Many people may not know this, but spices were once used as currency. Spices and flavorings were once so valuable and desirable in the world and early settlement regions that they were used for trading and bartering. In the Roman Empire, some workers were paid in sal (meaning salt, actually a mineral), hence salary. A group known as Visigoths attacked Rome in 408 CE, demanding 3,000 pounds of pepper as part of the city's ransom. Pepper has been used as currency, and legend has it that Attila the Hun demanded it as ransom from Rome. In 77 AD, Pliny the Elder wrote about how it drained the Roman Empire of 50 million sesterces (ancient Roman money) every year, and even today, pepper continues to be the most traded spice in the world.
Pepper was once considered a prized commodity in Europe and was reserved only for the most exclusive Christmas cakes and cookies. Spices were an important component of ancient commerce well before the 15th-century but were monopolized for centuries by Middle Eastern and North African middlemen who guarded the Asian provenance of their valuable sources closely and became very wealthy for it. In ancient days, colorful grains were used for flavoring food, but they were also used for tasks such as making perfume, embalming the dead, preserving meat, and sprucing up salve recipes in traditional medicine.
Europe hung at the far end of the trading chain for spices, without access to eastern sources or the power to contest exorbitant prices. At one time during the 1300s, when tariffs were at their highest, a pound of nutmeg in Europe cost seven fattened oxen and that was a more valuable commodity than gold. Even the aristocracy, which is considered one of the biggest consumers of imported spices began to find it hard to afford their shipments of peppercorn and cloves. By the 1400s, when navigational equipment had improved and long-haul sailing became possible, the kings and queens of Europe purposed to change the balance of world trade by funding their own spice hunting missions. Today we look at spices as a way to add flavors to our dishes and we do not hold them in many regards. However, spices have made many empires very rich around the world. The next time you use a spice think about how lucky we are to have access to such historical things that were once held in high regard. The pepper that you use to season your steak, was at one time used to pay rent. Oh my, how times have changed!