In Appendix 2, the professor tallies the reported plunder, tribute, and other resources seized by Alexander the Great. Quantifying the destruction is not possible because the ancient literature often does not quantify amounts, only that slaves, or plunder, or cattle, or tapestries, or something else was seized.
The professor does quantify the reported information in an algebraic format. I’ve previously mentioned:
Total proceeds from the wars is then estimated in a formula expressed as 81.67( X) +311,761.
The author guesses the grand total for his years of campaigning at something between 300,000 and 400,000 talents. With the fixed portion of the second estimate at 311k, I think the total would be well over 300k.
Those amounts are in talents, with each talent being a massive amount of wealth. For an order of magnitude, consider that my guess is an ancient Athenian talent would be expressed something somewhere in the range of around $28M today.
I just went through the Appendix looking at the tally of slaves taken.
Alexander learned to appreciate the value of a Navy. One data point is that in 334 BC he had 200 ships operating in the Aegean sea. No quantification mentioned of naval forces elsewhere at that or any other time.
Figuring out how much Alexander spent to field his military forces is a game of stringing together many wild guesses. The author accumulated his own long string of guesses and assumptions for small units. He also quotes several other studies.
Prof Holt provides a couple of ancient estimates of the total haul in Persia. Here is a recap:
50k talents – Susa
120k – Persepolis
6k – Pasargadae
26k – Ecbatana
That gives a point estimate of 202k talents. Back out some poetic license exaggeration and add an amount at Babylon about equal to Susa (author’s estimate) gives me an estimate of about 225k talents, give or take. That is only the precious metals without art, statuary, spices, clothes, pottery, or gold inlaid stuff.
In addition, Darius fled with maybe 8,000 talents, Alexander paid bonuses of around 12,000 talents to his soldiers, with another 2,000 talents to Thessalain soldiers. There was enough stray coins found a century later to mint 4,000 talents of coins. That is around another 26,000 talents or so of additional bullion. Add in the unquantifiable amount soldiers looted and all the non-bullion treasures means there was an incalculable amount of wealth looted from the Persian empire.
I’ll work with 202K point estimate, plus 50K from Babylon, less 25K for poetic license, plus 26K sundry disposition. That gets to a point estimate of 253K, with my very wild guess of a margin of error of minus 50K to plus 100K. Let’s work with a 250,000 Talent estimate. That means I’ll roughly estimate Alexander looted 250,000 talents of silver-equivalent from Persia.
Total haul during Alexander’s extended raid around the world
The total haul from looting is estimated by the Prof. Holt as 69( X) + 216,820 talents, where X is an unknown amount from one raid or battle. The total is unknown and unknowable.
Shortly after that estimate the author adds in tribute from conquered areas that were not looted in return for payments and loyalty.
Total proceeds from the wars is then estimated in a formula expressed as 81.67( X) +311,761.
After developing a few points of reference for comparing ancient finances to now, I can get back to pondering the value of loot Alexander the Great stole while on his military rampage, I mean campaign.
Update: I have revised my calculations here. Adjusted the value of an Athenian talent from 10 years salary today up to 400 years salary due to the dramatic improvement in our wealth and standard of living in the last 200 years (the Great Betterment). Also adjusted from estimated average wage in the U.S. of $20 an hour to average wage for skilled construction worker of $70,000 per year. That takes the rough valuation from $20 billion to $1,400 billion, or $1.4 trillion. That actually seems to make sense in a very rough way.
Continuing my discussion of a few tidbits of financial information from Alexander the Great’s military campaigns.
When Alexander approached Susa, the capital of Persia, news of his non-stop victories preceded him. Previous cities he captured surrendered before he arrived. That typically spared most citizens their lives and prevented the torching of the city.
Thus, Susa was handed to him without a fuss, except for a huge amount that Darius III carted off well in advance of Alexander’s arrival.
The author looks at the various reports of how much loot was acquired. Integrating the report that is likely to be most reliable with the other reports results in an estimate Alexander capturing a haul of 40,000 talents of uncoined bullion and about 10,000 talents of gold coin. The gold is roughly valued by expressing the amount what it would be in silver value.
Apparently the Persians didn’t cast most of their precious metals into coins, instead preferring to mint what they needed as they needed it.
Revised value of a talent
Multiple changes have shifted the relative value of gold and silver in relation to each other and in relation to their purchasing power. Instead of converting a talent of silver into ounces and converting that to current dollars at current exchange rates, I’ll start looking at piles of money in terms of average days wages.
Warning: I plan to update my valuation of a Talent based on the radical improvement in living standards that has developed since the Industrial Revolution.
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?
Ancient Financeswill explore finances and money during the Viking age and Roman Empire. Lots of posts on other blogs addressing those topics have been cross-posted to the new blog. This includes lots of discussion of the loot Alexander the Great lifted during his rampaging world tour.
I’ve been having loads of fun reading about the Viking age and am intrigued by finances and money during the Roman Empire.
I’m going to take a look at finances of the Viking era, similar to what I’ve done on legionnaires during the Roman Empire and the plunder gathered by Alexander the Great. There isn’t a lot of information available, but I’ll look at some I was able to find.
The Viking era has recently captured my interest, leading me to read a fair amount on the history of the times.
This is the first time I have dived deep into the adventures of the Norwegians, Danes, and Swedes back then.
My paternal grandfather and grandmother both emigrated from Norway, settling in South Dakota before meeting each other, marrying, and starting a large family.
So it is appropriate to dive into my ancient legacy, later in life though it may be than for most of my cousins.
Why a series of posts on finance in the Viking world? Because I want to.
One of the things I learned early on in blogging is that a person should write on what is of interest. An audience will develop or not, but cannot be predicted. Thus, a blogger should write on what is of interest.
Why post this discussion on this blog? Because this is where I write of accounting issues and it is a short jump into financial issues such banking in general because I am interested in banking and finance. From there is a very short trip to the wide, ever expanding world of banking fiascos. From there, it is possible to jump back a couple of millenniums to ancient finances of Rome and Alexander. From Rome it is merely a few centuries forward to the Vikings. All of that fits within a blog on accounting.
Before I get started
One of the aspects of the Viking era that jumps out is the violence and the widespread plundering.
Several accounts I’ve read say that capturing slaves on raids and selling them into the Arab worlds was more lucrative that making off with all the gold and silver you can find and the loot you can carry.
The ancient world was astoundingly violent.
I’d like to offer two of many possible illustrations.
Roman destruction of Jerusalem
In 70 A.D. the Roman Empire laid siege to Jerusalem, sacked it, and destroyed the entire city, killing essentially everyone crowded behind the city wall at the time. The euphemism is that apart from one wall and one tower, there was not so much as one stone left on top of another anywhere in the city.
The wall and tower were left so that for centuries to come, everyone can see this is what will be left if you go too far in irritating Rome.
The number two man in the Persian Empire offered a bribe of 10,000 talents to the king in return for permission to kill off all the Jews living under the authority of the king. Today’s question: what would the amount of that bribe be worth in today’s money?
The Old Testament book of Esther tells the story of Haman plotting to kill all the Jews living in the Persian Empire. Esther then told King Xerxes about the plot. The King executed Haman and allowed the Jews to defend themselves from those planning to exterminate them. The Jews survived. Those who expected to slaughter them did not. That is the short version. For the full details, check out the book of Esther.
Hers is a wonderful story of realizing God put you in a place to do a job that only you can do. So many other delightful and encouraging aspects of the story. If you haven’t looked at it lately, check it out.
There is one particular verse in the story which overlaps my discussion of Alexander the Great looting the Persian Empire. …
I am building some reference points for my ongoing learning about ancient finances. (If you couldn’t tell, I’m have a lot of fun. This learnin’ thing is cool.)
Here is the value of all the stock listed on the market in the G-20 economies. This is the total capitalization of the companies in those countries.
Data is from this site. A lot of other sources could be used and other years might give different results. The accuracy of the valuation of Alexander’s loot is only accurate to one or two significant digits. The needed estimates and assumptions will leave any comparisons accurate to only one significant digit. Actually, by the time my calculations are finished, the amounts will probably be accurate to maybe overestimating 20% or perhaps underestimating by 100% or 200%.
Thus, more precision in the market capitalizations is irrelevant.
The following numbers are based on purchasing power parity, which is a tool economists use to compare countries across currencies and across time.
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.