Pure economics usually doesn't play into our ancient historical literature. When we look back to understand the trajectory of modern nations from their ancient counterparts, we usually remain fixed on major social developments, relationships with other countries, notable rulers and regimes, catastrophes, conflicts and the like. The unintended effect is that we grow to see the ancient past in larger-than-life colours. We might view Ancient Egypt in terms of tens of thousands of suffering slaves struggling to fashion the Great Pyramids in the desert heat; the Chinese Empire looks preoccupied with its Great Wall and factions of nomadic war groups on their doorstep; the Roman Republic slowly crumbles following Julius Caesar’s stabbing — 23 of his statesmen, Brutus too — in the Senate chamber.
But say you wanted to chart the comparative wealth and power of modern nation states when Jesus would have been a year old, in year 1. Say you were an economist feeling a little tired of today’s reality, with an itch to work in ancient time, sans OECD index. Well, sorry nerds, British economist Angus Maddison beat you to it.
It’s no easy task, considering there’s virtually no data pre-19th century relevant to these kinds of figures and the ancient landscape of transactions, income and wealth fundamentally differed from modern times. Agriculture was a primary form of exchange, and only a small few lived anything close to modern urban life. What economists can do, as the late Maddison did in his 2007 monograph Contours of the World Economy, 1-2030 AD, is use all the data we have available to make estimates in cereal units — a key grass widely cultivated for its grain — and then convert them into a hypothetical monetary currency; in this case, 1990 “international dollars” (equivalent to 1990's US dollars).
These final measures of ancient (equivalent) states in highest GDP per capita by purchasing power parity leave us with a look at money and life in the year 1 AD, superimposed on the geographical landscape of the 21st century and the currency of 1990s America:
5 Austria, Netherlands and Switzerland: $425 GDP (PPP) per capita
Modern Austria, Netherlands and Switzerland were all appendages of the Roman Empire around 1 AD. Austria — then part of the Celtic kingdom of Noricum — was the last to become fully "Romanized" in the year 40. The Empire’s influence can be seen today in Dutch-Roman Watchtowers, Swiss coliseums like the arena of Aventicum (above) and the theatre of Augusta Raurica, and of course, modern religious and political institutions.
Ancient Rome’s economy would today be classified as “underdeveloped”. Subsistence agriculture and personal farming formed the majority economic life; in terms of trade and industry, more was consumed than produced and technology developed slowly in the empire as a whole. But the Roman economy sustained a massive scale of construction in key locations over their vast territory — 6.5 million square kilometers at its peak — and of course, secured resource-costly but highly rewarding conquests early on.
Ancient Rome, it turns out, fared better in wealth inequality than the United States does today (though not by much); estimates say the wealthiest 1.5% enjoyed about 20% of the income. Perhaps less than surprisingly, the rich flaunted their wealth exactly as the 1% does today: Lavish country estates and townhouses, hoards of jewels and silverware and—like the ancient pyramids themselves — expensive tributes to the dead.
4 Belgium, Portugal, China and India: $450 GDP (PPP) per capita
Like much of Europe, Belgium and Portugal fall under the Romanized bloc throughout this period, but we also see two wealth rivals in the ancient kingdoms of China’s Han Dynasty and India’s Satavahana Dynasty at fourth place. The former described golden age of Chinese history was a period of great economic development as well as the namesake of the majority defined ethnic group in China today: the “Han people”.
In the Han Dynasty, small land-owning farmers lived nearly as well as scholars and officials in the empire’s social hierarchy; hence, like in Ancient Rome agriculture often held prospects comparable to what we might today call an upper-middle class. Underneath them lay merchants (considered social parasites), artisans, craftsman, tenants and slave workers, in diverse industries from metallurgy to construction to the empire’s nationalized salt and iron industries.
In the Satavahana dynasty, which encompassed most of modern-day India, class hierarchy was more prominent and agricultural workers thrived off rich rice and cotton production while merchants dealt in prosperous imports like wine, glass and luxury goods.
3 France: $473 GDP (PPP) per capita
Just before the turn of the millennium, most of present-day France fell under the Celtic Gaul region of Western Europe which also included present-day Luxembourg, Belgium, most of Switzerland, Northern Italy and part of the Netherlands and Germany. But a centralized Roman republic was on the rise, annexing the tribal Gaulish confederacies and fully conquering them before the turn of the millennium. Celtic Gaul was then re-divided into several Roman Gaul provinces, with the establishment of two key cities — Lugdunum (modern day Lyon, France) and Narbonensis (modern day Narbonne, France) — becoming geographically strategic hubs for the Empire.
In 1 AD, massive Roman wealth flowed to and through France. Narbonensis saw the construction of the first Roman road in Gaul—a vital route connecting Italy to Spain—and rapid development of its port to resist neighbouring resistance to the empire. Narbonensis’ rosemary-flower honey also became a prized Roman good, and much trade fell on its roads. The city was eventually named capital of the southern Gaul region.
Lugdunum, also located at and important junction, flourished as an administrative center and the de facto capital city of the entire Roman Gaul. It grew to house a large cosmopolitan population—up to 200,000 by some estimates—and a wealth of commerce and finance including a branch of the Roman Empire’s imperial mint which manufactured Roman coinage for three centuries.
2 Spain: $498 GDP (PPP) per capita
What makes the old Roman territories of modern Spain the second biggest economic producers in year one, even more so than modern France? Like the Celtic Gaul, “Spain” (more accurately the Iberian Peninsula) was a fragmented entity occupied by Iberians, Celts and eventually Carthaginians before Rome fully conquered it in 19 BC. But the Iberian Peninsula — renamed to Hispania — claimed an enormous coast on the Mediterranean Sea which probably proved more valuable for trade and transportation than France’s land roads. Equally likely, the comparative lack of unity in the former Iberian Peninsula allowed the Roman Empire to advance their customs, religions, laws and general “Romanization” of Hispania far more quickly than the more culturally consistent Celtic Gaul.
The Roman Empire funneled great resources into infrastructure and civil projects in “ancient Spain” including massive roads, bridges and aqueducts in key economic centers of Tarraco (modern Tarragona), Emerita Augusta (modern Merida) and Italica (modern Santiponce). The abundance of sewer systems, amphitheatres and bath houses still standing today testify to “Spain’s” abundance of economic activity in 1 AD.
1 Italy: $809 GDP (PPP) per capita
In year one, yes, all roads lead to Rome. The 1200-year empire revolved around the modern-day Italian capital and all her monumental constructions — the Flavian Amphitheatre (Coliseum), the Pantheon, the Forum of Trajan and all their satellite theaters, gymnasiums, taverns, baths and brothels. Rome in 1 AD is the closest parallel we have to modern metropolitan life: Combinations of spacious country villas in the periphery, elegant imperial housing moving inward, and dense apartment blocks in the city centers where the estimated few-millions shopped, traded, banked and enjoyed free “sport” entertainment spectacles.
With transportation and logistics that rivaled 18th century Europe, Rome’s GDP likely near-doubled the closest regions in the Empire. Transportation and trade here never slept. Outside the cities, land-owners thrived off providing the base agricultural demand of the urban gentry while merchants and businessmen facilitated the perpetual movement of luxury goods into the cities, like meat, fish, wine and oil from Hispania, Gaul and even Africa. Meanwhile, towering aqueducts supplied cities with infinite fresh water, and shopping was probably, like today, a number one pastime.
The economic power can be attributed to an endless number of historical factors including various military victories over weakened Greek city-states in the 2nd century BC. Not to mention the existence of slave labour which, though said to be one of the less-brutal slavery institutions in the history books, brought great prosperity to many at a cruel price.