In Petronius we find reference to a cloak which they say literally costs 10 sesterces but I think what they're doing is the same practice in English where if I ask you how much did your car cost and your respond 15, the listener is expected to understand that you mean 15,000. Here is the actual passage:

subducta enim sibi vestimenta dispensatoris in balneo, quae vix fuissent decem sestertiorum.

And later we learn that it is Tyrian purple which was presumably a luxury item.

Tyria sine dubio, sed iam semel lota

In the excellent commentary on the Satyricon by Schmelling we find:

X = decem milia, M. Smith (1975), Oberg (1999), Schmeling: decern HL, Maller (1961+) sestertiorum. Smith argues that X is an absurd figure but more appropriate to the context as a deliberate exaggeration (especially after vix at 17.9). HS 10,000 as the price for a cloak is mentioned by Martial 4. 61. 4-5.

And later:

In Suetonius Nero notes that Nero forbade (as a trick) the use of Tyrian purple dyes. This suggests that the correct reading at §8 is HS 10.000.

I just want to make sure that what is going on here is that they are abbreviating the number from 10,000 to 10 and you're just expected to know that, not that there is some other way to infer the correct number such as sesterces being in the genitive case.

1 Answer 1


The first question is what is the case usage of "decem" in "decem sestertiorum." It looks like a genitive, but is this possible with a specific price, or is this casual reference enough to make it non-specific? Is it a genitive of value?

If the case of decem is fundamentally a genitive, then the underlying form of the phrase may be decem sestertia, with sestertiorum used as a rare genitive plural instead of the usual sestertium.

According to Lewis & Short, Wiktionary, and Oxford's Latin Grammar:

For 2000 to 1,000,000 sesterces, you use sestertia as a pluralum tantum adjective modifying the understood word milia, but you normally count with the distributive numerals, rather than the plural tantum numerals.

With respect to the use of cardinal numbers instead of distributive numerals, Lewis & Short say:

Rarely with card. numerals: “sestertia centum,” Sall. C. 30, 6: “septem donat sestertia,” Hor. Ep. 1, 7, 80: “centum sestertia,” Mart. 6, 20, 1: “sex sestertia,” id. 6, 30, 1;

It would seem then that decem sestertia = dena sestertia = dena milia sestertia = ten thousand sesterces and that decem sestertiorum is a genetive of value or something similar.

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    Thanks but I'm more interested in whether or not he literally says '10' but means '10,000', as we do in English when I say that a certain car costs 15 when I mean 15,000
    – bobsmith76
    Feb 3, 2022 at 23:49
  • I personally would never use that idiom in English and don't remember hearing it outside of the talk of subcultures on TV. I would more readily accept something like 15 G's or 15 big ones to mean 15,000. I also seem to recall that in countries where the value of the base currency is so low that everyday items cost thousands of the basic unit, people often refer to money with the thousands understood. Feb 3, 2022 at 23:57
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    The idiom is used all the time. Just Google "I paid 20 for it". Here's an example cherokeesrt8.com/threads/…
    – bobsmith76
    Feb 4, 2022 at 12:44
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    You misunderstood what I said. I did not say that "you can utter I paid 20 for it and mean 20,000 without giving the listener context," rather what I said was that such and such costs x number of dollars and the 'thousand' part can be left off. The fact that it is an ellipsis proves my point.
    – bobsmith76
    Feb 4, 2022 at 23:36
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    It's also true that usually people do say 20k or 20 dollars but that is because the Google search engine does not exactly search for the characters 'I paid 20 for it' but does near matching. My assertion therefore stands that 20,000 can be expressed as 20 without harm to understanding.
    – bobsmith76
    Feb 4, 2022 at 23:37

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