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

In order to grow both in terms of number and population, the thousands of Roman cities needed large-scale immigration. 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 (Moatti 2019) and scholars have argued that urban labour markets were not as open as previously thought (Holleran 2011). 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, I 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. I then compare their situation with modelled urban families, discussing the structure of the labour market, average yearly wages, costs of living, and in-kind subsidies. I thus show that a sizeable percentage of families depended on urban labour opportunities but calculate that urban wages could not have sustained (large) families, and demonstrate 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.


Moatti, Claudia (2019). ‘Mobility in the Roman World. New Concepts, New Perspectives’. In: Yoo, Justin, Zerbini, Andrea, and Barron, Caroline (Eds.), Migration, Diaspora and Identity in the Near East from Antiquity to the Middle Ages. London: Routledge, pp. 15–25.

Tacoma, Laurens E. (2016). Moving Romans. Migration to Rome in the Principate. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Holleran, Claire (2011). ‘Migration and the Urban Economy of Rome’. In: Holleran, Claire, Pudsey, April (Eds.), Demography and the Graeco-Roman World. Cambridge et al.: Cambridge University Press, pp. 155–80

Launaro, Alessandro (2011). Peasants and Slaves. The Rural Population of Roman Italy. 200 BC to AD 100, Cambridge et al.: Cambridge University Press.

Jongman, Willem M. (2014). ‘The New Economic History of the Roman Empire’. In: de Callataÿ, François (Ed.), Quantifying the Greco-Roman Economy and Beyond (Pragmateiai 27), Bari: Edipuglia, pp. 169–188.


Rural simulation: Python file (zipped).

Urban simulation: Python file (zipped).


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