Historical Inquality During the Roman Empire

The Young Turks video from 2011, Crazy Facts On Income Inequality, links to an article from Travis Waldron, published in Think Progress. Waldron writes:

The 99 Percent Movement effectively changed the American political debate from debt and deficits to income inequality, highlighting the fact that income inequality has increased so much in the U.S. that it is now more unequal than countries like Ivory Coast and Pakistan. While those numbers are startling, a study from two historians suggests that American wealth inequality may actually be worse than it was in Ancient Rome — a society built on slave labour, a defined class structure, and centuries of warfare and conquest.

Waldron is referring to the study by historians Walter Schiedel and Steven Friesen, summarised by Tim De Chant in his blog Per Square Mile. De Chant provides detail on how Schiedel and Friesen estimated the distribution of wealth in the Roman Empire, 150 C.E. De Chant  writes that the study finds:

the top 1 percent of Roman society controlled 16 percent of the wealth, less than half of what America’s top 1 percent control… In total, Schiedel and Friesen figure the elite orders and other wealthy made up about 1.5 percent of the 70 million inhabitants the empire claimed at its peak. Together, they controlled around 20 percent of the wealth…

These numbers paint a picture of two Romes, one of respectable, if not fabulous, wealth and the other of meager wages, enough to survive day-to-day but not enough to prosper. The wealthy were also largely concentrated in the cities. It’s not unlike the U.S. today.

Using data which estimates the gini coefficients of various nations (a statistical estimation of income inequality), De Chant writes that imperial Rome was ‘slightly more equal than the USA:

In other words, what we see as the glory of Rome is really just the rubble of the rich, built on the backs of poor farmers and labourers, traces of whom have all but vanished. It’s as though Rome’s 99 percent never existed. Which makes me wonder, what will future civilizations think of us?

De Chant cites the inequality of ancient Rome as partly based on the exploitation of poor workers and slaves. The USA has a long history of slave exploitation, as do many other countries. Moreover, the USA also has a monumental problem with modern day slavery, as do many other nations. The USA also has problems with the exploitation and poor treatment of migrant workers. Again, as do many other advanced nations.

What De Chant, Scheidel and Friesen’s work highlights is that the impact of income inequality and social stratification in the United States is embedded in historical practices that are not unique to the USA, nor to Ancient Greece. The Occupy Wall Street movement has indeed opened up a useful debate about the upper class elites in American society (the 1%) versus the general population (the 99%). This movement, has mobilised a narrative that is about how everyday citizens are being exploited by big business and bankers. The movement has not specifically located the struggles of modern day slaves and undocumented migrants who are even more marginalised, given that they do not have, by definition, citizenship rights.

I find De Chant’s summary of Scheidel and Friesen’s paper fascinating not specifically for the point these authors make – that average Americans in modern day USA are not much better off than ‘the majority of plebeians’ in Ancient Greece. Instead, it highlights that income inequality, slavery and exploitation of vulnerable workers today has not progressed far enough in comparison to America’s own early history. The Occupy movement keeps evolving. It has not yet focused on the exploitation of the ‘invisible’ sub-groups within the ‘99%’, such as slaves and undocumented workers. Hopefully this movement can continue to expand its narrative of class inequality even further to give voice to these groups.


De Chant (2011) ‘Income inequality in the Roman Empire’, Per Square Mile, 16 Dec.

Via Waldron, Think Progress 19th of December, and The Young Turks.

Scheidel, W., & Friesen, S. (2010). The Size of the Economy and the Distribution of Income in the Roman Empire Journal of Roman Studies 99.