- 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.
- Ancient Economy
- Greek History and Historiography
- Late Antiquity
- Near East
- Roman History and Historiography
The unequal distribution of socially valued goods was a recurrent concern in ancient societies. Ancient Near Eastern ideas of freedom had a strong economic dimension: liberty was conceptualized not merely as freedom from political domination, but also as freedom from debt and economic oppression. In Athens and Rome, the tension between the rights shared by all citizens and the disproportionate resources controlled by the élite produced highly sophisticated justifications of both political equality and oligarchic power. In turn, ancient egalitarian and anti-egalitarian thought had a profound effect on debates over inequality in the European Renaissance and Enlightenment. In this sense, antiquity in important ways has set the terms for modern discussions of the just distribution of social goods.1
Contemporary social scientists distinguish two dimensions of inequality. Social inequality denotes the unequal distribution of status and life chances, economic inequality the unequal distribution of resources. Of course, the two dimensions are usually intertwined with each other. In the ancient Mediterranean and Near East, the impact of the unequal distribution of wealth and income was magnified by patriarchy, chattel slavery, legal discrimination against non-citizens, and intense forms of class prejudice. Nevertheless, the two dimensions of inequality are distinct in both theory and practice. In all ancient societies for which extensive written documentation survives, there were a few women, slaves, eunuchs, and other outsiders (most of them connected to monarchical courts or élite households) who accumulated great wealth and power. Conversely, many freeborn male citizens had lower incomes and controlled less wealth than did some members of disadvantaged groups.2
Two forms of economic inequality may be distinguished: inequality of income and inequality of wealth. In all societies with private property, the latter is more pronounced than the former, for two reasons. First, the distribution of wealth is the result of processes that have taken place not within a single lifetime but over many generations. Second, since the earnings of the most disadvantaged groups cannot fall below the subsistence level for prolonged periods of time, there is for each society an upper threshold above which levels of income inequality cannot rise. By contrast, there is (at least in principle) no limit to the concentration of wealth.
There are two conventional ways to represent the distribution of resources in a society. The Gini coefficient represents the level of inequality with a single number. A coefficient of zero expresses perfect equality (in which all members of a society have the same wealth or income), a coefficient of one perfect inequality (one person controls all wealth or income). The Lorenz curve traces the amount of wealth or income held by different sectors of the population. The x-axis arranges households according to wealth or income percentiles or deciles; the y-axis gives the wealth or income controlled by each percentile or decile.3
Inequality in Ancient Scholarship
Quantifying the distribution of wealth and income in ancient societies is formidably difficult. We do not have at our disposal the documentary sources on which the study of inequality in modern economies is based. Worse, it is not clear whether the toolkit developed to study modern capitalist societies can straightforwardly be applied to antiquity. For most of the period covered by the OCD (roughly from the 2nd millennium bce until the mid-1st millennium ce), in most parts of the Mediterranean and Near East, non-market forms of exchange and non-private forms of wealth played important roles. Collective institutions such as temples, palaces, and city-states controlled substantial stocks of wealth. Many assets were not denominated in monetary terms, and mechanisms such as gift exchange or munificence had a large influence on the distribution of goods. Assessing levels of economic inequality in ancient societies thus poses difficult conceptual problems, quite apart from the dearth of evidence.4
Inequality has only recently become a focus of ancient scholarship. Until the early 21st century, discussions among economic historians chiefly revolved around the structure of ancient economies rather than the distribution of resources within them. But the financial crisis of 2007 revived interest in inequality throughout the social sciences and humanities. At the same time, there has been a broader turn among ancient historians toward quantification. More regularly and more explicitly than before, they use models and comparative evidence to flesh out the implications of their interpretations. Yet this approach remains controversial. In particular, it is debated whether data taken from the economic history of later periods—most notably Early Modern Europe—are well-suited to bring into focus the distinctive nature of ancient economies.5
Inequality in the Ancient Mediterranean and Near East
In Mesopotamia and Egypt, the earliest records suggest that substantial amounts of land were communally held and that the distribution of private property was relatively equal. But warfare, the formation of territorial states, and the introduction of more intensive modes of agriculture gradually increased élite power. An early peak in inequality seems to have been reached in the late Bronze Age, when the major Near Eastern states were ruled by wealthy cosmopolitan ruling classes who lorded it over large groups of dependents. The palace societies of the Aegean may have been similarly structured, though Minoan and Mycenaean élites were probably less rich than their Mesopotamian and Egyptian counterparts. In any case, the Bronze Age collapse brought about a period of economic equalization across the Near East and eastern Mediterranean.6
We are better informed about the next round of élite formation. Cuneiform tablets from the Neo-Babylonian Empire (late 7th to 6th centuries bce) attest the emergence in Mesopotamia of a class of large proprietors who were closely connected to the royal court, measured their income in silver, and invested their earnings in intensive agriculture. Under the Achaemenian kings, the concentration of wealth continued. A new class of trans-regional landowners came into being whose estates were dispersed all across the empire. These ultra-wealthy Persian families provided the template for Hellenistic, Roman, and Sasanian imperial élites whose property portfolios stretched over equally large distances and whose interests were equally closely aligned with those of the imperial states they served.7
In Archaic and Classical Greece, wealth was more equally distributed. Political fragmentation hindered the formation of a class of super-rich landowners. Yet we should not overstate the level of equality in Classical Greece. City-state institutions were committed to the defence of private property rights. In different regions, large estates are attested that stretched over dozens of hectares of land and were cultivated by large workforces of slaves and wage-labourers. The only city for which some documentation is available is Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries bce. While modern scholars assume that inequality was lower than in many other agrarian societies, it was still considerable. According to one influential estimate, the richest 1 percent of Athenians owned 30 percent of all wealth and the next 9 percent another 30 percent. Notably, this calculation is based solely on the citizen population (the only group for which we can plausibly determine the wealth distribution). If slaves and foreigners were included, inequality would be considerably higher.8
As in the Near East, so also in the Mediterranean the formation of trans-regional empires promoted the concentration of wealth. In the Hellenistic era, kings regularly conferred landholdings of several hundred hectares on their followers—not only in Asia, but also in mainland Greece and Macedonia. In the Roman Republic and Empire, the size of private fortunes reached staggering proportions. Several Late-Republican generals were claimed to own assets worth 100–200 million sestertii (or 20,000 to 40,000 times the value of a small family farm), and some courtiers of 1st-century emperors (several of them former slaves of the imperial household) allegedly controlled fortunes of 300–400 million sestertii. This is indicative of the opportunities for predation opened up by the Roman conquest of the Mediterranean and the civil wars of the Late Republic.9
It has often been assumed that in late antiquity inequality increased still further. On this reading, disequalization reached an apex in the late 4th and early 5th century ce, shortly before the dissolution of the Roman state as a unified structure. Yet there is no clear evidence for such a secular increase in inequality. Ultra-large fortunes attested in late-antique literary texts do not exceed the size of those recorded in early imperial sources. And according to the only complete tax register surviving from Roman antiquity, the richest 20 percent of landholders in the city of Hermopolis in Egypt in the 4th century ce owned 59 percent of all land. Even if we assume that the landless population was twice as large as that of property-owners (the highest possible number of persons the fields surrounding the city could plausibly have fed), this would imply that the top decile of residents of late-antique Hermopolis owned slightly less than the top decile of citizens in the supposedly egalitarian society of 4th-century bce Athens. It is thus not clear whether the later Roman state witnessed an intensification of inequality. Still, there is no doubt that the dissolution of the Roman empire was an equalizing event. In the 5th and early 6th centuries in many regions of western Europe, trans-regional landowners disappeared and peasants obtained greater autonomy from their overlords.10
While most recent research has been primarily concerned with wealth inequality, future work may be able to shed new light on the income distribution in ancient societies. So far, most research in this field has been based on modelling and on comparative evidence. But archaeology has the potential to reshape our understanding of ancient income inequality. The careful study of material evidence will enable us to trace the distribution of resources among non-élites with ever greater precision. Archaeology may also make it possible us to trace the concrete ways in which inequality affected human well-being. For instance, by investigating the chemical composition and length of human bones, we may be able to obtain better proxies for measuring economic inequality. The same methods may also open up new opportunities to investigate the intersection of economic inequality with different forms of social inequality (most notably gender discrimination), a field which has so far been largely neglected in ancient historical research.11
- Bagnall, Roger S. “Landholding in Late Roman Egypt: The Distribution of Wealth.” Journal of Roman Studies 82 (1992): 128–149.
- Bowes, Kim D. “When Kuznets Went to Rome: Roman Economic Well-Being and the Reframing of Roman History.” Capitalism 2 (2021): 7–40.
- Bresson, Alain. The Making of the Ancient Greek Economy: Institutions, Markets, and Growth in the City-States. Princeton. NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.
- Duncan-Jones, Richard. The Economy of the Roman Empire: Quantitative Studies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
- Harper, Kyle. “Landed Wealth in the Long Term: Patterns, Possibilities, Evidence.” In Ownership and Exploitation of Land and Natural Resources in the Roman World. Edited by Paul Erdkamp, Koenraad Verboven, and Arjan Zuiderhoek, 43–61. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
- Kron, Geoffrey. “The Distribution of Wealth in Athens in Comparative Perspective.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 179 (2011): 129–138.
- Kron, Geoffrey. “Comparative Evidence and the Reconstruction of the Ancient Economy: Greco-Roman Housing and the Level and Distribution of Wealth and Income.” In Quantifying the Greco-Roman Economy and Beyond. Edited by F. de Callataÿ, 123–146. Bari: Edipuglia, 2014.
- Ma, John. “Aršama the Vampire.” In Aršāma and his World: The Bodleian Letters in Context. Vol. 3, Aršāma’s World. Edited by Christopher J. Tuplin and John Ma, 189–208. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.
- Ober, Josiah. “Inequality in Late-Classical Democratic Athens: Evidence and Models.” In Democracy and an Open-Economy World Order. Edited by G. C. Bitros and N. C. Kyriazis, 125–146. Cham: Springer, 2017.
- Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.
- Purcell, Nicholas. “Quod enim alterius fuit, id ut fiat meum, necesse est aliquid intercedere (Varro): The Anthropology of Buying and Selling in Ancient Greece and Rome; An Introductory Sketch.” In Anthropologie de l’Antiquité: Anciens objets, nouvelles approches. Edited by P. Payen and E. Scheid-Tissinier, 81–98. Turnhout: Brepols, 2012.
- Scheidel, Walter. The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017.
- Scheidel, Walter. “Roman Wealth and Wealth Inequality in Comparative Perspective.” Journal of Roman Archaeology 33 (2020): 341–353.
- Scheidel, Walter, and Steven J. Friesen. “The Size of the Economy and the Distribution of Income in the Roman Empire.” Journal of Roman Studies 99 (2009): 61–91.
- Shatzman, Israel. Senatorial Wealth and Roman Politics. Collection Latomus. Brussels: Latomus, 1975.
1. Eva Von Dassow, “Liberty, Bondage and Liberation in the Late Bronze Age,” History of European Ideas 44 (2018): 658–684 explores the link between economic and political liberty in the ancient Near East. Josiah Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric, Ideology, and the Power of the People (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989); and Josiah Ober, Political Dissent in Democratic Athens: Intellectual Critics of Popular Rule (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998) offer excellent introductions to Greek egalitarian and anti-egalitarian thought. Matthew Simonton, Classical Greek Oligarchy: A Political History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017) illuminates the practice of Greek oligarchy. The influence of Roman Republicanism is traced by J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975); and Fergus Millar, The Roman Republic in Political Thought (Hanover: University Press of New England, 2002).
2. The different dimensions of inequality are mapped by Rolf Aaberge and Andrea Brandolini, “Multidimensional Poverty and Inequality,” in Handbook of Income Distribution, ed. Anthony B. Atkinson and François Bourguignon (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2015), 141–216. On eunuchs, see Shaun Tougher, ed., Eunuchs in Antiquity and Beyond (Cardiff: Classical Press of Wales, 2002). P. R. C. Weaver, Familia Caesaris: A Social Study of the Emperor’s Freedmen and Slaves (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972) is the classic study of unfree members of the courts of early Roman emperors. Rebecca Futo Kennedy, Immigrant Women in Athens: Gender, Ethnicity and Citizenship in the Classical City (London: Routledge, 2014); and J. F. Gardner, Women in Roman Law and Society (London: Routledge, 2008) examine the intersecting forms of discrimination faced by Athenian and Roman women.
3. Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014); and Atkinson and Bourguignon, Handbook of Income Distribution offer outstanding surveys of the economics of inequality.
4. The limits of ancient Greek markets are revealed by Sitta Von Reden, Exchange in Ancient Greece (London: Duckworth, 1995); and Leslie Kurke, Coins, Bodies, Games, and Gold: The Politics of Meaning in Archaic Greece (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999). Beate Dignas, Economy of the Sacred in Hellenistic and Roman Asia Minor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) examines the shape of temple economies. On saleable and non-saleable commodities in Rome, see Nicholas Purcell, “Quod enim alterius fuit, id ut fiat meum, necesse est aliquid intercedere (Varro): The Anthropology of Buying and Selling in Ancient Greece and Rome; An Introductory Sketch,” in Anthropologie de l’Antiquité: Anciens objets, nouvelles approches, ed. P. Payen and E. Scheid-Tissinier (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012), 81–98.
5. The turn toward quantification in ancient history was inspired by the theoretical framework of “neo-institutional economics,” a school of economic thought which seeks to explore the relationship between economic performance and institutions. For a manifesto, see Walter Scheidel, Ian Morris, and Richard P. Saller, The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007). Walter Scheidel and Steven J. Friesen, “The Size of the Economy and the Distribution of Income in the Roman Empire,” Journal of Roman Studies 99 (2009): 61–91 offered a pioneering model of the distribution of income in the Roman Empire. Other important recent contributions include Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univeristy Press, 2017); and Walter Scheidel, “Roman Wealth and Wealth Inequality in Comparative Perspective,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 33 (2020): 341–353. For a critique of this approach and a call to a return to more finely textured forms of social history, see Kim D. Bowes, “When Kuznets Went to Rome: Roman Economic Well-Being and the Reframing of Roman History,” Capitalism 2 (2021): 7–40.
6. On the ancient Egyptian economy, see Juan Carlos Moreno García, “Penser l’économie pharaonique,” Annales: Histoire, Sciences Sociales 69 (2014): 7–38. For introductions to early Near Eastern money and systems of exchange, see Robartus J. Van der Spek, Jan Gerrit Dercksen, K. Kleber and Michael Jursa, “Money, Silver and Trust in Mesopotamia,” in Money, Currency and Crisis: In Search of Trust, 2000 bc to ad 2000, ed. Bas Van Leeuwen and Robartus J. Van der Spek (London: Routledge, 2018), 102–131; and Michael Jursa and Juan Carlos Moreno García, “The Ancient Near East and Egypt,” in Fiscal Regimes and the Political Economy of Premodern States, ed. Andrew Monson and Walter Scheidel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 115–166.
7. The most sophisticated treatment of the Neo-Babylonian economy is Michael Jursa, Aspects of the Economic History of Babylonia in the First Millennium bc: Economic Geography, Economic Mentalities, Agriculture, the Use of Money and the Problem of Economic Growth (Münster, Germany: Ugarit-Verlag, 2010). On the Achaemenians, see Reinhard Pirngruber, The Economy of Late Achaemenid and Seleucid Babylonia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017); and John Ma, “Aršama the Vampire,” in Aršāma and his World: The Bodleian Letters in Context, vol. 3, Aršāma’s World, ed. Christopher J. Tuplin and John Ma (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 189–206. On the tactics employed by the “great men” of Sasanian Iran to preserve their wealth and patriarchal power, see Richard Payne, “Sex, Death, and Aristocratic Empire: Iranian Jurisprudence in Late Antiquity,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 58 (2016): 519–549.
8. Emily Mackil, “Property Claims and State Formation in the Ancient Greek World,” in Ancient States and Infrastructural Power, ed. Clifford Ando and Seth Richardson (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 63–90 traces the emergence of private property in early Greece. The evidence on large estates in different Greek poleis is collected by Alain Bresson, The Making of the Ancient Greek Economy: Institutions, Markets, and Growth in the City-States (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univesity Press, 2016), 142–157. The reconstruction of the Athenian wealth distribution cited here is that of Geoffrey Kron, “The Distribution of Wealth in Athens in Comparative Perspective,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 179 (2011): 129–138.
9. Bresson, The Making of the Ancient Greek Economy, 110–117 maps land grants by Hellenistic kings. Israel Shatzman, Senatorial Wealth and Roman Politics (Brussels: Latomus, 1975) collects the evidence on large landowners in the Republic, Richard Duncan-Jones, The Economy of the Roman Empire: Quantitative Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 343–344 does the same for the early Empire. The link between inequality, predation, and empire formation is elegantly brought out by Scheidel, Great Leveler, 62–85.
10. Kyle Harper, “Landed Wealth in the Long Term: Patterns, Possibilities, Evidence,” in Ownership and Exploitation of Land and Natural Resources in the Roman World, ed. Paul Erdkamp, Koenraad Verboven, and Arjan Zuiderhoek (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 43–61 collects the evidence on ultra-large fortunes and shows that their size does not increase in late antiquity. On the Hermopolis register, see Roger S. Bagnall, “Landholding in Late Roman Egypt: The Distribution of Wealth,” Journal of Roman Studies 82 (1992): 128–149. On post-Roman equalization, see Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400–800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
11. The volumes published by the Oxford Roman Economy Project, beginning with Alan K. Bowman and Andrew Wilson, eds., Quantifying the Roman Economy: Methods and Problems (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) have broken new ground in harnessing material evidence for understanding the Roman economy. Rebecca Gowland and Lauren Walther, “Human Growth and Stature,” in The Science of Roman History, ed. Walter Scheidel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018), 174–204 exposes the potential of osteology for our understanding of ancient inequality.