cleopatra was worth $96 billion -- 3/18/21

Today's selection -- from Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff. The economy of Egypt during Cleopatra's reign was robust and efficient. This made Cleopatra fabulously wealthy -- even by today's standards -- and one of the wealthiest monarchs in the world. She was wealthier than Caesar, but had no standing army, and was thus both coveted by and vulnerable to Rome:

"The Ptolemaic system [the Ptolemies were Cleopatra's dynastic family and the Greek rulers of Egypt, after its conquest by one of Alexander the Great's generals] has been compared to that of Soviet Russia; it stands among the most closely controlled economies in history. No matter who farmed it -- Egyptian peasant, Greek settler, temple priest -- most land was royal land. As such, Cleopatra's functionaries determined and monitored its use. Only with government permission could you fell a tree, breed pigs, turn your barley field into an olive garden. All was scrupulously designed for the sake of the record-keeping, profit-surveying bureaucrat rather than for the convenience of the cultivator or the benefit of the crop. You faced prosecution (as did one overly enterprising woman) if you planted palms without permission. The beekeeper could not move his hives from one administrative district to another, as doing so confused the authorities. No one left his village during the agricultural season. Neither did his farm animals.

"All land was surveyed, all livestock inventoried, the latter at the height of the flood season, when it could not be hidden. Looms were checked to make sure that none was idle and thread counts correct. It was illegal for a private individual to own an oil press or anything resembling one. Officials spent a great deal of time shutting down clandestine operations. (Temples alone were exempt from this rule for two months of every year, at the end of which they, too, were shut down.) The brewer operated only with a license and received his barley -- from which he pledged to make beer -- from the state. Once he had sold his goods he submitted his profits to the crown, which deducted the costs of raw materials and rents from his income. Cleopatra was thereby assured both of a market for her barley and of profits on the brewer's sales. Her officials audited all revenues carefully, to verify that the mulberries and willows and acacia were planted at the proper time, to survey the maintenance of every canal. In the process, they were especially and frequently exhorted to disseminate throughout Egypt the reassuring message that 'nobody is allowed to do what he wishes, but that everything is arranged for the best.'

"Unparalleled in its sophistication, the system was hugely effective and, for Cleopatra, hugely lucrative. The greatest of Egypt's industries -- wheat, glass, papyrus, linen, oils, and unguents -- essentially constituted royal monopolies. On those commodities Cleopatra profited doubly. The sale of oil to the crown was taxed at nearly 50 percent. Cleopatra then resold the oil at a profit, in some cases as great as 300 percent. Cleopatra's subjects paid a salt tax, a dike tax, a pasture tax; generally if an item could be named, it was taxed. Owners of baths, which were private concerns, owed the state a third of their revenue. Professional fishermen surrendered 25 percent of their catch, vintners 16 percent of their tonnage. Cleopatra operated several wool and textile factories of her own, with a staff of slave girls. She must have seemed divine in her omniscience. A Ptolemy 'knew each day what each of his subjects was worth and what most of them were doing.'

"How wealthy was she? Into her coffers went approximately half of what Egypt produced. Her annual cash revenue was probably between 12,000 and 15,000 silver talents. That was an astronomical sum of money for any sovereign, in the words of one modern historian 'the equivalent of all of the hedge fund managers of yesteryear rolled into one.' (Inflation was an issue throughout the century, but it affected Cleopatra's silver less than her bronze currency.) The most lavish of lavish burials cost 1 talent, the prize a king tossed out at a palace drinking contest. A half-talent was a crushing fine to an Egyptian villager. A priest in Cleopatra's day -- his post was a coveted one -- made 15 talents yearly. That was a princely sum ... Pirates set a staggering 20-talent ransom on the head of the young Julius Caesar, who, being Caesar, protested that he was worth at least 50. Given a choice between a 50-talent fine and prison, you opted for jail. You could build two impressive monuments for a much-loved mistress for 200 talents. Cleopatra's costs were high ... But by the most stringent of definitions -- that of Rome's wealthiest citizen -- she was fabulously well-off. Crassus claimed that no one was truly rich if he could not afford to maintain an army.*

"*On one contemporary list Cleopatra appears as the twenty-second richest person in history, well behind John D. Rockefeller and Tsar Nicholas II, but ahead of Napoleon and J. P. Morgan. She is assigned a net worth of $95.8 billion, or more than three Queen Elizabeth IIs. It is of course impossible to accurately convert currencies across eras."



Stacy Schiff


Cleopatra: A Life


Back Bay Books


Copyright 2010 by Stacy Schiff


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