As we have now become increasingly aware, the “real cost” of meat in America is more than we actually pay. The precise figures are difficult to come by and a bit squishy, but it seems relatively clear that rarely, if ever, has a human community been able to eat the quantity of flesh that we do at such a low market price. If we had to pay the real price of meat, we are often told, most of us would simply eat less of it.
This, most scholars assert, is exactly what they did in antiquity, and even today is a feature of the “Mediterranean Diet.” Meat was available, but expensive, and was thus eaten only rarely, usually on special occasions.
So this obviously raises an empirical question: How much did meat actually cost in antiquity? Are we talking about caviar-style expensive?
It is notoriously difficult to recover prices from antiquity. The fact that much of the economy was not monetized compounds the problem. Yet one source from antiquity might give us at least a little purchase on the relative value of meat.
In 301 CE the Roman emperor Diocletian issued an edict meant to set maximum prices on a large range of commodities. This edict was inscribed in Greek and Latin, many copies (or fragments) of which were found throughout the eastern part of the empire.
Relative prices in antiquity are frequently computed in “bread equivalents.” That is, since bread was the primary dietary staple, if we can calculate prices relative to the amount of bread that creates some sense of values. According to Diocletian’s Edict, the price of one “army modius” of wheat was 100 denarii. One modius of wheat can produce twenty one-pound loaves of bread. So each one-pound loaf of bread should cost around 5 denarii.
According to the Edict, 1 Italian pound of pork was 12 denarii; 1 Italian lb of beef, 8 denarii; and 2 chickens, 60 denarii. An “Italian”, or Roman, pound was 345 grams (our pound is 454 grams).
So now let’s do the math. One pound (our measure) of pork would cost 15 denarii (3 loaves of bread); one pound of beef, 11 denarii (a little over 2 loaves of bread); and if each chicken weighed 2 lbs (our chickens are significantly bigger), chicken would cost 7.5 denarii (1.5 pounds of bread) per pound.
Now we can compare. My local, artisanal bakery charges around $3.00 and up for a 1 lb. loaf. If I used this figure to compute contemporary prices for meat in Diocletian’s day, that would price pork at $15/lb; beef at $6.00/lb; and chicken at $4.50/lb.
And wages? According to the Edict, unskilled laborers could expect about 25 denarii (5 loaves of bread) a day, and skilled labor twice that. Each 1 lb loaf of bread has around 1000 calories, so we should assume about 2.5 loaves or “bread equivalents”/day for each person. A single skilled laborer, then, might pay 25% of his income in food costs, just for himself.
So the upshot is that meat does not appear to have been “caviar-style” expensive. In fact, the relative cost of meat then was only a little more than the price of ordinary kosher meat is today (pork excepted, of course).
This is only an exercise, and a very rough one at that, but the results are intriguing. If in antiquity unsubsidized meat was really at these prices, then perhaps the gap is not as great as it is sometimes thought.