Was the difference in purchasing power between the poor and the wealthy in the Roman Empire, greater than or less than than the difference between rich and poor people in modern western economies?

Given the breadth in time and diversity in Gini coefficient in "modern western economies", the answer should probably focus on the methodology for reaching an answer, rather than specific values for the answer

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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is unanswerable. Commented May 13, 2014 at 22:09
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    1) You're projecting your image of contemporary class society backwards 2000 years, not acceptable. 2) "Buying power" is a concept that only develops in modern capitalism, similarly with "political regime" as you mean it, and also "wealth" and "accumulation." This question is so theoretically loaded with anachronism that it can't be answered. Its impossible to construct a meaningful wage price series back to England's monestaries with very good wage / price records for theoretical reasons. The 2000 year run is impossible. Ask about the meaning of wealth and poverty in Rome instead. Commented May 13, 2014 at 22:12
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    worse, even today "poverty" is hardly defined, and certainly not by buying power or the amount of money one has. E.g. visiting an on paper dirt poor village in central Asia a few years ago I found the people not lacking in anything except modern communications (there was but one TV and one phone in the village). And in the modern US and EU, people are considered poor who have multiple cars, wide screen televisions, etc. etc..
    – jwenting
    Commented May 14, 2014 at 7:44
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    It's a fine question - comparative standards of living and class structure is a hot topic in history. The answers may kerfluffle some political ideologues on the right side of the spectrum, but that's never a bad thing. Commented May 14, 2014 at 13:01
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    The richest ancient Roman could not buy a cell phone, so they were poorer than everyone today.
    – Oldcat
    Commented May 15, 2014 at 22:17

2 Answers 2


It was more. In 2006 Walter Schiedel wrote an interesting working paper on Roman incomes ("New ways of studying incomes in the Roman economy") which you can find on the web. However, Schiedel's paper just scratches the surface.

When Cicero, a very frugal and honest man, ruled as governor of Cilicia, a relatively poor province, he made 2.1 million sesterces, or about 5500 ounces of gold. Today worth about $7 million USD. At this time an ordinary worker might make 10 asses a day, quite a good wage, which would come out to about $3,600 USD in modern gold terms by the same measure. This would be working "middle class" for a Roman. A poor person might have only enough to scrape by, maybe $1,000 USD a year.

Roman patricians would have dozens, if not hundreds, of servants. How many rich people do you know now who have more than 12 servants?

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    How many companies do you know now who have more than 12 employees?
    – liftarn
    Commented May 13, 2014 at 11:11
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    Rich people may not hire many servants now, but someone who makes 1000 times the median wage (eg, $40 million/year) is taking advantage of the labor of 1000 people, even if he does it indirectly through buying physical goods or if he purchases services at a resort. Commented May 13, 2014 at 11:39
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    I'm not sure what supports your conclusion "it was more." The richest people today make more than 2000x the median wage. E.g., Yanukovich's family amassed perhaps at least $10 billion in a few years in a country where $3600 is still the middle class wage. Lots of Americans make more than $80 million (2000 x 40,000) today, or else we'd hardly have any billionaires. Commented May 13, 2014 at 11:48
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    While not slaves, babysitters, gardeners, maids, stylists, fashion designers, architects, etc all could be construed to be working in a Rich person's interest nowadays. Commented May 13, 2014 at 13:46
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    Gold by weight isn't an acceptable purchasing power parity measure and the very meanings of purchase have changed so significantly that it is worthless to attempt a PPP measure across two thousand years. Commented May 13, 2014 at 22:10

In finding reliable resources to answer this question I stumbled upon Author Mayer, Emanuel. The ancient middle classes : urban life and aesthetics in the Roman Empire, 100 BCE-250 CE. It contains a clear understanding of Roman class structure from both a social and economic perspective and it comes with data, which, if used to compare with data about current societies (Piketty's book on Capital in XXI century, for instance) could give you a solid understanding of the difference between the ancient and current social strata.

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    Mind to summarize or at least cherry-pick some number for people who do not stumble upon this essay/book/research paper of whatever it is?
    – Greg
    Commented Oct 13, 2015 at 1:16

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