I have often heard that gold and salt were sometimes considered of equal value. When and where did that occur?

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    Just for info, there is a really interesting book on the history of Salt amazon.com/Salt-World-History-Mark-Kurlansky/dp/0142001619
    – user253
    Oct 31, 2011 at 15:49
  • That would be great to know, if we could just time travel to that time with some salt in our pockets...
    – 8odoros
    Oct 26, 2016 at 8:58
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    Maybe you're only interested in salt, but pepper was also considered a valuable commodity in ancient and medieval Europe. For example, there was an incident where an indemnity was paid by Rome to Goths in terms of gold, silver and pepper.
    – taninamdar
    Oct 26, 2016 at 18:55
  • Different reasons. Salt was much easier to obtain but essential. Pepper was hard to get but a luxury.
    – Mary
    Sep 26, 2021 at 2:14

5 Answers 5


During the era when the Phoenicians ruled the Mediterranean sea and surrounding territories (cerca 1550 - 300 B.C.), salt was indeed a highly precious commodity. After this, the Romans became the dominant force in the Mediterranean, though the value of salt did not immediately decline by any means. Whether it was pound-for-pound as valuable as gold, I think it is hard to say, but probably not out of the question at some point.

Until relatively modern times, salt was prized mainly for its ability to preserve foodstuffs as well as season food. In the hot Mediterranean climate where fish and meat would decay rather quickly, this was particularly useful. The period of Phonetician domination during the early to mid first millennium B.C. (including its successor state Carthage) represented one of the world's first monopolies. Essentially, other nations (including Ancient Greece and early Rome) did not have great access to salt, and hence the Phoenecian monopoly could dictate its own outrageous rates.

From this article on the economy of the Phoenicians:

From the interior they [the Phoenicians] obtained salt, which was highly prized in ancient times, the exchange rate being equal to gold. Roman soldiers (and probably Carthaginians too) were paid in part in salt, from which comes the old saying "worth your salt". Carthage had excellent relations with the warlike Gauls, Celts, and Celtiberians, from whom they obtained amber, tin, silver, and furs.

I find it fascinating that the modern English word "salary" (pay to a worker) derives the Latin "salarium", itself deriving from the Latin "salis" for salt. Whether Roman soldiers were actually paid in salt sometimes (quite debatable), they often would have bought salt with their pay, given its utility and valuable nature. Either way, this notable etymology, along with a number of common modern quotes in English, alone provide good support for the precious role salt once played in civilisation.

Some interesting facts about the role salt as played in human history (including quotes).

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    I don't see any evidence that salt was more precious with the Phoenicians than it was later (all the way to industrialization). As to the theory that Roman soldiers were partly paid in salt, it comes from Pliny the Elder but there are apparently some doubts. Oct 31, 2011 at 6:44
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    @WladimirPalant: It was more precious because they had a virtual monopoly on the trade!
    – Noldorin
    Feb 23, 2013 at 16:33
  • +1 This does not answer the actual question but does a wonderful job of explaining why salt was so valuable.
    – Apoorv
    Jul 27, 2013 at 3:47
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    Why salt cannot be just taken from sea water by evaporating it?
    – Anixx
    Feb 9, 2015 at 17:43
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    Don't be obtuse; of course it does!
    – Noldorin
    Feb 26, 2017 at 23:46

I don't think that gold and salt ever were equal in value, that's an exaggeration. Salt was very valuable however, particularly because of its use for conservation - valuable enough to make one very rich. This allowed cities that sold salt (e.g. Lüneburg) to get very wealthy and influential. The Wieliczka salt mine supposedly was responsible for one third of the Polish state income between 14th and 16th century. But they obviously had to sell salt in large quantities for that.

  • Quite right! Salt was valuable because of what you could do with it and doing things like preserving fish and meat took lots of salt. Preserving one fish large enough for a few meals took as much salt (by weight) as many gold coins -- yet few people (and very few of the people who got most of their protein from salt meat) even had a single gold coin to their name. Weight for weight, gold was worth far more than salt.
    – Mark Olson
    Sep 25, 2021 at 15:37

I have a great interest in the history of salt, mainly because of looking to the uncertain future, and can confirm that Salt was essential to soldiers during warfare. If was the main way to preserve meat, fish and vegetables, and without it long marches were untenable.

Salt mines were few and far between and taking it from the sea was only practical in certain locations. The weather / climate / seashore playing a large part in successful extraction, as well as operator expertise. See "Salt: A World History" by Mark Kurlansky.

Gold on the other hand is a metal that was found in reasonably pure form in some areas and rivers originating in those areas. It many have been in small quantities but it is very dense, so weight for weight it could have been the same price as salt before 200 BC.

Some interesting surfing did bring up a good estimate of the price in 200 AD; Eight grams of Gold would buy 2268 grams of Salt (about 5 pounds).

Eight grams of Gold is currently worth about US$496 which makes Salt rather cheap now.

  • +1 for finding actual numbers!
    – Mark Olson
    Sep 25, 2021 at 15:38

Salt was much in demand, it is true; but is it very difficult to produce? I have a friend who used to make it on the beach in Sestri Levante in WWII, as a teenager and then walk inland selling it. It's not rare, just much in demand - unlike gold, which is scarce. If the price was that of gold ,surely more people would boil up seawater on the beach [unless they had the luxury of salt-pans].

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    This is really a separate question, not an answer. Bob Hay's answer above discusses salt production.
    – two sheds
    Feb 9, 2015 at 17:29

Weight for weight probably never happened. Ocean water is 3.5% salt. If you could get an ounce of gold by boiling 10L of sea water a lot of people would be doing it.

Now as total value of trade, quite possible. Ancient nations used a lot of salt for conserving food, especially meat/fish.

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    An ounce of gold for boiling 10L of sea water and then hauling the result a few thousand kilometers into the Chinese hinterland is considerably more likely. Not everyone lived on a sea coast.
    – Mark
    Sep 25, 2021 at 1:10
  • @mark You haul at least a donkey load of salt or gold, not an ounce. That's a lot of gold, like multiple lifetime savings. Sep 25, 2021 at 19:11

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