How Often Do You Think About (Money Lessons From) The Roman Empire?
A recent trend on TikTok and other social media outlets had women asking the men in their life how often they think about the Roman Empire. The most common answer? All the time.
And why not? Rome helped form the cornerstone of Western civilization as we know it and influences our culture on a grand scale. Its history is also exciting to learn about, with larger-than-life characters that still seem familiar to a modern society.
It is tempting to write pages breathlessly detailing Caesar’s conquest of Gaul or Augustus reforging Rome into an empire, but all of that is a little too hard to sneak into an article about personal finance. Instead, we’re going to look at the wisdom of the ancients when it comes to money.
The Romans had one of the first functioning free markets in history and they loved commerce. The daily life for the average Roman would seem familiar to a modern reader, and the wisdom we can glean from them can help any of us, really.
Here are seven money lessons we learned from the Romans.
1. How to Fight Inflation
The fall of the Roman Empire is framed as barbarians charging at the gates, but the truth is a lot of things went wrong over time that eventually piled up on top of them. One of the biggest problems Rome faced late in its history was inflation, and, like today, this caused a lot of long-lasting problems for their economy.
The Romans were one of the first societies to use money as we would recognize it, a currency that was standardized across their borders. When inflation started hitting them hard, a lack of precedence only fuelled the fire. In fact, according to historians, the inflation rate of the Roman denarius reached as high as 15,000 % in 300 AD.
Roman citizens worked together to curb the effects of inflation. We have records of neighborhoods working out systems to barter goods, people buying less meat and setting up side gigs. All of these methods and more are things we do today, and you can learn more ways to fight our inflation here.
2. Budgeting Can Help Us Reach Our Goals
The Roman scholar Cicero wrote a library’s worth on politics, philosophy, morality and finance — much to the chagrin of Latin students everywhere. In his book “De Officiis”, Cicero wrote “it is a duty to make money, but only by honorable means; it is a duty also to save it and increase it by care and thrift.”
Cicero came from humble origins to become rich and powerful. He was known for his frugal nature, living by a budget model of saving one third of his profit, living off another third and giving another third away to charity.
If you’re like me and got a weekly allowance as a kid, this may seem familiar to you. It’s a model of learning financial responsibility made popular in the modern day by countless finance gurus and self-help books, and it’s a great model to try and live by. You can get your start on making a budget plan for yourself.
3. How to Save Money on Essentials
Like most modern governments, Rome had a welfare system to help people in need. Citizens who applied for aid could expect a regular helping of grain from the government. Called the Cura Annonae (grain dole), this assured staple foods like bread would be within reach.
This system worked well and kept people fed, though savvy Roman citizens knew how to use the system to save money as well. For example, the grain dole was under the blessing of the goddess Annona, and usually administered by her priests. Donating to her temple meant the priests would make sure the donor saved on grain later.
Millers also offered discounts in their neighborhoods when the grain dole was being passed out. This was the Roman version of our modern day bargain hunters and coupon clippers, always watching out where to save on essentials and government programs to use.
4. Take Advantage of a Global Market
During the Roman Empire’s peak, most of the known world was stable. In China, the Han dynasty had built up an equally impressive empire, while the Kushan Empire and Sassanid Persia kept India and the Middle East at peace. This represented a huge opportunity to Roman merchants, as the first global trade network was ready to take off in the form of the famous Silk Road.
Roman coins have been found all across India and in parts of China, while Chinese silk and porcelain were snatched up by wealthy Roman senators and emperors. This love of luxury items from the East represented all kinds of opportunity.
Firstly, Roman merchants learned that they could set themselves up for life with one successful trip. However, like almost every get-rich-quick scheme, this was extremely risky and costly, with many merchants either dying to any number of travel hazards.
Another opportunity was finding a product that their trade partners in China would want, and the Romans found it in glass. Glassmaking was not known in China, so Roman glassmakers saw a new market and quickly moved in. This was fuelled by new innovations that made it easier and quicker to make glass, leading to a boom that made many artisans rich. Artisans today can use their crafts to make extra money in much the same way.
5. Diversify Your Investment Portfolio
Before Julius Caesar’s friends took a stab at surprising him in the Senate, he worked together with two other prominent Romans: Pompey Magnus and Marcus Crassus. Crassus is considered to be one of the richest people in history, with a personal fortune worth as much as the Roman Empire’s annual budget.
How did he become so fabulously wealthy? Like the mega-rich of today, Crassus’ portfolio was diversified across several types of businesses and properties, including markets, silver mines, farms and housing.
While silver mines may be a bit out of reach for the average person today, the majority of Crassus’ money came from owning insulae, or Roman apartment buildings.
6. Lean Into Side Hustles
An unfortunate truth is that, like many ancient societies, Rome did not treat women equally and relied heavily on slavery. In fact, in the late Republic, Rome had more slaves than it did free citizens. Meanwhile, women were expected to mainly stay at home and do as their father, brother or husband told them.
As Rome developed, these two marginalized groups found ways to live their lives a little more freely. A unique system existed in Rome that allowed slaves to buy their own freedom. Laws demanded slaves be given time off, and many slaves used this free time to work side jobs, earning the money to buy their freedom. Educated slaves would offer their services as tutors, and those with trade skills would work part-time in their respective fields as any other artisan.
Some of the most famous success stories for slaves were gladiators. Often sold to arenas as slaves, gladiators and charioteers made fortunes for themselves. Like today’s online influencer and modern day celebrity endorsements, famous gladiators sold their own scents and merchandise. The charioteer Gaius Appuleius Diocles remains the richest athlete of all time, with a fortune worth $15 billion in today’s money.
As for women, while there were strict social rules for them to follow, women could own and inherit property. Enterprising women often made use of their property, running their own businesses or managing shops. Inscriptions from Pompeii and carvings on Roman tombstones show women as shop managers, fishmongers, merchants and money lenders.
In short, the disenfranchised of Rome became masters of the side hustle because they had to. Women and slaves were marginalized on every front in Roman society, so they found means to carve out their own fortunes in creative ways.
7. Stay ‘Stoic’ About Money
Going from the most disadvantaged members of Roman society to the very highest, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was one of the empire’s most celebrated rulers. A successful leader and philosopher, he wrote a treatise called Meditations, which is still read today as a famous work of the philosophy called Stoicism.
As the name implies, the Stoics believed in rationality and logic in all their decisions, so they had useful things to say about money. Marcus Aurelius hardly needed to make his own fortune, but he knew how to spend money well. Like Cicero before him and his fellow stoic Seneca, Marcus Aurelius believed in investing money wisely and setting aside money for charity.
“The only wealth which you will keep forever is the wealth you have given away,” he wrote.
William Fewox has worked as a freelance writer since 2017, and his work is featured in literary magazines such as The Aquarian, The Navigator and The Historian. He has also self-published a handful of novels. He has worked as a Social Studies teacher and research assistant in local Florida museums and more recently has worked as an editor for a start-up publishing company. William holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Jacksonville University.