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Article

John Weisweiler

The just distribution of social goods was fiercely debated in the ancient Mediterranean and the ideologies of egalitarianism and inegalitarianism developed in Rome and Athens shaped Euro-American political thought from the Enlightenment onward. By contrast, the study of actual income and wealth distributions in ancient societies is a more recent development. Only in the early 21st century have scholars begun to make systematic attempts to quantify levels of inequality in the ancient Mediterranean and Near East. Since we lack the documentary sources on which the study of inequality in contemporary economies is based, most of these reconstructions rely on a combination of modelling and the interpretation of isolated figures found in literary texts. This fragmentary evidence suggests that in the best-attested regions of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East inequality was considerable. In particular, the formation of large territorial states—most notably the empires of Babylon, Persia, and Rome—facilitated the concentration of wealth into fewer hands. But it is unclear whether inequality increased over time. At least, there is no unambiguous evidence that wealth and income were more unequally distributed in late antiquity than in earlier periods of Roman history.