The value of a Classical drachma

Imagine walking into a modern Bureau de Change and handing over a one drachma coin from Classical Athens, and asking for US dollars. What's the exchange rate?

(For the purposes of the hypothetical, let's disregard the inherent value of an antique coin.)

Modern exchange rates are determined by the relative popularity of the currencies, which normally depends on factors like GDP, inflation rates, and central bank interest rates. We could try the same, except adjusting for inflation over 2,500 years and accounting for minor social influences such as the fall of the Roman Empire is clearly a loser.

So I'll try to do it by equating incomes.

There are plenty of sources from Classical Athens to say the average wage of an Athenian worker was a drachma a day. Athenians didn't work every day. They didn't have public holidays like we do, but they did have a lot of religious festivals. No one much except slaves did any work during the Great Dionysia, for example. I'll arbitrarily assign 330 working days.

I found a 2005 US census which says the average yearly income of people in full time emplyment was USD 49,069.

If we take the value of average wages to be equivalent, then the Bureau de Change should give us about USD 150 for our coin.

The exchange rate of the modern Greek drachma, as I write this, is GRD 1 = USD 0.0037.

So 1 Classical Athenian drachma has the purchase power of 40,540 modern drachmae, which looks bad until you realize this gives a notional inflation rate, year on year, over 2,500 years, of 0.0425%

That's pretty good inflation control!


14 comments:

Stephanie Thornton said...

Okay, Gary- I want to know what prompted this post. I have a hard enough time trying to figure out modern exchange rates- attempting to determine ancient to modern exchanges makes my head hurt.

Needless to say, I'm impressed.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Speaking of which, if you haven't seen, The History Blog has a nifty post about sports stars and exchange rates in ancient Rome.

Gary Corby said...

Stephanie, that's easily answered: I'm about to do a US trip, so exchange rates are yet again a factor in my life. You've just been to Crete, so you know how it works!

Just read the History Blog article...very interesting. It's more to do with sports income, but the mind does sort of boggle at a sportsman who can earn three times the income of a province.

Tabitha Bird said...

Thanks for visiting my blog and for the congrats.

Yep, that is good inflation control :)

Amalia T. said...

One of my friends was asking me how long it took the Roman Colosseum to break even and then how much straight profit it has made since. I wouldn't even begin to know where to find that information...

It would be interesting to see how much food and other things cost in Classical Athens, against that daily Golden Drachma.

Jude said...

You're about to do a US trip?! I can't wait! Let me know when so I can stop by FP headquarters, please?

Also, your post shows me how terrible my math is now that I haven't been in school for awhile. Guess my bedtime kenken puzzles haven't been helping at all.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Interesting! Have you announced your US stops yet?

Gary Corby said...

Hi Tabitha,

I do drop by your blog and a whole lot of others more often than is probably apparent. I just don't comment very much because time is short and I find it hard to keep up with so many conversations, interesting though they all are.

For everyone's information, Tab has recently had some poetry accepted for publication!

Gary Corby said...

Amalia, breakeven on the Colosseum...it was funded by the Flavians, which means effectively money raped from Egypt, and entrance was free, but the amount of betting that changed hands must have been enormous. I'd be fascinated to know if you can work out the breakeven point.

I'll see if I can dredge up some basic costs for Athens. Thanks very much for the idea!

Gary Corby said...

Hey Jude,

(I'm never going to get tired of addressing you like that...)

Definitely when I'm in NY we are catching up!

In case Janet hasn't told you, you have a mention in the acknowledgements of Ionia Sanction, btw.

Gary Corby said...

Vicky, we've got a few lock-ins for events and a few that are still unconfirmed. Yes, it's taking longer than we all might wish. Yep, I'll get that events page up any moment now...

RWMG said...

Gary, I think you mean Judaea for the source of the Flavians' spare cash, not Egypt. By the time the Flavians came along, Egypt had already been the Emperor's personal property for a hundred years. Vespasian and Titus were putting down Jewish rebels/freedom fighters when Vespasian made his successful bid to become Emperor in the chaos after Nero's death.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Robert, I bow to your excellent Roman history knowledge, far more extensive than mine, so Judaea it is.

I know Vespasian & Titus spent their time in Judaea, but my logic was that since Vespasian got the top job by blocking the grain supply from Egypt, I presumed he also had a chance to rip off Egypt while he was at it. I guessed Judaea would have had nothing like the same wealth as Egypt?

RWMG said...

The OCD mentions that Vespasian sold off some imperial estates in Egypt and increased taxation, which led to unrest there, so Egypt was definitely a source of income.

Basically Vespasian needed to get money from any source he could in order to get the budget back in the black after Nero's extravagances and the civil wars.