Posted by: ken98 | March 18, 2010

Obscene Wealth, Delicious Squirrels and Vicious Snubbing

Day 188 – Ken here (Th)(3-18-2010)
(DEF II, v.3, ch.31 pp.170-180)(pages read: 1270)

A slow day. Not much to report. I take advantage of the opportunity presented to me by the paucity of meaty content in Gibbon today to rant and rave a little bit about the extraordinary concentration of wealth in the Late Antique world, and its horrific consequences (partially contributed to by the aforesaid concentration of land and money in the hands of the few). I am speaking of course of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

It seems to me to have direct parallels with current (U.S.) problems – a continuing increase in the wealth of the few. In roman times it resulted in a society-wide forgetting of what the state was for in the first place – the rich thought it was for them, the poor didn’t much care anymore who was in charge. The transition to barbarian kingdoms went much easier than anyone at the time would’ve thought possible. Everyone (but the hyper-rich) were freer, richer, and living easier. A no-brainer decision for a society living in near serf-like conditions already.

Let’s hope the U.S. re-thinks itself before it forgets itself and follows in Rome’s footsteps (see rant below: The Understandable Ending of the Empire).

We continue chapter 30 with a discussion of Roman manners. Gibbon spends a page going over the history of the Anicii family, a page relating the extreme wealth of a typical Roman senator, and 6 pages or so transcribing a direct translation of Ammianus Marcellinus on the manners of the Romans (pp. 175-181) which has to be read to be believed (see Gibbon’s text here).

The Story
The Anicii
  • A long family history dating back to the Republic
  • Interestingly, although they survived for centuries, their origins are from the poor – the plebian class originally

    Rents and Wealth
  • The incomes of senators of this time (and into the 400’s) verges on the miraculous. They represent 5 centuries of wealth-building in a relatively stable environment without changes of government and mass-confiscations. That was to change in the later 400’s, but we are not there yet. For thoughts on the vast wealth of the fortunate few in Rome at this period – see below (The Understandable Ending of the Empire…)
  • Common examples (of how the ENTIRE ANCIENT WORLD was owned now by a few families: the senator’s daughter Paula owned all of the city of Nicopolis (just a small portion of her estates) – the city Augustus had founded to celebrate his victory at Actium
  • Whole nations, who had been at war with each other, and had then been conquered by Rome, whose borders had once been marked by the entire run of certain rivers, now were entirely owned by one man.
  • Talk about the world being a small place! – the entire Mediterranean basin was one big suburb to the hyper-rich

    Ammianus Marcellinus’ Long Rant on the Romans
  • Between Ammianus Marcellinus and the Romans (of Rome) there was little love lost. Ammianus hates the upper class in Rome which snubbed him so thoroughly and he gives vent to his frustration and anger in long passages of his histories. One of the most famous is translated and given by Gibbon word for word in one of the longest quotes in the entire Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The text online is here. It pretty much explains itself.


    Gold coin of Elegabuls (Heliobagulus) from a collectoin in Bonn.  The vast concentration of wealth in the ancient world resulted in at least two parallel economies - one based on gold, the other based on copper pennies and barter.  This coin represented maybe 2 weeks of work to a common laborer,  maybe 2 minutes (of non-work) for a senator.

    Gold coin of Elegabuls (Heliobagulus) from a collectoin in Bonn. The vast concentration of wealth in the ancient world resulted in at least two parallel economies - one based on gold, the other based on copper pennies and barter. This coin represented maybe 2 weeks of work to a common laborer, maybe 2 minutes (of non-work) for a senator.

    The Understandable Ending of the Empire – Senators – The Caste of the Super-Rich

    When the division between the poor and the rich becomes almost mythical in a society, the end cannot be far away. Towards the end of the Roman Empire in the West, certain senatorial families (example: the Anicii) had been accumulating land in Italy and the rest of the empire and accumulating riches through trading companies and commodities/foodstuffs brokering for nearly seven centuries (granted many had gained and lost fortunes, and actually most had completely died out, but the remaining few “winning” families were spectacularly successful). Gibbon notes that the annual income of the richest senators in Rome (with estates spread over the whole empire) was 4,000 pounds of gold (Gibbon quoting the historian Olympiodorus, writing about senators at the time the seige of Rome by the Goths (408 CE)).

    An income of 4,000 pounds of gold translates to roughly 500 million dollars per year. If a senator expected a return of say 5% on his investment in land (which would seem reasonable), that translates to a net worth of 10 trillion dollars (not counting cash, houses, gold, artwork, that did not bring in any income). This is contrasted with a common laborer (unskilled workers = 1/10 lb gold/yr, legionnaires = 1/2 lb gold/yr – at the time of Constantine – granted a century before – so an equivalent to a pound of gold would be approx 50-70 thousand dollars). This is obviously a two-tier economy – the first used by the elites in an empire-wide manner and denominated in gold, the second used by the common man, for local transactions, denominated in silver (or more likely, almost worthless silver-plated copper), or even money-less bartering).

    How could a man who was worth 10 Trillion dollars and made 500 million dollars a year really understand the end of a state that had endured almost 1200 years? Their assumption would be that the world revolved around them (and, actually, it did) – they made 8000 times more than the average worker in annual income, and were probably worth 100,000 to a million times more than the average worker in property and assets. They WERE the empire – the 400 families that OWNED the ancient world at this point. They thought they were eternal, and that the last 500 years of Mediterranean domination (domination by them) was the natural order of things. They had been through civil wars, barbarian invasions, the removal of the capital from Rome, the splitting of the empire, and newly established state religions and they were still standing. Why would this be any different? They had been paying for armies out of monies from their vast estates, filling the highest offices of state, supplying generals and officers for the army for centuries. What possible fear could they have of barbarian Franks, Goths, and Vandals who were one or two generations away from being poor farmers or tradesmen, taking over the empire? Ridiculous! They ran the empire, they were the empire. Such is hubris personified.

    The truth was they owned the rights to income and property, and lived very, very well, but the rest of the empire had stopped believing in them. It hadn’t really mattered that the new serf-class had stopped believing a long time ago in the natural superiority of the senatorial class to rule the empire. The serf class – that was created in the last 130+ years after the troubled decades of the 200’s were over and Diocletian remade the empire into a centralized, military, stalinist state, was the class that actually produced wealth. As long as they worked, the empire ran. And they worked as long as the prison walls (frontiers) of the empire were solid and the whole world consisted of the Roman empire. It was a big surprise to everyone how easily and how readily the working population adapted to the barbarian kingdoms that were the successors of the Roman Empire. Life was actually better, taxes much lower, the government much less evident, and the new noble, elite class (the barbarian lords) much easier to work with. What had they been doing all those centuries, supporting the hyper-rich? What had it all been for?

    The relief of no longer having to support the heavy burden of a senatorial aristocracy (together with having a new, non-caste-reinforcing religion – Christianity) made it easier to jettison the whole Late Antique experience and start anew. That might explain the sudden break in culture in the first few decades of the 400’s – and how easily classical culture transmogrified into myth and legend within a generation or two. By the end of the 400’s, ancient Rome was beginning to look as ancient to the Romans of the 400’s as it does to us today – an entirely alien culture. And (I believe) a big part of that was the obscene differentiation in standards of living between the rich elites and the rest of us (the common laborers) in the last few centuries of the ancient world (especially in the West).


    What Romans ate by the platter-ful, what fascinated Gibbon, and what 18th century Roman princes gave as presents - who knew?

    What ancient Romans ate by the platter-ful, what fascinated Gibbon, and what 18th century Roman princes gave as presents - who knew?

    Last Word…
    Gibbon – On Eating Squirrels

    Gibbon delights in glossing a cutting remark (typical) of Ammianus Marcellinus on the menus of dinners given by Roman senators.

    This from Gibbon (quoting a passage from Ammianus Marcellinus):
    (speaking of glis glis or myoxus glis – the edible dormouse)

    At the Roman tables the birds, the squirrels,(45) or the fish, which appear of an uncommon size are contemplated with curious attention; a pair of scales is accurately applied to ascertain their real weight and, while the more rational guests are disgusted by the vain and tedious repetition, notaries are summoned to attest by an authentic record the truth of such a marvellous event.

    and this from the footnote:

    Note 045
    The want of an English name obliges me to refer to the common genus of squirrels, the Latin glis, the French loir; a little animal who inhabits the woods and remains torpid in cold weather (see Plin. Hist. Natur. viii. 82; Buffon, Hist. Naturelle tom. viii. 158; Pennant’s Synopsis of Quadrupeds p. 289). The art of rearing and fattening great numbers of gliers was practised in Roman villas as a profitable article of rural economy (Varro, de Re Rustica, iii. 15). The excessive demand of them for luxurious tables was increased by the foolish prohibitions of the censors; and it is reported that they are still esteemed in modern Rome, and are frequently sent as presents by the Colonna princes (see Brotier, the last editor of Pliny, tom. ii. p. 458 apud Barbou, 1779).


    1. […] the West) could have an annual income of 500 MILLION dollars a year (4000 lbs of gold a year) (see here) – so this tribute was cheap – a joke on the Huns by the Romans. Attila will demand […]

    Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

    You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

    Google photo

    You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

    Twitter picture

    You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

    Connecting to %s


    %d bloggers like this: