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Roman Empire per capita GDP shows the Romans were poorer than any 2015 country (brilliantmaps.com)
175 points by ThomPete 9 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 255 comments

This is common to all periods of the past: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_regions_by_past_GDP_(P...

Today, we take for granted that the production of each individual is greatly improved by machinery. We own multiple items of clothing, eat a varied diet, and live in homes of concrete heated and cooled by electricity. And this description applies to upcoming economies like Ukraine.

If you take the example of what a feudal Russian lived in the 1700, many built their own homes out of wood using an axe and wood from the forest, they would buy fabric and furs but had to make and mend their own clothes, they would hunt and work the land of their lord for sustinence. Their diet was restricted to seasons and death by famine and disease was rampant. The few coins they could accumulate went towards the purchase of must haves (metal tools, basic textiles, a furnace, and luxuries like animals). In winter, they would sleep on top of their furnace for heat, and their home was filled with smoke.

Urban centres were no different. The 1000sqft apartments we have today are 5-10x the size of dwellings in London or Paris during the same period. You can see this visiting the ruins of Rome too.

Life was tough but we forget how tough it was because most of us idealize the simpler times of the past.

> The 1000sqft apartments we have today

For people in the SI-world (most of the world) confused by this imperial-speak, this roughly equates to 93 square meters.

A 93m^2 flat in Paris today would cost you around 2500-3000 euros per month in rent, or around twice the minimum wage. It's probably not the best example for the democratization of large dwellings...

Indeed... In London flats are averaging 30-50 sqmt, depending on area. Shared flats are a totally different thing and don't know if that would have been a thing in the past (maybe?)

> are averaging 30-50 sqmt

That's still 1.6-5.3 times more than they used to be, according to the original claim. Seems less dramatic than 5-10x but for an apartment that already feels tiny, it's a lot.

This example clearly illustrates a superior point of basically all Freedom Units: you get more of them. More is more better.

You get less inches than cm. Less miles than km.

Not so free after all!

I was going to reply "fewer inches!" but then I realised that inches are (at least in principle) not discrete; half an inch is a perfectly reasonable measurement.

Anyone here know which of "less inches" or "fewer inches" is grammatically correct?

"fewer" is for things you can count.

Less length, but fewer inches.

> More is more better ... that's just simple science!

In the spirit of standardization, I think all systems of speaking besides American English should be made illegal in all countries. That way, no one will have to pay translators to unnecessarily switch back and forth between equivalent languages, or have to put up with any of those stupid British accents.

You can't deny the economic advantages of this. Who cares about losing cultural heritage? That's just for obstructionists like those filthy Americans. /s

Makes you wonder if Hunter gatherer times were better. Due to the much lower population densities than feudal times there would have been less famine I imagine.

Less famine, much more war. Population densities don't stay down on their own -- people can breed quite rapidly in good conditions. What happens is that population rises to the point where there is no longer enough food for everyone, and then territorial clashes start happening, until someone identifies a weak neighbor tribe and slaughters them. So everything is better until that week you're fighting for your life, and the life of everyone you know and love.

This is exactly how chimpanzees live today, and matches well with most of the archaeological remains we have of primordial hunter-gatherers. Our forebears lived very violent lives.

That sounds like a pretty good explanation for most conflicts up to the present day. We are just chimpanzees that wear clothes and can talk.

Don't forget our bizarre and inexplicable neoteny. We are the Peter Pans of the primate world.

> Our forebears lived very violent lives.

I've been reading some books on the subject that claim the contrary, also based on archaeological proofs (and on identifying faults with the existing studies). So I wouldn't state that with such confidence.

See RoboTeddy's comment for some details on this POV.

And also, if we look at bonobos, another primate closely related to us, we might get a completely different perspective on life in the distant past. It's just that we discovered chimpanzees first.

Actually, contrary to your claim, bonobos do wage war against each other. They behave very similarly to chimpanzees and humans, as they form coalitions and organize attacks to exterminate rival groups.

It appears that some people prefer to focus on a very specific behavioral trait pinned on bonobos (having sex with group members to diffuse conflicts) just because it fits their preconceived notion of an ideal outcome involving absence of conflicts in general and war in particular. Some people even pin the name "hippie ape" in what looks like a desperate attempt to validate their personal ideals. Yet, bonobos are indeed known for organizing attacks on neighboring primate groups for the express purpose of killing and even eating them.

I wasn't claiming anything, just providing a different perspective (see the "might" in my sentence).

But could you please shed some light on this sentence:

> Yet, bonobos are indeed known for organizing attacks on neighboring primate groups

Are those primates other bonobos? That could be called going to war. If not, it's called hunting: those other primates are just food. It's not like we go to war against whatever other animals we are eating.

There's Lynn Saxon's book The Naked Bonobo that debunks a lot of popular myths about Bonobos - https://www.amazon.com/Naked-Bonobo-Lynn-Saxon/dp/1523945516

To the parent's comment though, bonobos don't actually form patrols and they tend to avoid contact with other groups, so intra-group conflict is lower for bonobos than chimpanzees.

I've been reading some books on the subject that claim the contrary

Could you please cite the names of one or two of those books? I'll start by citing "War Before Civilization" and "Social Conquest of Earth" as in the camp of "our forbears lived very violent lives".

> What happens is that population rises to the point where there is no longer enough food for everyone, and then territorial clashes start happening, until someone identifies a weak neighbor tribe and slaughters them.

I'm not saying you're wrong, but that's a hell of a simplification. Do you have sources for your two sentence summary of 250,000 years of human pre-history?

If you're curious about this, I'd recommend reading accounts of hunter-gatherer lives written by anthropologists! This book is fascinating in many ways: http://voidnetwork.gr/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/The-Dobe-Ju...

In particular:

* Level of food security (very high -- people only bothered to keep 3 days of food on hand, since it was so easy to get more)

* Their social living arrangements (persistent "living groups" of 10-ish people, multiple of which might be camping around the same water hole at a given time. so there's a collection of people you're often around that rarely changes, and then other groups you see and live with for a time periodically)

* Reasons why their population didn't explode despite lack of contraceptives (no crops --> no e.g. maize that can be turned into mash for kids --> kids breastfeed for years longer, which apparently acts as a contraceptive.

As others are saying, life undoubtedly was quite different for hunter-gatherers in other regions.

> * Reasons why their population didn't explode despite lack of contraceptives (no crops --> no e.g. maize that can be turned into mash for kids --> kids breastfeed for years longer, which apparently acts as a contraceptive.

Actually, it's far more probable that population were kept low because everyone got killed at a very high rate compared with the rate of reproduction. With no medical care to treat diseases of wounds and with both man and nature invested in killing off people, population growth tends to be kept low.

Read the The Life and Adventures of William Buckley [0] for an understanding of what hunter-gather life was like. No starvation, no disease, lots of children and yet a static population.

0. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Buckley_(convict)

Systematic anthropologic research over more than a decade (in the case of this particular society), including interviews with everyone about the number of violent killings in the past, disagrees.

Malnutrition and starvation also have a strong impact on ovulation rate.

There are quality-of-living trade offs.

May I warmly recommend Yuval Harari's "Sapiens": https://www.amazon.com/Sapiens-Humankind-Yuval-Noah-Harari/d...

It discusses this and other issues related to the cultural evolution of our species at length. Some of his views into modern life are especially eye opening.

Hunter gatherer times were certainly not superior to today. That's a pervasive myth.


While nobility is bullshit, better nutrition as evidenced by height and tooth remains is true, only catching up in the 20th century, except for the rich of course. Sorry I don't have a source. (The benefits of civilization may have only accrued to a small proportion of the population for most of history. )

Jared Diamond's essay The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race makes this argument quite convincingly: http://www.ditext.com/diamond/mistake.html

Jared Diamond is not an expert. He's a pop culture writer.

If you want to explore the other side to that old essay, try this: https://www.google.com/search?q=The+Worst+Mistake+in+the+His...

He's a physiologist, who moved to other disciplines, with a touch of anthropology. There are no experts-on-everything-human, of course, so that'll probably have to do for now. One can imagine better combinations for such a synthetic interdisciplinary topic, I agree - but there weren't a lot of other volunteers. Academia likes narrow specialists. No need to falsely disparage him as a self-appointed writer whose only credential is popularity, it isn't true.

"After graduating from Cambridge, Diamond returned to Harvard as a Junior Fellow until 1965, and, in 1968, became a professor of physiology at UCLA Medical School. While in his twenties he developed a second, parallel, career in ornithology and ecology, specialising in New Guinea and nearby islands." - Wikipedia

I'm not convinced by that call to authority. For example, what about Larry Summers? https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Summers

Do you dispute his position on women in science? Or, should we take his position as correct for the same reasons that you list.

I did not say his only credit was popularity. I said he's a pop-writer, as opposed to, say, a peer reviewed expert in the domain.

In any case, my primary request is that people consider the long list of refutations to the claims in his mass-market publications.

It should not be a call to authority. The only thing that matters are the individual arguments he exposes in the books, not the fact he's not an expert.

And history has also shown some experts can be wrong when the paradigm change of new ideas is too big.

However, and I say this is particularly important: all refutations I have read about his work focus on some particular detail, they are of the type: 'this number is wrong'. Of course it can be, he's speculating. And that's the easy part to fix! Just change the number in his argument with the correct one. Be constructive.

But I have never read a refutation that says: 'this line of reasoning is wrong'.

In fact, his work has been cited as an inspiration for 'Sapiens', which is a current best seller and it follows the same modus operandi.

If you're genuinely curious in reading a refutation, then you should read through the 10-year-old HN discussion linked above.

Or, try googling. For example, here is a relevant discussion on NPR: http://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2013/01/14/169374400/why-do...

As ever HackerNews discussed this ten years ago:


(Tichy’s karma is just 110 short)

Would be fun to do a serious analysis of HN discussion, on the same topic, separated by 10 years. I don't mean identifying the occurrence -- I mean various characteristics of the discussion.

For example, perhaps certain facts have been more/less passionately supported after 10 years. Also aspects like tone.

Ordered this book but haven't touched it yet:


Doesn't look too happy to me -- maybe because I'm over 30 and would be dead. Also, I loved my mother (who is dead) -- but at least she didn't die in childbirth.


Life expectancy at birth was low because of high children mortality. If you've made it to adolescence, you could expect to live 50-80 years.


Losing many of my children, wives, and loved ones sure would make me sad.

It would surely make you sad, if you had time-traveled there. If you had been living there, you probably would be a bit more fatalistic and willing to accept untimely deaths as a part of natural order, having no experience of better life.

Does your logic also apply to the millions of people living in slavery and profound poverty today?

I concede that people adjust their expectations to norms that surround them. But I also feel there are certain floors in the human condition -- the death of a child being one of those rock bottoms.

Weak effort of combining "is true" with "don't have a source."

The noble savage is just a fictional trope. No one denies that people in past times had materially worse-off lives than we do today. But they probably had more freedom. In medieval times, you might have half of the year off for vacation: http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2013/08/29/why-a-medie.... You could largely do what you wanted, were not surveilled, and could live on your own as long as others around you weren't disturbed. The point isn't that it was a superior way of life, but it evokes a qualitative perspective on life. Would you rather live in perfect health for 100 years in prison, or as a diabetic paraplegic in the outside world for 40? What about 20? What about a prison that was full of your closest friends, versus a world of your enemies? Quality of life defies a mere "but healthcare, science, infrastructure etc. is better today!" metric that everyone on HN seems to stick to. There are profound cultural changes that we can't assess objectively. Culturally, emotionally, we may be worse off today. Our 60 years of wage slavery in windowless offices might seem unconscionable to a medieval peasant drinking mead all day by a stream with his friends, even if he ends up dying at 50.

That's a very romantic view of medieval times (link is broken, by the way). Half the year off for vacation? I hope you enjoy vacationing at home, because if you're a serf, you're going nowhere. If you're a noblewoman, you're as likely to be married off for politics as not. Women in general were markedly less free - barred from education, property, public life, so on and so forth.

To further your analogy, would you prefer to be a diabetic paraplegic in the modern era, or the medieval? Because you're not going to be able to medicate yourself with the insulin you need, and there's not much work for paraplegics to do if they're not born into money.

> Our 60 years of wage slavery in windowless offices might seem unconscionable to a medieval peasant drinking mead all day by a stream with his friends, even if he ends up dying at 50.

We have the opportunity to change our lives if we don't want the wage slavery; entrepreneurialism is the whole reason why this site exists. For a medieval peasant, they can't move into the nobility, their inventions are not protected, they frequently aren't allowed to move around, travel is dangerous, communication with anyone outside the area they grew up in is more difficult due to language differences, hobbies are limited largely to what you can build yourself, since trade for items is difficult and expensive... the list of restrictions goes on and on.

In any case, the peasants of yesteryear are analogous to the working class of today, and they don't work in offices, windowless or otherwise.

I generally agree with your line of reasoning but for one part:

> We have the opportunity to change our lives if we don't want the wage slavery; entrepreneurialism

Entrepreneuralism often is just another form of slavery. You exchange serving your boss 8 hours a day for serving your customers (and/or investors) 16 hours a day. Most businesses are not innovative problem solving endeavours, they're mundane servitude in highly competitive markets. If you're lucky, it may lead you to significantly more wealth than your dayjob; if you're not, you just wasted years of working 16h/day for less reward than you'd get working 8h/day in a regular job.

The slavery only ends when you don't have to do work for other people in exchange for resources necessary to live a decent life. As a society, we're nowhere near that yet.

(Thinking that starting your own business is freedom from the man is confusing irrelevant freedoms, like the ability to choose your customers, choose your logo, choose your working machine, with actually important freedoms, like choosing whether to have customers at all.)

We are all bound to our basic needs. Whether we satisfy them by earning a living in a windowless office, or hunting for food and potentially dying in the field, does not change the reason we all do what we do: for survival.

A person today is less of a slave to his environment than in the past, although this is more the case in Canada and Scandinavian countries, than in the US.

Now you could say that people worked less in past times, but you could also work half a year and enjoy the rest of your time labour-free, so long as you sacrifice a lot of luxuries (running water, police service, paved roads, fire department, any means of connectivity, etc.)

What about a prison that was full of your closest friends, versus a world of your enemies?

You wouldn't be sent to prison in the first place.

"The tortures and punishments of civil justice customarily cut off hands and ears, racked, burned, flayed, and pulled apart people's bodies. In everyday life, passers-by saw some criminal flogged with a knotted rope or chained upright in an iron collar. They passed corpses hanging on the gibbet and decapitated heads and quartered bodies impaled on stakes on the city walls."

If you are OK with medieval levels of wealth then you can also take half the year off. In fact, you could probably take 11 months off if you live in a hut and buy a sack of potatoes once a week.

>medieval peasant drinking mead all day by a stream with his friends

Mead was expensive since it require lots of honey and was mostly used for special occasions. Most they did drink weak beer because they had learned that in some places peoples drinking water did die more often than the peoples drinking beer. The beer was weak because they did not know how east works and it was probably flat. So don't confuse it with what we know as beer now.

I do also have a hard time believing they in general had more freedom, maybe the top 10% had more freedom than what many have now? Which is far from what the top 10% have now

Actually, nutritionally they were far better off. Domestic plants have a broader spectrum of vitamins but far less of any one vitamin; a varied wild diet is vastly superior to what we eat now. Plus less work per day (except during times of starvation, due to little rain.) Give the book "The Old Way" a read for more direct information about just how much we've lost.

From what I remember reading, agriculture was actually a downgrade from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Early crops were terribly hard to grow, had little nutrition value and agricultural practices too were primitive.

People started growing crops out of necessity. In terms of food security, hunting-gathering was far easier. The average hunter also worked far fewer hours than the average farmer in antiquity.

I wonder if agriculture caused societies to go through a population explosion just because it became economically much more worthwhile to have young children.

I'd assume in hunter-gatherer societies, children would not be that useful for hunting until they are fully grown, or in gathering until they've spent many years learning where to go to gather what. Also not useful in making tools, since those would take a lifetime to learn.

Whereas children are readily useful in traditional farming even at a younger age, because there are all sorts of places one can employ unskilled manual labor on a farm.

Hunter-gatherer societies had very low rates of demographic growth. And industrial societies are also seeing much lower population growth, because children are an enormous economic burden.

Additionally, hunter-gatherer societies require both women and children to be mobile. Pregnant women are a liability, as are children who can't walk by themselves.

This gives an impetus to at least wait 3-4 years between pregnancies.

There is no such pressure on agrarian societies.

> agricultural practices too were primitive.

I imagine there was no(t much) fieldwork, crops were raised on the side, if hunting and gathering was indeed easier. What else would explain foregoing that?

Still today I sometimes dismissively assume that sowing seeds and just waiting is the simplest thing ever. Maybe neolithic people didn't need to process the crops either, instead feeding animals and eating them then, which is less efficient, energetically speaking.

It really depends on where the people lived. Iceland survived for 1000 years on a diet of some root vegetables, fish, milk and mammals. I would not wish their existence on anyone today. People in warmer climates would have a better diet but it's clear that agriculture and husbandry were historically more desirable over pure hunting and gathering, even in warmer regions like Egypt.

> it's clear that agriculture and husbandry were historically more desirable over pure hunting and gathering, even in warmer regions like Egypt.

It's clear that agricultural societies were more fit than hunter-gatherer societies.

Agricultural societies could breed more people and use them to kill the hunter-gatherers and take their land.

Even if the meat/vegetable eaters were bigger and stronger than the grain eaters, there were simply a lot more grain eaters.

Classic Greek myths are full of references to "golden age" men who were displaced by more degenerate modern, civilized men. I can't help read those myths as a story of the rise of agriculture.

These "golden age" men of the Greek myths also lived in palaces (palace of agamemnon) and practiced agriculture. In these myths some typical topoi are also cattle raids, palace intrigues and territorial disputes. These are not the hallmarks of hunter-gatherer societies. These myths should be treated as such, myths. Maybe they have a little historical truth in it, since the mycenean people (precursor to the archaic greek civilisation) definitly had palaces and an elaborate trade network spanning the eastern mediterranean. These are more advanced feats than pre-archaic greek civilisation, wich developed into smaller tribal and rural communities at the time before homer wrote his epics.

sounds like those would be the "degenerate modern, civilized men" or do you think the GP means the doric invaders?

Well, yes I did think that GP meant distinctly greek peoples. The demigod-like figures in the Illias are Achilles, Ajax, Hector and others wich are exceptionally strong compared to other humans. These characters fought alongside the Achaeans or Troy, so definitly on the side of civilised folk.

This is old but to be clear the Greek heroes were not golden age men. The golden age occurred before the heroic age and it was explicitly pre-agriculture:

> [Men] lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all devils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace.

> In the 5th century BCE, the philosopher Empedocles, like Hesiod before him, emphasized the idea of primordial innocence and harmony in all of nature, including human society, from which he maintained there had been a steady deterioration until the present.


Indeed, many of the Vikings who gave up on raiding often settled in what's now England, Ireland, and Normandy, whereas their discovery of Iceland was an accident and its settlement was only partly intentional.

That Icelandic diet sounds pretty similar to how I eat today. What's unhealthy about it?

I assume your response is coming from a low-carb/paleo perspective? No leafy greens or vitamin-rich vegetables. The vegetables that are there (root vegetables) are carby and not especially nutritious. Huge vitamin deficiency across the board.

Not when you eat the entire animal including organ meat as these folks undoubtedly did.

That is simply incorrect. For example, beef liver is about twenty times more nutritious than fruit by mass.

My original question was a bit cheeky as I already knew the answer.

Yes, but don't forget that for a relatively small amount of a beef liver you need to kill a whole cow. And when you kill the animal you couldn't cherry-pick the parts of the meat you use, everything was used while it lasted. The parts that could be preserved would last for a while and things like a liver would be eaten right away or used to make sausages. In the middle age common folks didn't eat meat as often as we do today, it was a luxury. They primarily used a lot of buttermilk, cheese and eggs instead.

You get your diet from a warm supermarket. Or heck, delivered to your door.

The Icelandic ancestors didn't have that luxury in their country's bitter cold

It's not the same cooking you've come to expect. There is a whole wikipedia entry on the subject: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icelandic_cuisine#Medieval_Ice...

As bad as Iceland might have been, Greenland was worse.

Until you remember everyone died from disease... and snakes (actual problem)... and larger tribes that decided "last night the moon was half, so it must mean we need to murder your tribe."

People became food raisers because it was a better life. It allowed plentiful food so that others could do things unrelated to food. Art... and science.

For one good documentary (or book), check out Guns, Germs and Steel. (it's usually found online and fun to watch!) A book which documents the reasons some civilizations went from tribes, to eventual empires, while others like one in Papa New Guinea remained hunter-gatherers. That tribe, for example, has no "beasts of burden" on the island, which were the initial "machinery" that multiplied the amount of work output a tribe could produce compared to one of only men.

But at no point does anyone suggest that hunter-gathering was "better." It was the thing everyone wanted to get away from but certain societies had an easier time doing it.

It's like that guy who eschewed modern society and went hiking out in Canada/Alaska with no research or even a map. He died. He died poisoned by simple plants that anyone would have told him not to eat. And he died less than a couple miles from a ranger station full of food, shelter, and an emergency phone/radio. "Oops."

Romanticize all you want. But never forget it's a fantasy.

Ukraine is downcoming if anything, its GDP/pers actually reduced when compared to 1991. Isn't true for other CIS states en masse.

One of my favorite essays about this is Brad DeLong's "our Economic Appetites" http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2009/01/we-are-live-at-the-wee...

I enjoyed how you've painted a bleak view of the past, not mention any of the nice things about times gone by and then pretend people longing for simpler times is a kind of ignorance.

You believe western civilisation has come a long way from the cesspool it mostly has been, while neglecting to think about the true cost of our material wealth, which is has resulted in much destruction of the natural world.

> not mention any of the nice things about times gone by

Unexploited natural resources aside, what are those nice things?

Also: unexploited natural resources are mostly nice in so far as they're available to be exploited. That you have metric shittons of coal or lithium under your feet is pretty much meaningless if you can't do anything with it.

People lived in 100sqft apartments?

People today still? In Paris, Chambre de bonnes "must have a minimum surface area of 9 m2"[1].

That's 96.87 sqft.

"The rooms usually have a surface area of around 6–12 m2" (65 to 129 sqft)

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chambre_de_bonne

I recently stayed in an AirBnB studio in Paris smaller than 9m². The toilet was shared among the five studios on the same floor.

So it was a private room?

Well OK, but that goes somewhat against my parent comment who was trying to show that things were worse then!

At least in Vienna and Berlin a lot of modern small 1-2 BR apartments are the same apartments that 100+ years ago housed a whole family (or 2!).

For example we (2 adults + 1 toddler) live in an old 70m^2 (750 square feet) apartment that's built in a way suggesting it originally housed 2 families in the 2 large rooms (what we now use as 1 bedroom and 1 living-room) and shared the kitchen/bathroom. So it is very likely 8+ people lived here, and it is now considered small for the 3 of us.

The apartment building is from either the late 19th century or early 20th century.

I imagine a lot of these tiny "single-person" apartments in Paris used to house a lot more than 1 person 100+ years ago.

They still do today. Perhaps the average apartment in Paris was more like 200-250sqft, but living conditions were greatly worse off than today.

"Life was tough but we forget how tough it was because most of us idealize the simpler times of the past."

I would say that life was tougher for the poor indeed.

But if you take a rich peasant/small noble - they did not lived that miserable.

And the things we idealize about them - less complicated live (they did not had to worry about china, nor russia, nor korea, nor NSA, etc. only to dangers close to them, big nobleman, enemy neighbours), allmost no pollution/noise. Living close to nature, going hunting, working with your body in the field - are still valid, I think. If you had a self-sustainable village in times of peace, people had not to worry too much about other things, than the things they could see.

Or a native american hunter tribe. If they were strong - then they had a pretty good, altough simple live. Even though they were hungry in spring and occasionally fought wars.

So the idealisation is not per se wrong, people just don't know, that the image they have in their mind, is not valid for the average person.

So even if there would be a going back, I do not think it makes sense - but while going forward, we can still try to strive for the things we idealize about the past, like simplicity. And by that I do not mean giving up on technology or globalisation, just avoiding unnecessary complications. So ... more decoupling, modularisation, on the technological as well as on the political level, just KISS ... even though that it is not simple, I know, but it is still something worth going for. And not more global regulations, "free trade" agreements you have to study for years to understand and still missing out the secret parts, competing locked down systems going together with companys making their products harder to repair on purpose, and so on and on and on.

So I am dreaming of the day, when I can just print out the small broken part of my vacuum cleaner(or car, ... or computer) with the official specs, instead of having to by a new one, because this model gets no longer produced.

>While the Romans were able to build engineering marvels such as roads and aqueducts, they wouldn’t have a clue what to do with a mobile phone.

But - to be fair - they wouldn't have needed to buy a new smartphone every two years or so, nor to pay subscription to any mobile carrier.

With all due respect for the map (and the accuracy of the calculations by the econo-historian) that may be very valid, the comparison with modern times (i.e. the linked to article) makes (at least to me) very little sense.

GDP/PPP based calculations on poverty line already (even in modern times comparisons between different countries) suffer from "skewing" because of the different needs:


let alone comparing today with 2000 years ago.

You have no more need to use a mobile phone today than the Romans did. What you have is the opportunity to use a powerful tool that can save you a lot of time and provides unprecedented access to people and information.

The needs these devices satisfy have always existed.

If having a mobile device is worth more to you than it costs, you GAIN by having one. It's not a net loss to you.

You're likely to have a tough time getting a job or going out with friends if you don't have a mobile phone these days, which would not be the case for a Roman. People don't exist in isolation, and if society is structured around the assumption that everyone has a phone, you could be worse off without one than in another society that isn't structured that way.

I can't recall my mobile phone ever entering into the process of obtaining employment. I guess if it were my only means of internet access that might not be the case.

No. Because it's assumed. Try being that weird person who can't receive an email or a $COMMUNICATION unless you're with your laptop on WiFi. You're generally assumed to have the normal communications channels at a job.

A cheap feature phone will do.

You can communicate using s cheap feature phone and a small plan. You don’t need a new iPhone to get a job.

Have you heard of Google Voice?

Requiring any kind of computer is no different.

Have you heard of public libraries? Or friends with phones?

In olden times, we had one phone number for our family. And before phones we had mail. There's are all kinds of ways to communicate, albeit slower than carrying a cellphone.

In olden times, other people expected you to use these other ways to communicate. Now they don't.

The fact that you can still mail a letter doesn't help at all when the other party expects something else.

Nobody has to use mail any more for many kinds of communications. That was just an example of how we addressed such needs before we had access to phones.

> What you have is the opportunity to use a powerful tool that can save you a lot of time

Big emphasis on "can", because usually they don't. Instead we get social media and smartphone addiction.

> You have no more need to use a mobile phone today than the Romans did.

Don't tell that to the 'digital divide' people

This is Not Even Wrong. I've addressed the question as Maslow's Smartphone:

There's nothing innate to the iPhone itself which provides for basic needs: water, food, shelter, clothing. It can play a role in the procurement or execution of task, but does not of itself provide them. Which is rather much the role of much of technology: it may allow us to reach theoretical limits imposed outside of technology in accomplishing a task, but it doesn't move those limits. Electronic engine controls approach but do not change Carnot's rule.


Moreover, by setting a new baseline of expectations for what people have and how they interact in society, a smartphone (or email address, or social media account) creates an effective barrier and set of essential fundamentals.

Karl Marx discussed this in the 1800s:

By necessaries I understand not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without. A linen shirt, for example, is, strictly speaking, not a necessary of life. The Greeks and Romans lived, I suppose, very comfortably though they had no linen. But in the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty which, it is presumed, nobody can well fall into without extreme bad conduct. Custom, in the same manner, has rendered leather shoes a necessary of life in England. The poorest creditable person of either sex would be ashamed to appear in public without them. In Scotland, custom has rendered them a necessary of life to the lowest order of men; but not to the same order of women, who may, without any discredit, walk about barefooted. In France they are necessaries neither to men nor to women, the lowest rank of both sexes appearing there publicly, without any discredit, sometimes in wooden shoes, and sometimes barefooted. Under necessaries, therefore, I comprehend not only those things which nature, but those things which the established rules of decency have rendered necessary to the lowest rank of people. All other things I call luxuries, without meaning by this appellation to throw the smallest degree of reproach upon the temperate use of them. Beer and ale, for example, in Great Britain, and wine, even in the wine countries, I call luxuries. A man of any rank may, without any reproach, abstain totally from tasting such liquors. Nature does not render them necessary for the support of life, and custom nowhere renders it indecent to live without them.

Oh, silly me. Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, 1776.



Technology needs to be put in context. I saw people in Nepal with mobile phones that didn't have access to clean water.

Rather than GDP I'd measure the likelihood to die of disease, famine, war, etc. Technology is a tool. The same cognitive dissonance is seen when discussing evolution.

More importantly: Societies need to be put in context. It's pretty meaningless to compare a materialistic modern society benchmark to, say, that of Sparta (disallowing trade, life goals include dying in battle).

Joules Consumed / Head would be a harder-to-calculate but also much more interesting measure than GDP. It would also make it easier to talk about the uncertainty in the estimates, still capture food, transport and shelter to some degree.

I cannot recommend highly enough Vaclav Smil's Energy in World History (1994), or the revised edition released just this year, Energy and Civilization. It follows pretty much precisely this metric, which is also, incidentally, far easier to calculate than you'd expect. In fact, you can pretty much plot out human development levels, from hunter-gatherer, to agricultural, to empire, to early industrial, to modern industrial, based on per capita energy consumption and availability, ranging from a low of about 10 GJ/capita to a peak of over 350 GJ/capita in the US (in very rough numbers, I don't have sources in front of me at the moment).

See generally: https://ourfiniteworld.com/2012/03/12/world-energy-consumpti...

There's some very interesting work going on in this area, in particular Steve Keen's recent integration of energy into production functions:


try "without the hot air" by Prof Mackay. From memory the estimate in his book was measured by 3,000 calories / person per day of output, and so that average brit consumes around 30 "slaves" worth of transport, heating and other energy services.

now imagine how many people in Romans era could have 30 slaves.

# https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_J._C._MacKay

> Rather than GDP I'd measure the likelihood to die of disease, famine, war, etc. Technology is a tool.

GDP is a measure of the amount of stuff that a society produced that people in that society found valuable. Things that help avoid death are included, but often people have higher priorities; if they find something else more valuable to them, who are we to tell them they're wrong?

To be fair, I wouldn't have a clue what to do with an aqueduct.

Aqueducts are still extremely important parts of a modern water system. NYC, for example, gets most of its water from aqueducts.

>To be fair, I wouldn't have a clue what to do with an aqueduct.

I would guess that once you will have a city and a decent number of citizens in it you will quickly find out a possible use for it.

Build a city larger than 8

Also mobile phone were really rare 15 years ago and the GDP/PPP was almost the same. So it seems to me that the article miss an important point.

My explanation would be that the economy was less moneytized. Lot of slaves means few salaries means low GDP.

Also the Roman economy was based on conquering and pillaging countries which allowed to sustain a negative import balance. I'm not sure if this translate well in terms of modern economy and GDP computation.

Lack of monetization is fully taken into account already - the number given for income is not the sum of monetary transactions per individual but the income per individual however obtained including barter, food grown+consumed by oneself, self-built house, etc. Even in the late middle ages monetary transactions were not the common case so it would be absurd to conflate monetary transactions with average income.

>Also mobile phone were really rare 15 years ago

More like 20+, depending on the country.

In ancient Rome, the gap between the rich and the poor was even more obscene that it is now. Despite having such a low GDP, Rome's wealthiest private citizens were as rich, or richer, than the richest of today. For example, Marcus Licinius Crassus' net worth was estimated to be up to double that of Bill Gates.

Was Crassus an ancient Bill Gates though? Not so much. Rome's wealthiest mostly obtained their fortunes from conquest. Crassus, on the other hand, made his fortune by taking advantage of his peers. For example, during Sulla's dictatorship, Crassus would buy the estates of other citizens after they fell victim to Sulla's proscriptions for pennies on the dollar. He even snuck the names of wealthy individuals onto the proscription lists just so he could plunder their estates! Crassus also, famously, ran a fire brigade that would show up to fires and then refuse to put them out until the owner of the burning property sold out to Crassus for cheap.

For a society of mafia warrior lawyers, the Romans sure let each other get away with murder.

Can we really compare wealth between people who lived 2000 years apart though? The amount of material goods a relatively poor middle class American can afford is vastly greater than what the richest Romans could buy 2000 years ago. How do you compare net worth?

Some things haven't changed: land, control over people.

Another way to measure wealth in a comparable way is the proportion of the economic production someone is able to control.

Land hasn't changed, but the right to own it certainly did. In the late roman republic state owned some land but most of it was owned by large estates of slave owners. And working the land or being in the military was mostly the only way to make a living.

So land was a much more important commodity, therefore I don't think you can't compare it reasonably with today.

> In ancient Rome, the gap between the rich and the poor was even more obscene that it is now.

Take those calculations for what you will, but according to papers like these ancient Rome acutally had a comparable Gini index to today's US:



I think Crassus would trade places with the average middle class person in the modern world if given the chance. The level of luxury, safety and health we take for granted was beyond the emperors of Rome.

> The level of luxury, safety and health we take for granted was beyond the emperors of Rome.

This is objectively true, but what if being satisfied with your life has more to do with being better off than your neighbours than with being objectively wealthy?

This is true when you have a comparison to make. Imagined we asked a Roman emperor if he wanted to trade his position for what we have - I doubt he would hesitate for long to say yes.

I know I would not trade my admittedly slightly above average life for the life of any Roman.

> Imagined we asked a Roman emperor if he wanted to trade his position for what we have - I doubt he would hesitate for long to say yes.

I don't feel so confident he would take that decision - not if he knew he would become one peasant among millions - and I certainly don't feel so confident that he'd be happy with that decision five or ten years on.

He may regret his decision, but if the offer was what we have, not where we rank, I am sure he would be very interested.

We take for granted so much that was beyond the richest and most powerful people in history. Just being able to sleep safely in bed without fear of being killed while you slept was something that was beyond almost all emperors.

How do you compare the wealth of Crassus us with Bill Gates?

E.g. proportional share of wealth.

I'm not an economist or a historian but I wonder if there is an aspect to Roman wealth here that isn't captured well by GDP. As an example, Roman roads are famous for their durability, whereas modern highways (which experience very different traffic) need to be repaved on the order of years or decades. For the same distance of road, it would seem a great deal more economic activity in the form of labor, construction, and materials is needed to sustain a modern roadway. If key Roman infrastructure investments simply had a longer lifetime than modern infrastructure (because of design, requirements, etc.), wouldn't that imply the per capita wealth of the empire could be high without a particularly high GDP? Curious if there is any literature about this.

A very important aspect to consider here is that a roman road did not have 100 000+ multi-ton vehicles traveling on them per day. The reason roman roads lasted long is that the load on a road with only manual labor traffic is a thousand times less than that of a modern highway.

Old roads in Europe that are subject to truck and car traffic crumble very quickly unless meticulously maintained.

And even then, most road degradation is due to heavy trucks. Cars contribute very little.


Skip to page 4, where it covers ESAL. A standard trailer is expected to do around 800-1000 times the damage of a standard passenger car. The conclusion:

"When discussing road wear cars don't matter: road damage is effectively caused by trucks."

> road damage is effectively caused by trucks.

So, if road use is charged by a steeply progressive schedule, and driver cost is not an issue, will we see fleets of light autonomous trucks replace the heavyweights?

No, because the weight is the cargo. As more and more semi-truck trailer beds transition to aluminum floor joists, for weight reduction, it's an overall increase in productivity because the truck can now haul more cargo weight.

TBF, I suspect GP is referring to reducing the gross weight of trucks (vehicle + load), rather than the net of the vehicle alone.

That's possible too, but would be tremendously less efficient as you'd have the same air resistence (or at least a substantial amount) but without the same cargo capacity.

Railroads tend not to develop potholes.

You can't really reduce the net weight whilst carrying gross weight beyond a point because the structure won't cope with holding the cargo. Maybe you can optimise some of it out but whether a human presses pedals/turns wheels or a computer does is relatively immaterial towards the net weight of the vehicle structure. Autonomy won't play a big role in that compared with improved design and materials.

Also, remember that roads aren't made out of head-hardened solid steel - if they were, they'd probably nearly forever.

Rail itself may not get quickly damaged (though they do) however rail wheels, which are made of relatively softer metal, develop all kinds of damage, require the machining away of the damaged surface periodically (as in, wheels shrink over time as mateiral is cut off it to get to new metal below) and only last a matter of years for heavy haul environments: http://www.asa.transport.nsw.gov.au/sites/default/files/asa/...

Search for spalling, shelling and rolling contact fatigue as examples.

It would be fuel vs. road cost ...

(There might be a paper in figuring out the sweet spot given hypothetical costs ...)

However, road damage doesn't scale with the weight. The damage roughly scales like the weight per axle to the power four! e.g. http://www.pavementinteractive.org/equivalent-single-axle-lo...

I figured it would be a power, was just hand-waving with "steeply progressive" ;-)

Most Roman cargo moved on ships. Roads were for unavoidable overland transport, where rivers didn't suffice, and largely involved personal transport or local movements.

Though the Romans didn't make heavy use of them, one of the first major inland cargo transport systems was canal networks. Canals are almost the equivalent of railroads (trading speed for bandwidth), and have the useful property, I realised a while back, of not requiring roadbed maintenance or resurfacing. Canals don't develop potholes, get muddy, or suffer from the carriage of heavy loads.

The canal boom in Europe began proper in the 1500s, though there were some earlier instances.

Canals can silt up requiring dredging.

Yes, but that's not affected by use or vessel weight.

It is. Bigger vessels means more banks erosion. This is an issue now, this may not have been one at a time of animal traction or river barges.

At what speeds?

Perhaps I wasn't explicit enough in the post, but yes I realize this. The point I was trying to make is that whatever the reason (including the purpose of the infrastructure, its usage patterns, its requirements), if a project could satisfy its purpose with fewer resources/less GDP needing to be reinvested over time, then this represents a higher relative return on their investment. GDP, having the dimension of time, wouldn't necessarily reflect their overall wealth, including the uncounted utility from historical investments.

The upfront investment of a Roman road might still be comparable to the lifetime investment of a modern one when you factor the human resource. How many man hours are spent on a mile of road, including building the tools (cement truck, bulldozer, etc) now versus the mass manual labor required then.

There are several elements of Roman wealth which aren't captured by GDP (or alternatively, of the overreporting of modern wealth by GDP).

One element is infrastructure depreciation. As you note, the materials and construction of Rome tended to last. Stone and Roman concrete both in particular don't degrade with time (though they may suffer earthquake damage). Things built tended to remain built over timescales we are not familiar with, at the very least, centuries rather than decades. Depreciation expense was far less.

Another factor was a much smaller natural capital expense. Not an entirely absent one, and there were problems with deforestation, salinisation, and cropland depletion throughout the Roman empire, as well as hazards introduced by commerce of plague and disease. But the major capital depletion of the modern world, the draw-down of fossil-fuel reserves at rates millions of times greater than their formation, was not present, nor various consequences of such actions, including of course, greenhouse-gas induced global warming and ocean chemistry changes.

(Among the issues Rome did have to deal with was heavy metal pollution, particularly lead and mercury, and particulates emissions. It wasn't all roses. But by relative magnitudes this was a very small fraction of present capital expenditures.)

Vaclav Smil's Energy and Civilization is an epic exploration of the role of energy in history, including the Roman Empire.


We only remember the stuff that actually lasted.

It sounds like you're basically arguing for the use of NDP, net domestic product. Wear on roads et cetera is the cost of the added (design, requirements, etc) of that higher GDP, and NDP would be the net benefit.

GDP is not good measure of wealth, happiness, or greatness of a country. It is useful for the government to increase it when the government taxes income and sales. If everything was made to last forever and we had already produced everything we needed, GDP could be almost zero (food production in US about 2% of GDP?) and the people could be doing great.

I do not understand why people consider GDP a meaningful indicator of wealth. The United States is a great example of a very real issue with it. Our GDP/capita has been skyrocketing. Since just 2000 it has increased by about 17%. However, since 2000 the real median income has increased by less than 1%.

It seems like our country, and many others, are optimizing for GDP growth. I assume at some point in the past, it presumably did correlate to wealth, so this made sense. But I think our attempt (and success) at maximizing GDP has shown that such a correlation was indeed just a correlation, and not a causal relationship. Nonetheless, we continue to focus on GDP, and this is simply bemusing.

And now to compare GDP optimized modern nations, to an out of left field ballpark estimate for an ancient empire? I think that's clearly not a very reasonable thing to do.

"I do not understand why people consider GDP a meaningful indicator of wealth"

So what would you measure instead? At least empirically GDP gives a good ballpark estimate of the general level of development in a country. Not that itself alone makes sense, but in a global world it's a pretty good indicator at where a country is economically.

GDP of a pre-modern empire is far more debatable, of course. But, the life of a roman peasant was not that much different from that of a rural worker in, say, india. Except, no cell phones, not even the slightest chance for vaccination, the cultivated species were probably less productive, etc.

I would focus on something much easier - what was life, approximately, like for somebody in the exact 50th percentile of socioeconomic status. It even makes more sense today. How has life changed for somebody in the 50th percentile in 2000 versus today? How has it changed for somebody in the 50th percentile in 1970 vs today?

This focus on the lifestyle approximation also makes much more sense than even factors like inflation. For instance inflation today is ostensibly very low, with the Fed becoming increasingly aggressive with monetary policy to try to sustain it (deflation is not fun). Nonetheless, that doesn't really mesh well with the 50% who have seen many of the necessities of life (housing, education, healthcare, etc) inflate at rates vastly greater than the reported inflation rate.

Quantification makes things seem much more scientific, but the key word there is seem. Without a strong 1:1 mapping of a quantification to what it implicitly represents, it becomes less than useless -- it becomes actively misleading. So for instance I think based on what I said above you might suggest I'm just referring to median personal income. Of course in nations where e.g. women do not work, median personal income would be incredibly misleading. So perhaps I am talking about median household income. Yet in countries where large numbers of poor individuals reside within a single household, again the value becomes meaningless.

I do not think there is any singular consistent and clear way to compare wealth over time and circumstance, other than to compare an average approximation of a lifestyle. I think this thread is a good example of this. Many have mentioned that by many metrics today, the average person today is wealthier than a medieval king. Yet how many people would rather be an average individual today than a king of a medieval era? If people like the things that these metrics represent, the answer to that question should cohere with their measured increase today. In other words most people should prefer to be an average person today. I strongly suspect that is not the case.

"Many have mentioned that by many metrics today, the average person today is wealthier than a medieval king. Yet how many people would rather be an average individual today than a king of a medieval era? If people like the things that these metrics represent, the answer to that question should cohere with their measured increase today. In other words most people should prefer to be an average person today. I strongly suspect that is not the case."

I agree, because one thing these comparisons miss is that people judge almost everything relatively - there's research showing more people would choose to earn $20k amongst peers averaging $10k than earn $50k amongst peers earning $100k, even though on an absolute scale the latter would mean earning $30k more.

Being king means being top of the pile, and that's a much bigger draw than shiny gadgets - many of which would be replaced by servants anyway - or modern health care - because nobody thinks they'll need it until they do.

"Yet how many people would rather be an average individual today than a king of a medieval era?"

I presume you approach this from the vanity angle? Given the type of person who hungers after such vain glory I presume the persons who would like to be a medieval king, and who would choose to remain in such a role after trying it out is very small. I know, some prefer a challenge of violence and filth for it's own sake. The best thing one can say is that you can be drunk the entire time and no one will complain.

What is wealth?

In my opinion at the most fundamental level it is just a representation of access to raw materials and especially to labor. Everything else is ultimately just a derivative of those. Being a king would provide a practically endless supply of both. That wealth enables you to have the resources to try to make the world a better place, and certainly to be able to enjoy all the world has to offer.

Of course we have become vastly wealthier in some ways. Education in particular is something that has always been a product of wealth, and to this very day still is. Nonetheless, any individual with an internet connection now has access to what is, at least ostensibly, an MIT caliber education - for free. The lack of education is no doubt a part of the reason for why the peasants stayed peasants.

But nonetheless, royalty of past times would of course have had access to the absolute best education available of the time. It's phenomenally interesting reading things like 'The King's Mirror' [1]. Various translations are available at the bottom. It was written in the 13th century intended as a childhood educational tool for a king. It's surreal considering that it was written about 800 years ago.

Ultimately I think things like having a fluffier bed (to reference an anecdote from this thread) or access to electronic gadgetry is hardly a meaningful measurement of wealth. As you mention, if somebody wants to just live their life in pure hedonism now a days there are many ways to do so - much as in the past people could have just drunk themselves to death in the past (or present). But hedonism becomes rapidly unfulfilling. And it leaves us wanting to create, to produce. And wealth is what enables one to fulfill this most fundamental and intrinsic desire that's what brought us from primate to man. And the middle today are vastly far away from the middle of times past, yet simultaneously still vastly far from the elite of times past.

[1] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Konungs_skuggsj%C3%A1

Median income perhaps, or GDP of the bottom 25% of the population? The current theory is that GDP increases trickle down, but it's not totally clear they do in the current system. Those metrics might lead to better overall outcomes on the key happiness metrics.

" Those metrics might lead to better overall outcomes on the key happiness metrics."

I though we were discussing economics and not happiness?

People tend to conflate the two. Just because something is not economically measurable does not mean it's not valuable.

But, when we are discussing attempts to understand the world through measurement it's not really helpful to point out that the measure does not capture every facet of reality as that feature is built in to every measure.

The whole point of the article was the estimated wealth gradient in roman empire - not how happy the average roman was.

There's a long bibliography here, replete with suggestions and some research; but someone else will have to supply it.

Robert Kennedy's 1968 speech on the GDP is relevant: https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2012/may/24/robert...

Food for thought: Put 20 people in a circle, each growing, cooking and eating their own meal. GDP=0 Put those same 20 people in the same circle, each growing, cooking but instead of eating their own 'buying' the meal from the person to the left for a fixed price. GDP>0 GDP isn't what it's made out to be.

That's a known issue with a relatively small impact on GDP, and there are ways to fix it (imputed labour costs). All models are wrong, but some are useful; GDP is pretty good as far as it goes.

Every measure we can come up with will have absurd corner cases and failure modes. The question is, if and how often those corner cases happen in the real world.

The people at the time were able to feed themselves, clothe themselves, and so on. I have a hard time thinking of this as a less than $1000 equivalent existence, but maybe it is...

This also reminds me that GDP isn't a measure of overall wellbeing, and the article doesn't claim it is. I'd be interested to see a map of relative wellbeing. I don't think people then were 1/100th as happy as us on average.

> I don't think people then were 1/100th as happy as us on average.

Your user name is oddly appropriate for that topic.

In ancient Greece, the Epicureans (a form of Hedonist) supposed that people's pleasure and pain depend on the satiation (or lack thereof) of their appetites. Related is the idea of "Hedonic Adaptation" which has it that people's appetites tend to adapt to conform to their expectations and that, as a consequence, different people in wildly different circumstances tend to be about equally happy.

Perhaps you knew all of that already. But you seem to be rejecting the idea of the Hedonic Treadmill without properly mentioning it.

I don't think you have an appreciation for how difficult it was to clothe yourself in those times. A piece of clothing was double-digit percentages of your annual income.

If you're thinking of that article a while back about how it takes hundreds of hours of work to make a medieval shirt, I believe it was semi-debunked: they were describing the process for making an extremely high-quality garment, fit for a nobleman. Peasant clothing was still very labor-intensive, but not quite as bad as they made it sound.

Remember that income didn’t mean what it did now.

My neighbor had a 1600s era farm in upstate NY. The original taxes were denominated in pigs, chickens and wheat. Cash was rare for normal people until recently.

This depends greatly on when and where. The Roman economy was extensively monetized -- normal people did typically get most of their income as cash.

Not everyone. A large minority of the population were slaves.

>> I don't think people then were 1/100th as happy as us on average.

I'm not so sure. Actual starvation, death due to lack of food, is extremely rare in the modern world. Far less than 0.1% of the human population actually starves to death today. But in Roman times it was not uncommon. It was a relatively normal occurrence for a region to starve should the weather not play ball. Add in all the various diseases and I'm open to the idea that the average Roman was far less happy than the average person today.

Does anyone have historical data on suicide rates? Seems like a decent proxy (EDIT: proxy for happiness, not for base needs) to check.

I'm a little cautious with posting this, I know it might sound terrible, but maybe suicide data might not be a good proxy for basic needs being met.

Maybe suicide has the precondition that you have enough basic security for the most basic needs to feel hopeless about the next level of needs.

After all, there are plenty of examples of people that had a lot of things and opportunities that elected to commit suicide. And maybe lack of struggle might be a prompter of this action.

Jeez, this sounds horrible.

Sure, updated my comment to reflect I meant proxy for happiness. I think "living in poor condition thousands of years ago" probably isn't a good baseline to judge happiness by, since I've known happy poor people and am a not-poor unhappy person.

Suicide rates are surprisingly bad proxies for both happiness and base needs; for example, Scandinavia is notoriously high ranking for suicide, among other big anomalies: http://slatestarcodex.com/2015/01/15/depression-is-not-a-pro... Or closer to home:

> But American whites have higher rates of depression than blacks. There are the usual contradictory studies and arguments about how to adjust for which confounder, but I’m pretty sure this is something like a consensus position right now. More solidly, white Americans have much higher suicide rates than black Americans.

>Scandinavia is notoriously high ranking for suicide,

Why do you perpetuate this myth, even when the source you posted yourself talk against it?

It doesn't, and the offered alternative is that they tend to be middling, which remains a huge exception considering they are generally considered to be the best countries for quality of life. It is thoroughly bizarre to have Scandinavia at the top or middle if you are claiming that suicide rates are an excellently sensitive barometer of happiness or fulfillment.

People did not work for salaries generally, that is a relatively modern phenomenon, David Graeber talks about it in Debt: The first 5000 years.

Different things can be shown by different measurements. Income disparity in Brazil is high, so you have a few people like Jorge Paulo Lemann worth tens of billions of dollars, and then a lot of poor people. So per capita GDP there is more an indication of how he is doing than everyone else (GDP divided by population).

One metric we can use is hours worked per week. Obviously, the less hours of required work needed, the better for the average worker. Of course measurements like this are not the focus of many blog posts. And you yourself are probably deficient in this respect to many hunter-gatherer bands, who do less than 40 hours of work per week. They spend the rest of their time in leisure activities. Marshall Sahlins "Stone Age Economics" goes into this. You yourself are probably required to work more hours per week than native people in Polynesia and other areas.

"Worth" is a product of accumulation over many years. GDP is a yearly measure. So you should compare Lemann's yearly income to per capita GDP.

Then once you start looking at individual incomes, you can look at the median income rather than the average income. Could be interesting to compare GDP per capita (which is an average) with the mean income, but I don't know if that's another apples to oranges.

As for number of hours worked, that's more a feature of the economic system and culture than wealth. We're so wealthy and so much is automatized compared to the middle ages that we could provide for everyone's basic needs with 15 hours of work a week or something, but we've decided that we need cars and cell phones and new clothes every year, and we've turned homes into investment vehicles, so we need to work more.

>Obviously, the less hours of required work needed, the better for the average worker.

This isn't obvious at all. Because of increased capital (skills, knowledge, labor-saving and output-multiplying machinery and technologies) an hour of my work is worth, in real terms, more in a contemporary society than were I to be raised in a h/g society. The net marginal benefit of an additional hour of work is a factor of both this, and the value of leisure time.

With the capital, human and otherwise, at most of our disposal, anyone here could subsist on a native polynesian standard of living with considerably less work than a native polynesian.

Brazil has 207.7 million people. One guy making even 5 billion $ per year is only 25$ per person worth of GDP.

In a country like Brazil, there are people that would very desperately like those $25 precisely because of aforementioned disparity.

But that's the problem with a naive metric like GDP, which suffers from every documented problem with arithmetic mean.

Median income would paint a starkly different picture for the likes of India and Brazil.

Brazil is actually ranks in the top half of country's by per capita earnings at 8,840. http://databank.worldbank.org/data/download/GNIPC.pdf

The median income is a little over half that at ~4,800$ per year. But no single person or family's income when distributed among the population would change that much.

Either way, mean (as in per capita GDP) is probably not the best measure of central tendency for showing how the typical person lives.

GDP is less about what the average person has than it is the capabilities of a given society. Liechtenstein may have a very high standard of living, but it can't exactly fund a space program with a ~6 billion dollar GDP.

Also, median also has issues dealing with things like the US's vast undocumented workforce. So, you really want to slice things up by income percentile, family type, PPP and non etc.

Median is a mathematical concept that doesn't know or care about a person's immigration status.

The dataset plugged in and the mathematical operation performed on it are two distinct concepts and shouldn't be confused. It's the same reason the IRS lets undocumented citizens and documented citizens performing unsavory work (including drug dealing and prostitution) to file taxes :)

My point is if 50.01% of the population makes 50+k then that's where the median is. You completely miss out on if the bottom 10% making 10k or 30k which has huge social implications.

For an extreme version southern slaves made ~0 income but because they made up less than 50% of the population they disappeared from that statistic.

The dollar amount of the earnings that are under 50% of the population disappears in the statistic, but they are not unrepresented.

Their presence in the tally means that the median skews their way. For each undocumented person earning under minimum wage, the median shifts one person over to the left.

I agree that there should be a better way of displaying that info (at least quartiles) but the median is a surprisingly effective measure.

I'm pretty sure statistics people know good analytical formats to publish these values. Why everyone doesn't use it for GDP/etc is unclear to me, because it seems to me that any flawed method is still better than `arr.sum() / arr.count()`.

It is just not that: you need to display Mesopotamia and China and the Indus valley. Those were the fertile and rich places in the world along with Egypt.

Those places are now devastated by war, revolutions or overpopulation, or just were invaded by other empires.

It is a reminder of the powerful forces of change.

When you visit the Tower of London and enter the bedroom chambers of the King and check out the modest bed and other things the tour guide pokes some fun at how most modern people today live better than kings of the past.

On the other hand they had lots of labor. A butler comes in to wake them and then a valet to help them dress. Then they decide to take a morning walk in the garden, so a page runs outside and tells the gardeners to make themselves scarce so they can walk without seeing the staff. They ask to take a trip down the river Thames and so a whole staff moves into operation to get the royal barge ready. It all looks effortless to the King because a large household makes it so.

Henry VIIIth didn't even have to wipe his own backside. He had the Groom of the Stool: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groom_of_the_Stool

On the other hand, consider the Arnolfini marriage portrait (that's this one: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Van_Eyck_-_Arnolfini_Port...), and you recognize that clothes like the couple are wearing in the painting are affordable only to 1-percenters. Then and now.

I don't see anything drastically ornate that would really bump up the labor costs like something you'd see in Elizabethan fashions. Can't be the dyes used which I understand used to be pricey but are now pretty trivial in our wide color palette. Are you thinking the fur would be the expensive part today or the fit to person tailoring?

An interesting related question would be the rate tailors charged in the past vs today. I'd imagine more today since fashions have veered so dominantly to mass produced clothing that there's no demand for what what today would essentially be in the realm of costume making.

The sable fur for Giovanni's vest is expensive, of course, as is the silk cloth, and there is the fit and the tailoring, just look at the pleats. And for a really nice straw hat you can expect to pay several hundreds. The wife's outfit is three times as elaborate as his.

There was a priest whom I used to know. His vestments were of exceptional taste and quality - it was his mother who made them; she knew how to sew and embroider, and where to get the proper brocade from. I never asked him about the amount of labour that went into this, but it must have been a lot.

> you recognize that clothes like the couple are wearing in the painting are affordable only to 1-percenters. Then and now.

I'm pretty sure that someone in the SCA has made one of those outfits. In fact: https://i.pinimg.com/564x/1b/9a/4b/1b9a4b90019bef529ca2e4cd0...

Google makes it possible: http://www.naergilien.info/my-costumes/medieval-renaissance/...

About two weeks of sewing (14 days) with approximately 7-10 hours per day (every day!); resulting in approximately 100 hours of work before the dress was finished.

i.e. the labor costs alone are around 1500-3000 €.

haha, I love it, very get it done take charge initiative and spirit in this group I take it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Society_for_Creative_Anachroni...

I'd still rather wear jeans.

I'd want my hiking pants if I lived back then. Jeans suck as soon as they get wet.

Is that Arabic on the wall?

That's Latin letters, a very very florid cursive hand and reads Iohannes de eyck fuit hic 1434 - Johann van Eyck was present 1434. Note the ancient shape of the digit 4! It settled into its familiar form only in the later half of the 15th century.

Oh, I see it now. I was on mobile and was getting a view of the image that either couldn't (too low res) or wouldn't (bad viewport) zoom, so this is what I saw: https://i.imgur.com/yxpLRTg.png

As you can see, at that zoom level the words look like parts of the letters and it is the shape of the text area itself that was reminiscent of Arabic characters.

Of course, once zoomed in it's a different story: https://i.imgur.com/4oQ5R2F.jpg

Just above a small mirror showing the backs of the couple and the painter at work ...

(Take that https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourth_wall ...)

You can play the same game with shorter time periods. Considering even John D. Rockefeller’s life, before antibiotics, vaccines, air conditioning, the Internet, et cetera is dire [1].

[1] https://fee.org/articles/average-americans-today-are-richer-...

powerful walk, sounds like the closing paragraph is the clincher...

"""Honestly, I wouldn’t be remotely tempted to quit the 2016 me so that I could be a one-billion-dollar-richer me in 1916. This fact means that, by 1916 standards, I am today more than a billionaire. It means, at least given my preferences, I am today materially richer than was John D. Rockefeller in 1916. And if, as I think is true, my preferences here are not unusual, then nearly every middle-class American today is richer than was America’s richest man a mere 100 years ago."""

Breaking news : pre-industrial civilisation had less material wealth than ours.

You could be less snarky but yeah.

Shorter history: For a long time people had short brutal lives. Then the industrial revolution happened.

GDP might be useful for comparing what happened this year to what happened last year, but It's hard to see it making sense for comparison between times or places that are significantly different.

For one example of how the comparison breaks down, consider the cost of adding up a page full of numbers in 1950 vs. today. In 1950, you'd need to hire an accounting clerk. Nowadays it's essentially free. In 1950, the clerk would have added the value of his labour to GDP, Today, the computer doing the same job contributes little or nothing.

The same problem crops up everywhere. If I develop a $1000/month treatement for hepatitis, I might add a vast amount to GDP. If I develop a $5 one-off cure, not so much.

GDP can't 'see' goods and services that are so cheap to produce that they're practically free.

Did you read the full article? They have an paragraph on that under the section Methodology. IMHO this addresses your concern. What's your problem with that reasoning?

The only thing I can find is this:

>The numbers for the map come from historian Angus Maddison who uses Sestertius records to find wheat equivalent figure for national disposable income and makes comparisons based off that.

But all that says is that some guy used historical records for Roman income figures. It doesn't tell you anything about how to relate income in Roman times to income today.

Interesting, their methodology is kinda khmm thought.

When historians were going over the archives of the medieval Khivan Khanate, they found out from tax records that ~12% of all households in Khiva and Bukhara had over 10kgs of gold.

Yet, if you were to apply the same methodology there, you will get same contradicting results

Gold is a relatively fixed supply, so the per-capita price of gold grows as population rises. It's not a good proxy for costs of living/happiness; if you want to measure household savings a better unit would be something like "how many calories of the cheapest available food could they buy?"

>Yet, if you were to apply the same methodology there, you will get same contradicting results

Can you explain this point further? Are you saying that Khanate tax records are inaccurate or that the Khivan Khanate were more wealthy than people today?

Yes, people were saying for long that if Khiva was still a country today, it would be joining ranks of places like Andorra, or Luxembourg. Yet, people had to spend a big part of their income on simply food, water, clothing, and fuel

You'd expect the top 10% of households' accumulated wealth over many generations to be a few decades of average annual income, especially if they're large households.

US GDP per capita is around $50k and households in the top income decile all have household wealth in excess of a million dollars

10kgs of gold is about $40k, so is entirely consistent with Khivan GDP per capita being in the $500-$2000 range

>10kgs of gold is about $40k, so is entirely consistent with Khivan GDP per capita being in the $1k-$2k range

10kg of gold worth around $0.5m USD today. You are off by 10 times

haha, you're right (tbf I was only wrong by half an order of magnitude if I switch to 1800 gold prices!)

It'd be interesting to see how the figures compare when taking into account how long the gold took to accumulate and the size of the household whose wealth it represented, and the wealth of the wider region. But more basic goods that enhance standards of living are probably a better representation of a civilization's wealth than the notional modern value of their gold hoards, especially if the gold was being hoarded precisely because the Silk Road couldn't supply them with things even today's poor can acquire

I think the Roman gdp from that period should be compared with the gdps of other countries of that time. Sure the average ancient Roman might have been poorer than the average modern Congolese but I think humans in general were poor during that time.

The better question is how did GDP for a Roman citizen compare to a contemporary barbarian or slave?

The productivity difference between a modern worker is multiple orders of magnitude more than an ancient one. GDP comparisons are of questionable value.

The author of Why the West Rules--For Now has published a separate PDF that goes into the social development index that he developed for the book. [1] Essentially, development level went way down after the Roman Empire but the industrial revolution made all the development before pale by comparison. This is just another attempt to frame a very complex topic but it does take a lot of factors into account.

[1] http://ianmorris.org/docs/social-development.pdf

> The numbers for the map come from historian Angus Maddison who uses Sestertius records to find wheat equivalent figure for national disposable income and makes comparisons based off that.

Links to several of Angus Maddison books, I assume it is this: Contours of the World Economy 1-2030 AD: Essays in Macro-Economic History

“Behind every modern man are 200 energy slaves”, a calculation attributed to Buckminster Fuller and others. You calculate the per capita energy usage divided by a humans daily caloric intake (on human labor eqivalent) to estimate an energy slave count. 3/4ths of the energy comes from fossil fuels which has been storing solar energy for hundreds of thousands of years. Technologynthat harnesses energy creates much of modern GDP.

I doubt we will ever sink back to the lows where as much as 2/3rds the population is slave labor to a ruling class (Rome, Vikings, US South). When fossil fuels become too expensive, we’ll have figured out how to have gotten more efficiency out ofbthe remaing 50 renewable energy slaves.

"If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus"

I believe Edward Gibbon said that "modern" life only overtook that period during the early 19th century.

With the respect for authors this might be at best rough estimation with large error margin. We know little about economic relations, purchasing power, prices etc. in Roman Empire.

Also I wonder how these numbers would look like if slave population is excluded.

Is that a GDP problem or did they have an income distribution problem? I'm going to hazard a guess that since slavery was the backbone of the Roman Empire, they had an income distribution problem.

Even beyond that, they had a huge income distribution problem, with most of the land (and therefore most of the income; it was primarily an agrarian economy) belonging to very few people. Of course, this wasn't unique to the Roman Empire; it was an almost universal state of affairs until at least the industrial revolution.

Roman Empire per capita GDP shows the Romans were poorer than any 2015 country

Take away iPhones, cable bills, insurance, college, cars....and you may do just fine (eat 1-2 times a day :)) with their Capita GDP.

At that GDP, also take away vaccines, antibiotics, refrigeration, sanitation...and you are living like them with high mortality. Almost every person living in a modern country is living better than all the kings, nobles, emperors, etc in all of history. There are still plenty of poor people who we should help, but "poor" is relative historically.

Just because vaccines, antibiotics, and refrigeration exist, it doesn't mean there is universal access to them.

I think the references to "almost every person" and "modern country" are sweeping away a lot more people than you let on.

Here are some stats on vaccines in the US [1]. You can do your own research on the rest, but I think you'll find the numbers to be extremely high. Even homeless people, who I am not counting, in the US have some access to those things. My wife, a clinical pharmacist, is always giving antibiotics to the homeless who come to the ER for free. I know the US the best, but I would be surprised if other modern countries weren't similar in terms of basic healthcare, sanitation, etc. We can of course argue what "modern country" means.

1. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/immunize.htm

Certain vaccines are almost universal; in particular, that's how smallpox was eliminated.

poor being relative historically sounds consistent with things I've read from Thomas Sowell. I remember him using Air Conditioning as an example...

"""Looking back over the years, as old-timers are apt to do, I see huge changes, both for the better and for the worse.

In material things, there has been almost unbelievable progress. Most Americans did not have refrigerators back in 1930, when I was born. Television was little more than an experiment, and such things as air-conditioning or air travel were only for the very rich.

My own family did not have electricity or hot running water, in my early childhood, which was not unusual for blacks in the South in those days.

It is hard to convey to today's generation the fear that the paralyzing disease of polio inspired, until vaccines put an abrupt end to its long reign of terror in the 1950s.

Most people living in officially defined poverty in the 21st century have things like cable television, microwave ovens and air-conditioning. Most Americans did not have such things, as late as the 1980s. People whom the intelligentsia continue to call the "have-nots" today have things that the "haves" did not have, just a generation ago.""" https://www.creators.com/read/thomas-sowell/12/16/farewell

Access to fresh food year around is a huge deal, too.

Also take away multiple garments, shoes, a varied diet, modern hygiene, daily transportation.

Of course they were. They worse sandals and rode on horses. All countries in the past, regardless of size, are poorer even in comparison to the poorest countries today

Looking at that map, helps to understand why the Eastern Roman Empire was in much better shape than the Western Roman Empire.

Off-topic but modern Spain being in the news I found it interesting how modern Spain is shown on the map in 14 AD. There is a sharp divide between Spain and what is now France I imagined Catalonia and Occitania would have been one province.

Why would Catalonia and Occitania be one province? The Pyrenees mountains make for a pretty strong natural border. Catalonia doesn't trace back to ancient Rome but the middle ages. It's one of the medieval Christian kingdoms that fought with the various Islamic regimes that ruled southern Spain until it was subsumed into Aragon (which was later merged with Castile.) Prior to that they were all part of a unified Visigothic empire.

With the exception of Roussilon and a few other bits of southern France that were once part of Catalonia/Aragon (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Spain#/media/File:5...). Before that some of the area was part of the Umayyad Caliphate at their peak (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Spain#/media/File:M...). Before that is was part of Visigothic Hispania (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Spain#/media/File:H...). Also, unlike much of Spain, Catalonia was never under Carthaginian control.

So for much of history Catalonia and parts of Occitania were tied together to varying degrees.

The Pyrenees mountains have been a natural border splitting the two regions basically forever. Also, Occitania is doing slightly better than most of Spain, likely due to the proximity and earlier acquisition.

As for the rest of France, Caesar conquered Gaul sixty years earlier, slaughtering up to a million Gallic people. That's the kind of thing that can set your economy way back.

Ah yes the Pyrenees I forgot about them.

In the news I keep hearing about how closely related Occitan and Catalan languages are I figured there was more of a connection geographically.

Caesar had debts to pay - he was the original "too big to fail" debtor ...

In 14 AD, while Rome was still recovering from nearly a century of civil war. Huge chunks of that land had been bloodily acquired in the past sixty years, and an unrecorded numbers of Romans died during the fall of the Republic.

GDP only measures taxable activity (goods bought and sold), which was a far smaller part of a person's day to day activity back then. Also, these are 1990 dollars, which are worth about twice as much as 2017 dollars.

Energy is the master resource and rome did not have oil; its that simple.

Crude oil was irrelevant 2000 years ago. The primary forms of energy were wood, dung, and charcoal if I'm not mistaken.

There wasn't really energy infrastructure like there is today, outside of firewood/charcoal supply, which the Romans had in great supply.

But the average roman did not require much energy outside of cooking, as the temperate Mediterranean weather did not require heating energy.

The modern concept of energy running the world is really an Industrial/post-Industrial concept. Coal, then oil energy driving mass industry is the driver of modern power. Energy -> +Industry -> +Economic activity -> +Money -> +Power

You are mistaken. Romans had been on industrial scale mining copper, gold and silver in Spain and other places. That required unbelievable amounts of energy - mostly charcoal.

Romand knew waterwheel as a source of energy but rarely used - compared to medieval Europe.


Even if found, there was not much use for foul smelling oil.

Myrrh, on the other hand, was valuable, and so was olive oil which could be used for lamps.

You can't do PPP across cultures that have no bearing one another, so it's utterly ridiculous to do a 'GDP' measure.

How much did the Romans value 'clean air'? Because they don't breathe fumes, whereas we do.

'Comparative Value' makes it impossible.

We can only say: "this is what the average Romand had and did - and this is what the average American/European/Asian has" etc..

Haha. They breathed tons of fumes, most of their households' cooking and heating was fueled with either wood, charcoal or dung, in open or not-well-sealed hearths. (Woodsmoke is still the world's deadliest source of pollution.) Roman cities especially were ferociously polluted.

If there is a stove-pipe then they are not breathing any fumes.

A lot of stovepipes leak fumes, an in any case most people in the Roman empire had no such thing as a stovepipe. It's absolutely a myth that most premodern people had "clean air". No, it was generally filled with smoke, dung dust, mold spores, etc.


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