How Much did a Tunic Cost in the Roman Empire?

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Categories: Ancient
If this isn’t the famous robbery scene, from Arsenal MS. 5070 Boccaccio Decameron its as close as I can bother to get for a short blog post! The victim on the left is stripping off his clothes while the three robbers look on.

Back in 2017 I posted some information on the price of cloth and clothing in western Europe in 1500 and compared it to Eve Fisher’s modern calculations based on her and her friends’ skill at spinning, weaving, and sewing. I just realized that we can do similarly for the Roman empire in the year 301 CE thanks to the late Veronika Gervers.

Gervers turned to the Edict of Maximum Prices by emperor Diocletian. This text, preserved as many fragmentary inscriptions, tried to set maximum prices and wages for all kinds of goods and services to check inflation. Although it was widely circulated, it is not clear that it had an impact on actual behaviour. No ancient or medieval government had the power of a totalitarian state out of the 20th century, however much they blustered and murdered. The prices in the edict are ones proscribed by bureaucrats at court, not describing prices at any one place or time, and we do not know what assumptions those bureaucrats made. Last time I dove into this text and did some back-of-the-envelope calculations, I got a suspicion that the grain prices might be ‘maximum price just before harvest after a bad year’ where some other prices might be more of a ‘fair average’. But the edict is still a better place to start than our clumsy attempts to copy people who spun and wove every day. Those Roman bureaucrats had at least watched people spinning and weaving and sewing who had practiced their crafts since childhood.

In the Edict, the simplest linen tunic could be sold for up to 500 denarii, whereas a linen weaver was to be paid 20 or 40 denarii per day plus maintenance. Fine linen tunics could be sold for up to 7,000 denarii. Elsewhere in the Edict, workers without maintenance (food and possibly fuel and shelter) earn about twice as much as those with. So a linen weaver would need to work for (500 / 2×40 to 500 / 2×20) 6 to 12 days to earn the price of the simplest linen tunic. That is not so different from the price at the court of Henry VIII of England, considering that the ancients did not have spinning wheels. The linen tunics in 301 CE were probably woven as one rectangular or cross-shaped piece and sewed up the sides and under the arms, whereas the English shirts were cut and sewed from long pieces of cloth, but that is another story.

Clothes were precious before the 20th century. Robbers in Italy or debt collectors in Egypt often stripped the clothes off their victims’ backs, and executioners often claimed the clothes that their clients wore to the execution. So I’m glad that Bret Devereaux and Eve Fisher are trying to communicate that, even though I prefer looking up prices to elaborate calculations!

Edit 2021-05-09: hi Hacker News! https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=27097945

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Further Reading: Veronika Gervers, “Medieval Garments in the Mediterranean World.” In N.B. Harte and K.G. Ponting (eds.), Cloth and Clothing in Medieval Europe. Pasold Studies in Textile History 2 (London: Heinemann, 1983) pp. 279-315 especially pp. 285-295

Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years (W.W. Norton, 1996)

(scheduled 23 March 2021)

2 thoughts on “How Much did a Tunic Cost in the Roman Empire?

  1. Andrew Hobley says:

    Sean, Many thanks for this post. It means I’ve added Ancient Papyrus updates to my subscriptions and was blown away by the Bret Devereaux article – if any readers of your blog haven’t rad it they should go back and find out how many working hours it took to cloth a small family – and who did the work and why.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      He has some great serieses! I am glad that some big sites like Hacker News shared some of his posts. Maybe he can turn some of these into a book when he gets his career sorted out?

      There is a lot of human drama in those papyri, someone wants to write a ‘noir’ set in a village under the Ptolemies with corrupt officials, complicated love lives, and local thugs.

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