The 99 Percent Movement effectively changed the American political debate from debt and deficits to income inequality, highlighting the fact that income inequality has increased so much in the U.S. that it is now more unequal than countries like Ivory Coast and Pakistan. While those numbers are startling, a study from two historians suggests that American wealth inequality may actually be worse than it was in Ancient Rome — a society built on slave labor, a defined class structure, and centuries of warfare and conquest.
In the United States, the top 1 percent controls roughly 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. According to the study, which examined Roman ledgers, previous estimates, imperial edicts, and Biblical passages, Rome’s top 1 percent controlled less than half that at the height of its economic power, as Tim De Chant notes at Per Square Mile:
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.
Of course, the millions of Romans at the bottom of the empire’s class structure — the conquered and enslaved, the poorest Romans, and the women who had little civic or economic empowerment — would probably disagree with the study’s conclusion. Still, it serves as yet another highlight of how large the income gap in the United States has become over the last three decades.