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date: 29 June 2022

inequalityfree

inequalityfree

  • John Weisweiler

Summary

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.

Subjects

  • Ancient Economy
  • Greek History and Historiography
  • Late Antiquity
  • Near East
  • Roman History and Historiography

Key Concepts

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

Bibliography

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Notes