What Pompeii can teach us about inequality

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79 the ancient Roman city of Pompeii was buried in volcanic ash. The disaster killed every citizen, but the thick ash also prevented air and moisture from destroying what was buried beneath it, preserving a unique freeze-frame of life during the Pax Romana. The vast ruins of this once splendid city have been explored since it was re-discovered in the 18th century, and archaeologists still flock to the site to uncover more of its secrets. Since 2000, a group of Swedish academics have been working to document an entire city block, or “insula,” including three big estates, a tavern, a laundry, a bakery and several gardens. Now the Swedish Pompeii Project has released a digital reconstruction of the property where a man named Caecilius Iucundus and his family lived, and it is an impressive and highly luxurious home. The academics speculate that Iucundus worked as broker of property (including slaves), connecting buyers and sellers – he was, in essence, a banker.

The video tour of Iucundus property shows the opulent luxury which was enjoyed by the upper classes of Pompeii society 2 millennia ago. In fact, when taking in the splendour of the home it is striking how relatively little has changed for the elites in the two thousand years since Iucundus lived: the building and its’s features are certainly different from a modern home, but it looks a comfortable and luxurious place to live, even by today’s standards.

To stress, this is not an argument that the lives of everyone have not been revolutionised by the inventions and discoveries achieved since the emergence of modern free trade economies. Rich and poor alike have enjoyed tremendous benefits from the advances in healthcare and transportation, and of course information technology has radically changed the way we live and work. But many of the other great achievements of the capitalist economy have benefited the poor to an immensely greater extent than the rich: clean water, insulated housing, leisure time, universal education, a varied and plentiful diet – all are things which were simply not available to the great majority of the population, but were definitely not unknown – they were just reserved for the elites only. Over the last few centuries, however, they have gone from being the preserve of the upper classes to being universally available; today it is the very stuff which distinguish advanced economies from emerging ones: where they are available to the population at large we use the term “advanced” to describe how far we have come, where they are not we recognise that the economies are still “emerging” from a more basic stage.

This is what capitalism has given us. Free trade and the division of labour have allowed mankind to take advantage of capital stock and specialisation to increase productivity and use comparative strengths to optimally divide work between us. The result has been a growth in wealth which – regardless of the constant barrage of propaganda trying to convince us that capitalism is responsible for a divergence in wealth between the various strata of society – has been divided generously between all of us; not by the iron fist of government coercion but by the invisible hand of the market. In doing so, it has dispensed with many of the basic things which for millennia differentiated the “haves” and the “have-nots”. Today’s rich would certainly find it an inconvenience to be transported back to the time of Pompeii. Today’s poor, on the other hand, would find it a death sentence.

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