ECHO Molise
  Emigration and Cultural Heritage of the Molise

Roman Samnium: Economy

In the early days of the Republic, Rome founded colonies to serve as garrisons on the frontier.  It seemed a fair bargain:  citizens received land and the state, protection.  But Tiberius Gracchus’ land reform (also discussed at Social and Civil Wars article) changed that.  In a sort of “socialism or state philanthropy,” colonists received land based solely on poverty.  Continuing the trend, Gaius Gracchus’ “Corn Law” later provided for sale of grain below the market price.  About the same time, Rome introduced slave labor on farms, driving out small farmers and leading to a decline in agriculture.  There came a sudden massing of large numbers of people in the cities who could not provide for themselves.   (See Tiberius and Gaius Graccus at Roman Who's Who)

Slave brings tablets to his master, from sarcophagus of Petronius.  Photo G. Dall'OrtoBuilding of roads throughout the peninsula also served as a state works program, employing large numbers of men in construction. Slaves were trained in various occupations and their owners hired them out for the day of the job.  So, “going rate” scales and wages were set based on the value of slave labor instead of the freeman.  By the 1st century BC, 320,000 persons received state doles.

State doles were for male citizens only. 

Although Rome issued coins, local farmers operated on the barter system, probably exchanging grain, produce and eggs for shoes and cloth.  In this way, the city’s “price fixing” would not have affected farmers as much as their urban counterparts.  According to Abbot, for the 4th century AD urban worker, “conditions of life must have been almost intolerable as almost all nutritious articles of food were beyond his means.  The taste of meat, fish, butter and eggs must have been almost unknown to him and even the coarse bread and vegetables on which he lived were limited in amount.”

Old farmer of Corycus from Gardner's Art Through the Ages, 5th C.

In an effort to lower prices to “normal” levels, Emperor Diocletian (244 - 311 AD) fixed maximum prices for beef, grain, eggs, clothing and about 7,000 other goods and services, and   prescribed the penalty of death for anyone who exceeded. 

According to Lactantius:  “For the [slightest] trifles much blood was shed, and out of fear nothing was offered for sale, and the scarcity grew much worse, until, after the death of many persons, the law was repealed from mere necessity.”Abbott

Below is an extract of some of those maximum prices, to provide an idea of the cost of living during Diocletian’s time.  Abbot had calculated the prices to US dollars in 1910, based comparative value of gold.  We have updated them to US dollars 100 years later, using an online calculator (link opens new window) based on the consumer price index:



2010 U.S. $



2010 U.S. $







Barber, for each man


Wine, quart




Beef, pound




River fish, pound


Embroiderer, for a half-silk undergarment, per ounce


Eggs, dozen


Figure painter


Oil, quart


Teacher,        Elementary, per pupil, per month


Butter, pound


Linen weaver, fine work with keep, per day


Bed blanket, 10 pound


Manual laborer




Mosaic worker, fine work


Fine undergarment


Rent for laden ass, 1 mile


Wool, purple, pound


Rent for wagon, 1 mile


Silk, purple, pound


Sewer cleaner, per day


Silk, white, pound


Teacher of Greek, Latin, geometry, per pupil, per month


Boots, women’s


Teacher of rhetoric, per pupil, per month


Shoes, soldiers’


Transportation, 1 person, 1 mile


Boots, for mule drivers and peasants, no nails


Veterinary, for cutting and straightening hoofs, per animal


Bearskin, large, unworked


Watcher of clothes in public bath, per patron


Craftsmen who worked on the premises of the employer (e.g., bricklayer, joiner, carpenter) received their “keep” as well as fixed wage, while those in their own shops (e.g., tailor, knife-grinder) had meals at home. 

That weavers and bakers received keep indicates they worked from private homes that had looms and kitchens.

Click here to open the Goths in the Samnium article discussion of the economy after the fall of Rome.

Public Contributions.  In the last years of the Republic, candidates promised and provided a variety of public entitlements--gifts of oil and clothing, games and theatrical performances, porticos and public baths--as a way to win political support.  All of these gifts were for the city of Rome, not for outlying regions like the Samnium. 

Small cities could reproduce these gifts, in miniature, through the generosity of private citizens. 

Contributions were so common and so expected, they were often required by law. 

City officials did not receive salaries and were expected to make contributions of equivalent to at least $6,000 US today.

Despite the prevalence of public contributions, private charity was unknown.  There were no shelters or hospitals.  Even trade guilds made no provisions for widows, orphans, or sick or disabled members.



Abbott, Frank Frost.  The Common People of Ancient Rome, Studies of Roman Life and Literature.  New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911.

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