This is the world that most of the population, the nonelite [within the Roman Empire], negotiated every day [during the time of the New Testament].
Since the nonelite comprised about 97% of the population, it is not surprising that most early Christians belonged to this group.
An enormous gap separated the nonelite from the elite’s power, wealth, and status. There was no middle class and little opportunity for improving one’s lot. More often it was a matter of survival. There was no “Roman dream” of pulling oneself up by one’s sandal straps.
Degrees of poverty marked the nonelite. Some made an adequate living from trade. Most scraped by either from trade, artisan skills, or farming. Most knew periods of surplus and of deprivation so that regularly many nonelites lived at or below subsistence levels. If crops failed, if taxes increased, or if the elite withheld a city’s food supply and forced up prices, there was little safety net.
Many knew regular periods of food shortages. Poor health was pervasive. Infant mortality was high, with perhaps up to 50 percent not reaching age ten. Most nonelite adults died by age thirty or forty. Elite life spans were longer.
Urban life for nonelites was crowded, dirty, smelly, and subject to numerous dangers: floods, fires, food shortages, contaminated water, infectious diseases, human and animal waste, ethnic tensions, and irregular work. Rural life also knew most of these dangers. In addition, poor crop returns meant immediate food shortages, limited seed for next year, few options with which to trade for what a peasant could not produce, the likely breakup of extended families if some were forced into cities to find work, and the inability to pay taxes or repay loans, thus risking the seizure of land. Anxiety and stress about daily survival were rife.
The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide by Warren Carter (Abingdon Press, 2006), pp.10-11