The Empire was characterized by an abysmal gulf separating the upper from the lower classes. On one side of that great divide were the Wealthy, who made up 1% of the population but owned at least half of the wealth. Also on that side were three other classes: the Politicians, who could own as much as 15% of the wealth; the Retainers ranging from military generals to expert bureaucrats; and the Merchants, who probably evolved upward from the lower classes but could end up with considerable wealth and political power. On the other side were, above all, the Workers, that vast majority of the population about two-thirds of whose annual income went to support the upper classes. If they were lucky, they lived at subsistence level, barely able to support family and social obligations, and have enough left over for emergencies. If they were not lucky, drought, debt, disease, or death forced them out of their jobs, their houses repossessed, and into unemployment, welfare or homelessness. This put them into the Degraded and Expendable classes — the former with origins, occupations, or conditions rendering them outcasts; the latter, maybe as much as 10% of the population, ranging from people working at jobs paying less than a livable wage and veterans with PTSD to drug addicts and beggars. Those Expendables existed, as that terrible title suggests, because the Empire usually contained more of the lower classes than the upper classes found it profitable to employ. Expendables were, in other words, a systemic necessity.
Does this sound familiar? The first time I read it, some years ago, it didn’t hit me with the same horror as it did today. This is actually a description of the Roman Empire in the first century AD, ancient terms suitably translated. It comes from a study by Gerhard Lenski, quoted by John Dominic Crossan, in Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, p25.