Monday, January 05, 2009

40 000 000 sestertii

In the first part of Cicero’s In Verrem, he makes the following accusation against Verres, accusing him of stealing 40 000 000 sestertii during his time as governor of Sicily:

Dicimus C. Verrem, cum multa libidinose, multa crudeliter, in civis Romanos atque in socios, multa in deos hominesque nefarie fecerit tum praeterea quadrigentiens sestertium ex Sicilia contra leges abstulisse.

We say that Gaius Verres not only did many wanton things, many cruel things against Roman citizens and against their allies, as well as many criminal things against the gods and humankind, but that in addition he also stole from Sicily, against all laws, forty million sestertii.

(Cicero, In Verrem Actio Prima, 56)

That’s obviously a lot of money, but how much exactly? It’s always a bit tricky to try and convert Roman money into current figures- partly because the value of the currency changed over time (due to inflation etc) and partly because things in Roman times had different relative values from those of today. Here are a couple of comparisons though that might help you to get your head around the value of 40 000 000 sestertii.

Marcus Licinius Crassus lived about the same time as Cicero, and was one of the wealthiest Romans. Pliny tells us fortune was worth 200 000 000 sestertii, made through proscriptions, slave-trading, mining and property speculation. The amount embezzled by Verres, then, was approximately 20% of the fortune of the richest man of his time; the richest man alive at the moment is (apparently) Warren Buffet, worth about $US 70 billion. Twenty percent of that figure comes to $US 14 billion.

Cicero himself bought a house from Crassus for 3 500 000 sestertii. This house was located on the Palatine Hill, in a fashionable area of Rome where lots of other important and wealthy people lived (including the family of Catullus’ Lesbia), and Cicero himself described the house as ‘large and noble’. A similar house today might be found in Mosman, where the median house price for the six months to November 2008 was $1 785 000. 40 000 000 sestertii would get you approximately eleven of these houses, which comes to about $20 million.

A loaf of bread, in ancient Rome would set you back about 2 asses. There were 4 asses in a sestertius, so for 40 000 000 sestertii you could buy eighty million loaves of bread. These days a loaf of bread costs about $3.79 (the kind I usually buy, anyway) from the supermarket, making 40 000 000 sestertii worth about $150 million (you could probably get a discount for buying in bulk)

In Cicero’s time a soldier in the army would have earned 900 sestertii a year, taking about 45 000 years to earn 40 000 000 sestertii. A soldier in the Australian army these days earns about $31 719 a year, which makes 40 000 000 sestertii work out at about $1.4 billion.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And Catullus calls on Lesbia to value the gossipy talk of cranky old men at a single as (rumoresque senum severiorum omnes unius aestimemus assis) - which only proves that love is priceless.