This has been reported quite widely in recent days, usually concentrating on the negative comparison with the modern USA (e.g. see the HuffPo link at the bottom). I’m not really qualified to comment on the methodology to determined the income distribution of the Roman empire as outlined below. However despite being a socialist, and grievously upset about the situation of the so-called “one percent” in modern society, I can’t really believe that Rome had less economic equality than any modern OECD nation. Rome was a pretty unequal place and wedded to a pretty snobby class system (despite that, some former slaves were able to become quite rich – and some senatorial families had to be given money by Augustus to meet his newly increased property qualifications for the Senate, e.g. see Suetonius Augustus 41). And I’m not quite sure a full distinction is being made here between income and asset valuations. But, I guess this is possible; maybe the on-going ‘financialistion’ of the entire economy since the 1980s (the one that created the sub-prime crisis) has resulted in these massive concentrations of wealth in a way that just was not possible in ancient Rome.
To determine the size of the Roman economy and the distribution of income, historians Walter Schiedel and Steven Friesen pored over papyri ledgers, previous scholarly estimates, imperial edicts, and Biblical passages. Their target was the state of the economy when the empire was at its population zenith, around 150 C.E. Schiedel and Friesen estimate that the top 1 percent of Roman society controlled 16 percent of the wealth, less than half of what America’s top 1 percent control.
(Via Huffington Post.)