Friday, 30 December 2011

The History "They" Don't Want You to Know: Inequality Worse in 21st Century America than 2nd Century Rome?

The collectors of portableized dugup antiquities claim that they are able to use the material 'liberated' from the archaeological record to tell unfettered the history that "they" (the Other) want to "control". What is this "history" one might ask, and where can the manifestations of this subversive historiography be seen? On that, the collectors, dealers and dealers' lobbyists tend to be rather silent.

One such piece of what potentially might be such a semi-anarchic use of historiography is highlighted in a text on Dan Shoup's Archaeopop, "Ruins of the 1%: Inequality Worse in 21st Century America than 2nd Century Rome?" which parallels recent "Occupy Wall Street" sentiments with the results of a piece of recent research by Walter Schiedel and Steven Friesen published in the Journal of Roman Studies which suggests that income inequality in the United States today is slightly worse than in the Roman Empire in the 2nd century AD. The two authors (classics scholars from Stanford and Texas) attempt the difficult task of measuring ancient Rome's GDP, wages, and income distribution.
By their calculations, 10% of the population went hungry, 74% had income 1-1.5 times basic subsistence, and 14% had a 'respectable' income between 1.7 and 10 times basic subsistence. The top 1.5% controlled 15-25% of total income, the next 10% another 15-25%, while the bottom 90% split the remaining half or so of all income. This works out to a Gini coefficient (a measure of income inequality, with 1 being perfect inequality and 0 being perfect equality) of 0.42-0.44. By this measure the Roman Empire was actually less unequal than some other pre-modern societies, like 18th-century Britain or France (0.52-0.59) - but only because these societies were richer overall. (You need larger surpluses to foster larger inequality.) Tim de Chant at Per Square Mile (a fantastic geography blog) places this research in context, noting that the Gini coefficient of the United States is now 0.45 and rising: more unequal than a pre-modern empire famous for its oligarchs and mass enslavement.
The geographer's thoughts on the results of this work are interesting. He notes that Schiedel and Friesen make a provocative point:
[...] that the majority of extant Roman ruins resulted from the economic activities of the top 10 percent. “Yet the disproportionate visibility of this ‘fortunate decile’ must not let us forget the vast but—to us—inconspicuous majority that failed even to begin to share in the moderate amount of economic growth associated with large-scale formation in the ancient Mediterranean and its hinterlands.” In other words, what we see as the glory of Rome is really just the rubble of the rich, built on the backs of poor farmers and laborers, traces of whom have all but vanished. It’s as though Rome’s 99 percent never existed.
To find the evidence of the lives and factors affecting the remaining 90% , the archaeologist would need to include the information from detailed field survey and rural settlement studies - precisely the sites which are being trashed and eroded in places like Britain by the removal of artefacts by collectables hunters armed with metal detectors. It is the history of the 90% which is being removed for their own entertainment and profit by a selfish minority (much less than 0.1% of the modern population).

What is interesting in the context of the current blog is that the original study was carried out largely on the basis it seems of the written sources, with numismatic evidence (such as coin loss on different types of sites, or coin wear indicating intensity of circulation, hoard evidence) was apparently not used at all to write the economic history - surely the one field numismatics might be expected to be making an impact on scholarship of the classical world. I'd be interested in learning to what degree the paper of Scheidel and Friesen has been discussed in professional (or amateur) numismatic circles in the English-speaking world, and what contributions they made to the debate. If any, of course. It is clear that if the majority of the "data sources" available to "numismatics" are no longer in their primary associations but circulating loose on a no-questions-asked market, it limits the amount of analysis one can do of the sort of data needed to answer these questions. In addition, the main notion of history that these people seem to subscribe is one of the "kings and battles" - the history of the "1%" - suggested by the iconography of and texts on the material rather than more basic social questions. It seems to me that instead of "writing history", these people are simply destroying the possibilities of doing so.

Walter Scheidel and Steven J. Friesen 2009, 'The Size of the Economy and the Distribution of Income in the Roman Empire', Journal of Roman Studies 99: pp 61-91


Cultural Property Observer said...

I think you are betraying your anti-American and leftist sensibilities here. Well, wasn't 2nd C. Rome the highpoint of the Empire and a time during which the gap between rich and poor was probably less than before or after? Also, you would really need to look at their underlying data to see if this study really makes sense. As to the US, one can argue that any change in relative wealth between rich and poor has more to do with the effects of globalization (manufacturing moving abroad at the same time the US inundated with poor immigrants from Latin America) than anything else. Also, I'm not sure what this has to do with the archaeological record at all-- and in fact, aren't archaeologists the ones who can be criticised for spending too much time studying only the ruins of palaces, etc. to the exclusion of anything else? And, accordingly doesn't the PAS give us a window to what would be found out in rural areas had archaeologists actually focused their efforts there as opposed to where elites lived?

Paul Barford said...

Odd, when I actually cite an example of the sort of "history "they" want to control" you dimisss it. So what kind of "history" does Mr Sayles have in mind then? I guess we'll be left wondering.

Yes, I think the second century differs from the two that followed, but I guess they chose it as a sort of iconic period, the Five Good Emperors and all that and also the sources that illustrated the issues they wanted to discuss. Rome of course had its own immigrants.

I do not think archaeologists spend too much time on palaces when you have huge rural survey projects (some of them by US archaeologists) in Italy and other areas of the Mediterranean world, not to mention the UK. No, PAS offers absolutely NO "window" since all it contains are loose objects, no information on the type of site they are found on and in what associations. As a basis for any discussion of social themes, the evidence is quite simply lacking.

but I note your total disregard of the point that I made that in contrast to the "Numismatics uber alles" approach of US heap-of-coins-on-a-table coin fondlers, little coin-based information was used in the original study. I would have expected a comment on that. Perhaps numismatics really do not have as much to offer contemporary scholarship as much as you lot make out. Certainly not enough to justify the manner in which ancient artefacts are hunted down and are dug up and traded like potatoes.

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