by Christian de Vartavan
Years ago in Paris, as we were having at home an elegant Christmas dinner, I saw my father silent and with an enigmatic smile playing with the very large Ptolemaic stater he had just offered himself. These magnificent coins, which rarely survive in gold and silver but usually in bronze, are truly pleasant to handle because of their large size (42 mm), heavy weight (72gm) and soft patina. As I dared inquire of the reasons of his smile he softly responded, but with a larger grin: ‘Do you realize that two thousand years ago a soldier could have paid an Alexandrian prostitute with this coin?’. [Silence – laugh!]. Well, considering the Empire wide reputation and skills of Alexandrian ladies of the time, I thought that the legionnaire might have had value for money and at a time when there was parity between the weight of the coin and its metal value? But did he? I mean… did the value of the coin suffice to match the service provided? Or did it need more coins of the same?
Value for money. The point is that until the Greeks introduced coins in Ancient Egypt around the mid first millennium before Christ and formalized their first mint under Alexander’s reign (320 BC) or Ptolemy I around 290 BC, there was no money - i.e. metal coins even less paper notes – as we understand it today. The Ancient Egyptian economy was based on barter and hence ‘value for money’ meant something completely different. It is hard for us today to imagine an economy without exchangeable currencies, but the fact is the pharaonic civilisation fared extremely well for more than three millennia without them. And not only did it fare extremely well but it developed an extremely sophisticated economic model which time and time again not only proved itself efficient, but allowed pharaohs to build empires. How?
To understand this we have to return to the origins of the pharaonic civilization, the date of which is regularly being pushed backward and the recent addition of a King Dynasty 0 – pre 3150 B.C. - is an expression of this. It may be earlier by a millennium or more and we know comparatively little of the economies of these times. As early as the 4th millennium B.C. cedar is imported from Lebanon and lapis lazuli from seemingly Mesopotamia by 3500 B.C. So trade is on and when there is trade there is a need for reciprocity of exchanged commodities. What was the value of the logs of cedar at that time or of the ‘kilo’ of lapis lazuli – we don’t know. But there we are: there was no ‘kilo’ existing in ancient Egypt. So how did Ancient Egyptians weigh their commodities and hence calculated their value?
Answer: In units of food commodity and in units of metal weight, depending of what was at stake and at what level the barter took place. Common people, farmers for example, would usually trade at subsistence level in units of their two basic staple foods: bread or beer; more precisely in loaves of bread and jugs of beer. Wait a minute will you ask, how did they know that each loaf was the same so as to insure parity? Well this is where ancient Egyptian were clever, every mould to bake the loaves had a standard dimension – and it is clear that tallies were kept somewhere so as to duplicate them if necessary – and every loaf had to incorporate the same ingredients, weighed in equal amounts and prepared according to a standard recipe. In other words bread making was regulated by authorities – as in many countries today - and by necessity. This explaining why there are so many names of bread in ancient Egyptian. These names corresponded to types which in turn corresponded to precise values. The same was applied to beers which were measured according to standard volumes prepared from standard jugs.
But how did they calculate the weights and volumes of these breads and beers? This is where metal weights come in for a start. They were usually in copper, sometimes in bronze eventually silver, seldom in gold, and in effect rarely exchanged hands as they were used as references. Their weight was based on the ‘kilo’ of the time called: ‘deben’. Such weights have survived, and my colleagues have long calculated that one deben of copper was equal to 13.6 grams at the beginning of Egyptian history, i.e. during the Old Kingdom (2686 BC to 2181 BC) and changed to 90-91 grams during the New Kingdom (1550 BC-1069 BC). The deben was thereafter divided in a 1/10th unit called qedet, the equivalent of about 9-9.1 grams. But then a deben of copper was equal to one deben of bronze and each were worth one qedet of silver; which is to say that silver was usually worth ten times copper or bronze in pharaonic Egypt. In today’s world silver is worth over a hundred times the same amount of copper.
Let’s look at a famous example found on an ostraca, that is a piece of broken ceramic on which common texts or messages were written, found in the famous artists’ village of Deir el Medineh (not far from Karnak/Luxor). Ostraca No. 73 states, or rather an Ancient Egyptian wrote [comments in brackets are mine]:
· Given to him in exchange for the coffin [an expensive thing usually]:
· Copper: 8.5 deben; further, copper: 5 deben [ergo a total of 13.5 deben of copper]
· 1 pig, makes [eg. worth] 5 deben; [+] 1 goat, makes 3 deben; [+ another] 1 goat, makes 2 deben [total 10 deben of animals]
· 2 [logs of] sycomorewood, makes 2 deben.
· Total 25.5 deben [of copper for the acquisition of the said coffin].
The equivalent of 2.52 deben of silver, which amounts today of 226.8 grams of silver. At the current rate as I write, i.e. $1080 per kilo, this amounts today of $ 244.94. Not expensive by today’s standards? No, today like yesterday, a very expensive item. This makes 1476.99 Egyptian pounds of today. In Egypt someone who has a good education and has a clerical role in an Egyptian company gets between 350 to 900 EGP per month. Waiters get between 200 EGP to 600 EGP. Many farmers (fellahs), practising agriculture as their ancestors did, far less than 200 EGP.Hence for the latter and a $244.94 sarcophagus represents more than a year’s wages. Hence a fortune. I in fact remember my father saying to me while we were in Alexandria in the nineties ‘Christian, with this 1 EGP note, one can still do a lot of things in Egypt!’. Now let us examine what the sarcophagus’s value represented in Ramesside Egypt – i.e. around 1295-1069 BC - for the Ancient Egyptian who paid it. Remember that you are in a barter economy. The standard salary of a worker was then 5.5 khar of grain which would usually have amounted to 11 deben of copper, or 1.1 qedet of silver, hence 9.9 grams of silver. Since a sarcophagus was worth 2.52 deben, it was hence the equivalent of about two and an half months of salary. Even less for a headman whose salary was 7.5 khar per month. Are we to conclude that the economy fared much better in Ancient Egypt at the height of its empire than today? It would seemingly be so, although it depends how one compares social categories. The population was less than 5% of what it is today and the accumulated wealth of the pharaonic state was then legendary, as the Assyrians happily verified for themselves when they sacked its gold laden cities in 671 BC and returned home with their historic loot.
Then for volumes they used the heqat which was equal to 4.8 l. to be precise, and another 1/10th unit called the hin which was hence equal to about half a litre (0.48 l.), and two smaller units which we will not bother here. They also used a larger unit called the khar which was worth 20 heqat or 96.5 litres during the Middle Kingdom (2055 BC-1650 BC) and only 76.8 litres during the New Kingdom. Again some tallies must have equally been kept somewhere. These units of volumes were not only of use to farmers to measure their production of wheat and barley – the two base commodities of ancient Egypt – but to the state to evaluate the annual agricultural production…and thereafter equate it in deben, i.e. in equivalent of metal weight, whether bronze, copper, silver and gold. In fact one khar of grain was steadily equivalent to 2 deben of copper. Something surprising as the value of the khar of grain fluctuated as in today’s markets, depending for example on the extent of the annual harvest, itself depending on the annual flood of the Nile. Ancient Egypt, when the flood and harvest were low, knew like today price inflations and the above ratio 1 khar/2 deben could not have been respected. One khar of grain was worth many more debens depending on the extent of the state reserves – the pharaohs’ equivalent of the Federal Reserve and kept in their vast palace silos - and the famine endured. Which is to say depending on offer and demand. The disparity of the intrinsic value of the khar of grain, during the 20th dynasty (1186-1069 BC), for example against its just mentioned standard trading value is a fact. This must have created trade problems - and it clearly did with texts of the same epoch indicating a khar of barley at 4 deben when it was usually 2. Did then the pharaohs practice anything which may be regarded as a monetary policy? Well aside from overlooking bread and beer tallies there are certain texts referring to the recalibration of some of the measuring units through state intervention, but further evidence is needed in this respect. It is rather the overall lengthy stability of prices across Ancient Egyptian history which betrays state control. Equally the standard salaries earlier mentioned for those who worked for the Great House, i.e. the pharaoh or its state.
Let us look at the main commodities which Ancient Egyptians had during the same Ramesside period and what they were then worth, in other words a sort of mini-‘Tutankhamun supermarket’. Hence if the base price of 1l/1kg of flour was $ 0.5, then a litre of beer would have cost between $ 0.4-0.81, whereas honey or sesame oil about $ 20.25 per litre. Price ranges and ratios which are somewhat not unknown to us:
Once a state knows its assets, it can also evaluate what the other states possess… which it would like. It can engage in trade to obtain it, or it can go there to obtain it for free by conquest. This is how empires were historically built and the Ancient Egyptian one did not escape to this rule. Pharaohs had a hard time to expel the evil Hyksos (pre 1620 to around 1530 BC) from Egypt and then started to lurk on their neighbouring states for repayment of occupation expenses and the establishment of vassal buffer states to prevent a renewed invasion. They perhaps did not expect, during the next 500 years, such economic shamble much less provoked by the overflow of compulsory annual tributes from vassal states then by an increase of imported commodities and the massive exploitation of vast neighbouring resources such as timber or precious tree resins for incensing or varnishing. Commodities which gradually disappeared as the Empire receded from the 22nd dynasty (945-712 BC) onwards; hence no more beautiful varnishes on the sarcophagi of the later periods.
When the Greeks were permitted in 570 BC by pharaoh Apries to install their isolated trading post in Naucratis (Delta) at a short distance of the Saite capital, it is not certain that the Egyptians foresaw how the little round silver pieces which they carried around would metamorphose the bartering economy in place since immemorial times. Neither did they expect both populations to mingle so easily after a few years despite strict initial interdictions – but love has its way. Later Alexander and the kings of the Ptolemaic dynasty saw appropriate to revaluate the wealth of Egypt according to their own currency, degrading the role of the old Egyptian measuring units as would one day be the native Egyptian language under Roman and Byzantine administration.
At that point our soldier could easily evaluate the service which he was looking from his street Cleopatra and understand that his large stater, worth 9 obol, should suffice. Hence my father was unknowingly right but for a lady at the top end of her art the price would have been at least thrice this amount. To obtain the said service he just had to look at the name which the lady’s soles imprinted on the sand as she departed from the beach to her inner Alexandrian dwelling – and which the sea immediately washed away. And this was just the prelude for far more sophisticated skills which are beyond the ‘economical’ exchanges of this article or the interest of this readership. Or are they?;)*
*For a future article on the economics of prostitution in antiquity, please lobby in writing the editorship of Forbes to contract the undersigned. Disclaimer: The author does not support in any way Alexandrian or any other prostitution or the consumption of narcotic substances such as pharaonic incenses (please do not contact your nearest museum) the effects of which are unlikely to be beneficial. This even taking into consideration that powder made of crushed pharaonic mummies was sniffed for a number of ailments in 16th to 18th century France, including at the court of Louis the XIVth. Imagine the sort of warning one may have seen had the tradition been continued and packaged; ‘Warning: Sniffing a dead Egyptian mummy kills’.