enjoy this brief discussion, I heartily recommend you read the full BLS report. It is a fun read, but then, I am an accountant.

I will update a few of the stats in the Atlantic article where the author took a shortcut. When I browsed through the BLS report, I noticed some sentences which were repeated nearly verbatim in the article, which is okay since the report is a public document.

A few highlights:

Workers in factories averaged 55 hours a week. The fatality rate across the economy was 61 deaths per 100,000 compared to about 3.3 per 100,000 today.


Value of 1 ancient Greek drachma and 1 Athenian Talent

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

Image: Courtesy of Flickr by Carole Raddato

If you are curious and want to follow along, I’ll be spending a bit of time looking at some details of ancient finance.

(Cross post from Attestation Update.)

If you are already somewhat familiar, feel free to either roll your eyes as I flounder along or chuckle on how slow I am to catch on. If your knowledge of ancient finances is comparable to mine, that is to say approximately zero, please feel free to join me on a journey to learn a few details.

Wikipedia has some information about the Greek drachma which seems plausible. Will also mention some comment by Prof. Holt.

Comparable value

Article in Wikipedia says some economists and historians say one drachma in the 5th century (let me do a mental calculation – – that would be from about 499BC to 401BC) was about US$25 in 1990 or US$46.50 in 2015.

Classical historians give a different read for the 5th and 4th centuries (okay, mental math time, so that would be from around 499BC to 301BC, the 400s and 300s). In that time, one drachma would be around one days wages for a skilled worker or a hoplite. So that would not be minimum wage, but more along the line of a carpenter or mason.


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?


More data points on pay for Roman Legionnaires

Roman soldiers in Testudo, or turtle, formation. If you lived 1000 years ago and happened to see one of these moving in your direction, you were about to have a very bad day. Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock.
Roman soldier reenactors in Testudo, or turtle, formation. If you lived 2000 years ago and happened to see one of these moving in your direction, you were about to have a very bad day. Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Got interested again in how much a Roman soldier was paid. Browsed Wikipedia and found a few more reference points.

One of my main goals of blogging is to learn and stretch my brain. My brain stretching on financial issues is revealed on this blog. If you wish to wander along, please join me as I meader through Wikipedia, learning what I can.

(Cross post from Attestation Update.)

Sestertius article from Wikipedia

At one point, the soldiers in the Rhine army rebelled against Tiberius. I think this was shortly after Tiberius became emperor, which was in 14 AD when he was about 56 years old (b. 42 BC – d 37 AD). His reign ended in 37AD, or after about almost 15 years in power.

Legionnaire soldiers who were part of the Rhine Army were paid equivalent to a denarius a day (10 asses) according to the Wikipedia article. Out of that they had their food and uniforms deducted. They demanded several things, including getting paid a denarius a day. If I read that slender sliver of information correctly, they went from 1 denarius minus food and clothing per day to 1 denarius per day net.

The Sestertius article goes on to say that in the first century legionnaires were paid around 900 sesterii a year. That would be about 2.5 sesterii per day for a 365 day year. I’m not sure how to reconcile that comment to the immediately preceding paragraph which mentioned the 10 asses per day, which is the basis for a denarius. Since a sestertius is a quarter of a denarius, that would be just over half a denarius a day.

This rose to around 1200 when Domitian was the emperor (81-96AD). That would be about 3.3 sesterii a day, or about three-fourths of a denarius.


Travel time and cost in the Roman Empire

Stanford has an awesome site that shows time and cost to travel in the Roman Empire. You can find it at

ORBIS – The Stanford Geosptial Network Model of the Roman World

If you’ve read my blogs for a while, you know I am a member of the Protestant tradition of the Christian faith community.  As a result, the Roman Empire is of interest, since that was the occupying power in Israel during the New Testament period.

You also know I am interested the impact of technology on the cost of everything, including travel.

You can only imagine what a delight it is to find a web site that overlaps travel costs and the Roman Empire.

Here is a description of ORBIS from its website:

Spanning one-ninth of the earth’s circumference across three continents, the Roman Empire ruled a quarter of humanity through complex networks of political power, military domination and economic exchange. These extensive connections were sustained by premodern transportation and communication technologies that relied on energy generated by human and animal bodies, winds, and currents.

Conventional maps that represent this world as it appears from space signally fail to capture the severe environmental constraints that governed the flows of people, goods and information. Cost, rather than distance, is the principal determinant of connectivity.

For the first time, ORBIS allows us to express Roman communication costs in terms of both time and expense. By simulating movement along the principal routes of the Roman road network, the main navigable rivers, and hundreds of sea routes in the Mediterranean, Black Sea and coastal Atlantic, this interactive model reconstructs the duration and financial cost of travel in antiquity.


Roman denarius

Silver Roman denarius. Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock.
Silver Roman denarius. Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Let’s take a look at the Roman Denarius. I’ve taken an interest in ancient currency and monetary issues lately, particularly as it give some insight into biblical times.

So, you can go along with me on the journey, if you wish. As a simple start, let’s look again at Wikipedia. Took a previous look at the Denarius here and here.

From about 200 BC until about 64 AD the Roman Denarius was about 3.9 grams, at 95% or 98% purity.

There is a comment that Tiberius slowly increased the fineness to 97.5% to 98%.  Tiberius accumulated a hoard of 675 million denarii.

Nero, who reigned from 37 AD through 68 AD debased the gold aureus from 8.18 grams of gold to 7.27 grams.

Article says 25 silver denarii are equal to 1 gold aureus.

How much was a denarius worth?


A long time ago, accounting supervisors really were slave drivers.

You think you have a rough boss….

Jacob Soll explains in his book, The Reckoning: Financial Accountability and the Rise and Fall of Nations, that in ancient Athens, around 500 years B.C. accounting and auditing was an integral part of the business and political world.

(Cross post from Nonprofit Update.)

There were complex accounting systems that included public audits to create accountability. There were a number of staff working for the public treasurer to keep an eye on funds. Many people, including freemen and slaves were trained in accounting. However,


More ideas on the wealth in the Roman treasury back in 49 B.C.

Gold Roman aureus coin of Roman emperor Trajan. Photo courtesy of
Gold Roman aureus coin of Roman emperor Trajan. Photo courtesy of

A while back I discussed a comment I read saying that when Caesar crossed the Rubicon, the Roman treasury held 17,410 pounds of gold, 22,070 pounds of silver and 6,135,400 sesterces.

I made a bunch of wild assumptions and estimated that volume of precious metals would be worth about $361M at today’s market prices.

(Cross post from Attestation Update.)

See my post How much wealth was in the Roman treasury in 49 B.C.? How about annual tax revenue under Augustus?  I’m going to cross-post this discussion and that previous post to my other blog, Outrun Change.

A reader, Caleb, has expanded the discussion by indicating he thinks the value of gold was dramatically higher back then in relative terms that it is today. He estimates gold was around $7,000 an ounce in today’s dollars. See his comments at the above post for further explanation.

I enjoyed his comments so much I decided to create new post in order to extend the discussion.