Less inequality during the Roman Empire than in the US today

December 27, 2011

Walter Schiedel and Steven Friesen recently analyzed papyri ledgers, biblical passages, and previous scholarship to conduct a study on the ancient Roman Empire and found that the top one percent of income earners in ancient Rome controlled 16% of society’s wealth.  Per Square Mile, a data analysis blog by writer Tim De Chant, took the study and compared it to contemporary income disparity in the US and found that the Romans had less inequality than the Americans currently have.

Some Quotes:

Over the last 30 years, wealth in the United States has been steadily concentrating in the upper economic echelons. Whereas the top 1 percent used to control a little over 30 percent of the wealth, they now control 40 percent. It’s a trend that was for decades brushed under the rug but is now on the tops of minds and at the tips of tongues.

Since too much inequality can foment revolt and instability, the CIA regularly updates statistics on income distribution for countries around the world, including the U.S. Between 1997 and 2007, inequality in the U.S. grew by almost 10 percent, making it more unequal than Russia, infamous for its powerful oligarchs. The U.S. is not faring well historically, either. Even the Roman Empire, a society built on conquest and slave labor, had a more equitable income distribution.

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. Indeed, based on a widely used measure of income inequality, the Gini coefficient, imperial Rome was slightly more equal than the U.S.

Though these quotes seem to provide the main idea it is still worth reading the De Chant’s article. He  does a good job explaining the Gini coefficient measurement as well as a more elaborate analysis of the study done by Schiedel and Friesen. 


Tim De Chant: Income inequality in the Roman Empire
Walter Schiedel and Steven Friesen: The Size of the Economy and the Distribution of Income in the Roman Empire

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