What if the Roman Empire in Jesus' Day Was 100 People?

With various helpful videos in the internet about helping us understand the modern world by asking "what if the world were 100 people," I have had in my mind to make something similar for my own discipline, namely what would the Roman Empire look like if it were 100 people during Jesus' day.

This isn't an easy task, as ancient demography and statistics is tricky business that we hold to lightly. That said, I hope people find this video helpful and I hope it will spark some interest into the New Testament world. Many thanks go to my wonderful super–TA Christine Welles who did a ton of research to help me bring this to fruition (and upon whom all future TAs shall be measured!!). Below the video is the transcript, along with a bibliography. If you liked the video, please do share it on social media.



What would the Roman Empire during the time of Jesus look like if it were 100 people?

Attempting to paint this portrait immediately runs into numerous complications. As organized as the Roman Empire was and even with the remains we have, it is very difficult to pin down precise numbers and percentages. Ancient historians hold these things lightly, recognizing that what we hold is often based on data from different centuries, and that some things are the best guesses of experts in the field. Bearing this in mind, the 100 people represent approximately 55 million people.

In terms of status or class, we immediately run into a problem with the choice of 100. The top of the upper class, the senatorial class had the most power and wealth concentration. When Rome was a republic, the Senatorial class was understood as 300 families and later expanded to 600, or perhaps even 900, families. From this group the actual ruling Senate, the governing body in the Roman Republic and the counseling body in the Roman Empire, was drawn. This represents such a miniscule amount of the population that I will represent them at just the very top of the head, and even this is proportionally generous.

The next class of people in the Empire was the Equestrian class. The upper classes were based on the amount of wealth owned, usually in the form of property. The Senatorian class had wealth holdings of 1,000,000 sesterces (1 sesterces is worth 4 denarii, and a denarius was roughly a labor’s day wage). There was no set number of Equestrians – one could be appointed if one was a free-born citizen and one’s wealth exceeded 400,000 sesterces. A range of population numbers are offered for this, from 10,000 to 40,000 families. Using 30,000, and recognizing that the average family size in the Roman Empire was around 4, this represents a very miniscule amount, about .02% of the population. I’ll represent this class with the remainder of the head.

The last of the upper class is the Decurion rank. With this group we at last move outside of Italy, where the Senatorial and Equestrian classes were largely confined. The majority of the ruling elites throughout the Empire were from the Decurion class. The wealth holdings of these provincial aristocrats was a minimum of 100,000 sesterces. Again, we have a range of numbers offered by scholars, from around 100,000 to 400,000 and beyond. It seems that at most this group represented .7% of the population, the remainder of the first person.

It is this one person who represents the upper class of Roman society. They were normally born into their status and held much of the private land and held nearly all of the political power. As we move to the remainder, keep in mind that there was a definite divide between this group and everyone else.

The next grouping goes by various names in the research. Sometimes called the "other wealthy,” the "respectable populace" or the "middling" class. It is a mistake, though, to think of this group as today’s middle-class, because in the Roman empire there really was only the Upper classes (our first person) and the rest. This middling group is far more spread out, representing wealthy citizens and freedmen, small landholders, the Augustales order of priests, and other wealthy artisans. In some regions, this group may have represented up to 30% of a local population. I will take as an estimate 10% of the total population. But even within this "middling" population, there was a concentration of wealth held by 50,000 to 200,000 families, with many of them being wealthier than Decurions.

Let’s complete the understanding of wealth distribution. I'll represent the wealth of the Roman Empire with $10. The Senatorial class controlled about $1.00, the equestrian class $1, the decurion class .50¢, the respectable populace $2.50, and the remaining population $5.00.

The last 89 people comprised the bulk of the lower class, representing a wide variety of jobs and life circumstances. There were anywhere from 400,000 to 1 million military men, most of them ordinary soldiers, but an elite few of the highest being centurions and legion commanders drawn from the upper classes.     There have been attempts to understand how many slaves there were in the Roman Empire, but it has been difficult to determine an accurate percentage. It seems that upwards of 40% of Italy's 7.5 million residents were slaves. But this is where most of the wealthy lived, and we should not assume that Italy accurately represented the entire Empire. A safe guess is perhaps 10% of the population, but it may have been higher. You will notice that two slaves have been placed at the very bottom. These represent the farm slaves, mining slaves, and slaves living in other very difficult circumstances, considered by the society to be the lowest in status and living well below subsistence level. The remaining slaves are higher up in the ranks. The reality for many slaves is that they were in the home or in the servitude of wealthier people. The wealthier the owner was, the more likely a slave was to have a stable life, possibly education, upwards mobility, and the prospect of being released from slavery later. In terms of freedom and social power, many of these slaves lived in a better state than the remaining population. A number of those in the middling class, soldiers, free poor and even some in the upper class were freedmen, former slaves or descendants of former slaves.

The remainder of the population are the free poor: artisans selling their wares and produce in the markets, day laborers working for whomever would hire them, tenant farmers working for a single landowner most of their lives, or those entirely dependent on patrons for their day to day living. A lucky few may have had small plots of land from which to grow their food. An estimated 10-20% percent of the population were "destitute"— the ill, widows, and orphans. The were considered destitute during that time not only because of their inability to work, but also because in a patriarchal society, the widows and orphans were unconnected to a patriarch. For the Free Poor population, most lived day to day with starvation always a real possibility.

Despite repeated claims by some of a 10% Jewish population in the Empire, this is inaccurate. The best estimate for Palestine was 1 to 1.5 million, and perhaps there were that many outside of Palestine as well, mostly in urban settings. If this is the case, that would be about 3% of the population.

Around 10-12% of the population are urban dwellers, and 20% of the total population lived in Italy. Around 10% are Roman citizens. And finally, the estimated literacy rate for the Roman empire is 10-15% but perhaps even higher. This would represent people with formal education, those lucky enough to learn from a parent, and slaves educated in order to serve as educators of children. Outside of this formal education, there was throughout the empire a spectrum of sub-literacy, with many people equipped to conduct basic business, read signage, and read and create graffitti.

It is into this world that Jesus of Nazareth entered and the early church grew and spread.



Afoldy, Geza. The Social History of Rome. Translated by Croom Helm. Totowa, NJ: Barnes &
            Noble, 1985.

Bowes, Kim. “Rural Poverty in the Roman Empire.” University of Pensylvania. Accessed
            February 2, 2018, https://u.osu.edu/osuchr/files/2017/08/bowes-rural-poor-243zk6w.pdf

De Ligt, Luuk. Peasants, Citizens and Soldiers: Studies in the Demographic History of Roman
            Italy 225 BC – AD 100
. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Goldsmith, Raymond W. “An Estimate of the Size and Structure of the National Product of the Early Roman Empire,” Review of Income and Wealth, 30/3 (1984): 263-88.

Hartland, Philip A. “The Economy of First Century Palestine: State of the Scholarly Discussion,”
            In Handbook of Early Christianity: A Social Science Approach, edited by Anthony J.
            Blasi, Jean Duhaime and Paul-Andre Turcotte, 511-527. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira
            Press, 2002.

Hezser, Catherine. Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine. Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001.

Jeffers, James S. The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background
            of Early Christianity
. Downers Grove, Il: Intervarsity Press, 1999.

Jongman, Willem. “The Early Roman Empire: Consumption,” In The Cambridge Economic
            History of the Greco-Roman World
, edited by Walter Scheidel, Ian Morris and Richard
            Saller, 592-618. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Kehoe, Dennis P. “The Early Roman Empire: Production,” In The Cambridge Economic History
            of the Greco-Roman World
, edited by Walter Scheidel, Ian Morris and Richard Saller,
            543-569. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Lo Cascio, Elio. “The Early Roman Empire: The State and The Economy,” In The Cambridge
            Economic History of the Greco-Roman World
, edited by Walter Scheidel, Ian Morris and
            Richard Saller, 619-647. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

----. “The Size of the Roman Population: Beloch and the Meaning of the Augustan Census
            Figures,” The Journal of Roman Studies 84 (1994): 23-40.

McGing, Brian. “Population and Proselytism: How Many Jews were there in the Ancient
            World?” In Jews in the Hellenistic and Roman Cities, edited by John R. Bartlett, 88-106.
            London: Routledge, 2002.

McGinn, Thomas A. J. “Widows, Orphans, and Social History,” Journal of Roman Archeology
            12 (1999): 617-632.

Morley, Neville. “The Early Roman Empire: Distribution,” In The Cambridge Economic History
            of the Greco-Roman World
, edited by Walter Scheidel, Ian Morris and Richard Saller,
            570-591. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Saller, Richard P. “Household and Gender.” In The Cambridge Economic History
            of the Greco-Roman World
, edited by Walter Scheidel, Ian Morris and Richard Saller,
            87-112. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Scheidel, Walter. “Demography,” In The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman
, edited by Walter Scheidel, Ian Morris and Richard Saller, 38-86. Cambridge:
            Cambridge University Press, 2007.

----“Population and Demography,” Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics, Version 1.0.
            Stanford University, 2006.

----. “Slavery in the Roman Economy,” Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics, Version
            1.0. Stanford University, 2010.

----. “The Roman Slave Supply,” Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics, Version 1.0.
            Stanford University, 2007.

Scheidel, Walter and Steven J. Friesen. “The Size of the Economy and the Distribution of
            Income in the Roman Empire,” Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics, Version
            2.0. Stanford University and University of Texas, 2009.

Wasserstein, A. “The Number and Provenance of Jews in Graeco-Roman Antiquity: A Note on
            Population Statistics,” In Classical Studies in Honor of David Sohlberg, edited by Ranon
            Katzoff, 307-317. Ramat Gan, Israel: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1996.

Posted by Danny Zacharias.