[First posted in AWOL 22 July 2014, updated 14 May 2022]
Commodity Prices in Babylon 385 - 61 BC
Author: R.J. van der Spek
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
The datafile:spreadsheet(.xls, 1.15 Mb) | Bibliography
The economic historian of the Ancient World is confronted with a lack of numerical data on wages and prices. There is of course evidence (see in general HEICHELHEIM 1930), especially from Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt (DREXHAGE 1991; MARESCH 1996; CADELL & LE RIDER 1997) and Delos (REGER 1994), but not on a regular year to year basis. However, there is one notable exception: late Achaemenid and Hellenistic Babylon. From this city in South Iraq we have the most detailed dataset of the ancient world, which can compete with datasets from modern history.
1.1. The sources
We owe this precious information to the conscientious work of Babylonian astronomers. Probably from the reign of the Babylonian king Nabonassar (747-743 BC), and at the instigation of this king, Babylonian astronomers started to make a daily record of the starry sky. These astronomers were professional scholars. From a tablet in Yale (YBC 11549) dating to the early Hellenistic period we know that at least 14 of them were fully employed by the temple. They each received 180 litres of barley per month (BEAULIEU, forthcoming). From a couple of very late texts (127-119 BC) we know that the job was hereditary on condition that the scholars were capable to do the job. They received an annual salary from the temple (60 - 120 shekels of silver = ca. 120 - 240 drachms = 500 to 1,000 grams of silver) plus the revenue of some tract of arable land (VAN DER SPEK 1985: 548ff). It is interesting to see how the payment in grain shifted to payment in money.
The records, usually called Astronomical Diaries, consisted of daily information on the position of the moon (rise and setting) and the planets in relation to the fixed stars, and from the early fifth century in relation to zodiacal signs. In addition, solstices and equinoxes, Sirius phenomena, meteors, comets and flashes and strokes of lightning were recorded. The diaries give also information on the weather (e.g. "clouds were in the sky; I could not watch") and the level of the Euphrates. At the end of a monthly section some historical events were recorded (mainly on campaigns of the king, visits of the king or high officials to Babylon, cultic events, etc.) and the prices of six commodities were given: barley, dates, "mustard?", "cress?", sesame and wool. Barley and dates constituted the main diet of the Babylonians. For more information on the diaries, see: Astronomical diaries.
The earliest diary we have dates to 651 BC, but we have only a more or less regular record from 385 BC on. Hence, our list starts in this year. Michael Jursa (Vienna) is presently studying the prices of the earlier periods of Babylonia. He is the leader of a project on the economy of first millennium Babylonia. More on this project: Wittgenstein-Preisträger.
Dr. Gerfrid Müller has written a Habilitationsschrift about the development of the economy and the prices in the period just prior to our dataset (MÜLLER, forthcoming; non vidi)...