The Common People of Ancient Rome eBook

Frank Frost Abbott
This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 172 pages of information about The Common People of Ancient Rome.
as we are in finding out whether the Roman or the American workman could buy more of these commodities with the returns for his labor.  A starting point for such an estimate is furnished by the Eighteenth Annual Report of the Commissioner of Labor, on the “Cost of Living and Retail Prices of Food” (1903), and by Bulletin No. 77 of the Bureau of Labor (1908).  In the first of these documents (pp. 582, 583) the expenditure for rent, fuel, food, and other necessities of life in 11,156 normal American families whose incomes range from $200 to $1,200 per year is given.  In the other report (p. 344 f.) similar statistics are given for 1,944 English urban families.  In the first case the average amount spent per year was $617, of which $266, or a little less than a half of the entire income, was used in the purchase of food.  The statistics for England show a somewhat larger relative amount spent for food.  Almost exactly one-third of this expenditure for the normal American family was for meat and fish.[94] Now, if we take the wages of the Roman carpenter, for instance, as 21 cents per day, and add one-fourth or one-third for his “keep,” those of the same American workman as $2.50 to $4.00, it is clear that the former received only a ninth or a fifteenth as much as the latter, while the average price of pork, beef, mutton, and ham (7.3 cents) in 301 A.D. was about a third of the average (19.6 cents) of the same articles to-day.  The relative averages of wheat, rye, and barley make a still worse showing for ancient times while fresh fish was nearly as high in Diocletian’s time as it is in our own day.  The ancient and modern prices of butter and eggs stand at the ratio of one to three and one to six respectively.  For the urban workman, then, in the fourth century, conditions of life must have been almost intolerable, and it is hard to understand how he managed to keep soul and body together, when almost all the nutritious articles of food were beyond his means.  The taste of meat, fish, butter, and eggs must have been almost unknown to him, and probably even the coarse bread and vegetables on which he lived were limited in amount.  The peasant proprietor who could raise his own cattle and grain would not find the burden so hard to bear.

Only one question remains for us to answer.  Did Diocletian succeed in his bold attempt to reduce the cost of living?  Fortunately the answer is given us by Lactantius in the book which he wrote in 313-314 A.D., “On the Deaths of Those Who Persecuted (the Christians).”  The title of Lactantius’s work would not lead us to expect a very sympathetic treatment of Diocletian, the arch-persecutor, but his account of the actual outcome of the incident is hardly open to question.  In Chapter VII of his treatise, after setting forth the iniquities of the Emperor in constantly imposing new burdens on the people, he writes:  “And when he had brought on a state of exceeding high prices by his different acts of injustice, he tried to fix by law

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The Common People of Ancient Rome from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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