ancient finances

Announcing “Ancient Finances”, my newest blog

Silver Roman denarius. Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Ancient Finances will 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.

Why a new blog?

Description of Scutum, a Roman Legionnaire’s shield.

This shield is flat. It is also protected on the edges by metal.  “Shield of Roman legionairies ‘Scutum’, after AD 100. Athens War Museum, replica” by Dimitris Kamaras is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Adrian Goldsworthy provides a good description of a Roman shield, called a scutum, in his book The Complete Roman Army on page 129. A well-preserved shield was found at Dura Europus that dates from the 3rd century.

The shield is 3’ 3” tall by 2’ 8” wide in a curved shape.

It is two inches thick, consisting of three layers of wood glued together.

Logistics for a Viking force in the field – part 2

A Viking army would need somewhere around 180 tons of grain to feed an army of 1,000 warriors during a 3 month siege. Image Courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Let’s take another look at logistics for a Viking army. In about 868, Ivar the Boneless, one of Ragnar Lothbrok’s four sons, fortified Nottingham.

A fun book, The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings by Lars Brownworth, described this campaign and its logistics.

King Burghred of Mercia combined forces with King Athelred of Wessex to deal with the Viking invasion. The allied forces advanced on Nottingham where the Vikings were patiently waiting behind their fortifications.

The Vikings tried to avoid attacking in battle. Instead, their preferred tactic was to draw an attack and then respond with a withering counterattack. They excelled at defense.

Short version of the story is Ivar was better supplied than the Saxons, whose soldiers faded away to go home and take in their harvest.

The siege ended when Ivar accepted an unspecified, though presumably really large bribe, Burghred acknowledged Ivar, and Ivar headed north to York.

The book describes the logistics of surviving a siege.

With 1,000 warriors, an army the size of Ivar’s required 4,000 pounds of flour and 1,000 gallons of water a day. That would be 4 pounds of flour and 1 gallon of water per soldier.

Logistics for a Viking force in the field – part 1

Viking army in the field would require 4 pounds of grain a day to keep soldiers alive. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Keep in mind as a leader of  Viking force in the field you really don’t want to be the boss of a lot of grumpy, starving soldiers who also happen to be armed with heavy weapons. That is not a formula for a long reign and perhaps not a great plan for a long life.

This is one is a series of posts on this blog talking about ancient finances.


I’ve read several comments so far on the logistical needs for a force in the field.

I’ll start with Viking: The Norse Warrior’s [Unofficial] Manual by John Haywood.

The book provides a reference for the goods needed to keep warriors fed. A force of 1,000 warriors would need 2,000 pounds of bread along with 1,000 pounds of meat. For liquids, the book says add about 240 gallons of beer.

Per warrior: That would be about 2 pounds of bread, 1 pound of meat, and 1 quart of beer.

How much labor did it take to construct a Viking longship?

Replica of Viking longship – “The Sea Stallion – Viking Ship” by infomatique is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

This is another in my series of posts on ancient finances.

Let’s ponder how much time it would take to construct a Viking longship and consider how much of an investment that would be for a community. Any way you look at this, a longship is a major capital asset.

One estimate of time to build a longship

Philip Line, in his book The Vikings and Their Enemies – Warfare in Northern Europe, 750 -1100 written in 2014, provides one framework for the investment in a longship.

I’ll quote and then expand his comment on page 51:

“Experimental archaeologists have estimated that 40,000 working hours may have been needed to produce all the components of a 30-meter longship, consuming the surplus production of 100 persons for a year.”

Surplus production in the Viking context would be the amount of time not needed for subsistence living. In other words the amount of effort a warrior would have after raising enough food to feed his family with enough left over to survive the next winter.

If 40,000 hours is enough time for 100 warriors, that would be 400 hours each. Let’s assume that would be spread over a year except for my assumption that during the worst three months of winter no construction could be done. Since we are talking rough numbers let’s spread that 400 hours over nine months, which would be 44 hours a month, which would be about 11 hours a week.

So 100 warriors working 11 hours a week for 9 months would be needed to construct a longship.

Indicators of prices in Viking era

Battle axe. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

What did it cost to arm a Viking warrior? Without contemporary writing, it is difficult to determine. Several books and articles provide some hints.

Viking: The Norse Warrior’s [Unofficial] Manual by John Haywood provides an entertaining view of Viking life. The book is presented as an unofficial guide to young men considering their future as a raider. Sort of a training manual to get young men ready.

The book provides some approximations for the prices of different weapons, measured in ounces of silver:

  • 1.5 – spear
  • 4-60 – sword, variation due to range of quality
  • 13 – helmet
  • 26 – chain mail coat

Another comment says that at the nicer end, a fancy sword could take a year for a blacksmith to make. So factor in a year of skilled labor for the high-end swords. That would explain the above guess of 60 ounces of silver for the nicest swords.

The book also gives another view of the cost of armament by describing the amount of arms a warrior might carry based on the level of the warrior’s wealth:

Cost of weapons in Northern Europe in mid 7th century

Illustration of Viking era ax, sword, and shield. (Not sure ’bout that parchment since there is no recovered Viking writing, and in fact their runes were not conducive to written documents.) Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

The Vikings at War book by Kim Hjardar and Vegard Vike provides one general frame of reference for cost of arms. The book has several references to a 7th-century Frankish legal text, Lex Ribuaria.

Wikipedia says this document is from the Franks, located in northern Europe, more specifically it was from around what is modern Cologne, Germany. It was written about 630 A.D. It would thus provide a reference point from within Europe about 100 years before the start point of the Viking Age.

My guess is relative pricing of weapons in relation to each other would be sort of somewhat comparable to a few centuries later in the middle of the Viking Age, however, the prices in relation to animals is  probably lower here than in Scandinavia because of the cost of transport.

One last piece of background on brutality of ancient wars before diving into Viking history – part 4

Viking longship illustration. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

One last post on the harsh brutality of warfare in ancient days before diving into what few financial tidbits are visible from the Viking Age.

The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings, by Lars Brownsworth, points out there was plenty of brutality to go around.

In footnote 57 on page 273 he tells us there are reports that several churches in southeastern England that used the flayed skin of Vikings to upholster the doors to their building.

Some background on brutality of ancient wars before diving into Viking history – part 3

Seeing a few of these Viking longships rapidly approach your shores in the 800s was a sign your village was about to have a very bad day. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

One more post to provide context on the reputation of barbarity that is owned by the Vikings.

A wonderful book, The Vikings, from the British Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a catalog of a fabulous exhibit assembled by the two museums in 1980. The major exhibit showcased the artifacts and cultures of the Viking era.

I’m reading my dad’s copy of the book. The text is still available on Amazon in the used market.

The goal of the exhibit was to introduce some balance to the competing visions of raw brutality and “strange glamour” that surrounds the Vikings.

Consider these two comments in the preface:

“In a brutal age the Vikings were brutal, but their brutality was no worse than their contemporaries. “


“The Vikings were administrators as well as pirates, merchants as well as robbers. “

Before you get worked up about blood eagles…

Oh, and if you get all worked up about the brutal cold-blooded barbarity of a ‘blood eagle’ execution, try looking up what the oh so very civilized English did when they hung, drew, and quartered someone.

Some background on brutality of ancient wars before diving into Viking history – part 2

Illustration of a very well armed Viking. One had to be well off to afford a sword and rather rich to have a helmet and mail to protect the neck. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

I’m going to take a look at finances of the Viking era.

Before doing so, I’d like to provide some context of the horrid barbarity of warfare in ancient times.

Previous post mentions the slaughter during the Roman destruction of Jerusalem.

Next I’ll describe the gathering of slaves by Alexander the Great accompanying his path of destruction across the ancient world. Today we would call that human trafficking.

People taken away into slavery by Alexander the Great

I previously made some guesses how many slaves were taken by Alexander the Great. See my post on 2/2/17: Wild guess on the tally of people enslaved by Alexander the Great.

Professor Frank Holt did a lot of research on the plunder taken by Alexander: The Treasures of Alexander the Great: How One Man’s Wealth Shaped the World.

In Appendix 2, the professor tallied the known and unknown references to plunder and slaves.

Some background on brutality of ancient wars before diving into Viking history – 1 of 2

Viking warrior with sword standing near Drakkar on the seashore. I think that is an ax on his belt. Raiding has paid off well since he is illustrated wearing chain mail. Longboat in background, which was shock and awe stealth technology in the 9th and 10th centuries. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

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.

Remember forever: Rome did this.

Don’t. Mess. With. Rome.

Wild guess on the tally of people enslaved by Alexander the Great

Statue of Alexander the Great at Thessaloniki, Greece. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.
Statue of Alexander the Great at Thessaloniki, Greece. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

One more followup on the human devastation caused by Alexander the Great.

There are a lot of posts on my blog discussing Professor Frank Holt’s delightful book, The Treasures of Alexander the Great: How One Man’s Wealth Shaped the World.

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.

More data points on pay for Roman Legionnaires

Roman soldiers in Testudo, or turtle, formation. If you lived 1000 years ago and happened to see one of these moving in your direction, you were about to have a very bad day. Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock.
Roman soldier reenactors in Testudo, or turtle, formation. If you lived 2000 years ago and happened to see one of these moving in your direction, you were about to have a very bad day. Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Got interested again in how much a Roman soldier was paid. Browsed Wikipedia and found a few more reference points.

One of my main goals of blogging is to learn and stretch my brain. My brain stretching on financial issues is revealed on this blog. If you wish to wander along, please join me as I meader through Wikipedia, learning what I can.

Sestertius article from Wikipedia

At one point, the soldiers in the Rhine army rebelled against Tiberius. I think this was shortly after Tiberius became emperor, which was in 14 AD when he was about 56 years old (b. 42 BC – d 37 AD). His reign ended in 37AD, or after about almost 15 years in power.

Legionnaire soldiers who were part of the Rhine Army were paid equivalent to a denarius a day (10 asses) according to the Wikipedia article. Out of that they had their food and uniforms deducted. They demanded several things, including getting paid a denarius a day. If I read that slender sliver of information correctly, they went from 1 denarius minus food and clothing per day to 1 denarius per day net.

The Sestertius article goes on to say that in the first century legionnaires were paid around 900 sesterii a year. That would be about 2.5 sesterii per day for a 365 day year. I’m not sure how to reconcile that comment to the immediately preceding paragraph which mentioned the 10 asses per day, which is the basis for a denarius. Since a sestertius is a quarter of a denarius, that would be just over half a denarius a day.

This rose to around 1200 when Domitian was the emperor (81-96AD). That would be about 3.3 sesterii a day, or about three-fourths of a denarius.

Roman denarius

Silver Roman denarius. Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock.
Silver Roman denarius. Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Let’s take a look at the Roman Denarius. I’ve taken an interest in ancient currency and monetary issues lately, particularly as it give some insight into biblical times.

So, you can go along with me on the journey, if you wish. As a simple start, let’s look again at Wikipedia. Took a previous look at the Denarius here and here.

From about 200 BC until about 64 AD the Roman Denarius was about 3.9 grams, at 95% or 98% purity.

There is a comment that Tiberius slowly increased the fineness to 97.5% to 98%.  Tiberius accumulated a hoard of 675 million denarii.

Nero, who reigned from 37 AD through 68 AD debased the gold aureus from 8.18 grams of gold to 7.27 grams.

Article says 25 silver denarii are equal to 1 gold aureus.

How much was a denarius worth?

Total cost of Alexander’s rampage

Tetradrachm from era of Alexander the Great. Image courtesy Adobe Stock.
Tetradrachm from era of Alexander the Great. Image courtesy Adobe Stock.

This will be my final post on the finances of Alexander the Great.

Professor Frank Holt’s book The Treasures of Alexander the Great: How One Man’s Wealth Shaped the World explains the ancient record does not give us enough details to estimate the total expenses paid by Alexander as he rampaged around the world.

The total expenses based on identifiable items in historical narratives is aggregated by the professor in a formula as:

  • 189( X) + 69,176 talents