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According to Wikipedia, Didius Julianus was proclaimed Roman Emperor in AD 193 by the Praetorian Guard after offering them 25,000 sesterces per soldier (outbidding Sulpicianus's offer of 20,000 sesterces each). But "25,000 sesterces" is just a number. How much money would that have been, compared to the yearly pay of a typical soldier (or a typical Praetorian)?

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Short Answer

Didius Julianus (ruled 28 March to 1 June 193 AD) promised a total of around 200 million sesterces to the Praetorians but apparently did not have sufficient funds to meet this commitment. For context, a legionary foot soldier was paid (annually, before significant deductions) around 2,400 sesterces following the pay rise in 197 AD, and a praetorian an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 sesterces.


Details

In answer to the main question, How much did Didius Julianus pay to become emperor?

There were an estimated 8,000 praetorians at this time so:

8,000 x 25,000 sesterces = 200,000,000 sesterces in total (or 50,000,000 denarii), though officers may have been offered more.

Didius Julianus, a former consul, was one of the richest men in Rome but, according to Herodian (c. 170 to c. 240 AD) in (Roman History 2.7),

It was quickly discovered, however, that he had lied to the praetorians and deceived them, as he was unable to fulfill his promises.

The truth is that he did not have as much money in his personal possession as he had pretended to have, and no money was available in the public treasures;...

The lack of public funds (which Julianus might otherwise have used to make up for the lack of his own) seems to be supported by Cassius Dio who, when commenting on Julianus' immediate predecessor, Pertinax (emperor Jan-March 193 AD), noted that:

At this time, then, there was such a dearth of funds in the imperial treasury that only a million sesterces could be found.


The answer to How much money would that have been, compared to the yearly pay of a typical soldier (or a typical Praetorian)? is rather more difficult as documentary evidence is limited for this period.

The basic annual pay of a legionary foot soldier in AD 197, during the time of Didius Julianus' (AD 193) successor Septimus Severus (AD 193 - 211), is estimated to have been 2,400 sesterces. As there was a pay rise in AD 197, the figure for 193 AD would have been less than this, and there were also substantial deductions made for food, clothing, boots etc., but soldiering was nonetheless a well-paid occupation.

Praetorians were paid more: 6,000 to 8,000 sesterces in AD 197 under Septimius Severus.


Main source:

Michael Speidel, 'Roman Army Pay Scales'. In The Journal of Roman Studies (Nov. 1992)

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    The basic annual pay of a legionary foot soldier in AD 197...2,400 sesterces. If one denarius were equivalent to four sesterces, that means they were getting paid the equivalent of 600 denarii per year. At least as of about two centuries prior (early 1st century), one denarius was the baseline pay for a day's labor. Maybe it changed by 197, but in early 1st century terms, that would mean the rank-and-file soldiers were basically getting paid about 1.5 - 2 times the baseline pay for a day laborer. (365/366 days a year, but it depends on how many of those days a day laborer really worked.) Feb 4 at 19:14
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    So if 1 Denarius is a day's worth of labor, and Romans worked a 6 hours day, 1 Denarius would be roughly equivalent to 90 USD of modern money. So those 50,000,000 Denarii would be around 4.5 Billion dollars in today's money (or 6 billions if you go by the more modern 8 hour work day).
    – Nzall
    Feb 5 at 7:45
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    @Nzall You are comparing a highly developed 21st century country to a pre-industrial society. If we compare the GDP per capita of the modern USA and the (estimated) GDP per capita of the Roman empire according to Wikipeda, the difference is around 100x. In other words, the Roman empire was much closer to some of the poorer counties in Africa today. So a reasonable estimate would be to say that the average Roman made about a dollar a day, making 1 Denarius roughly equivalent to 1 USD.
    – jgosar
    Feb 5 at 9:43
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    @Nzall, currency conversions over such a long time period are essentially meaningless, which is why I asked for a comparison in contemporary terms.
    – Mark
    Feb 5 at 21:14
  • @Mark I was trying to make a comparison based on modern pay for a day's labor, which is around 15 USD an hour according to the source I found. I also didn't make a comparison based on GDP. I wanted to make an analogy for "what if this happened today in the most powerful country in the world with the same ratio between base wages and the bribe used?" Something to make a rough example for how much this would cost a modern dictator, i.e. bribing 8000 elite soldiers with thousands of times the payment for a regular civilian.
    – Nzall
    Feb 6 at 16:35

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