Economic Justice and the Roman Empire by Warren Carter

Rome’s power involved not only military supremacy and political control but also economic reach, manifested in its exploitation of its land, production, and people. Rev 18 illustrates how integral economic activity was to the empire. This chapter celebrates Rome’s downfall by focusing on its economic power, condemning the luxurious wealth shared by client kings and some merchants (Rev 18:3, Rev 18:9).

The book of Revelation sees participation in imperial economic practices as incompatible with being a Jesus-believer (Rev 13:16-17, Rev 18:4-5). The author pictures people with a mark indicating that they either participate in the imperial economy or belong to God (Rev 7:3). One cannot have allegiance to both. These allegiances collided in civic festivals and in craft and artisan guilds, where members made offerings or prayed to imperial images at regular meetings. Participation in these arenas seems to have been problematic at least for the writer of Revelation, who saw the empire as a tool of the devil to promote idolatrous worship of the emperor (Rev 13), for which it was under God’s judgment (Rev 18). The writer’s condemnation of Jesus-believers who eat food offered to idols and who participate in Roman culture (denoted by the metaphor “fornication”) in Rev 2:12-19 indicates, though, that some (perhaps most) Jesus-believers saw participation in imperial society as necessary and legitimate.

The Roman Empire was socially and economically hierarchical. Great power, wealth, and status resided in the hands of a very small ruling elite. As the parables of Jesus indicate (compare Mark 12:1-12; Matt 20:1-16), land provided the basis of wealth. The empire had a proprietary economy, with the emperor asserting control over land (and sea) by claiming a share of all produce (such as crops and livestock) through taxes and tributes. It was thus also a tributary economy, in that these taxes and tributes were paid in goods rather than cash. Historians debate the precise levels of taxation, but for small farmers trying to sustain extended families and pay multiple levels of taxes and rents to imperial, regional, and local powers, the impact could be severe.

Although elites conspicuously consumed and displayed wealth, most folks lived much less opulent lives. Some experienced a level of comfort and security, but most, especially those with few or no skills and only their labor to sell, lived precariously around and below subsistence levels, as described in Matt 25:31-46. This text not only attests extensive poverty but also declares God’s judgment on the imperial system for creating, and failing to provide for, the pervasive poor. The physical and psychological damage of the imperial system is reflected in the numerous sick and demon-possessed people who populate the Gospels. Jesus’s healings and provisions of abundant food not only repair some imperial damage but also anticipate God’s world, in which all have access to adequate resources, nutrition, and physical well-being. In the meantime, almsgiving, shared resources, loans, and benevolent patrons provided survival strategies (Matt 5:42, Matt 6:2-4). The book of James also mentions the economic exploitation and social disdain for the poor that sustained massive economic disparities (Jas 1:9-11, Jas 2:1-26, Jas 5:1-6).

Both the luxurious existence of the ruling elite and the proprietary nature of the empire are evident in a list in Rev 18:11-13 of some 28 items that merchants carried from the provinces to Rome and its elites. The list is by no means complete, but we can notice the types of luxurious goods that elites enjoyed: precious metals and stones, fine textiles, exotic woods and ivory for furnishings, plant products, food and wine products, and animals and their products.

The list ends by referencing “slaves—and human lives.” The Roman economy was a slave-based economy. Slaves could be war captives, those born into slavery, abandoned children, those seized and sold by brigands, and, notably, adults enslaved as a result of debt. Slave conditions varied enormously depending on several factors, including the master, their skills, gender, attractiveness, and the physical strength of the slave. There is evidence for brutal treatment of slaves (including unlimited sexual access) as well as genuine care. There is little evidence that anyone thought about abolishing slavery or that any such efforts existed.

The Roman economy, based on land and trade, favored elites and sustained an extravagant lifestyle marked by conspicuous consumption. Most of the population, however, was to varying degrees poor. Their daily life was precarious, with a constant struggle to supply necessities.

Warren Carter, "Economic Justice and the Roman Empire", n.p. [cited 4 Dec 2022]. Online:


Warren Carter

Warren Carter
Meinders Professor of New Testament , Phillips Theological Seminary

Warren Carter is Meinders Professor of New Testament  at Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa OK. He is the author of numerous books, including What Does Revelation Reveal? (Abingdon, 2011), John and Empire: Initial Explorations (Continuum, 2008), and The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide (Abingdon, 2006).

A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.

A skilled manual worker, trained to craft objects such as jewelry or woodwork.

Supernatural, spiritual beings that appear in the traditions of many cultures. In the Hebew Bible, demons are often fallen angels; the New Testament makes mention of demon possession, where a demon inhabits a human body.

The territories ruled by ancient Rome, from roughly 27 B.C.E. to 476 C.E., encompassing terrorities in Europe, Africa, and Asia.

Rev 18

The Fall of Babylon
1After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority; and the earth was made bright with his splendor.2He called ... View more

Rev 18:3

3For all the nations have drunk
of the wine of the wrath of her fornication,
and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her,
and the merchants o ... View more

Rev 18:9

9And the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning;

Rev 13:16-17

16Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead,17so that no one can buy or ... View more

Rev 18:4-5

4Then I heard another voice from heaven saying,
“Come out of her, my people,
so that you do not take part in her sins,
and so that you do not share
in her plagu ... View more

Rev 7:3

3saying, “Do not damage the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have marked the servants of our God with a seal on their foreheads.”

Rev 13

1And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names.2And the ... View more

Rev 18

The Fall of Babylon
1After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority; and the earth was made bright with his splendor.2He called ... View more

Rev 2:12-19

The Message to Pergamum
12“And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword:13“I know where you ar ... View more

Mark 12:1-12

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants
1Then he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, a ... View more

Matt 20:1-16

The Laborers in the Vineyard
1“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.2After agreeing ... View more

Matt 25:31-46

The Judgment of the Nations
31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.32All the nation ... View more

Matt 5:42

42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

Matt 6:2-4

2“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others ... View more

Jas 1:9-11

Poverty and Riches
9Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up,10and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in ... View more

Jas 2:1-26

Warning against Partiality
1My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?2For if a person with ... View more

Jas 5:1-6

Warning to Rich Oppressors
1Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you.2Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth ... View more

Rev 18:11-13

11And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore,12cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, s ... View more

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