Benford's law and numerical stylization of monetary valuations in classical literature

Classical Quarterly 66 (2):815-821 (2016)
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In an article published in this journal in 1996, I surveyed number stylization in monetary amounts recorded in Roman-era literature up to the Severan period. I argued that certain leading digits such as 1, 3 and 4 were heavily over-represented in the evidence. For the limited samples I used at the time these findings are not in need of revision. However, as I show here, a more inclusive approach to the material produces a substantially different picture. The most significant shortcoming of my study was my failure to take account of the probable distribution of leading digits in a random sample, which may serve as a benchmark for assessing the nature and extent of number preference. While I noted that lower leading digits were inherently more likely to occur than higher ones, I schematically related observed frequencies to an even distribution of leading digits. This benchmarking strategy is invalidated by a widely observed phenomenon known as Benford's Law, according to which leading digits frequently conform to a predictable pattern that greatly favours lower over higher numbers. This is true in particular if observations are spread across several orders of magnitude. Ancient monetary valuations satisfy this condition since recorded amounts range from single digits to hundreds of millions. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, Benford's Law has never been applied to the study of these data.



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Finances, figures and fiction1.Walter Scheidel - 1996 - Classical Quarterly 46 (01):222-.

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