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Are You Worth Your Salt?

January 7, 2010

Salt and Light

Have you ever heard the saying, “He’s not worth his salt”?  Obviously it is an insult, and in ancient Roman times, it was a profound insult.  How would this phrase come to be used in ancient Rome as an insult?  During years of teaching Latin language and history to my children, I learned much of the classical language and history myself. 

What I learned is that while Roman soldiers were paid in money (Roman coins), some portion of their pay was in the form of salt.  It is unclear and there is not concensus as to whether this was in the form of physical substance of salt or an extra allowance for salt.  The amount of salt (or salt allowance) was dependent upon rank and performance in war.  The word soldier is derived from the Latin, sal dere, meaning ‘to give salt’.  The English word salary is derived from the Latin word, salarium, meaning ‘salt money’.

Salt was a matter of life and death in these ancient times.  Salt was  the only known perservative at the time and was used to preserve both food, primarily meats, and the dead.  Without the ability to perserve meats, a society would perish.  Additionally, preserving the dead was essential to prevent decay and disease while awaiting time for the required burial rites and ceremonies.  The Roman rite of contarreatio, or marriage, included a practice wherein the groom and bride ate a cake of flour and salt.  The flour and salt symbolized flesh and blood and indicated that they were now one, or flesh and blood kin — unable to allow harm to come to one another. 

The power to control a society’s supply of salt was indeed to have the power of life and death over that society.  We are called to be the ‘salt and light’ of the Earth.  See Matthew 5:13-16 wherein Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth”…”You are the light of  the world”.  In the ancient Greek the ‘you’ used in this passage is the emphatic ‘you’, meaning YOU and only YOU.  Even though Jesus was talking to a group, he was addressing each person individually.  We are commanded to go out to be salt and light of the earth.  We are called not only to be ‘worth our salt’ in this battle for souls, but to be the salt that is life.  We are called to be that light that shines through the darkest of dark.  Light wants to shine and be seen, to light the path in the black night.  Go out and be salt and light.  We are called to war and battle as any ancient Roman soldier was called to do, only our sword in the word of G-d and our battle is against the lies of the enemy.  We will be worth our salt, we will be light to this earth only if we are willing to bleed and die for the spiritual battle being waged even as a Roman soldier was willing to bleed and die for his fleshly battles.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 8, 2010 1:06 am

    Interesting post, i know of the Romans salting the ground of Carthage to wipe them out, but didn’t know about the payment in salt.

    • January 8, 2010 2:30 pm

      MK: It is unclear whether it was payment in actual salt or an extra allowance for salt, but it is a very interesting concept regardless. To see more, read the writings of Pliny the Elder.

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