As the last of the Occupy Wall Street encampments is dismantled, it seems that the protesters’ argument-- that the wealth inequality that characterizes contemporary America is without precedent — has finally become a topic of mainstream discussion.
While compelling, this argument ignores a historical truth: Over the centuries, concentration of wealth in the hands of a few has been the norm, rather than the exception.
A particularly vivid example of this phenomenon was ancient Rome, where wealth and power were tightly controlled by 1 percent or less of the population. In fact, much of what we today know of Roman life is in fact the chronicle of only this 1 percent, rather than of the silent 99 percent.
By looking carefully at the archaeological record and at such unexpected sources as the Gospels, we can understand the vivid lives underlying that historical silence, and the alarming causes of these Romans’ apparent complacency in the face of sharp inequality.
Hidden away in the hopes and fears expressed in dream interpretations, in astrological predictions, in magical texts, in grave epitaphs, and even in the New Testament world populated by 99-percenters sound the voices of ordinary Romans. And they are not so different from us.
Ordinary men focus on work as a source of identity and pride, and find social satisfaction in clubs and religious ceremonies. They worry about the dangers of travel abroad and disorder in the neighborhood. Ordinary women work hard, often outside the home. Both are concerned about their children, and strive to arrange a good future for daughters as well as sons.
Some men become soldiers to access a stable and secure world — if they lived — and some become gladiators to take advantage of the people’s craze for violent entertainment. Some women take up roles in the business world, some become prostitutes.
Even slaves carve out a life that recognizes their reality; some by hard work and less honorable means earned their freedom and even wealth. It is far, far from a benign situation with suffering for many, but still ordinary Roman people show great resilience in developing family, culture, and survival techniques to make the best of it.
Confronted by the vivid lives of this vast Roman majority, we might ask, Why didn’t the slaves revolt? Why didn’t the women fight for more equality? Why didn’t ordinary men demand political power?
The answer is simple and for us disconcerting. No one in the Roman world could conceive of such massive change in a profoundly hierarchical and static society.
Even early Christians endorsed the existing order. As Paul states, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. … Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” (Romans 13:1-7). There could be no clearer endorsement of the existing order of things.
In the Occupy movement we are experiencing the strong American tradition of questioning authority and the rule of the elite rich. Although resistance is usually futile — the periods of power to the people are few — still the enduring leitmotif is that change for the better is possible.
On the contrary, the most startling fact about how the Roman 99 percent lived is a lack of any widespread socio-political alternative to living within the expectations they were born into. Only some outlaws with their egalitarian habits could break out of the mould. And that is where we deeply differ from the 99 percent of Rome.
We can imagine conditions different than they are, and can work for positive change. We learn from the ordinary Romans that it is possible to survive and even thrive in a world constricted by the power of the elite. We hope we differ from them in being able to limit that power for the greater good of an entire society.