What Would You Say if Your Salary Was Paid in Salt?

Monday, March 62 min read

These days, most restaurants keep saltshakers on every table, and chefs sprinkle salt liberally into each dish before serving. But in ancient Rome, this now-common seasoning was an extremely valuable commodity. It was used as a preservative only on the most expensive cuts of meat and fish, and it was considered a signifier of rank and prominence. Historical records (somewhat debated) even claim that members of the Roman army were paid in salt instead of money. This payment package was named salarium, with sal being the Latin root for “salt.” Salarium eventually gave rise to the English “salary,” which refers to fixed and ongoing compensation for labor. It’s usually received in currency rather than food or goods.

The story of Roman soldiers being paid in salt is an interesting anecdote, but it might not be 100% true. Pliny the Elder, a Roman historian, made reference to the idea in his work Natural History; however, his comment is considered an aside, rather than a piece of factual historical evidence.

It’s more likely that the connection between the words “salt” and “salary” came from the soldiers’ ability to purchase a product as expensive as salt with their high wages. Salt was so precious, in fact, that groups of 40,000 people and camels would walk across 400 miles of the Sahara to deliver it to a Timbuktu salt market.

“Emporium” — Opening up the World of Trade

Salt was only one commodity sold and traded at ancient markets. Before the days of Amazon Prime, or even grocery stores, people needed a way to get products that they were unable to make or grow on their own. Local markets allowed people to barter with and buy from their neighbors, but as global trade expanded, so did these spaces.  

Also called a “trading post,” “market,” or “bazaar,” the ancient “emporium” allowed traders from one country to sell their wares within the territory of another country. This concept evolved over time into the familiar one-stop retail shopping experience of department stores. But long before there was Le Bon Marché in Paris, Harrods in London, Takashimaya in Kyoto, or Bloomingdale’s in New York City, there were emporiums — usually located in port cities — for buying and selling supplies and staples.

Around 2015, researchers found evidence of the oldest known Roman military camp, dating back more than 2,000 years, near Italy’s northeastern border with Slovenia. When the soldiers weren’t busy fending off pirates, the port would have served as an emporium for the trade of salt, wine, olive oil, spices, and other goods.

Today, the word “emporium” suggests an element of surprise, serendipity, or even magic. Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium is a 2007 film about a magical toy store, and Eeylops Owl Emporium is a shop in Diagon Alley in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. But while the word “emporium” may have fallen out of favor for describing regular errands and purchases, the idea of being able to shop for a variety of items under one roof continues to appeal.

Featured image credit: simarik/ iStock

Daily Question