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The Size of the Economy and the Distribution of Income in the Roman Empire*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 March 2010

Walter Scheidel
Department of Classics, Stanford University,
Steven J. Friesen
Department of Religious Studies, The University of Texas at Austin,
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Different methods of estimating the Gross Domestic Product of the Roman Empire in the second century C.E. produce convergent results that point to total output and consumption equivalent to 50 million tons of wheat or close to 20 billion sesterces per year. It is estimated that élites (around 1.5 per cent of the imperial population) controlled approximately one-fifth of total income, while middling households (perhaps 10 per cent of the population) consumed another fifth. These findings shed new light on the scale of economic inequality and the distribution of demand in the Roman world.

Copyright © Walter Scheidel and Steven J. Friesen 2009. Exclusive Licence to Publish: The Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies


* We are grateful to Peter Bang, Saskia Hin, Branko Milanovic, Richard Saller, Peter Temin, Greg Woolf, and several anonymous referees for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. We also wish to thank Brandon Cline and Trevor Thompson for their contributions to the session on ‘Demography and the Economy of the Early Roman Empire’ at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Diego, CA, on 17 November 2007, that inspired this paper.