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  • Lex van der steen

On Salt and Salary


The word ‘salary’ comes from the Latin word ‘salarium’, meaning something like ‘money allowance’. Salarium most likely has its roots in the Latin ‘sal’, meaning salt. Why, however, the word for salary came from the word for salt is unknown. On the internet, and in older sources dating back to the 18th century (Latin dictionaries, to be precise), the claim that Roman soldiers were payed in salt, and that this is the reason for the etymological connection in question, is widely and uncritically accepted. In a brilliant blogpost, classicist Peter Gainsford shows how this idea came about through wrong translations and uncritical transmissions. While there indeed seems to an etymological connection between sal and salarium, there is zero concrete evidence for the claim that Roman soldiers were payed in salt. Instead, the most likely explanation is that salarium was understood as ‘money to buy salt and other goods with’.


  • It is incredibly interesting how merely the etymological connection between sal and salarium has resulted in a certain idea of the past, for which in fact there is no evidence. It is a great example of how a language can structure our view of reality (including history).


The fact that there is no evidence for the idea that Roman soldiers were payed in salt does not take away the possibility to imagine and think about these two phenomena together, salt and salary. In fact, there are cases in human history where salt has indeed been used as money, and for which there is evidence. Yet, even this is not necessarily relevant for letting salt and salary guide thinking, to let it sketch new images.


Salt is and has been incredibly valuable for human history. It has been essential for food preservation, but also for feeding livestock. It was also used to heal wounds. However, it is the possibility of preservation that is perhaps most important for human history: salt allowed ancient civilizations to store food for longer periods of time. This also allowed for food to be transported further away. Already in the Bronze Age salt roads were established to transport salt. Rome, for example, is located  on one of the most famous salt roads, the via salaria, which was already in use in the first century BC, and some scholars even use this fact to explain the origin of Rome and its expansion. Another example of the importance of salt for human history is the prehistoric city of Solnitsata, which literally means ‘the Saltworks’, which many archaeologists believe to be the oldest town in Europe. Solnitsata was located at a salt production facility, which flourished around 4700 to 4200 BC.


Due to the importance of salt, while perhaps not itself being used as money, it was quickly bound to money. Salt was in fact one of the first things to ever be taxed (in ancient China). Or think about how, during the Punic Wars between 264 and 146 BC the Romans manipulated salt prices in order to raise funds for the war. Another example would be Venice, which is known to have been one of the richest and most powerful cities in Europe for centuries. Venice’s salt production and trade was hugely important for its economic success. In Salt: A World History, Mark Kurlansky even writes that “Salt was the key to a policy that made Venice the dominant commercial force of southern Europe.” The economic importance of salt, based on its practical necessity, even led to several ‘salt wars’ (wars over salt and salt trade) all throughout human history. Salt, economics, and politics have, for the largest part of human history (as in, after the agricultural revolution), been deeply intertwined.


Today, the idea of a war fought over salt feels ridiculous. And that fact, that our view of salt and its importance have changed, is interesting. Of course, salt is still incredibly valuable and necessary (in 2021, the global salt market was worth over 13 billion dollars). But that doesn’t change that salt has lost its connotative value in the collective psyche. In the past, salt was granted symbolic importance in different religions and forms of spirituality. Its disinfecting properties have made it a sign of purification, and its importance for preservation have allowed it to be associated with longevity. Kurlansky writes that


This ability to preserve, to protect against decay, as well as to sustain life, has given salt a broad metaphorical importance—what Freud might have considered an irrational attachment to salt, a seemingly trivial object, because, in our unconscious, we associate it with longevity and permanence, which are of boundless significance.


Today the opposite seems to be true: salt is associated with unhealthiness, and hence a shorter life. A high amount of salt intake results in hypertension, also known as high blood pressure, which leads to heart disease. While salt used to be relatively scarce, today most of the food that one buys in the supermarket contains way too much of it. Salt is all around us, specifically in our food. While a human being needs around 0,5 grams of salt a day, the average individual (in all types of societies) today eats around 8 grams of salt a day. And it is hard for many individuals to eat less, exactly because most of the food you can buy already contains way too much salt. As a result, hypertension is, as the WHO confirms, truly a global health crisis. One out of three adults has hypertension. In fact, cardiovascular diseases are currently the number one cause of death in humans.


Let me recapitulate. Salt has been an absolute necessity for the development of human civilization due to its preservative and disinfecting properties. These properties even have given it ‘a broad metaphorical importance’ throughout many different spiritual and religious traditions. Hence, salt was collectively understood as being incredibly valuable. However, now that there are new technologies to preserve food and disinfect, salt has lost its practical necessity. And while humans (and even all life forms) require salt, our modern world is characterized by a tremendous excess of salt and salt consumption. As such, the connotation of salt has also drastically changed. While salt has been a necessary component for humanity reaching its current state of development, today its ample presence has turned into a problem to solve rather than a blessing.


With this understanding I want to return to the configuration of salt and salary that is found in the accepted (but unproven) historical understanding of salarium, i.e. salt and salary being one and the same. Obviously, salary, or money, is considered to be very valuable. Rather even, money is the foremost representation of ‘value’ in general; it is nothing but abstracted and intersubjective value. And like salt, one could probably argue that money and the concept of salary or wage have been essential for organizing society in such a way that certain developments, those that have in turn also defined human history and today’s world, have become possible in the first place. However, what if, like salt, money and salary can be seen as technologies that were essential for certain developments in the past, but have in turn been rendered obsolete by the developments they have made possible. Without salt as a preservation technology, society would probably have never reached the point were it was able to develop refrigeration. However, now that it did, salt as a preservation technology is obsolete. Sal functioned as a launch deck that was only needed as a tool to set things in motion. How about salarium?


Salary and money is one of the primary sources of stress among adults. Similar to how an excess of salt increases blood pressure, salary and our ‘need’ for it (that is, a need within the current economic organization) increases mental pressure. We live, as Byung-Chul Han put it, in a burnout society, and money, undoubtedly, is one of its primary, underlying apparatuses. But what if, indeed, money is like salt? What if money used to be a necessary tool to reach certain stages of development, but now that we have surpassed certain challenges it has lost its necessity? And, even more, what if this ‘no longer indispensable’ technology has silently turned into an excessive, problem-causing ingredient, making us, quite literally, sick?


A world without money seems like a radical idea. Especially since the abolition of money perhaps requires the abolition of exchange in general. Alternatively, everything would have to be, well, free. We tend to think that a world in which everything would be free is a world of chaos. Everyone would be stealing and nobody would actually make things. Yet, in the long term, stealing literally makes no sense if everything is free. The argument that neoliberalism forces the individual to turn herself into a homo economicus is well known, and hence it is not unthinkable that our current understanding of the human, of what a human would do in a certain (real or imagined) situation, is heavily determined by the particular organization of society that we live in today. Now, I am not writing this text to argue for a moneyless world. I am simply interested in developing the potential of thinking sal and salarium, salt and salary, together. It might simply be the case that we are living in a point of history in which refrigerators are present, and we no longer need salt for preservation, but we simply have not acknowledged it yet. In fact, we have the technological resources to feed and house everyone, and the reason why many people are still hungry and homeless is because of unequal distribution. And, undoubtedly, the existence of money is what allows for the extreme inequality of today to be possible in the first place. Not only the unequal distribution of primary resources is fueled by the monetary system, but also the unequal distribution and extreme centralization of power is made possible by money.


The analogy developed here can even be deepened a bit further. Salt is necessary for all life, but only in very small proportions. And, as I have already emphasized, this analogy does not write down salt as an absolutely indispensable tool in human history. Rather, it renders thinkable money as something that has been indispensable, and in some specific cases might remain to be so, but has reached a point in its trajectory where, in its excessive presence, has become more harmful than useful. Instead of determining the structure of all of society, and therefore of our complete lives, money might be reduced to a specific tool used in very specific cases. Furthermore, salt has had a great importance in religion, and was generally considered to be extremely valuable. One thing is abolishing salt and/or money as a tool, another is changing the idea people have of something. For example, in the Torah, salt realizes the covenant humans have with God. Kurlansky writes that “In Judaism, bread is a symbol of food, which is a gift from God, and dipping the bread in salt preserves it—keeps the agreement between God and his people.” To ‘abolish’ salt would be to abolish the agreement with God. Obviously, in such a context, it would not be easy to convince people that salt is no longer that valuable. One only has to reach out to Walter Benjamin’s Capitalism as Religion to understand that money has obtained a similarly important status in contemporary times. Giorgio Agamben, after mentioning Benjamin’s text in an interview, strikingly claims that “God did not die; he was transformed into money”. Any project that would ever aim to realize the abolishment of money will find its foremost challenge in changing the collective perception of money. Perhaps the image of salt’s lost glory might offer some hope in this respect.

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