April 11, 2014
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In the current New Yorker, Daniel Mendelsohn looks at a new book, The Parthenon Enigma, in which Joan Breton Connelly proposes that a central theme in the temple was the human sacrifice of the daughters of the mythical king Erechtheus. This has provoked some shock and fuss, though it seems to me that everyone knows the Greeks had a thing for sacrificing young girls: Polyxena, Antigone, Iphigenia, and who knows what I’m forgetting.

In passing, Mendelsohn explains (and the New Yorker fact checkers approved) an explanation of the size of the Delian League’s treasury.

At that time, it was valued at eight thousand talents – roughly $4.8 billion in today’s money, by one estimate. Another six hundred talents, or about three hundred and sixty million dollars, rolled in annually as tribute from Athens’ ‘allies.’”

Can this possibly be right?

It’s impossible, really, to work out exchange rates for the ancient world. The wealth of Croesus would not suffice to buy a bottle of penicillin. Not only could Midas himself not have bought an iPhone: he couldn’t have bought a window pane. Conversely, you could walk down to the agora and pick up a nice mixing bowl for spare change that would today command millions of dollars.

A talent was literally 25.86 kg of gold. If you assume that ancient gold was worth today’s price of $1318/troy oz, the 5000 talents in the treasury do work out to about five billion dollars. That’s a million dollars a talent.

But that’s probably not a great way to look at things. Herodotos thought there were about 30,000 Athenian citizens in the 5th century. Atheneaus reports 21,000 in the late 4th century. This doesn’t count women, children, and slaves, so perhaps there were 100,000 people in all of Attica. Maybe 150,000. Athens proper would have been much smaller; it would be another five hundred years before technology could support a city of perhaps a million people.

A workman or civil servant in Athens might earn between 1/3 and 1 drachma a day; there were 6000 drachmae to a talent. So one talent is enough money to take care of 20 households for a year. If you say that’s, say, $45,000 per household, a talent works out to about $900K – pretty close to our million bucks. Of course, $45K today buys you air conditioning and television and HBO and fresh fruit; even rich Athenians didn’t have any of that stuff. They lived like village people in Southeast Asia; maybe we’re really talking $4,500/year and we’re an order of magnitude high. Even so, I’m really surprised it’s that close.

On the other hand, a market price requires a willing buyer. Who would have – who could have – bought 5000 talents? Centuries later, this would be a real problem with the Roman economy; Tiberius Caesar tried to live a frugal life and nearly wrecked the economy of the world because he had all the money there was.