Comparisons between the United States and ancient Rome have become increasingly common in recent years, and while some arguments are more compelling than others, one certain similarity between the two is glaring income inequality.
According to research performed by historians Walter Scheidel and Steven Friesen, income inequality in the U.S. is now far greater than it was in the Roman Empire.
To determine the size of the Roman economy and the distribution of income, historians Walter [Scheidel] and Steven Friesen pored over papyri ledgers, previous scholarly estimates, imperial edicts, and Biblical passages. Their target was the state of the economy when the empire was at its population zenith, around 150 C.E. [Scheidel] and Friesen estimate that the top 1 percent of Roman society controlled 16 percent of the wealth, less than half of what America’s top 1 percent control.
After estimating the portion of overall wealth controlled by each Roman class, the researchers came to the following conclusion:
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.
The CIA, World Bank, and other institutions use the Gini coefficient to keep tabs on income inequality in today’s societies – particularly as it is a known factor in civil unrest.
The Gini coefficient scales from 0 to 1, where 0 means each portion of the population gathers an equal amount of income and 1 means a single person collects everything. Schiedel and Friesen calculated a Gini coefficient of 0.42–0.44 for Rome. By comparison, the Gini coefficient in the U.S. in 2007 was 0.45.
Scheidel and Friesen noted in their report that what we see today of ancient Rome is essentially the ruins left behind by the elites, overpowering the memory of Rome’s average citizens:
“Yet the disproportionate visibility of this ‘fortunate decile’ must not let us forget the vast but—to us—inconspicuous majority that failed even to begin to share in the moderate amount of economic growth associated with large-scale formation in the ancient Mediterranean and its hinterlands.”
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 laborers, 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?