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. And this wording doesn’t even appear in the linked source. And Pliny isn’t writing about sea water, but about salt itself. 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. However, some other parts of the articles are still inaccurate: see below.
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 that 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 realised that Pliny didn’t say what Facciolati-Forcellini claimed he did, but they liked the idea so they instead supported it with the analogies of ‘shoe money’, ‘clothing money’, and so on. And 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 ‘the 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!

  3. So I guess Roman soldiers weren't given twenty pounds of salt a day or one hundred pounds of it a week to carry around on maneuvers!

    1. More like 16 pounds, actually, refer to statement above that a Roman pound was 330 grams whereas modern pound is 454 grams, but point taken even so.

  4. I have an analogy from Swahili. Police and other officers asking for a bribe often use the word "chai" = tea. "Give him some tea" can be the recommendation when stopped by traffic police. Historians in a few hundred years may wonder if police salary in East Africa really included tea - in form of leaves or as a drink??? (not trying to imply that salarium had to do with bribes, but theer are many ways to use euphemisms)

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  7. I want to add another story which stresses the importance of salt:the story sais that the king asked her daughters who loved him mostly.The first answered :like dimonds, the second said:like stars in the sky while the third said: like salt in soup. The king got angry and let her leave the castle. After many years ghe king had a feast and many cooks were invited to prapare food. One of them was his daughter who prepared him soup without salt. When the king tasted the soup he suddenly remembered his doughter and asked for forgivnes.
    I just wsnted to stress the very importance of salt since it appears even in folk stories.

  8. Through interviews with experts, we learn that Jesus is not a historical figure, the events of Jesus' life were based on the Roman military campaign, his The Bible in Ancient greek language supposed second coming describes a historical event that already occurred, the theories of Christ came from the ancient pagan secret schools, and the Gospels were written by a family of Caesars and their supporters who left us documents to demonstrate it. roman inventions still used today

    1. And remind us again whether or not Jesus was a historical figure fits into this discussion of salt, salary & a Roman soldier's pay???

    2. I get your objection, and Saqib's wrong of course, but don't waste your time - look at the date! That comment was left nearly a year ago.

  9. "how the Latin word for ‘salty’ gave rise to the word for ‘salary’" ... One Sweats salty when one labors., that salt needs to be replaced regularly. Hence,, Earning ones Salt,, and,, Being worth ones Salt, Paying compensation for the salt of anothers labor,, all become intertwined. Labor worthy of Sal/t. is valued in Den/ari,,, Saltari, Salary.

  10. Oh my! Now I can't trust my dictionary. Thanks for this very interesting and well-researched post.

  11. Interesting article but you did not include in your references nothing aboutt the importance of salt in suporting life. I will not give you references (you will have to look them for your self) but you should know that human muscles (starting with harth) or any animal life form cannot function without a certain quantity of salt which is not big but the need increases with the amount of effort put into daily activity and if you have to travel great distances on foot or horse (but the horse or elephant or bull or sheep or cow or goat has muscles like man, right?), like an army (not to mention the fact that an army needs strong muscles and to be in shape to fight with swords or spears or other weapons, not at all easy to carry or handle because they did not have buttons to push at that time) then the amount of salt required for a good condition is higher and the salt is massively eliminated by perspiration. The fact that nowadays doctors insist on reducing salt in the daily diet derives from the fact that we live in an industrial era where industrially processed food is supersaturated with salt to increase the taste because man is equipped mainly with specialized taste buds in salt and sweet without which the muscles and brain - as the main sugar consumer, cannot work.
    Nowadays pepper costs nothing because we live in other times, but now only a few hundred years ago European traders were getting rich with just a few bags of pepper. In the Netherlands of the 15-16-17 centuries you can buy a large villa with only a small bag of pepper or another spice that the spice traders had just started to bring from the east.

    The same situation was in Rome in its beginnings, in the 8th century before Christ when there is the road called VIA SALARIA, so named for traveling the AREA (ARIA) in which salt was extracted from seawater, an extremely expensive process at that time. Salt became much cheaper only in the 1st century BC, when the Roman empire expanded its territory by grabbing many other areas where salt was produced, especially south of the Danube, but not only when the price of salt dropped naturally if the sources have become multiple, under their own control directly and within reach. So, REACH becoms RICH and when you are REACH is kind of hard to imagine what was life like just few hundreds of years ago all over the world if you have no suficient archives...I can understand that!

    1. How can you expect anyone to take your 'information' seriously if you present unsupported information and then tell us to find our own sources, on a topic that is described in the main article as being hard to pin down, and full of inaccuracies.

  12. The roman soldiers were indeed payd in salt (at least partially)but the payment in salt decreased over time as salt became more accessible to everyone and gold became the main target. The word SALVATION (SALVE .... SAVED) comes from the Latin expression SAL VE RA which means: Salt brings energy and light where RA (the god of sun, light and energy to the Egyptians but not only to them ... see the expression RADIOS which means RA GOD from which we have the words RADIO, IRADIATION and RADIO DE SUN but also RAI (heaven) in Romanian language but also the word ALTA RA in the Christian religion (altar) which means to offer food offerings to the god of light, which is why we have today the name : day of the sun (Sunday) and DOMINUS DEUS from which in the Romance languages the words: DUMINICA / DOMENICA / DIMANCHE.

    Jesus was called the Salt of the Earth and hence called the Savior for some but he is in fact the leap of mankind (in Romanian SARE means to jump and SALT means the same thing - you see what I said above about the physiological necessity of salt). Also from here we have in the Romanian language the word SALUT(hello). You haved it too from french: I SALUT YOU!
    I do not want to be a smart ass ... I just wanted to show you the importance of the word SALT in the history of LIFE and humanity ... element that you did not take into account when you wrote this article that started well but failed because you did not have taken into account several variables. In order to have a correct image of what happened 2000 years ago, you must also transpose yourself into the state of those then, beside the information of the archive, which may or may not be complete, otherwise you may draw the wrong conclusions. ... which unfortunately happens very often nowadays.

    The words like VESTIARIUM that you have mentioned means THE AREA were you keep you clothes...or shoes....or the amphora with olives, olive oil ad other persihable goods. In romanian language VESTIAR means dressing room. VESTI (clothes)+ ARIA/ARIUM(AREA). In latin ALTA means HIGHT (ALTI tude). TALL (which is an anagrame of ALTA) means INALT in romanian language (IN+ALTA in latin). The word Romanian People comes from being a citizen of ROMAN empire 2000 years ago (POPULUS ROMANUS). Populus - Population -People (from french)- Popor (in romanian).

  13. PSA: for the record I generally only remove comment if they're spam (I haven't had any promoting harming others, yes, but I'd remove those too). I don't plan on removing irrational posts unless they become seriously disruptive.

    1. Thanks, they are kind of entertaining. Very well researched article, I wish more of the information on the internet was like this.

  14. Apparently "rhino" is a British slang term for money that dates back to the 17th century. This obviously indicates that soldiers in the English Civil War were literally paid in rhinoceroses.

  15. Well at one point most members of the army did not get paid as we think of it. The loot that was collected was doled out at the end of the campain, war paid for it self. Now even rich men might run out of money but with the army feeding you and repairing if not purchasing your gear a small amonth of coinage was not a big thing you wernt living on it. (emily)

  16. Thank you for your well researched blog. The salt for salary also made no sense to me. When I read about the salary stub found at Masada and saw how little a Roman soldier earned, I thought of the salary/salt connection as a phrase like pin money that might have been facetious or even critical

  17. Really excellent article - I've long thought the being paid in salt was completely unpractical - imagine tripping up on the way home and dropping your salary in a puddle.... Do you know anything about the "sponge on a stick" theory? I understand that that's pretty vague as well but every kid in school gets told this. Cheers

  18. Excellent article! Now I have to re-write an old homily that used that myth, but truth is always better than fiction.

  19. The American Heritage Dictionary must have updated its online entry for salary, since the etymology now appears to be taken directly from this post: "... from Latin salārium, salary or stipend paid to a military or civil post holder (probably originally “money given to soldiers for buying salt and other such things, supplementing a grain ration”), from neuter of salārius, relating to salt ... For the semantic development, compare Greek opsōnion, salary, wages, from opson, relish, fish, or other tasty food to be eaten as accompaniment to bread, and ōneisthai, to buy."

    I bet you'd rather see "possibly (although evidence is lacking)" instead of "probably", but at least it's an improvement over all the print editions, which just stated "money given to Roman soldiers to buy salt." Progress!

    Merriam-Webster used to have "money given to Roman soldiers for salt" in old editions, but that was removed quite a while ago: from the 10th Collegiate Edition (1993) onward, they say only "... from Latin salarium pension, salary, from neuter of salarius of salt", without giving any guess as to why, just like the Oxford Latin Dictionary. Maybe somebody there checked the Latin dictionary! Point to MW.

    1. Thank you for telling me! This is awesome news! Though I'll say I'm surprised to see the comparison with opsonion taking hold: I don't think I've got enough authority to lay down the law on that by myself, so I hope they found someone else to corroborate the idea.

  20. The "Pliny the Elder" translation is wrong on Wikipedia, but also here.

    In the full section you both are translating a piece of, Pliny the Elder's Natural History is telling the story of Ancus Marcius, a king of Rome 600+ years before Pliny the Elder's time. According to Natural History, Ancus Marcius took a salt pit ("salinas", this probably refers to the ones at Ostia which he founded), had people ("populis", not specifically soldiers) carry the salt to Sabinos, and gave them a "congiario" (literally "largess of the emperor"...despite him being a pre-imperial king) of "mola salsa" (salted flower, most likely to be used ritually rather than as food). Natural History claims this was called the "Salariae viae" ("salary of the way") and that the etymology of "salariis" ("salaries") is clear from that name.

    In short, Natural History claims a 600+ year old one-time gift of salted flour after labor involving salt is the origin of the term.

    I'm not sure how reliable Natural History is on the subject. You may have noticed I credit the book and not Pliny the Elder with these claims - Pliny the Elder had his servant copy down things he dictated after another servant read them from other sources. We don't actually know who the source of this etymology is or how much it was affected by his dictation process. The "salariae viae" phrase is used as if it would reasonably be understood by the reader but requires 600+ year old historical knowledge, limiting the audience unless it was from a much older source.