Commodity Prices in Babylon 385 - 61 BC
Author: R.J. van der Spek
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
The economic historian of the Ancient World is confronted with a lack of numerical data on wages and prices. There is of course evidence (see in general HEICHELHEIM 1930), especially from Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt (DREXHAGE 1991; MARESCH 1996; CADELL & LE RIDER 1997) and Delos (REGER 1994), but not on a regular year to year basis. However, there is one notable exception: late Achaemenid and Hellenistic Babylon. From this city in South Iraq we have the most detailed dataset of the ancient world, which can compete with datasets from modern history.
1.1. The sources
We owe this precious information to the conscientious work of Babylonian astronomers. Probably from the reign of the Babylonian king Nabonassar (747-743 BC), and at the instigation of this king, Babylonian astronomers started to make a daily record of the starry sky. These astronomers were professional scholars. From a tablet in Yale (YBC 11549) dating to the early Hellenistic period we know that at least 14 of them were fully employed by the temple. They each received 180 litres of barley per month (BEAULIEU, forthcoming). From a couple of very late texts (127-119 BC) we know that the job was hereditary on condition that the scholars were capable to do the job. They received an annual salary from the temple (60 - 120 shekels of silver = ca. 120 - 240 drachms = 500 to 1,000 grams of silver) plus the revenue of some tract of arable land (VAN DER SPEK 1985: 548ff). It is interesting to see how the payment in grain shifted to payment in money.
The records, usually called Astronomical Diaries, consisted of daily information on the position of the moon (rise and setting) and the planets in relation to the fixed stars, and from the early fifth century in relation to zodiacal signs. In addition, solstices and equinoxes, Sirius phenomena, meteors, comets and flashes and strokes of lightning were recorded. The diaries give also information on the weather (e.g. "clouds were in the sky; I could not watch") and the level of the Euphrates. At the end of a monthly section some historical events were recorded (mainly on campaigns of the king, visits of the king or high officials to Babylon, cultic events, etc.) and the prices of six commodities were given: barley, dates, "mustard?", "cress?", sesame and wool. Barley and dates constituted the main diet of the Babylonians. For more information on the diaries, see: Astronomical diaries.
The earliest diary we have dates to 651 BC, but we have only a more or less regular record from 385 BC on. Hence, our list starts in this year. Michael Jursa (Vienna) is presently studying the prices of the earlier periods of Babylonia. He is the leader of a project on the economy of first millennium Babylonia. More on this project: Wittgenstein-Preisträger.
Dr. Gerfrid Müller has written a Habilitationsschrift about the development of the economy and the prices in the period just prior to our dataset (MÜLLER, forthcoming; non vidi)
The information on the prices is detailed indeed. The astronomical diaries did not only give prices of a particular month, but also distinguished between the beginning, middle and end of the month. In the later period they often gave the prices of particular days, e.g. from the 5th to the 7th of the month, and twice they even distinguished between prices of the morning and the afternoon. Some have argued that these prices are not reliable. The prices, however, are confirmed by other evidence and I believe they are very accurate (cf. VAN DER SPEK 2000).
From this period a few other records of prices are available. Twice prices are mentioned in the Babylonian Chronicles, a series also started in the reign of Nabonassar (GRAYSON 1975; VAN DER SPEK & FINKEL (Babylonian chronicles). In addition, we have some information on prices in administrative documents (VAN DER SPEK 1998).
1.2. The editions
The astronomical diaries are accessible now in an edition with transliterations and English translations in SACHS & HUNGER 1988, 1989, 1996.
The diaries are edited in chronological order numbered per year BC according to astronomical usage, which means that No. -321 concerns 322 BC following the Babylonian year starting with the month Nisan = March/April. Hence, No. -321 runs from spring 322 - spring 321 BC. More on the calendar: see below.
Evidently it is a hard job to retrieve the data from the tablets, as they can be found on every page of this edition. Moreover, all tablets are damaged, so that it is not always possible to be sure whether a price belongs to this or that commodity. In many cases the price is partly broken off, so that we only can make a guess between certain margins. In the list given here a price is given in italics, when doubt exists. Thanks to the astronomical data, all tablets could be securely dated, even if the colophon with the date was lost.
Two editions of the prices have been published already. The first is the one by Alice SLOTSKY (1997). It was a first attempt and many scholars profited from it, like GRAINGER (1999) and TEMIN (2002). However, the list is far from complete. The author only gave end of month quotations, ignoring all other data. In addition, she only presented the data according to the Babylonian calendar, which makes studies about seasonal influence on prices defective, and she omitted to convert exchange values to real prices. The edition of VARGYAS (2001) gave the data in the Julian calendar, but also omitted to present real prices.
See below for more information on the difference between "exchange values" and "prices".
See for an elaborate discussion of both books: VAN DER SPEK & MANDEMAKERS (2003). The best statistical analysis so far is TEMIN 2002. (See more on the problems below). See also MÜLLER (1999/2000).
2. The commodities
The diaries give consistently the prices of six commodities, always in the same order: barley, dates, mustard or cuscuta, cress or cardamon, sesame and wool. For a more elaborate discussion, see SLOTSKY 1997, 23-42.
Barley was the pre-eminent grain among Mesopotamian cereals. In the first millennium the cultivation of wheat had virtually come to an end in Mesopotamia due to the increasing salinity of the soil. Barley had always been a basic part of the Mesopotamian ration system: in Babylonia people in service of temple and palace received rations, basically one to two litres of barley per male individual per day, sometimes with other products like oil and wool added. Barley was so basic that it also functioned as standard of value of other products, hence as money. It will have been used as small change, where silver was used for expenses of greater value. Barley was harvested in springtime, mainly April to May.
Dates were the second ingredient of the Babylonian diet. It was a highly caloric food and could be used for different purposes: to be consumed as fresh and dried fruit, processed into syrup and cakes and stewed in fowl and meat dishes. It was also used in brewing a kind of beer, the national drink of the Babylonian. It was what was wine for the Greeks and Romans. Dates were a good alternative to barley in time of scarcity of the latter. Peter Vargyas observed that prices of barley fell in the month of the date harvest, i.e. October (VARGYAS 1997: 339-341; 2001: 122)
"Mustard" (kasû) is written between quotation marks, since the relevant Babylonian word, kasû, cannot be translated with certainty. The translation "mustard" has been advocated by Benno LANDSBERGER and GURNEY (1957/8: 337) and has reached the dictionaries (AHw and CAD) and the main edition of the diaries. Marten STOL (1994: 175ff) proposed to translate it as cuscuta, the dodder plant (presumably used in brewing beer), but other translations have been proposed as well, like "the common beet", wild liquorice and cassia (references, see SLOTSKY 1997: 31). It was apparently used as spice in the preparation of meat and in the preparation of date beer. It was also used in cultic performances and in medical treatment.
The harvest time is difficult to establish. Vargyas concludes that there were two harvests, in summer and in late autumn (VARGYAS 2001: 207).
"Cress" (sahlû) is equally difficult to determine. M. STOL (1983/4: 24-32) has argued that it has to be equated with the Greek word kardamon = lepidium sativum = "nose smart," of which the seed was eaten like mustard (not kardamomon = elettaria cardamomum). It was harvested in spring, like barley (JURSA 1995: 178-9). It was widely used as spice and savoury herb.
Sesame (šamaššammu) was cultivated for its oil. What olive oil was for the Greeks and Romans was sesame-oil to the Babylonians. It was planted in the barley fields after the barley harvest (June/July) and harvested in October. A second crop may have been raised from January/February (sowing) to May (harvesting) (cf. VARGYAS 2001: 251).
Wool was the main source of textiles in Mesopotamia from early times. Numerous texts about the raising of sheep testify to it. It was an important export product in the early second millennium. The shearing of sheep began in the spring, but could be a continuing process that went on for months. Flax was grown for producing linen. The city of Borsippa is said to have a major linen production centre (Strabo, Geographica, 16.1.7) and it is mentioned in some administrative documents. It does not occur, however, in the astronomical diaries.
3. Babylonian methods of recording
3.1. Prices and exchange values
The prices are given in money, that is, in weight measures of silver. The shekel was the basic monetary unit in Babylonia since millennia: it is a weight measure of ca. 8.33 (eight one third) grams of silver, slightly less than the weight of two drachms. Several documents, Greek, Aramaic and cuneiform, maintain that the shekel is the same as two drachms. Coinage was of recent date in Babylonia. It existed in the Achaemenid empire, but then the use of coinage was largely restricted to the western part of the empire. The introduction of coinage in Mesopotamia, effectively only in the Hellenistic period, was different from the introduction of coinage in Greece. In Greece the introduction of money and coinage went hand in hand and was the same process, in Mesopotamia the introduction of coinage was only a paragraph in the history of money. In a way it was a step backwards. It introduced different currencies; coinage became the tool of politicians, it created the moneychangers and raised transaction costs, so it became an obstacle in international trade. The Ptolemaic coinage decree forbidding foreign coinage in its empire is a good case in point.
The Babylonians usually had a peculiar method of recording prices. As a matter of fact they did not give prices, but exchange values, i.e. the exchange value of one shekel of silver on the market. The full formula is as follows: "That month: 180 litres of barley were given for one shekel of refined silver in the streets of Babylon." Most often the formula was abbreviated to: "That month: the exchange value was: barley 180 litres, dates: 160 litres; etc." Very often the time scale was more precise: "The month: the exchange value was: barley, beginning of the month: x litres, middle of the month: y litres, end of the month: z litres; dates etc." Thus the texts give what I now call upon the advice of Dominic Rathbone "exchange values". The Babylonian word is derived from the verb maharu, "to receive", and is used for "market", "purchase", "merchandise", and the like. Often the word is translated as "price", and in some cases it is correct, and in a certain sense it is also correct in our texts: it is the price of silver, or better the purchasing power of silver, namely what you can buy for one shekel of silver.
Why was it done this way? There are several good reasons.
1. It is much easier to differentiate between different values. If you would express the difference between 180 and 170 litres for a shekel in real prices, you must turn to very small fractions of the shekel, when you want to give a real price: 0.00555 vs 0.005882 shekel. That does not work at the market place without an electronic calculator. So you may imagine the stallholders shouting: "barley: one hundred and eighty ......; dates 120".
2. Thinking in exchange values facilitates trade by barter. When you know that you can buy 180 litres of barley and 120 litres of dates, you can also exchange these two items.
3. Small change is a recurrent problem in Antiquity, in Greece as well as in Babylonia. Other products than silver functioned as money, especially barley. As a matter of fact: wages were very often paid in barley. Silver was accepted as the more or less fixed reference point, so it was useful to know what the exchange value of barley was in relation to the shekel.
3.2. Why exchange values should be converted into prices.
In modern times we are used to thinking in prices and that impedes thinking in exchange values. Hence, in modern editions of the Babylonian prices it is necessary to convert the exchange values into prices. Unfortunately, Alice Slotsky and Peter Vargyas in their editions of the Babylonian prices both presented lists of Babylonian exchange values, i.e. litres per shekel, but did not convert these figures into real prices. One of the main reasons that I have made a new edition of the prices, is that I want to present real prices. I admit that converting litres into prices certainly has one drawback: it is necessary to round up or round down the figures, which may cause increasing deviations in the process of making calculations and statistic analyses. So any scientific publication of the list should also contain the exchange values. But NOT converting litres into prices leads to much more serious errors. Let me explain why.
In the first place it simply leads to distortion in one's mind when one constantly has to realize that a high figure means a low price and vice versa. This is really cumbersome and may lead to error and did lead to error, especially in Vargyas' book. But in statistical analysis serious mistakes are inevitable if exchange values are not converted into prices, as is shown by both the editions of Alice Slotsky and Peter Vargyas. I may illustrate the kind of mistake by the following example.
Litres per shekel price in shekels per 1000 litres 180 5.56 170 5.88 40 25.00 30 33.33 10 100.00 ____ ______ 430 169.77
The average amount of litres is 430:5 = 86 litres per shekel = 11.63 shekels per 1000 litres, but this is not the average price as Slotsky thinks.
The average price is 169.77:5 = 33.95 shekels, a totally different figure.
The median (middle quotation) is the same in both: 40 litres = 25 shekels per thousand litres.
That something was wrong with Slotsky's figures (p. 52) was noted by my colleague in the project, Kees Mandemakers, who observed that contrary to expectation from the vantage point of the economic historian, in Slotsky's figures the average barley price was lower than the median price, while in normal cases the situation is the other way around. That this is the case is explained by the very inelastic nature of the demand for basic foodstuffs: people do not eat much more when the supply of grain is vast, but they pay much more, when supply is scarce. So prices can rise sky high in times of war, but can not fall below zero in an abundant market. From Slotsky's figures we would be inclined to think that something abnormal was at stake in the Babylonian economy, while in actual fact in this case nothing strange was at hand. As in our fictive example.
There is another reason why it is necessary to convert exchange values into prices. When the prices are high, a difference of 10 litres for a shekel is much more substantial, than when prices are low. This can also easily be viewed from the sample give here. The difference between 180 and 170 litres leads to a price difference of only 0.32 shekel, while a difference between 40 and 30 litres produces a difference of 8.33 shekel. This fact again leads to very different graphs. A graph in litres shows a far steeper oscillation, than a graph in prices as may be illustrated on the graphs. The reason for this is easily understood when one realizes that the amount of litres for a shekel may theoretically reach indefinite high figures, which means increasingly lower prices, but -as said- prices cannot fall below zero.
Though the oscillations are still noteworthy, they are not as spectacular as is commonly thought and it is much easier to discover trends in prices. The point is that extremely high exchange values lead to prices that are practically only a little above zero, so that difference here does not matter very much. When exchange values are recorded as 390 and 372 litres for a shekel, as happened in 188 and 166 BC, it actually meant that grain was sold practically for nothing (2.56 and 2.69 shekels respectively for 1000 litres = ca. 620 kg. of barley) and in modern times the grain would be taken from the market. This was probably not done in Antiquity, but the grain may have suffered the same fate: it rotted away in the granaries and subsistence farmers could spare the trip to the market.
4. Statistical analysis of the prices
The rich documentation about Babylonian prices cries out for statistical analysis. Statistical analysis is of great use for historians and I regret that I am not an expert. But statistics may also lead to serious error, even if the work statistically is more or less correctly carried out, as is shown by the work of Alice Slotsky. Statistical analysis is only useful if it is based on sound historical theory. Statistics must help solving historical questions and not the other way around. An analysis of figures without taking into account what the historical background of the figures was, is useless. Slotsky produced in her book curves with two points of inflection, which explains nothing about historical reality. On the basis of this she claims a gradual increase in prices over time. But even a cursory glance at the figures presents a totally different picture. Prices were relatively high in the Achaemenid period, but tended to fall at the end of this period to a price which was accepted as standard: one shekel for a kor = 5.56 shekel per 1000 litres. You also easily see that the prices during Alexander and especially during the wars of the successors (330-300) are exceptionally high, that during the Seleucid rule (300 - 141) the prices despite some disturbances are fairly stable, tend to decrease rather than to rise, and that only the coming of the Parthians created a new equilibrium of much higher prices. All this is obscured by Slotsky's graphs.
Another example. Slotksy's analysis seems to show that seasonal factors did not influence prices. This is quite contrary to expectation and that should warn us. The point is that Slotsky made important mistakes. In the first place she did not take into account that the Babylonian lunar months move a little through the solar year. As explained above, the lunar year lags c. 10 days behind and about once in three years (actually seven times in 19 years) the calendar is redressed by the insertion of an intercalary month. It means that March in one year may correspond to Babylonian year XII, in another year with month I. Furthermore she did not take into account that the sample for this kind of research is too small, and that is especially detrimental, when we take extremes into account. Some extreme high prices are recorded for harvest months, and some extreme low prices are recorded for non-harvest months. But these are extremes in the first place and will be caused by extreme external factors. If, however, one analyzes only years with more ample information concerning different months, it is clear that in most cases (though not all) seasonal factors did influence prices.
A few trends we perhaps may better discover without statistics. 1. The trends apparently dictated by wars and political developments; 2. The remarkable volatility of the prices, although to a lesser extent than was suggested by the exchange values. 3. The absence of inflation in the Seleucid period. 4. The divergence of some prices from each other: the rise in prices of barley after 141 BC, but the continuation of lower prices of dates. 5. The more restricted volatility of prices of wool
5. Money, weights and measures
The Babylonian metric system is partly sexagesimal, partly decimal. The main capacity measure is the kurru = 5 panu = 30 sutu = 180 qa = 180 litres. The equivalent of the qa is evidently not exactly 1 litre, but close to it. Marvin Powell (1984: 33, 41-42, 46; 1989/90), expert on Mesopotamian weights and measures, suggests to stick to the following related standards: 1 qa = 1 litre; 1 ammatu = 1 cubit = 50 cm; 1 mina = 1 pound (500 gr).
The standard value of money is in effect a weight measure in silver, viz. the shekel, i.e. 1/60 of a mina = 8.33 grams. The shekel was used as a weight measure for silver since time immemorial, but in the Hellenistic period it was in actual fact anachronistic, since payments were made in Greek coins: drachmas and staters. A stater is a coin worth 4 drachmas, weighing about 17 gr. In Babylonian administrative documents it is specifically expressed as such: "x shekel of silver in staters of Alexander", sometimes with the clause added: "according to the computation (=exchange rate?) of Babylon". So it seems that the coins were weighed rather than counted, though it seems that a rule of thumb prevailed that one shekel of silver corresponded to two drachmas. One tablet, recording the wages of workers on the restoration of the temple (321 BC), specifically expresses it so: "1/3 mina [=20 shekel] of silver, the weight of 10 staters" (BM 87261, JURSA 2002: 120).
For an overview of money, weights and measures in Antiquity, see POWELL 1984, 1985, 1989, 1996 and R.J. van der Spek, "Weights and Measures", Money, Weights and Measures in Antiquity.
Since prices were paid in coins rather than in silver ingots, the purity of the silver coins must be taken into account. We cannot be sure that the astronomers measured the percentage of silver in the coins, when they used the shekel standard. It is much more likely that they considered the coins to be pure and they even may have stuck to the rule that one shekel corresponded to two drachmas. Fortunately, the quality of the silver was and remained high until c. 150 BC. Silver in the Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid period contained 1/8 alloy, i.e. silver had 87.5 % purity. Sometimes, and chronologically increasingly, silver is characterized as qalû, "pure", which may have had a higher purity. The tetradrachms of the Hellenistic period (see below) had purity well above 90%. The weight and the quality of the tetradrachms (c. 2 shekel) did not fall under 16.80 grams before c. 150 BC. Only in the Parthian (Arsacid) period the percentage of silver in the coins and the weight started to drop, which may in part explain the rising prices in that period. Cf. VARGYAS (2001) 13-17; MØRKHOLM (1991) 5.
6. The calendar
The Babylonians used a luni-solar calendar. This means that they used twelve months which started at the first day of the visibility of the moon. A lunar month counts 29 or 30 days and a lunar year counts 354 days. In order to keep up with the solar year an intercalary month was added seven times within a cycle of 19 years, either after the 12th month, or after the 6th month. This was a very precise calendar, but it is evident that within three years the months crept c. 30 days backward in relation to the solar year, until the situation was redressed by the insertion of an extra month. For the study of seasonal price fluctuations it is therefore necessary to convert the Babylonian dates to Julian dates (or to Gregorian dates, but we did not do that since all astronomers use the Julian calendar for the period prior to AD 1582.). The first month of the year was the month Nisan, which started between the end of March and the end of April. For an introduction to the calendar, see: The Babylonian calendar.
For a full conversion from Babylonian dates to Julian dates, see the table made by Christopher J. Bennett on: Babylonian and Seleucid Dates.
Unfortunately our information on prices is not matched by the information on wages. Furthermore, it is important to stress that wages did not play the same role as today. Most of the people who earned wages, will have had other income as well. Many people lived off their own or rented land, or received rations and did not receive wages at all. According to I.J. Gelb, in early Mesopotamian history the standard monthly ration for an adult male was 60 litres of barley, for women 30 litres, for children 10-25 litres (GELB 1965, p. 236). The average ration for individuals in the Achaemenid period was ca. one litre of barley per day with additional allowances of beer, salt, mustard/cuscuta, vegetable oil, and other foods (DANDAMAYEV 1984, p. 239-241). The standard ration for a family was ideally 1 kor = 180 litres per month, and this amount is still attested in the late Achaemenid period (JURSA 2002, p. 112; DANDAMAYEV 1984, p. 115, 500-1; 638, BOIY 2004 p. 240-1; BEAULIEU, forthcoming1).
As a matter of fact, from the Seleucid period (i.e. the period in which the dynasty of Seleucus I ruled Babylonia, 311 - 141 BC) we have no information about wages. We have one text about wages in the pre-Seleucid period, 321 BC, being 4 shekels of silver = 8 drachms per month for workmen who worked on the removal of the debris of Esagila, the temple of the supreme god Marduk in Babylon, (JURSA 2002, p. 120-121) and a few documents in the so-called Rahimesu archive from the Parthian period (93 BC) amounting to 2/3 to 2 shekel. The two shekels is the salary of a scribe, the lower salaries are for cleaners and porters. Fortunately we have information on the income of the authors of our diaries in the early Parthian period. We referred to it above. Itti-Marduk-balatu had as astronomer an income (lit. "ration", "food supply") of 2 minas = 120 shekels per year, i.e. 10 shekels per month! In 127 BC, however, he entered the service of the short-lived king Hyspaosines of Characene, after which he drew "supplies at the royal gate," and apparently lost his income as astronomer. Then his two sons claimed the income of their father in court (the board of chief administrator (shatammu) and council of the temple (kinishtu)), and after it was established that they were able to make the astronomical observations, they indeed received the income of their father, which, however, remained fixed at 2 minas per year, thus reduced to 1 mina per person! We also have the income of another astronomer, Bel-bullissu, in January 118 BC. His ration was also 1 mina of silver and in his case, too, the ration was later divided among his sons, at first 20 shekels to each of his three sons, then after the fourth had approached court, 15 shekels to each of the four sons. Hence, these sons really had now a substantially lower salary than Itti-Marduk-balatu had earned not long ago. On the other hand, this document makes clear that the "ration" not only consisted of 1 mina of silver but also of an unspecified tract of arable land. The collection of documents (edited in VAN DER SPEK 1985, p. 548-555) shows how the salaries of the individual astronomers could vary over the years, while the income per family remained stable, and warns us not to restrict our studies to the wages alone.
In both periods (early Hellenistic and Arsacid) the prices of barley were much higher than in the intervening Seleucid period, while the supply of silver was abundant in 321 BC, due to the opening of the Persian treasures by Alexander. Hence the assumption that wages in the Seleucid period were somewhere between 1 and 4 shekel per month for the common wage earner, does not seem to be far off the mark. The crucial point is now to know the purchasing power of the shekel. Here the prices are extremely valuable and in this respect it is convenient that the astronomers gave exchange values of one shekel. It may, by the way, have been one of the reasons for this kind of information being included in the diaries. According to ancient standards (and the astrologers were fond of ancient standards) one shekel of silver was the monthly wage for an adult male, for which he could buy one kurru (= 180 litres) of grain. The fact that exchange values for commodities are recorded so meticulously with no reference to wages may mean that fluctuations in prices were determinant for the well-being of the common man, while wages (and other sources of income) were considered more or less stable. It also means that an exchange value of 180 litres was standard in the eyes of the astronomers. Their views, however, may not have reflected the reality of daily life. 180 litres is only sufficient if you can buy additional foodstuffs. I have argued, following the reasoning of CLARK AND HASWELL (1970), that it is advisable to take 50 litres as a provisional "litre/economic barley equivalent per person per month," so that a family of five persons needs 250 litres of barley per month for bare subsistence (VAN DER SPEK 1998, p. 246-252). This means that at a level of a 2 shekels wage (or other income) per month, the average price of barley should be 125 litres of barley for a shekel. (VAN DER SPEK forthcoming b)
8. Comparative research
A lot of analysis has to be done, especially on the relation of wages (and other types of income) and prices. In the first place Dominic Rathbone and I plan to make a new edition of prices of important commodities of the Ancient World in grams of silver. A first attempt has been made on a colloquium at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (December 2003) on the purchasing power of silver in the Ancient World (cf. RATHBONE, forthcoming and VAN DER SPEK, forthcoming d).
Allow me to make a few remarks already.
It seems that there has been an all times range of prices for grain until 1900 AD. See the tables in TEMIN 2002. The prices of wheat in England from 1500 to 1800 fall in the range of 0.1 to 1.4 grams of silver per liter, i.e. in shekels per 1000 liters: 12 to 168 shekels. Exactly the range we have seen in Babylonia, but also an comparable amount in Rome. In England the prices of grain rise considerably after 1800 rising to 3 grams silver per liter = 361 shekel per 1000 liters, but prices fall again to c. 1.4 grams per liters = 168 shekels.
Now 168 shekels has become a regular price while it was exceptional in antiquity. The 16th century seems to conform easily to antique standards: in the fist part of the century ca. 24 shekels, in the second part ca. 48 shekels. May these figures be used for the argument that from antiquity until the 16th century hardly per capita growth was effected?
9. How to use the list
The table is a list of the prices as given in the astronomical diaries with interpretations and conversions into real prices. I collected the data and I checked uncertain data on the (photographs of) the tablets. In broken tablets I took into account the vocabulary of the scribe, the size of the tablet and the context (relation to other prices). I made the list in such a way that economic historians of later periods can use the data for comparative research.
I present here the "exchange values" (litres per shekel; wool in pounds per shekel), "real prices" in shekel per 1000 litres and in grams of silver per 1000 litres as well as per 1000 kg (the latter of barley and dates only). The real price of wool I gave per 0.5 kg.
A = Year number according to the edition of Sachs and Hunger. So -384 refers to the Babylonian year -384 = Nisan = April 385 BC to April 384 BC.
B = The Babylonian month. The Babylonians had twelve lunar months, with two intercalary months (VI2 and XII2) in a period of 19 years. For the calendar: see above.
C = Part of the month as given in the text. b = beginning; m = middle; e = end of the month. I have interpreted this as follows: b = day 1-10; m = 11-20; e = 21-29 or 30. Sometimes the tablets mention the exact days. In this column the first day of the period in question is given. If the diary gives the exact days, the figures are in bold.
D = Julian date of the first day of the period as described under C
E = Day of the Julian month of the date referred to in D
F = Relevant Julian month (1 = January, 2 = February, etc.)
G = Total number of days up to the end of the previous month. This is produced automatically from a table at the bottom of the chart.
H = Year BC
I = Decimal year = the total number of days divided by 365 minus the year. There is a minus, because we are dealing with years BC.
J = The last day of a period in which the recorded price is valid. The first day is under D. Of this column a "decimal year" has not (yet) been computed.
K = Barley: litres of barley given for one shekel (8.33 gr.) of silver as recorded in the diary (or other text) ["exchange value"]
L = Decimal year again. It is repeated in order to facilitate the making of graphs for particular products, in this case barley (see M)
M = Barley: litres of barley given for one shekel as I interpreted it. Doubtful figures are given in italics.
N = Decimal year.
O = Price in shekels (=8.33 gr. silver) for 1000 litres of barley. ["Real price"]
P = Price in grams of silver for 1000 litres of barley.
Q = Price in grams of silver for 1000 kilograms (1 tonne) of barley (1 litre = 0.62 kg. Cf. VAN DER SPEK 1998: 249-250)
R = Dates: litres of dates given for one shekel (8.33 gr.) of silver as recorded in the diary.
S = Decimal year.
T = Dates: litres of dates given for one shekel as I interpreted it. Doubtful figures are given in italics.
U = Decimal year.
V = Dates: price in shekels for 1000 litres of dates.
W = Dates: price in grams of silver for 1000 litres of dates.
X = Dates: price in grams of silver for 1000 kg. of dates (1 kg dates = 1.33 litres; 1 litre = 0,75 kg; cf. JURSA 1995: 150 n. 302)
Y = "Mustard": litres of mustard given for one shekel as recorded in the diaries.
Z = Decimal year.
AA = "Mustard": litres of mustard per one shekel with interpretation of uncertainties.
AB = Decimal year.
AC = "Mustard": "Real price" in shekels per 1000 litres.
AD = "Mustard": Real price in grams of silver per 1000 litres.
AE = "Cress": litres given for one shekel as recorded in the diaries.
AF = Decimal year.
AG = "Cress": litres given for one shekel with interpretation of uncertainties.
AH = Decimal year.
AI = "Cress": Real price in shekels per 1000 litres.
AJ = "Cress": Real price in grams of silver per 1000 kg.
AK = "Sesame": litres given for one shekel as recorded in the diaries.
AL = Decimal year.
AM = Sesame: litres given for one shekel of silver with interpretation of uncertainties.
AN = Decimal Year.
AO = Sesame: real price in shekels per 1000 litres.
AP = Sesame: real price in grams of silver per 1000 litres.
AQ = Wool: pounds (0.5 kg) given for one shekel of silver.
AR = Decimal Year
AS = Wool: pounds given for one shekel with interpretation of uncertainties.
AT = Decimal year.
AU = Wool: real price in shekels of silver per pound (0.5 kg.).
AV = Wool: real price in grams of silver per pound.
1 The normative relation was: 1 shekel = 1 kor (180 litres) = 1 monthly pay. Though this norm was not completely illusory, economic reality often diverged from this ideal, especially in times of war and bad harvest.
Several people helped me with the edition of this dataset.
Dr. G.G. Aperghis (Athens), converted the Julian dates into "decimal years", which facilitates the making of graphs on a correct time-scale. Dr. Aperghis is an expert on economic history of the Hellenistic period (APERGHIS 2004).
J. Bilbija, MA Ancient Civilizations Vrije Universiteit, helped me entering the data into an excel file, and made conversions of prices and calendars.
Dr. C.A. Mandemakers (IISG) gave advice in statistical matters and helped me to review SLOTSKY 1997.
Prof.dr. J.L. van Zanden (IISG) gave all kinds of advice, esp. regarding the relation between wages and prices. He set me on the track of this web site which facilitates comparative study on prices. He put the evidence on line.
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