Did Roman farmers have a better standard of living than we do today? | by Sajjad Choudhury | April 2022
A unique look at their average income, spending and quality of life
OWhat if you could go back and relive a moment of history? The only condition was that you had to experience it as an ordinary citizen. You probably wouldn’t want to be an 18th century factory worker in Britain, or a medieval serf toiling in the fields.
What if you were a Roman farmer? What would life be like, and would it be as bad as the other two?
Thanks to the Emperor Diocletian and his deliverance from Edict of maximum prices in 301 we can get a glimpse of the life of the Romans, from the humble farmer to the most lavish senator. But what is the edict, and how could it give us a picture of the standard of living in the Roman world?
In the year 301, the Emperor Diocletian published the Edict of maximum prices in an attempt to curb galloping inflation. He did this by imposing the upper limit that could be set for goods and services across the empire.
The edict set the maximum price for each possible item and even noted minor differences in quality. For example, a normal unfattened goose would cost 100 denarii, while a fattened goose would cost double that at 200 denarii.
He even differentiated between fifteen types of sandals, such as wool-lined oxhide slippers costing 50 denarii and Babylonian purple slippers costing 80 denarii.
It contains so much information that it gives us a unique insight into what the Romans would spend their money on. The edict tells us what they considered important possessions, but it also tells us what value they placed on each. Using this we can estimate the quality of life of an ordinary Roman.
More importantly, it provides a snapshot of what life might have been like, even for a farmer.
Imagine a thirty-something living in Sicily in the third century AD. His name is Titus and he lives with his wife and six-year-old daughter. Titus works as a sharecropper for his landlord and takes care of the olive groves and vineyards.
Like a sharecropper, whatever he produces goes directly to his owner, but in exchange, Titus earns a stable income, is covered for taxes, and receives some food rations. Unlike serfdom, sharecroppers were not tied to their land and could join the army for a better life.
But Titus is older and now has a family, so he can’t just leave and go on a military campaign. But as a sharecropper, how much could he earn?
At the time, the average salary would have been 25 denarii a day, so assuming a six-day work week, Titus would earn 150 denarii. But would that be enough to support his family?
By using the Mediterranean Respectability Basketwe can estimate how much food he should eat each week and use the edict to measure his average weekly expenditure.
By far the most essential commodity for any ordinary Roman was bread. It provided most of their daily calories and was also one of the biggest expenses for the family.
For Titus and his small family, they would need about 7 kg of bread per week. This could be achieved by buying wheat and baking it at home or paying a baker to do it on their behalf. But with loads of 7 denarii, most families would choose to bake their own bread instead.
The second most important commodity was olive oil and all Romans, regardless of status, used it in their cooking. With such an array of qualities to choose from, Titus would go all the way to the end of the bargain and pick the cheapest option, saving him a substantial amount of money.
But of course, no family can live on bread and oil alone. What would Titus’ wife say? So when visiting the market, Titus made sure to look for several sacks of beans. The more exotic eastern types like lentils and chickpeas would be expensive, but the family could easily alternate between kidney beans, peas and fava beans to keep their diet varied.
Titus would also need to buy fruits and vegetables to ensure his health and ability to work. These were sold in batches, and at only four denarii each, Titus could choose from a wide selection depending on seasonal availability.
Since meat and fish were expensive, the family only bought them for special occasions like birthdays. Instead, dairy products like cheese were the preferred choice. At two deniers for 200g, the family could use it in many dishes. Eggs also cost a denarius each, so Titus often bought one a week for his daughter.
With food out of the way, the family would need something to wash all the food down. The perfect options here would be a liter of regular wine and wheat beer costing 16 and 8 denarii. Although water was regularly consumed, Titus enjoyed the flavor of wine and was willing to spend a little, even if it wasn’t as luxurious as Golden Granary or Maeonian Wine.
Food was not the only concern of Roman families. The running of the house meant that there were certain expenses that Titus could not overlook. Firewood was a necessity, but luckily Sicily was warm enough that this wasn’t always a problem. Instead, the family prepared for winter by setting aside a few pieces each week during the summer months.
Clothing was also an expensive commodity. A good tunic could easily cost 500 denarii, and buying a pound of the cheapest coarse linen to loom at home cost at least 200 denarii, which was well beyond the reach of the family. Instead, they would resort to repairing their clothes and making them last as long as possible.
However, this has not always been the case. If Titus accidentally broke his shoes, it would hamper his ability to work. The cheapest farmer’s sandals cost 50 denarii, so he would only buy half and be forced to repair the other at a later date.
Other secondary needs like replacing a pan or a broken dish were easily handled because common household items were cheap to buy. Titus may only have to spend about ten denarii on these items.
Taking into account all of his expenses, it is clear that Titus could very easily feed his family with good food while living quite comfortably.
But the life of a sharecropper was not easy. The family surplus was based on the fact that Titus worked six days a week, regardless of external conditions. And with rising inflation and the threat of barbarian attacks, if anything were to happen to Titus, it would be a struggle to survive.
But compared to medieval peasants, or even factory workers of just two centuries ago, life was not much different. Despite advances in technology, it is amazing to believe that a family nearly 2,000 years ago could have lived better than those who came several generations later.
It shows that our way of life and our standard of living are not limited to what we do. The Roman world was connected by a patchwork of trade networks, and these networks brought goods, knowledge, and material wealth to communities.
Titus may not have been able to indulge in the exotic dates of the east, the fragrant rose wine of the south, or the succulent fish of the north, but he was at least able to provide his family with a rich and varied diet.
When the Roman Empire collapsed, this way of life crumbled and it took centuries to finally recover. We too live in a globally connected world, and like Titus, we too can indulge in products from around the world. It may not be gold-encrusted quail from the east, 300-year-old aged wine from the south, or caviar from the north, but at least we can enjoy a standard of living far beyond what our ancestors had hoped.
If Titus could be content with what he had despite his difficult life, surely we can be content with ours too.