Twenty-plus years ago, when I wrote GURPS Greece, a lot of what went into the Characters chapter was educated guesswork. I had a limited set of sources available, and I hadn’t built up very much skill with the sort of analysis that needs to go into any description of money, prices, wealth, and social status in a game setting. I can do better than that now. The scantiness of primary sources is still a problem, but at least I have access to more of them today, so I can perhaps produce a better quality of guesswork.
A small warning here: among other things, I am going to be discussing the mechanics of slavery in classical Hellas. Those of us who idealize the Hellenes would do well to remember that their civilization was thoroughly founded upon the institution of slavery, with all the brutality, callousness, and injustice that implies. Without exception, every large fortune was based on the labor of slaves. Sometimes a lot of slaves.
In any era, it’s easy to become rich when you arrange things so that you can steal the labor of others with impunity. Something always to bear in mind when we consider the accomplishments of Hellenic civilization. Or our own.
Money and Incomes
Okay, let’s start with a well-established data point. The price of wheat in Athens in the late 4th century BCE fluctuated, but usually hovered close to 6 drachmai per medimnos. A medimnos was roughly a “bushel” of grain, enough to feed a family of five (man, woman, and three children) for about 15 days at the subsistence level. Thus, considering food alone, a laborer’s salary needed to be about 12 drachmai per month.
In ancient times, living at a subsistence level meant that about 50% of your expenses went to food. The rest went to cheap housing, shabby clothing, and what few tools and housewares you would need. That suggests the typical unskilled laborer’s salary needed to be about 24 drachmai per month, and that would cover expenses for himself and a family.
Assuming the unskilled laborer made about a drachma per day on the job, that suggests working about 24 out of every 30 days, which makes sense. As it happens, a drachma a day was so typical for unskilled labor that it’s sometimes thought of as “the standard salary” in classical times. That’s a considerable oversimplification, but for fictional purposes it’s not bad.
Fitting this to the GURPS figures, let’s assume that a typical unskilled laborer is Struggling and at Status -1. Then his cost of living is $300 per month (Characters, p. 265). If we assume this covers his family’s needs as well, that equates one drachma to about $12.50 in GURPS terms. Let’s adjust that figure slightly, to make the other denominations work out to whole numbers, and run with it:
- 1 chalkos
- 1 obolos
= $2 (8 chalkoi = 1 obolos)
- 1 drachma
= $12 (6 oboloi = 1 drachma)
- 1 tetradrachmon
= $48 (4 drachmai = 1 tetradrachmon)
- 1 mina
= $1,200 (100 drachmai = 1 mina)
- 1 talenton
= $72,000 (60 minai = 1 talenton)
Notice that this estimate doubles the purchasing power of all these coins and measures, compared to the estimates I published in GURPS Greece. Here’s an example of how the guesswork has improved; back then, I didn’t work from a basic assumption about the price of staples.
As a cross-check, the $675 given as typical monthly pay for TL2 (Campaigns, p. 517) equates to just over 56 drachmai, which would be about two drachmai a day with almost no days off. In fact, two drachmai per working day was a very typical wage for a skilled laborer, someone who in GURPS terms would be at Average wealth and Status 0, with cost of living of $600 per month. So that fits too.
Of course, most Hellenes would not have worked every day for pay, so a more typical monthly wage would probably be a bit lower. Let’s assume that the typical monthly income for someone at Average wealth and Status 0 will be $600, or $7,200 per year.
Social Classes in Athenian Society
Under the constitution of Solon, the Athenian citizenry was divided into four social classes by their annual income. These were defined in terms of how many medimnoi of wheat they could afford in a year, assuming they purchased nothing but the wheat. This makes sense if we consider that the whole system centered on farmers and land-owners. Such men would produce grain or other agricultural products, and trade some away for whatever else they needed.
In the Solonian system, the baseline income was what we’ve defined as the typical income for Average wealth and Status 0: $7,200 in GURPS terms, 600 drachmai, or 100 medimnoiof wheat per year.
The four classes were as follows:
- Pentakosiomedimnoi or “five-hundred-bushel men” had incomes equivalent to at least 500 medimnoi of grain per year. This is exactly five times the baseline income we just defined, so status as a pentakosiomedimnos very precisely fits the Wealthy advantage.
- Hippeis or “knights” had incomes equivalent to at least 300 medimnoi per year. This is exactly three times the baseline income, above the minimum for the Comfortable advantage.
- Zeugitai or “yoked men” had incomes equivalent to at least 200 medimnoi per year, and so exactly twice the baseline income. Zeugitai are at least Comfortable.
- Thetes or “serfs” were the rest of the citizen population, those with Average wealth or below. These included small-scale yeoman farmers, as well as craftsmen and others who worked for a wage.
So far, the Athenian system doesn’t seem to consider anyone well above the minimum for pentakosiomedimnos status, what GURPS might define as Very Wealthy, Filthy Rich, or even Multimillionaire. Just how wealthy did Athenians get?
The wealthiest Athenians we know of were the ones who leased large numbers of slaves to the silver mines at Laurion. Xenophon reports that the state paid such slave-brokers an obolos per day per slave, amounting to 60 drachmai per year per slave.
The largest such labor force we know of was provided by our friend Nikias, who maintained about a thousand slaves at the mines. This would have provided an annual income of 10 talents,or $720,000 in GURPS terms. That implies that Nikias qualified almost exactly for the Filthy Rich level of Wealth, but not for Multimillionaire.
Let’s look at another case, and see how it fits in. Some Athenians made modest fortunes by operating small-scale manufacturing enterprises. Usually they would purchase slaves skilled in some trade, then profit from the difference between what the slaves subsisted on and the value of the goods they produced.
Assume that a slave can survive on about one obolos per day. That works out to only 10 medimnoi of wheat per year, but the slave almost certainly doesn’t have anyone but himself to feed, and he doesn’t need to buy his own tools and housing. Throw in two more oboloi per day for tools, raw materials, and any other overhead costs. Then a typical manufacturer could probably make about half a drachma a day of profit per slave. Quite a bit more than Nikias was making, but here we’re considering a trade-off of quality for quantity.
Typical sizes for a large enterprise would be on the order of 60-120 slaves, which would imply 30-60 drachmai per day in profit. Not quite on the same level as Nikias and his fellow plutocrats, but factory-owners could reach into the upper strata of society too.
If we compare all these incomes to the Cost of Living table in the (Fourth Edition) Basic Set, and assume income matches cost of living, it appears Nikias fell somewhere between Status 4 and 5, while other wealthy Athenians often reached Status 4. There just wasn’t much room in classical Hellas for anyone to reach Status 5 or higher. Maybe the tyrants of Syracuse would have made the cut, or an Athenian named Kallias who was known as the wealthiest man in mainland Hellas, but I kind of doubt it even for them. I’m beginning to think that the Status table I developed for GURPS Greece wasn’t quite flat enough.
Consider the following as a replacement, with no Hellene coming in any higher than Status 4:
Kings or tyrants of major poleis,
Filthy Rich citizens
Kings or tyrants of minor poleis,
Very Wealthy citizens
Zeugitai and hippeis, Comfortable citizens
Thetes, Average citizens,
citizens, unskilled laborers
I may have to adjust some of the GURPS writeups I’ve already done for prominent Athenians, to bring their Wealth and Status in line with what I’ve worked out here.
The Cost of Slaves and Return on Investment
We know something about the prices of slaves from our primary sources.
- Xenophon gives the typical range of prices for a slave as being between half a mina ($600) and ten minai ($12,000). The lower end of that range would have been typical for older, weaker, or partially crippled slaves, the kind that might be purchased to work as a household servant. The higher end would represent young, healthy, highly skilled slaves.
- Xenophon mentions a going price for slaves to work in the silver mines, about 180 drachmai or a little over $2,000. This might be considered typical for a strong but unskilled laborer.
- The most expensive mine-slave Xenophon mentions is an overseer, for whom Nikias paid a full talent ($72,000). This was clearly a strong, loyal, and highly skilled individual.
- Another primary source is the orator Demosthenes, who began his career by bringing a lawsuit against the guardians of his father’s estate. At one point he mentions that his father owned two small factories. One of them employed slaves as sword-smiths, who were worth about five or six minai each on the average (between $6,000 and $7,200).
- The other factory manufactured couches and beds. It employed slaves as cabinet-makers, which the elder Demosthenes acquired for about two minai each ($2,400). There’s some indication that these slaves were acquired as payment for a bad debt, so their actual value might have been higher.
Overall, we can probably assume that a slave purchased for household work could cost as little as $600, a typical unskilled laborer would cost around $2,000, and skilled craftsmen would usually cost two or three times that. A few extraordinary slaves might come at very high prices.
If we assume an unskilled laborer at the silver mines usually cost about 180 drachmai and would return about 60 drachmai per year, that implies about a 33% return per annum. Skilled slaves working in a factory would cost two or three times as much. On the other hand, given our assumptions above they would also make two or three times as much profit, so again the return per annum would be about 33%.
Slaves were apparently a very good investment, if one was interested in making a profit. In GURPS Greece I suggested rates of return of about 30% for slave-leasing, and 40% for factory workers, so I wasn’t too far off. Demosthenes suggests somewhat lower rates of return, though, so we probably need to be cautious. Rates of return in the area of 20% to 30% were probably more typical.
I note that the prices I gave for slaves in GURPS Greece are probably too low by about a factor of two. One could acquire relatively inexpensive slaves for household work, though, so at least some Average-wealth households could probably afford one.
A Check on Prices for Adventuring Gear
Let’s work up one more data point. We know that in classical Athens, anyone of zeugitai status or better was expected to serve in the city’s army as a hoplite. As we saw above, that implies someone of at least Comfortable wealth.
The Basic Set implies (p. 27) that the base starting money for an Average character at TL2 is $750, therefore starting money for a Comfortable character would be $1,500. One-fifth of that is usually considered to be all one can spend for adventuring gear; I suppose it makes sense that no one is going to sink more than 20% of their wealth into a set of armor and weapons they won’t use very often. So, the question arises, can we build a bare-bones set of hoplite gear for no more than about $300?
It turns out that we can. The absolute bare minimum for a hoplite would have been the heavy spear (doru) which is priced in Low-Tech at $90, and the Argive shield (aspis or hoplon) which costs $120. That comes to about $210, or about 17-18 drachmai, less than a month’s wages even for an unskilled laborer. Wealthier citizens would have been able to afford more of the full panoply, including Corinthian helmet, bronze cuirass, bronze greaves, and a shortsword (xiphos). There was not a lot of standardization in the hoplite ranks, and many (if not most) of the soldiers would have been going into battle with very little.
So, at this point I’m confident that my analysis holds together, and that the prices in Low-Tech (and in the Basic Set) aren’t going to be too far out of alignment with the actual state of affairs in classical Hellas. Which doesn’t surprise me – the guys who wrote Low-Tech did their homework too, and I’d be willing to bet some of them looked at the same sources.
(Hah! I just glanced at the title page for Low-Tech and realized I got “Additional Material” credit. I’m sure someone at SJG mentioned that to me at the time, but it slipped my memory. Must have been some of the work I did for GURPS Greece, still showing up in the product line fifteen years later . . .)
Demosthenes gave several orations Against Aphobus and Against Otenor, as part of his lawsuit against the trustees of his father’s estate, all of which we still have. The figures used above are from Against Aphobus 1.
Xenophon’s Memorabilia and Ways and Means both serve as primary sources for some of the above discussion. It probably shouldn’t surprise us that one of the most stubbornly practical writers of the ancient world would be one of the few to talk about wages and prices at all.
A superb secondary source is William T. Loomis, Wages, Welfare, and Inflation in Classical Athens (University of Michigan Press, 1999). Loomis has painstakingly gone through every single reference to wages in the primary sources, compiling an authoritative overview of the whole question.