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Roman soldier’s ancient Masada payslip shows unfair wages go way back

1,900-year-old find shows soldier Gaius Messius was left ‘effectively penniless after payday,’ as entire wage of 50 denarii was nabbed to cover basic expenses

The payslip of a Roman soldier found at Masada, believed to be from between 72 and 75 CE (Courtesy)
The payslip of a Roman soldier found at Masada, believed to be from between 72 and 75 CE (Courtesy)

A payslip from 1,900 years ago found in Masada, shows a Roman auxiliary soldier was left broke after the military deducted the costs of his food, clothing and equipment from his salary.

Gaius Messius, who likely served in the Masada fortress in the Judaean Desert between 72 and 75 CE, during the famous siege there, was forced to pay back his entire stipend to cover his essential needs, according to a translation by the Database of Military Inscriptions and Papyri of Early Roman Palestine, the Task & Purpose defense news site reported. The slip caught the eye of a reporter in 2019 after battlefield archaeologist Dr. Jo Ball tweeted about the find.

According to the translation of the papyrus scrap, Messius’s slip reports: “I received my stipend of 50 denarii, out of which I have paid barley money 16 denarii; …food expenses 20 denarii; boots 5 denarii; leather strappings 2 denarii; linen tunic 7 denarii.

That would amount to 50 denarii.

“It is interesting to observe how much of his pay went to mandatory expenses,” the database noted, adding that “he seems effectively penniless after payday.”

The receipt was found in the camps outside of Masada, but Messius’s unit remains unknown.

An aerial view of the Masada Mountain in the desert near the Dead Sea, September 8, 2008. (Edi Israel/Flash90)

Masada is a rugged crag in the Judean Desert overlooking the Dead Sea. Herod, the first-century BCE king of Judea — perhaps best known for building Jerusalem’s Temple Mount complex — constructed a fortress and palace on the mountain.

During the Jewish Revolt against Rome a century later, from 66 to 70 CE, Jewish rebels entrenched themselves at Masada. Nearly four years after the fall of Jerusalem, a Roman army besieged the last holdouts.

According to Josephus Flavius, the sole historical source for the battle, the Jewish rebels committed mass suicide before Roman troops stormed the battlements. Archaeologists have challenged the historicity of that account, however.

Tourists mingle at Masada, July 11, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

Masada’s impressive ruins are one of the most visited tourist sites in Israel.

The UN’s cultural body, UNESCO, registered Masada in its list of world heritage sites in 2001, citing its “majestic beauty” and its importance as a “symbol of the ancient kingdom of Israel, its violent destruction and the last stand of Jewish patriots in the face of the Roman army.”

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