Historians used the Gini coefficient, a modern measure of wealth inequality, to compare disparities between the classes in the Roman Empire 150 years after the death of Christ and those in the United States today. The ancients, with their ranks of plebeians, patricians and senators, scored slightly better than we did.
To become a ruling Roman, would-be senators had to be worth at least 1 million Roman sesterces. Most were far wealthier, with the average worth well over 5 million sesterces.
Today, the Center for Responsive Politics calculates a U.S. senator’s average estimated wealth was $13.2 million in 2010, and a U.S. House member’s was $5.9 million. The median American household pulls in about $54,000 per year. —ARK
Per Square Mile:
To determine the size of the Roman economy and the distribution of income, historians Walter Schiedel 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. 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.
To arrive at that number, they broke down Roman society into its established and implicit classes. Deriving income for the majority of plebeians required estimating the amount of wheat they might have consumed. From there, they could backtrack to daily wages based on wheat costs (most plebs did not have much, if any, discretionary income). Next they estimated the incomes of the “respectable” and “middling” sectors by multiplying the wages of the bottom class by a coefficient derived from a review of the literature. The few “respectable” and “middling” Romans enjoyed comfortable, but not lavish, lifestyles.