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We know, at least in principle, that the ancient world was quite different from the world we know today. We think that we have some basic ideas of what things were like back then from cinema and literature but those seldom paint the most accurate picture.
If we’re looking for extra insight into what life was like back then, the easiest way might be to look at the economies of ancient cultures. After all, money was invented to signify the value of commodities. To get a better idea of life back then, let’s look at 10 of the most expensive products from the ancient world.
10 Expensive Products of the Ancient World and Why
Obviously, determining which product or material was “most expensive” in the ancient world would be difficult. If nothing else, it’s also something that varied from culture to culture and from one era to the other.
Having said that, we have quite a lot of evidence on which materials and products were generally seen as the most expensive and highly valued back then, with some even raising and maintaining entire empires for centuries.
Salt is one of the most common materials on the planet and is widely available today. That’s thanks to how easy its production has become since the industrial revolution, but that wasn’t always the case.
A couple of millennia before, salt was incredibly labor-intensive to mine. Even though some societies had discovered salt back in 6,000 BCE (or more than 8,000 years ago), none of them had an easy way to acquire it. What’s more, people back then relied on salt not only to spice up their meals but for the very existence of their societies too.
The reason this claim isn’t an exaggeration is that people in the ancient world didn’t have a more reliable way to conserve their food other than to salt it. So, whether you were in ancient China or India, Mesopotamia or Mesoamerica, Greece, Rome, or Egypt, salt was crucial both for households and the trade and economic infrastructure of entire societies and empires.
This vital use of salt together with how difficult it was to get, made it incredibly expensive and valuable. For example, it’s believed that about half of the entire revenue of the Chinese Tang dynasty (~1st century AD) came from salt. Similarly, the oldest settlement in Europe, the Thracian town of Solnitsata from 6,500 years ago (literally translates as “Salt shaker” in Bulgarian) was basically an ancient salt factory.
Another prime example is that merchants in sub-Saharan Africa around the 6th century AD were known to frequently trade salt with gold. In some areas, such as Ethiopia, salt was used as an official currency as recently as the early 20th century.
Given the extreme demand for this product and the nightmarish conditions it often had to be mined in, it’s no surprise that slave labor was often used in salt mines across the world.
For a less surprising example, silk has been a prized commodity across the ancient world since it was first cultivated some 6,000 years ago in the 4th millennium BCE. What made silk so valuable back then wasn’t necessarily any particular “need” for it – after all, it was exclusively a luxury item. Instead, it was its rarity.
For the longest time, silk was only produced in China and its Neolithic predecessor. No other country or society on the planet knew how to make this fabric, so whenever merchants brought silk westward via the infamous Silk Road, people were left amazed by how different silk was from the other fabric types they were familiar with.
Curiously enough, ancient Rome and China didn’t know much about each other despite the major silk trade between them – they only knew the other empire existed but not much beyond that. That’s because the Silk Road trade itself was made by the Parthian Empire between them. For large parts of their history, the Romans believed silk grew on trees.
It’s even said that once the Han dynasty’s general Pan Chao managed to drive out the Parthians from the Tarim basin region around 97 BC, he decided to get in direct contact with the Roman Empire and bypass the Parthian middlemen.
Pan Chao sent the ambassador Kan Ying to Rome, but the latter only managed to get as far as Mesopotamia. Once there, he was told that to reach Rome he’d need to travel two more whole years by ship – a lie he believed and returned to China unsuccessful.
It wasn’t until 166 AD that the first contact between China and Rome was made via a Roman envoy sent by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. A few centuries later, in 552 AD, emperor Justinian sent another envoy, this time of two monks, who managed to steal some silkworm eggs hidden in bamboo walking sticks they took from China as “souvenirs”. This was one of the first biggest instances of “industrial espionage” in world history and it did end China’s monopoly on silk, which eventually started to drive the price down over the next centuries.
Copper and Bronze
Today, it’s difficult to imagine copper as “a precious metal”, but that’s exactly what it was a while back. It was first mined and used around 7,500 BCE or about 9,500 years ago and it changed human civilization forever.
What made copper special from all other metals were two things:
- Copper can be used in its natural ore form with very little processing, which made it both possible and incentivizing for early human societies to start using the metal.
- Copper deposits weren’t as deep and rare as many other metals, which allowed early humanity (relatively) easy access to them.
It was this access to copper that effectively kick-started and elevated much of early human civilization. The lack of easy natural access to metal hampered the advance of many societies, even those that managed to achieve various other incredible scientific breakthroughs such as the Mayan civilizations in Mesoamerica.
That’s why the Mayans continue to be referred to as “a Stone Age culture”, despite having achieved far earlier and greater success with astronomy, road infrastructure, water purification, and other industries compared to their European, Asian, and African counterparts.
All this isn’t to say that mining for copper was “easy” – it was only easy compared to other metals. Copper mines were still very labor-intensive which, combined with the extremely high demand for the metal, made it incredibly valuable for thousands of years.
Copper also spurred the advent of the Bronze Age in many societies, as bronze is an alloy of copper and tin. Both metals were widely used in industry, agriculture, household items, and jewelry, as well as for currency.
In fact, in the earliest days of the Roman Republic (6th to 3rd centuries BCE) copper was used for currency in lumps, not even needing to be cut into coins. Over time, an increasing number of alloys began to be invented (such as brass, which is made of copper plus zinc, invented during the rule of Julius Ceasar), which was used especially for currency, but almost all of these had copper in them. This made the metal incredibly valuable even as other, stronger metals continued being discovered.
Saffron, Ginger, Pepper, and Other Spices
Exotic spices such as saffron, pepper, and ginger were also incredibly valuable in the old world – surprisingly so from today’s point of view. Unlike salt, spices had an almost exclusively culinary role as they weren’t used for food preservation. Their production also wasn’t as incredibly labor-intensive as that of salt.
Yet, many spices were still quite expensive. For example, in ancient Rome ginger was sold for 400 denarii, and pepper came with a price tag of around 800 denarii. To put that into perspective, a single denarius or dinar is believed to have been worth somewhere between $1 and $2 today.
Compared to the existence of multi-billionaires today (and likely trillionaires in the near future), the denarii can be seen as even more expensive relative to their culture and economy compared to today’s currencies.
So, why were so many exotic spices so valuable? How can a bit of pepper be worth hundreds of dollars?
Logistics is all there is to it.
Most such spices at the time were only grown in India. So, while they weren’t all that expensive there, for people in Europe, they were very valuable as logistics a couple of thousand years ago was much slower, more difficult, and more expensive than they are today. It was even common for spices such as pepper to be asked for as ransom in military situations such as sieges or threats of raids.
Cedar, Sandalwood, and Other Types of Wood
You’d think that wood wasn’t all that uncommon and valuable of a product millennia ago. After all, trees were everywhere, especially back then. And trees, in general, weren’t all that uncommon, yet certain types of trees were – both uncommon and highly valuable.
Some trees such as cedar, for example, were used not only for their very high-quality wood but also for their aromatic scent and religious significance. The fact that cedar is quite resistant to rot and insects also made it highly sought-after, including for construction and shipbuilding.
Sandalwood is another prime example, both for its quality and for the sandalwood oil extracted from it. Many societies such as the aboriginal Australians also used sandalwood for their fruits, nuts, and kernels. What’s more, unlike many other things on this list, sandalwood is still highly valued today, as it’s still viewed as one of the most expensive types of wood
Purple Color Dye
This is a product that’s quite notorious today for its exaggerated value centuries back. The color purple was extremely expensive in the past.
The reason for this is that Tyrian purple dye – also known as Imperial Purple or Royal Purple – was impossible to manufacture artificially at the time. Instead, this particular color dye could only be acquired through extracts of the murex shellfish.
Needless to say, the process of catching these shellfish and extracting sufficient quantities of their colorful dye secretion was a time-consuming and laborious endeavor. It’s believed that the process was first streamlined by the people of Tyre, a Phonecian city from the Bronze Age on the east coast of the Mediterranean.
The dye itself and fabrics colored by it were so ridiculously expensive that not even the nobility in most cultures was able to afford it – only the wealthiest of monarchs and emperors could, hence why this color was associated with royalty for centuries.
It’s said that Alexander the Great found a huge stash of Tyrian purple clothes and fabrics when he conquered the Persian city of Susa and raided its Royal Treasure.
For a slightly broader category, we should mention that vehicles of all kinds were also extremely valuable millennia ago. The simplest vehicles such as wagons were common enough, but anything larger or more complex such as carriages, chariots, boats, barges, biremes, triremes, and larger ships was extremely expensive and valuable, particularly when well-made.
Not only were such large vehicles very difficult and expensive to craft with high enough quality, but they were also exceptionally useful for all manner of trade, war, politics, and more.
A trireme was essentially the equivalent of a yacht today, pricewise, and ships like that could be used not just for war, but for long-distance trade too. Having access to such a vehicle was almost like being gifted a business today.
This may feel like a bit of an exaggeration. Of course, water was valuable back then, it’s valuable today too – it’s crucial for the survival of human life. But is it adequate to put it in the same category as precious metals or silk pricewise?
Well, putting aside that severe droughts affect millions of people even today, back in time, there were entire civilizations built in places with virtually no drinkable water.
The Mayan empire on the Yucatan peninsula is a prime example of that. Because of the deep limestone of that peninsula, there were no freshwater springs or rivers for the Mayans to use for water. Such limestone exists under Florida in the US too only it’s not as deep there, so it created swamps instead of dry land.
To cope with this seemingly impossible situation, the Mayans figured out how to purify rainwater and how to then store it in giant containers for months. These water purification methods were groundbreaking for the time and unparalleled to what any other culture on Earth was doing at the time. And, crucially, for the purpose of this article – it essentially turned rainwater into a resource to be extracted and cultivated – just like precious metals and silk.
Even outside of such extreme examples, however, water’s role as a precious resource is undeniable in many other cultures. Even those that had “easy” access to freshwater springs still often had to transport it manually or by riding animals for miles to their towns and homes.
Horses and Other Riding Animals
Speaking of riding, horses, camels, elephants, and other riding animals were incredibly expensive back in the day, especially if they were of a particular breed or type. For example, while a farming horse in ancient Rome could be sold for a dozen or so thousand denarii, a warhorse was typically sold for about 36,000 denarii and a racehorse for up to 100,000 denarii.
These were absurd prices for the time, as only the highest of nobility had such five- or six-digit sums laying around. But even “simple” warhorses and farming or trading animals were still extremely valuable at the time because of all the uses they could serve. Such riding animals were used for farming, trade, entertainment, travel, as well as war. A horse was essentially a car back then and an expensive horse was a very expensive car.
Glassmaking is believed to have originated in Mesopotamia some 3,600 years ago or in the second millennium BCE. The exact place of origin isn’t certain, but it was likely today’s Iran or Syria, and even possibly Egypt. Ever since then and until the industrial revolution, glass was blown manually.
This means that sand needed to be collected, melted in ovens at extremely high temperatures, and then blown into specific shapes manually by the glass blower. The process required lots of skill, time, and quite a lot of work, making glass very valuable.
It wasn’t necessarily rare, however, as it wasn’t long after people learned how to make it that the glassmaking industry boomed. Glass vessels such as cups, bowls, and vases, colored glass ingots, even trinkets and jewelry such as glass imitations of hardstone carvings or gemstones became very sought-after.
As such, the value of glass began to depend largely on the quality it was made in – like with many other commodities, a plain glass cup wasn’t worth all that much, but a complex and gorgeous quality colored glass vase would catch the eye of even the wealthiest noble.
As you can see, even the simplest things such as wood, water, salt, or copper were far from “simple” to acquire back during the dawn of civilization.
Whether it was because of their rarity or of how difficult and manpower-intensive it was to acquire them, many products and materials we take for granted today used to cause wars, genocides, and the enslavement of entire peoples.
It makes one wonder which of today’s most treasured products of society will be viewed that way after a few centuries.