How prosperous were the Romans? Their individual experiences ranged from wretched poverty to fabulous wealth, and that variety makes generalizations difficult. Many kinds of evidence can be used to address this question. Three approaches to the problem are particularly direct and encompassing. The first approach is to calculate the average income. This equals Gross Domestic Product divided by the population since GDP equals both the value of total production, and the sum of everyone’s income. The GDP approach is appealing since it ties income into the production structure and makes explicit the connection between the standard of living and the efficiency of agriculture and manufacturing.
The paper compares the standard of living of labourers in the Roman Empire in 301 AD with the standard of living of labourers in Europe and Asia from the middle ages to the industrial revolution. Roman data are drawn from Diocletian’s Price Edict. The real wage of Roman workers was like that of their counterparts in the lagging parts of Europe and much of Asia in the middle of the eighteenth century. Roman workers earned just enough to buy a minimal subsistence consumption basket. Real wages were considerably higher in the advanced parts of Europe in the eighteenth century, as they had been in Europe generally following the Black Death in 1348-9.
Working Paper, Oxford University, 2007