How Social/Income Inequality and the Fall of Rome is Relevant Today

The adage goes that if we do not learn from our past than we are bound to repeat it. Nowhere is this clearer than when we look at the fall of the Roman Empire and the social and financial situations prior. Before the collapse of the Roman Empire, the top 1% of its population controlled over 16% of its wealth. The Gini coefficient; which measures the level of income disparity in a society where 0 is perfectly equal and 1 is perfectly unequal, measured Rome at an incredibly high 0.43[1].

Diocletian’s Palace, Croatia. Built at the turn of the 4th century for Roman emperor Diocletian.

Further compounding the issue was that wealthy Romans increasingly removed themselves from cities and positions of power as they saw the first signs of collapse from the edges of the empire. This is made very clear in the archaeological record where before the end of the Roman Empire there was a large spike in fortified villas far from cities and people[2].“Their disinclination to lead may have been caused by forced exactions, confiscations, business concerns, tax pressured, or general economic fears, which made protecting one’s own interests seem more prudent than looking out for the interests of others.”[3] In their selfishness the upper class romans abandoned their people when they needed them most, only further destabilizing Rome.

Worsening matters was the fact that Rome had been built on expansion, militarism, and the spoils of war. “Being Roman eventually meant being whatever wealth said it was, and shorn of the old ties that kept the rich and poor together out of a mutual sense of common destiny, they soon turned on one another.”[4] Soldiers and common citizens could no longer trust that they would get what was “theirs” as the ruling upper-class tended to keep all of their wealth to themselves while maintaining slaves who did all of the work of the typical middle working class. All that was left for citizens and soldiers was economic squalor as wealth continued to be inherited by the rich, and labor was taken by the slaves of war.

Rendition of daily life in Pompeii showing interaction between upper and lower class peoples.

These are just a couple reasons for the fall of Rome, but what is perhaps most terrifying about the fall are the corollaries to today. The Unites States of America has a Gini coefficient of .45, and 40% of the wealth is controlled by the top 1% of the population.[5] By every metric, the United States is even more divided and unfair than Rome before its fall. The effects are perfectly evident as well as there is increasing inclination from the rich to build fallout bunkers and withdraw from civilization and politics just as the roman elites did centuries before. Worsening matters is the evidence of extreme racism towards migrant workers who like slaves in Rome “take the labor from the hardworking middle class”. Increasingly the middle class shrinks as social unrest and bigotry grows. It is a scary combination that, if we aren’t careful, could spell the end of civilization as we know it, just like it did for the Romans centuries before.




[2] Ermatinger, James William. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Greenwood Press, 2004, Page 58.

[3] Ermatinger, James William. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Greenwood Press, 2004, Page 58.



Picture Sources:

Diocletian’s Palace, Croatia. This heavily fortified palace was built at the turn of the 4th century for Roman emperor Diocletian. The massive palace was protected by large walls with numerous towers. Some times, it housed over 9000 people. I’ll post more in the comments. from castles

Reading Thomas Piketty: A Critical Essay

Further Reading: 

Income inequality in the Roman Empire


What Pottery Can Teach Us About Ancient Pueblo Cultures

One of my fondest memories is of travelling down to Mesa Verde National Park and being given pottery shards to piece back together like a puzzle. For many archaeologists, this seemingly fun task is actually of monumental importance to learn about ancient native Pueblo people.

One of the simplest yet important discoveries regarding pottery was how it was made. Using other artifacts found around old kilns made from dung, archaeologists have been able to deduce that Pueblo peoples made their pottery by making long coils of clay, stacking them, and then smoothing over the gaps with smooth pottery shards, and lastly firing them in a kiln heated by burning dung. They were then painted using a paste derived from boiled plants. This method is still used today making this discovery rather straightforward.

Modern Example of an Ancient Pueblo Kiln

Another extremely evident characteristic of the pottery is the varying color of the clay used. Pottery was made using either grey or red clay. This is immensely important because the base color was determined by the location of the tribes who made the pottery. Certain tribes in Utah made the red clay pottery not for its color but because their environment was naturally more rich in oxygen than that of their southern brethren. This environment would oxidize the iron in the clay during the firing process and turn the pot red. Examples of such pottery have however been found much farther south in Arizona, which is important because it provides evidence that the tribes traded amongst themselves.

Example of Ancient Pueblo Red Clay Pottery

Similarly interesting is that the designs showed clear examples of linearity. That is, almost all pottery from specific time periods shows similar designs like zigzags, animals, etc. These time periods have been proven by dating sites using the rings in timbers of surrounding structures. This is especially interesting because it shows that ancient native cultures, like those of today cared about conforming to societal definitions of beauty. Archaeologists do not know why tastes changed, but presently this is very helpful because the designs of pottery at sites are yet another tool to help date a site.

Another important distinction that can be made about ancient native potters is that they figured out many uses for their pottery. Lots of pottery that has been found actually has no designs and shows clear scorch marks showing that pottery was used to cook, not just for decoration, rituals, or storage like it mostly is used for today.

What is perhaps most amazing is I have not presented anywhere close to all of the insights pottery has given archaeologists into past cultures. Pottery is just as useful today for archaeologists as it was for the people who made it. Because of the importance of these artifacts to present cultures, and all of the information that they offer archaeologists, it is undoubtedly more important than ever that sites are excavated as scientifically as possible so as to best preserve evidence of the ancient cultures that we still have so much to learn about.


Picture Sources:

Further Readings:

Ortman, Scott (2006), “Ancient Pottery of the Mesa Verde Country: How Ancestral Pueblo People Made It, Used It, and Thought About It”, in Nobel, David Grant, The Mesa Verde World: Explorations in Ancestral Puebloan Archaeology, School of American Research Press, pp. 100–109, ISBN978-1-930618-75-6

Glowacki, Donna M.; Neff, Hector; Glascock, Michael D. (1998), “An Initial Assessment of the Production and Movement of Thirteenth Century Ceramic Vessels in the Mesa Verde Region”, Kiva, 63(3), pp. 217–41

Lang, Richard W. (2006), “Craft Arts of the Mesa Verde”, in Nobel, David Grant, The Mesa Verde World: Explorations in Ancestral Puebloan Archaeology, School of American Research Press, pp. 58–65, ISBN978-1-930618-75-6