Ancient Rome had less income inequality than modern America

Summary:Even the Roman Empire, a society built on conquest and slave labor, had a more equitable income distribution than the U.S.

Archaeologists do the darndest things. One of which is pouring over papyri ledgers, imperial edicts and even Bible passages to determine the state of the Roman economy at its high point, around 150 C.E.

As Tim DeChant reports at Per Square Mile, "Schiedel 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."

Comparable statistics for the U.S. are gathered by, of all places, the CIA, because income inequality is a pretty good predictor of revolution and social unrest. The CIA already knew that the US was a more unequal society than Oligarch-happy Russia, but it turns out we're worse than the Romans, too. Tim sums it up:

Even the Roman Empire, a society built on conquest and slave labor, had a more equitable income distribution.

This implies that there's something special about modern society. It's possible, for example, that computers, automation and industrialization in general has allowed a level of concentration of wealth that would be impossible without it. It's certainly allowed the American worker to become more productive than ever -- but at the expense of his paycheck, apparently.

Photo: Biker Jun

This post was originally published on

Topics: Innovation


Contributing Editor Christopher Mims has written for Scientific American, WIRED, Popular Science, Fast Company, Good, Discover, Slate, Technology Review, Nature and the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University. Formerly, he was an editor at Scientific American, Grist and Seed. He is based in Washington,... Full Bio

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