Empires of Inequality: Ancient China and Rome

21 Pages Posted: 2 Aug 2016

Date Written: August 1, 2016


This paper analyzes the dynamics of income and wealth inequality in two of the largest ancient empires, Han China and Rome. Pervasive structural similarities emerge from this comparative survey. In both cases, resource concentration at the top of society was greatly amplified by rent-seeking and predatory behavior that was commonly linked to privileged access to governmental functions and institutions. The exercise of or proximity to political power were crucial means of elite enrichment. Yet the same features also served to constrain the growth and persistence of large fortunes as the violent seizure and recirculation of elite wealth ensured ongoing redistribution within the ruling class and among its associates. In the long run, imperial stability was conducive to growing economic inequality.

Keywords: Ancient Rome, Han China, Ancient Empires, Inequality

JEL Classification: N10

Suggested Citation

Scheidel, Walter, Empires of Inequality: Ancient China and Rome (August 1, 2016). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2817173 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2817173

Walter Scheidel (Contact Author)

Stanford University ( email )

Stanford, CA 94305-2145
United States

HOME PAGE: http://www,stanford.edu/~scheidel

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