Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Salt and salary: were Roman soldiers paid in salt?

A few weeks ago,we looked at myths to do with ploughing over cities and salting the earth. Today we're looking at a kind of companion myth. The basic idea is that Roman soldiers were paid in salt, or received an allowance of 'salt money'.

Salt money? (photo by Benreis; CC licence)

A few other ancillary myths tend to come along with it too. Take a look at these gloriously mangled pieces of misinformation:
I thought you might like to know just where your salary comes from. The word, at least. The source seems to be the Latin 'salarium' ('sal' being salt) which is a word tied to the payments made to soldiers in the early Roman salt trade. In those days, salt (regular ordinary table salt) was a prized and valuable commodity. If you've ever heard the phrase "you are the salt of the earth" or "worth your salt", both are referring to the high value of salt.
A soldier's pay -- consisting in part of salt -- came to be known as solarium argentum, from which we derive the word salary. A soldier's salary was cut if he "was not worth his salt," a phrase that came into being because the Greeks and Romans often bought slaves with salt.
(The blog post, in particular, has been uncritically copied, paraphrased, and plagiarised on many other parts of the web -- like this page offered up by the European Parliament's Terminology Coordination Unit.)

First, the accurate bits. (1) The English word 'salary' does indeed come from Latin salarium 'stipend, money allowance'. (2) Salarium does indeed appear to be linked to sal 'salt', via the adjective salarius 'pertaining to salt'. And there the accuracy ends.

Here's the simplest form of the myth.
The word "salary" comes from the Latin word for salt because the Roman Legions were sometimes paid in salt.
-- Wikipedia, 'History of salt'
Pure fantasy. There isn't the tiniest scrap of evidence to suggest this. At all, to any extent, ever.

The allure of this myth comes simply from the link between salarius and salarium. Naturally everyone wants to have the true explanation of what exactly the link is. Unfortunately no ancient source tells us one. And so we end up in the situation where people invent explanations for themselves.

Folks who propagate this myth don't usually try to cite sources, but when people do go looking for sources, they end up drawn to two pieces of ancient testimony. First is the 1st century CE writer Pliny the Elder:
honoribus etiam militiaeque interponitur salariis inde dictis ...
(Salt) is also related to magistracies and duty abroad, and that's where we get the word 'salaries' ...
And second, testimony about state taxes on salt. For example, the historian Livy reports how the Roman censors imposed a new tax in 204 BCE:
vectigal etiam novum ex salaria annona statuerunt. sextante sal et Romae et per totam Italiam erat; Romae pretio eodem, pluris in foris et conciliabulis et alio alibi pretio praebendum locaverunt. id vectigal commentum alterum ex censoribus satis credebant ... inde Salinatori Livio inditum cognomen.
(The censors) also imposed a new tax on the annual salt production. Salt cost a sixth of an as in Rome and throughout Italy; they set it to be offered at the same price in Rome, but more in town squares and marketplaces, and at other rates in other places. It was widely believed that just one of the two censors devised this tax ... As a result (the censor) Marcus Livius was given the nickname 'salt-dealer'.
-- Livy 29.37.3
Elsewhere Cato the Elder is quoted as talking about salinatores aerarii, treasurers of the salt taxes, as a specialised post in the 190s BCE (reported in Servius auctus, commentary on Aeneid 4.244). These passages, along with Pliny, are close as we get to a link between salt and money in any extant Roman sources.

The trouble with citing Pliny as a source for the myth is of course that Pliny doesn't say anything of the kind. The problem is exacerbated by Wikipedia, which bald-facedly re-writes Pliny, and has been quoted very widely:
the Roman historian Pliny the Elder, who stated as an aside in his Natural History's discussion of sea water, that "[I]n Rome...the soldier's pay was originally salt and the word salary derives from it...".
-- Wikipedia, 'Salary' (the addition of this line dates to 2004)
This is a mistranslation, just to be clear. Even the source cited doesn't contain this wording. And Pliny is writing about salt itself, not sea water. None of that has stopped this fake quotation being repeated in countless books and websites.

*Note, 18 Jan.: this error, and the other Wikipedia excerpt quoted above, have since been corrected. As of now, the reports in the 'Salary' and 'History of salt' articles appear to be more or less accurate.

Brine refinery at Fuerteventura, Canary Islands (source: tourist blog). Ancient Roman salinae worked in more or less the same way: see Pliny Nat. hist. 31.81-83.

If you take a global view, of course you're bound to find some times and places where salt could act as a means of storing value and facilitating exchange. The most famous example is Ethiopia in the modern era. Here's how it's reported by Ray's Travels, a classic 17th century piece of travel writing:
In trading, they make no use of coined money, as the Europeans do, but their money are pieces of fifteen or twenty Pics of cloth, gold, which they give by weight, and a kind of salt, which they reduce into little square pieces like pieces of soap, and these pass for money. They cut out that salt upon the side of the Red Sea, five or six days journeys from Dangala, as you go from Cairo, and the places where they make it are called Arbo.
-- John Ray, A collection of curious travels and voyages, vol. 2 (1st ed. 1693, 2nd ed. 1705), 1738 printing, p. 486
This 1949 book, this 1977 essay, and this 1994 book report that salt bars called amoléh continued to serve as an important medium for exchange -- one among many; others included Maria Theresa thalers, clothing, iron, gold, and cattle -- all the way up until the beginning of the 20th century. Reportedly the chief source of Ethiopian salt bars was the Afar depression, next to the Red Sea, a region that includes present-day Djibouti as well as slivers of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia.

Just bear in mind that this has nothing at all to do with Roman soldiers. The fact that salt could mediate exchange in 17th-19th century Ethiopia has no bearing on ancient Rome. Salt money might be a plausible thing in and of itself, but we have absolutely no reason to imagine salt currency in Rome. It's just that when you go hunting for something specific across the whole of human history, you're likely to find it.

A few more examples. This 2013 book claims that salt has also been used as 'money' (the word is tendentious: 'a medium for trade' and 'money' are not the same thing) in China, pre-Columbian Mexico, Borneo, and elsewhere. A person who uploaded this photo to claims it is a sample of salt currency from early 20th century Angola, held at the Royal Ontario Museum. And Wikipedia alleges that American soldiers were paid in brine during the War of 1812. This last one appears to be completely fictional, like the Roman case: apparently it's some kind of distant distortion of the British salt embargo during the war, and the development of several important brine refineries in the USA throughout the 1800s-1810s.

'Roman soldiers were paid in salt' may be the simplest form of the myth, but it's also a secondary form. I've done some searching around in Google Books with date constraints, and this seems to indicate that people first started writing about the idea around the 1860s (here, for example).

The older, primary form of the myth is that soldiers were given 'salt money', that is, a monetary allowance for buying salt. This, too, is a modern invention. It isn't nearly as daft as 'soldiers were paid in salt', but it's still only a conjecture, unsupported by any ancient testimony.

The phrase 'salt money', or in Latin salarium argentum, is an invention of 18th and 19th century Latin dictionaries. The phrase was coined by dictionary-writers as their best guess for how salarium 'salary' came from salarius 'pertaining to salt'. Here's one of the two standard Latin-English dictionaries, Lewis & Short, on the subject:
B. sălārĭum, ii, n. (sc. argentum; cf.: calcearium, congiarium, vestiarium, etc.); orig., the money given to the soldiers for salt, salt-money; hence, post-Aug. (v. Dio Cass. 52, 23, and 78, 22), in gen., a pension, stipend, allowance, salary (cf.: honorarium, annuum, merces, stipendium)
-- Lewis & Short, A Latin dictionary (1879), p. 1618, 'salarius'
The key bit is in the first line. The supposed meaning 'salt money' ('sc[ilicet] argentum', i.e. 'with argentum implied') is not actually attested anywhere. It's inferred by analogy with some other, real, expressions: calcearium ('shoe money', from calceus 'shoe'); congiarium ('distribution of largesse', from congius 'half an amphora's worth'); and vestiarium ('clothing money', from vestis 'clothing'). Unlike salarium argentum, these terms actually do appear in various ancient sources, with the correct meanings.

Lewis & Short didn't invent the conjecture: it also appears in the older Latin-German dictionaries of Freund (1834) and Scheller (1804). It seems to have its origin in the 1st edition of Facciolati and Forcellini's Totius Latinitatis lexicon ('dictionary of the entire Latin language'):
Salarium, ii ...: proprie est annona salis, quae olim dabatur militibus.
'Salary' ...: strictly, the annual salt revenue, which was once given to soldiers.
-- Totius Latinitatis lexicon (1st edition, 1771), vol. 4 p. 15, 'salarius'
This was already a very muddled rendering of the evidence. Facciolati-Forcellini go on to cite Pliny, though as we have seen Pliny doesn't actually say this. It looks like what's happened is that they've conflated the Pliny passage with the Livy passage. Livy referred to a tax on the salaria annona 'annual salt production'. Annona can mean either 'annual production' or 'annual revenue', and Facciolati-Forcellini have taken Livy's phrase and used it with the other meaning: annona salis 'annual salt revenue'. Later on, Scheller and Freund took the idea and supported it with the analogies of 'shoe money', 'clothing money', and so on. And so the idea stuck.

All these dictionaries are engaging in conjecture. No ancient source ever actually uses salarium to mean 'salt allowance'. It's a guess. It isn't a terrible guess, but it's still a guess. One thing that weighs heavily against it is that even Pliny, who's trying to link salarium to 'salt' as closely as he can, doesn't try to get away with inventing 'salt money'.

The current standard, the Oxford Latin dictionary (1968), very properly avoids taking any view on the question. It just states that salarium comes from sal. Unlike the older dictionaries, it doesn't make any inferences about how or why the two words are related.

'Salt money' certainly isn't as ridiculous as the idea of paying soldiers in salt -- it does have parallels that make it at least a reasonable conjecture -- but there's still no evidence for it.

Sea water refinery in western France (source:

I don't have a perfect explanation for how the Latin word for 'salty' gave rise to the word for 'salary'. Of course I don't: that's why we have this myth floating around. We don't have the evidence to settle on a single explanation.

As I said above, 'salt allowance' isn't a terrible guess. But I strongly suspect it's much more metaphorical than that. Compare how the Greek word for a salary was opsōnion, literally '(money) for buying opson', where opson means 'fish, relish, sauce'. That doesn't mean Greek workers were given a 'fish allowance': it means that there was a generalised idea that wages went on traded goods like fish, and not on things like barley which land-owners would grow for themselves. Similarly, in Rome, grain allowances were a common thing; it could easily make sense to interpret salarium as 'everything-else-money'.

This interpretation is less specific, slightly metaphorical, and it's still just a conjecture. But I'd say it's more plausible, and certainly a more economical explanation, than inventing a specialised category of wages out of thin air.

We still haven't dealt with this:
A soldier's salary was cut if he "was not worth his salt," a phrase that came into being because the Greeks and Romans often bought slaves with salt.
Oh dear oh dear. This one has made it into Wikipedia too ('soldiers who did their job well were "worth their salt"'). Unfortunately for Time and for the thousands of people who have repeated this idea, the phrase 'worth one's salt' is definitely not Roman. It is first attested in the 1830s (; for sources, see OED under 'salt'). The thing about buying slaves with salt is fictional too.

And then there's 'salt of the earth', which comes up in the 2009 blog post I quoted at the start. I mentioned this in my previous post on 'salting the earth'. It's nothing to do with Roman soldiers: it's biblical, from Matthew 5:13 in the New Testament. This means that (1) it isn't a Roman phrase, but at closest, Helleno-Christian; (2) it's later than Pliny's mention of salarium; (3) it's about using salt as a fertiliser as much as anything else, as I argued in my earlier post.

World salt production in 2012. That year, China produced between 22.5% and 27% of the world's salt, well ahead of the USA, India, and Germany (in that order). (Generated using OpenHeatMap, based on Wikipedia figures)

Salt was certainly a significant strategic resource in antiquity. But calling it 'prized and valuable' is silly. Yes, it's the single most common preservative agent ever used, and it is by far the most common seasoning. The Roman salt trade was under state control from the earliest times (see e.g. Livy 1.33.9, 2.9.6); the Via Salaria or 'Salt Road' owed its name to its role in salt transportation; the Etruscan city of Veii owed much of its wealth to salt production; and access to salt even provoked a war between two German tribes at Bad Salzungen in the 1st century CE.

But 'prized and valuable' -- no. That suggests a special cultural status which isn't supported by any evidence. No one thought of salt as an heirloom, or used it for jewellery. No one talks about awarding salt as a prize for contests. There's no evidence anyone used salt bars as money -- not even as one among many forms of exchange, as in 19th century Ethiopia. Salt was not a prestige object.

Modern people who repeat these myths sometimes emphasise the high value of salt in the Roman world. Well, sure, the salt trade was valuable ... that's because it was traded in such high volume. But in 204 BCE, when Marcus Livius 'salt-dealer' imposed his tax on salt, Livy quotes the price of salt at a sextans: that is, one sixth of a copper as, or one 60th of a silver denarius (or in a civilian context, a sextans was one 96th of a denarius). Polybius, writing in the mid-100s BCE, quotes a foot-soldier's pay as 'two obols' per day, that is to say, one third of a denarius (Polybius 6.39.12).

In other words, a Roman pound of salt (ca. 330 grams) cost one twentieth of a foot-soldier's daily wages.

Important? Of course. Expensive by modern standards? Maybe, depending on the price of salt where you live. 'Prized and valuable'? No.

Actually that deserves more than a 'no'. It deserves a hearty laugh followed by a 'no'. Thus: 'Ha ha ha ha! No.' There, got it right now.


  1. Thanks. I recently "learned" about the origin of salary being the Roman soldier pay. Now i won't go around mentioning this factoid. In, fact now i can shoot it down if anyone else mentions it!

  2. Thank you, this was brilliant. You have convincingly corrected our misconceptions, and my family and I are pleased to have the truth (even though the myth really is a good story -- which is, of course, always the way).

    1. Happy to be of use and/or interesting, Fiona. Glad you liked it!