Finances, figures and fiction

Classical Quarterly 46 (1):222-238 (1996)
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Abstract

Whether out of an understandable reluctance to neglect any of the scarce available sources or simply for want of more trustworthy evidence, classical scholars nolentes volentes tend to rely to a large extent on references to amounts of money in the ancient literary sources whenever they aim at quantifying, however roughly and shielded by appropriate disclaimers, some fundamental features of Roman economy and society. In view of this, the almost complete lack of systematic enquiries into the very nature of these particular data is almost as inexplicable as it seems inexcusable. While several studies have been devoted to the use of rounded numbers in Greek and Roman literature in general, none of these has specifically addressed the stylization of monetary valuations. The only notable exception is provided by the work of Richard Duncan-Jones who in a pioneering survey of prices in the Latin novel above all showed beyond reasonable doubt that in this genre, prices expressed in multiples of thirty should best be understood as purely conventional valuations. In his latest book, he has subjected the ancient numerical evidence for two areas of major concern—the public treasury and state expenditure during the Principate—to an analogous examination that has highlighted the stylized character of many relevant references and has thus largely confirmed his previous findings. Even so, owing to the limitation of these studies to a small number of authors and subject matters, a vast pool of similar data from ancient literature has hitherto been left virtually untapped. What is more, Duncan-Jones did not attempt to complement his re-evaluation of multiples of thirty with a systematic exposition of complementary patterns of stylization. In this paper, I hope to demonstrate the need for a more extensive and much more radical reassessment of much of the available evidence.

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