Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Inequality - the 99% in ancient times

The level of social inequality is on the rise in modern society, and we increasingly hear about the "One percent" and the "Ninety-nine percent." What were the patterns of inequality in ancient cities and their societies? This is a big topic, and I will just touch on a few aspects here. As with many urban topics, I believe that a better understanding of ancient forms of inequality can only improve our understanding of modern patterns. In this post I will make three points: (1) inequality was greater in ancient states than it is today; (2) ancient states had two social classes; and (3) inequality was regarded as the normal condition of the world.

1. Inequality was greater in ancient states than it is today.

 Although it is difficult to make precise quantitative comparisons, most scholars agree that the level of inequality in wealth and power was much greater in premodern states than it is today. The best study of inequality through history is still Gerhard Lenski's book, Power and Privilege (1966). Lenski shows that the level of inequality varied greatly through prehistory and history (see the chart above). He proposes a theory that the level of inequality is determined by two major factors: the size of the available surplus (determined by resources, technology, and social organization), and the level of concentration of power. The powerful kings of ancient states ruled over societies with high levels of inequality. The diagram is from Collins (1988, p.156), and a nice brief discussion of Lenski's theory is found in Collins (2004).

In the diagram, the highest levels of inequality (and concentration of power) came in what Lenski calls agrarian societies: these are ancient states plus more recent states prior to the Industrial Revolution. In modern times, the overall level of inequality has dropped, and that decline actually started in Roman times. Since the Roman Empire, the amount of economic surplus has risen greatly, but inequality has declined, largely because of the rise of more democratic governments. (This diagram only shows the broad outlines of history, and it is not meant to be accurate on a detailed scale, such as for the recent past).

2. Ancient states had two social classes -- elite and commoner.

Although there was much variation in the expression of inequality and patterns of social stratification among ancient states, one generalization stands out: most of these societies were divided into two social classes. (see my prior post on whether ancient cities had a middle class or not).Sometimes there was mobility between classes, and sometimes class boundaries were fixed by law and custom. The caste system of India was a particularly closed system of stratification, whereas mobility was easier in Roman society.  For more information see Trigger (2003) or Sjoberg (1960).

3. Severe inequality was regarded as the normal condition of the world.

Medieval peasants paying their taxes
In the words of Bruce Trigger, “inequality [in early states] was regarded as a normal condition and injustice as a personal misfortune or even as an individual’s just deserts rather than as a social evil.” (p.142). And, “The general pervasiveness of inequality ensured that its legitimacy went unquestioned.” (142). The medieval peasants in the above woodcut (from 1488) may not have been happy about paying taxes to their lord, but they rarely questioned the legitimacy of his position. For more discussion of this, see M.G. Smith (1966) or works by Charles Tilly (1998, 2001). Tilly has developed (in my opinion)  the best general theory for how inequality works in society. Most of his examples are from modern society, but his theory applies to the ancient world as well.

I don't have any grand conclusion to offer about ancient inequality. It is important not to draw simplistic implications from this kind of information. For example, the fact that inequality today is lower than it was in ancient Egypt or Rome does not mean that we should diminish the importance of rising inequality. In modern society, high levels of inequality generate many social (and moral) problems (Wilkinson and  Pickett 2009). A better knowledge about how inequality worked in the past, however, can help us understand modern inequality, and may even suggest some possible solutions


Collins, Randall
1988    Theoretical Sociology. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Hew York.

2004    Lenski's Power Theory of Economic Inequality: A Central Neglected Question in Stratification Research. Sociological Theory 22(2):219-228.

Lenski, Gerhard E.
1966    Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification. Edited by New York, McGraw-Hill.

Sjoberg, Gideon
1960    The Preindustrial City: Past and Present. The Free Press, New York.

Smith, M. G.
1966    Pre-Industrial Stratification Systems. In Social Structure and Mobility in Economic Development, edited by Neil J. Smelser and Seymour M. Lipset, pp. 141-176. Aldine, Chicago.

Tilly, Charles
1998    Durable Inequality. University of California Press, Berkeley.

2001    Relational Origins of Inequality. Anthropological Theory 1(3):355-372.

Trigger, Bruce G.
2003    Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study. Cambridge University Press, New York.
Wilkinson, Richard G. and Kate Pickett
2009    The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. Bloomsbury Press, New York.


  1. As someone who has at one time looked at the Greek polis from a social science perspective, I'm sure you can appreciate that I have some reservations about 2 & 3. Whereas I would merely note the possibility of a multi-class society in the polis rather than a two-class based model, I particularly take a strong exception to 3. For immediately when a textual record emerges that is not controlled by a scribal class associated with the state, it tends to be highly critical of those in power. So much is clear from Hesiod and his take on the 'crooked basileis' (kings). A criticism that could be backed up with violent action in several known cases of stasis (civil strife) and large-scale murder on part of both democrats and oligarchs.

    I haven't read this part of Tilley's work, though, and I'm sure there is something to the idea that inequality can sustain itself in different ways. There are clear ways to channel rebellious attitudes through ritual as well, as with the Saturnalia and the carnival. I think this points to an underlying tension associated with inequality.

  2. There is a big problem of data and methods here. My 3 points are generalizations, based on poor data. Good comparative data on ancient inequality simply do not exist. So I rely on a few scholars whom I know to be rigorous thinkers with a broad command of comparative data on early states. Bruce Trigger is the best authority here, and Max Weber had very insightful observations about a more limited sample of ancient societies. Lenski is also very good.

    There is much variation among premodern states, and my 3 points are empirical generalizations, not universalistic statements. Some negative examples (from Greece) do not invalidate the three points. If there are exceptions to my third point, I would guess that they tend to occur in societies with a more collective, less despotic, form of government (as discussed by Blanton and Fargher 2008, Collective Action in the Formation of Pre-Modern States), and Greece fits this notion.

    But right now, with a lack of systematic comparative research, it is impossible to draw any rigorous conclusions. So I step back and use Trigger, Weber, et al. as sources of hypotheses.

    I have looked in vain for a research on social stratification and inequality in Classical Greece that takes a comparative perspective, or employs social science models and concepts (apart from Ste Croix 1981, The Class Struggle in Ancient Greece). If you have any suggestions I'd be grateful.

  3. Yes, I see your point on the more collective polities being more susceptible to this. I also think Trigger distinguished between early civilizations and the kind of states and empires that emerged in Eurasia in the first millennium BC.I still think that the record of almost all early civilizations is biased with regard to point 3, because art and writing would be controlled by the class in control of the system.

    Some references that might be of use (all predate 2006, when I finished my MA, and biased toward survey/ecological aspects):

    Bintliff, J.L., 1997 ‘Regional survey, demography, and the rise of complex societies in the ancient Aegean: core-periphery, neo-Malthusian and other interpretive models.’ Journal of Field Archaeology, vol. 24, pp. 1-38.

    Bintliff, J.L., 2006 'Solon's Reforms: an archeological perspective', in Solon of Athens: new historical and philological approaches, eds. J. Blok and A. Lardinois (Brill, Leiden 2006)

    Fisher, N., 2000 ‘Hybris, revenge and stasis in the Greek city-states.’ pp. 83-123 in Van Wees, H. (ed.) War and violence in ancient Greece. Duckworth/Classical Press of Wales, London.

    (Good take on stasis as civil strife.)

    Foxhall, L., 1997 ‘A view from the top: evaluating the Solonian property classes.’ pp. 113-136 in Mitchell, L.G. & Rhodes, P.J. (eds.) The development of the polis in Archaic Greece. Routledge, London.

    Foxhall, L., 2002 ‘Access to resources in Classical Greece: the egalitarianism of the polis in practice.’ pp. 209-220 in Cartledge, P.A., Cohen, E.E. & Foxhall, L. (eds.) Money, labour and land: approaches to the economies of ancient Greece. Routledge, London.

    Grinin, L.E., 2004 ‘Early state and democracy.’ pp. 419-463 in Grinin, L.E. (ed.) The early state: its alternatives and analogues. Uchitel Publishing House, Volgograd.

    Halstead, P., 1995 ‘Plough and power: the economic and social significance of cultivation with the ox-drawn ard in the Mediterranean.’ Bulletin of Sumerian Agriculture, vol. 8, pp. 11-22.

    (Very good to grasp the agricultural basis of economic power in the Mediterranean.)

    Hansen, M.H., 2000 ‘The Hellenic polis.’ pp. 141-187 in Hansen, M.H. (ed.) A comparative study of thirty city-state cultures. C.A. Reitzels Forlag, Copenhagen.

    (He has lots of other articles and books, including a huge inventory that also has interesting analytical sections.)

    Jameson, M.H., 1994 ‘Class in the ancient Greek countryside.’ pp. 55-63 in Doukellis, P.N. & Mendoni, L.G. (eds.) Structures rurales et sociétés antiques. Actes du colloque de Corfou (14-16 mai 1992). Diff. par Les Belles Lettres, Paris.

    Luraghi, N. & Alcock, S.E. (eds.), 2003 Helots and their masters in Laconia and Messenia. Histories, ideologies and structures. Harvard University Press, London.

    (very good book, several papers take a comparative perspective)

    Morris, I., 1997 ‘An archaeology of equalities? The Greek city-states.’ pp. 91-105 in Nichols, D.L. & Carlton, T.H. (eds.) The archaeology of city-state cultures: cross-cultural perspectives. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington.

    (best statement of his on class structure in Greek polis, also has papers online at Princeton/Stanford Working papers in Classics. His 2000 book is somewhat preoccupied with culture history))

    Raaflaub, K.A., 1997 ‘Soldiers, citizens and the evolution of the early Greek polis.’ pp. 49-59 in Mitchell, L.G. & Rhodes, P.J. (eds.) The development of the polis in Archaic Greece. Routledge, London.

    Snodgrass, A.M., 1987-89 ‘The rural landscape and its political significance.’ Opus, vol. 6-8, pp. 53-70.

    Van Wees, H., 1999 ‘The mafia of early Greece: violent exploitation in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.’ pp. 1-51 in Hopwood, K. (ed.) Organised crime in antiquity. Duckworth, London.

    (Van Wees is the expert on violence in the period of the emergence of the polis)

  4. Marcus-

    This is very helpful. While there seem to be lots of relevant studies, I am still struck by the absence of a systematic analysis of Greek inequality or social class. I guess it is not much different from other regions, where scholars have tended to avoid explicit work on inequality for a couple of decades, probably due to intellectual fashion (including the influence of postmodernism).

  5. Yes, postmodernism has an interesting relation to the lack of such work (as explored by Trigger in his article on the 'integrated circus' and archaeological theory).

    Joyce Marcus and Kent Flannery have a book out this month titled 'The creation of inequality':


  6. With regards to India, wouldn't each caste (of which there were many) be considered its own (closed) 'class'? And in regards to Rome, etc., wouldn't it be fair to say that, since mobility between classes was NOT immediate (in other words, one could not 'jump' between classes in the bat of an eye-- and this is still true even today), that there HAD to be some form of an 'intermediate class' (a transition zone, if you will) between the two main classes?

  7. I'm not fond of indirect arguments that there "had to have been" some particular social group or institutions. Fred Hicks made that argument for the Aztecs; (1) Any elite class needs an intermediate class to be servants. (2) The Aztecs had an elite class. (3) Therefore, the Aztecs had a middle class. Well, the servants were members of the commoner class, which invalidates Hicks's argument (for the Aztecs). As for India, and many other societies as well, society was very complex and I am oversimplifying greatly to talk about two classes. The difficult thing is to decide whether a given simplification (e.g., two classes) does more to help our understanding of a complex situation, or to distort it. Any simplification does both, and finding the balance is tough.

  8. That's sort of the point-- I believe that the oversimplification clearly distorts the issue. While it may make sense for "Class Analysis 101" (for 1st term college students), a truly scholarly discussion ("Class Analysis 201" or beyond, for seniors and/or juniors) would necessitate further distinctions such as those made above. (Which, in some cases, apparently has NOT been made for ancient societies as best as we can determine. Perhaps someone-- not me, though-- could write their Ph.D. thesis on such class distinctions in, say, Carthage-- since it was a 'satellite' of Rome for several centuries after Rome's conquest of the area c. 200 BCE).

  9. The lack of a comprehensive and systematic analysis of inequality across space and time is a real problem for comparative social analysis (that is, an analysis including the ancient world, non-western societies, etc.).