What wages in ancient Athens can tell us about the silver price today

The Parthenon, Athens © Getty Images
The cost of building the Parthenon was 469 talents, or about £5.6m.

Today we look at the wages paid to oarsmen on warships in ancient Athens in 450BC.

Why on earth would I want to do such a thing?

Because it tells us a great deal about the silver price today…

How wages in ancient Athens compare to today

In The Economy of Ancient Greece, historian Darel Engen describes how the Athenian unit of money – the talent (about 26kg of silver) – could purchase nine years of a skilled man’s labour. If we assume 250 working days in a year, that works out at about 11.5g of silver per day – a little under 0.3 of a troy ounce.

A kilo of silver today is about £460, so nine years’ skilled labour would amount to about £12,000 in today’s money. That makes a year’s skilled labour about £1,333, and a day’s £5.29.

Fast forward to today. The average wage in the UK construction industry, which I’ll use as an equivalent, is about £30,000 per annum, or £120 per day. It seems that today’s British labourer is earning considerably more than his ancient Athenian counterpart.

We must, however, factor taxation into our calculations in order to appreciate what the worker actually took home with him. Enlightened souls that they were, there was no direct taxation on income in ancient Greece. The large part of the expenses of the city were shouldered by the rich, who made their donations voluntarily – sort of – through the system of liturgy.

In the UK today, on the other hand, somewhere between 40% and 55% of the average worker’s income is taken, one way or the other, to pay for the state, depending on whose figures you use (and that’s before you factor in inflation taxes).

For the sake of simplicity, let’s use a 40% figure and go with an after-tax income of £72 per day – or £18,000 per annum. So even after taxes, the modern labourer would seem to be earning considerably more than the ancient – over ten times as much.

As Greece was the most advanced civilisation in 450BC, perhaps we should only be comparing it to the developed world. But even if we factor in less developed nations, the modern worker appears to be earning more than the ancient.

Globally, according to the United Nations International Labour Organisation (ILO), the average salary is $18,000 – say £14,000, or £56 per day. That would be £34 after 40% taxes.

An Athenian warship, the trireme, cost about a talent to build (£12,000). A trireme’s unskilled oarsman would be paid 4.3g of silver each per day (£2). The cost of building the Parthenon was 469 talents, according to Professor Thomas Sakoulas. That works out, according to my maths (469 x 26 x 460) at about £5.6m. The cost of building the Shard, by way of comparison, seems to have been around £435m.

Silver is dirt cheap compared to the past few thousand years

To compare modern and ancient prices might seem like a ridiculous and redundant exercise – the two worlds are so different – but there is a point to all this. Measured in silver, salaries actually remained fairly constant until the 20th century.

The Babylonian worker might have been looking at 2g of silver (92p). The Roman unskilled worker, like the Greek, might have been on around 4.2gs of silver, at least until Romans started chipping their coins.

The wages of the mediaeval English worker seemed to have fallen back towards Babylonian levels by 1300. He got 2.8g, while a skilled city craftsman might have expected 5.6g – about half what an Athenian was paid.

That would grow, however, over the next 500 years, until by the 19th century the skilled labourer might be looking at around 24g of silver per day, according to author David Zucherman, and an unskilled between a third and half that. The labourer in the 19th century was getting around double the pay of his 450BC Athenian counterpart. It’s more, but it’s not that much more.

Compare that to today. I used the figure of £30,000 earlier – the average wage of a construction worker – £120 per day. That amounts to 260g of silver, compared to 11.5g for that Athenian worker. Todays pay dwarfs that of any pre-20th century worker in history.

Wages have risen, of course they have – but not by this much relative to the cost of living, status and so on within a society.

The issue is not that wages have soared. It’s that silver – now that it no longer has any monetary role – has fallen to absurdly cheap (on a historical basis) levels. (It’s also absurdly cheap on a geological basis, as I argued here).

If today’s wages of £120 were to equal the Athenian equivalent of 11.5g (say 12g for simplicity’s sake), you could make the argument that silver should be £10 per gramme (currently 46p per gramme). That’s over 20 times higher than today’s silver price of $18.50 an ounce – more like $400 per ounce.

At $400 per ounce, not only do wages correspond, but so does the cost of building a ship or a landmark city building.

One day we will get some kind of silver reversion to its historical mean. Does that mean we should all go out and buy shedloads of silver with the expectation of making 20 times our money?

Not really. That day of historical mean reversion probably won’t come in our lifetime and most of us invest within three to five year time frames. But you should all own a little bit, just in case it does.

  • http://moneyquestioner.co.uk Adrian

    Looking at the gold/silver ratio, it is about 4 or five times what it was in ancient times. So if silver is 20 times undervalued, gold is 4 to 5 times undervalued.

    One of my most popular blog pieces demonstrated that the descendants of Judas would have done better had he taken gold rather than silver.

    • Clive Edwards

      And even better value as silver is down 4 % today

  • zatara wood

    money week showing its amazing grasp of markets once again. telling its readers to get into silver before it comes down 3.7% that very afternoon clobbering them.
    ps did it occur to any of you geniuses that the supply of silver hasn’t been constant? the major change to supply coming with the discovery of ‘the new world’ which the Spanish took advantage of plundering as much as humanly possible (and causing a mass genocide in the process). therefore all this ridiculous comparison between what silver bought in greek or Babylonian times is laughable as the stuff is relatively abundant now.

    • Peter Edwards

      Actually Dominic has made some good calls on Silver.

      And historic Comparisons are never laughable as they serve as an anchor to what is out of sync in our economic environment.

      I would have said the opposite to your argument as the population of the world is magnitudes of what is was in the Ancient times I would expect the price of silver to naturally go up but that would be a complex calculation of working population vs siver supplies.

      Anyway I know silver will be a bu if it reaches single digits again..

  • Zlatko Milanovic

    Silver under $20 is a gift. Stock up. Hard times are coming.

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