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Mobilising Inequalities: Income Inequality as an Incentive in Rural-Urban Migration

Thomas A. Leibundgut

Stanford University

In order to grow both in number and population, the thousands of Roman cities needed large-scale immigration; in my paper, I argue that while most rural families would have needed to find paid labour opportunities, the majority of these migrants were young single men moving only temporarily.

Rural-urban migration is usually attributed to labour migration (Tacoma 2016), but the simple picture of masses of destitute peasants being pushed from their fields by slave-run villae has been problematised within the last few decades (Launaro 2011, Jongman 2014). Recently, the simplistic notion of one-off movement directly to the cities has been challenged, too (Moatti 2019). Also, scholars have argued that urban labour markets were less open as previously thought (Holleran 2011, cf. Erdkamp 2016). Nevertheless, these reconsiderations have not yet led to a systematic re-evaluation of traditional notions of rural-urban migration. In my paper, I analyse essential economic factors in rural-urban migration to the city of Rome.

Using census data from imperial Egypt (Bagnall and Frier 1994), I first reconstruct typical rural families and model their livelihood over the course of a generation, examining the relationship between calorie needs and agricultural productivity, overhead costs, and opportunities for paid employment in the countryside (see Cato Agr. 10f; Cic. Verr. 2.3.112; Colum. Rust. 2.9.1, 2.14.5, 3.3.4, 3.7–11, 3.21.10; Matt. 20.3–8; Varro Rust. 1.2.21, 1.44.1; Andreau 2010; Bowes 2017; Duncan-Jones 1982; Erdkamp 2005; Hollander 2019; Rathbone 2009; Scheidel and Friesen 2009; De Simone 2017). I conclude that average families living on average land should have been able to sustain themselves over the course of a generation if they could sell their surplus and had access to averagely paid labour for three months each year to compensate for the deficit years. However, there is substantial variance, particularly for large families with many sons living on marginal land: even with high-paying labour opportunities, they probably went hungry most of the time.

Second, I compare their situation with modelled urban families, discussing the structure of the labour market, average yearly wages, costs of living, and in-kind subsidies (see Petron. Sat. 8.4; Plut. Vit. Sull. 1.4; Suet. Iul. 38; Allen 2009; Bernard 2016; Bernard 2017; DeLaine 2000; Erdkamp 2012; Frier 1980a; Firer 1980b; Garnsey 1988; Hawkins 2016; Hopkins 2002; Jongman 2007; Joshel 1992; Kehoe 2007; Rathbone 2009; Saller 2012; Scheidel 2010; Scheidel 2012; Tacoma 2016; Tacoma 2018; Temin 2013). I conclude that even given the imperfect source situation it is possible to establish a range of the possible as well as a range of the probable: most families would have needed to find work for most of its members while most unskilled urban workers lived on their own.

In sum, I demonstrate that a sizeable percentage of (rural) families depended on urban labour opportunities, reveal that urban wages could not have sustained (large) families, and establish that temporary migration was significant, with young men constituting a large majority. Hence, my economic computations refine the general demographic, epigraphic, and bio-archaeological picture of rural-urban migration during the Principate.

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Roman History

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