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In the Roman Empire's GDP per capita was less than in any modern country
Material posted: Publication date: 29-10-2017
How much changes in 2000 years. The map above shows the GDP per capita in the 14th year of our era in various provinces of the Roman Empire in international dollars of 1990. The average GDP per capita of the population throughout the Empire was a mere $570.

This makes the average Roman in 14-year poorer the average person in any country in the world in 2015. How is that possible?

According to the world Bank, Democratic Republic of the Congo, is today the poorest nation, and its GDP per capita in international dollars of 1990 was $766 in 2012. It turns out that today the average inhabitant of the Congo 34% richer than the average inhabitant of the Roman Empire in the 14th year.

However, as the map shows, GDP per capita differed greatly in Empire. In Italy, the former heart of the Empire in the 14th year, the average GDP per capita is estimated at $857, which is more than in the Congo. This, in particular, was caused by the fact that the taxes flowed from the periphery to the center, and the concentration of the elite, who lived in Rome or nearby.

The poorest province of the Empire was two times poorer, which resulted in the decrease of the mean value. Interestingly, this comparative income inequality of the Roman provinces can be observed in modern States.

According to the Bureau of economic analysis U.S., state of Delaware, the highest value of GDP per capita, $61 183 in 2012, and in Mississippi for less than half this value, $28 944. And Washington of the district of Columbia this number is $145 663 – five times more than the Mississippi. [The author says about the state of Delaware, although in the table it refers to, the first place is Alaska; $73 478 in 2012-m year, or 2.3 times more than in Mississippi. The average GDP per capita in the US for 2012 is $48 173 / approx. transl.]

How is it that the people of today's poorest countries, on average the richer people in one of the greatest empires in history?

From a political point of view, since the existence of the Roman Empire there were several changes:

Independence: most of the countries/States that were part of the Empire, was transformed from colonies into a legally independent country, which means they no longer need to make deductions foreign invaders. However, debt in many countries is one of the main problems.

Approx. transl.: for example, according to the world Bank for 2016, the largest foreign debt per capita of Italy is on the 27th place, the debt — $35 724; United States – 21 debt — $56 561. Russia is not included in the list of the largest debtors, for it is the amount of debt per capita is $3 649. In the first place of the list is Luxembourg, the debt — $6 603 743; however, it depends on the nature of the activities of this tiny state as offshore, the EU engaged in financial services. In second place in the list is Ireland, with a debt per capita $441 302.

The end of slavery: although in the world today slavery is found too oftenin all countries, it is illegal. Conversely, the Roman Empire was a slave state, and slavery played an important role in the economy. [There is an opinionthat today slavery exists, just in other, subtle forms / approx. transl.] But this is still not enough to explain the difference in income between today's people and the inhabitants of the Roman Empire 2000 years ago. More important are the other two changes.

Science and technology: the first factor is a major breakthrough in science and technology over the past 2000 years. Although the Romans were able to build such engineering marvels as roads and aqueducts, they would not know what to do with a mobile phone. And the speed of diffusion increases.

For example, in Zimbabwe (the second-poorest country) mobile phones morethan people. Combine this with the huge improvements in agriculture that have occurred over the last 2000 years, and even the poorest economies of the world seem more productive than Rome.

Health: the expected average life expectancy in the Roman Empire was equal to about 25 years, in particular, due to the high infant mortality rates, reaching 15-35%. Today, the minimum life expectancy of 38 years, exists in Sierra Leone, and a maximum infant mortality, 14-19% in Afghanistan. [The maximum life expectancy, according to the 2015 year in Japan, Switzerland and Singapore, more than 83 years; in Italy, by the way, is also considerable – 82.7 years / approx. transl.]

So even people living in countries with the worst health indicators are likely to live longer and see more of their children surviving to adulthood than Roman in ' 14. However, this does not mean that we can't do more by making donations to humanitarian organizations such as "Red cross" and "Doctors without borders".


You may be wondering, how is it possible to calculate and compare GDP per capita for countries that existed 2000 years ago. The instructions on the card the figures are taken from historian Angus Maddison, who used records of Sesterces for the calculation of equivalent values.

He also suggested that the population of the Empire in the 14th year was 44 million people (according to other estimates, it could reach 60 million) – so all this is, at best, a guess based on the data. On the page about the Roman economy in the Wikipedia has more information on this.

It is interesting to note that, in addition to Italy, the richest province of the Empire was Egypt, and the regions that today belong to France, was one of the poorest. But given the GDP per capitaof the three regions, the richest were France ($40 375), followed by Italy ($35 486), and Egypt has only $10 of 877, approximately four times less than France (and 16 times bigger than it was 2000 years ago).

Those who read to the end of the article, is entitled to the prize in the form of cards with different trade routes in the Roman Empire 180-year, which is painted the types of goods and resources produced in different parts of the Empire. It can explain why some regions are richer than others.

Books on the subject

Contours of the World Economy 1-2030 AD: Essays in Macro-Economic History (including the basis for that article of the card)
The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Economy
The Roman Market Economy

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