Arnold Kling  

Ancient Rome, etc.

Solar Power Arithmetic... It's Not Just Me: Further Back...

Mark Koyama has two more follow-ups, here and here. In the first, he writes

Roman transport links were as good as any that existed in Europe until the late 18th or even the 19th centuries.

This may address a point that I was going to make, which is that you don't see trade in basic foodstuffs on a large scale until nearly 1850. For much of history, we had trade in spices, precious metals, sugar, and some textiles. But my sense is that basic food rarely traveled more than a few miles until the late 19th century.

But now we go back to Rome and we allegedly see grain being shipped over long distances in large quantities. At the very least, this requires efficient transportation.

So let us grant that transportation during the Roman empire was remarkably good compared to what followed for many hundreds of years. The question still exists whether food came to Rome through market exchange or by imperial taxation. My bet would be on the latter, and Koyama seems prepared to agree.

Taxation could give rise to all sorts of complex financial transactions, including promissory notes backed by future tax collections. You could build up a rich set of markets where the soldiers and tax collectors in Rome trade with one another using coins as a medium of exchange. But the foundation of these markets is plunder.

After Tamerlane makes it appear that the ratio of plunder to production remained high well into the 18th century. Only when Great Britain established hegemony at sea did the movement of merchandise evolve from a state-run plunder-monopoly to a competitive enterprise.

The Marxist view of globalization is that it never ceased being all about plunder. Adam Smith had a different view, but in his day the world may actually have been more Marxist than Smithian.

Comments and Sharing

CATEGORIES: Economic History

COMMENTS (10 to date)
Michael writes:

Wasn't the trade of the Hansactic League based on bulk goods including food stuff and timber products? In Fernand Braudel's Cililization and Capitalism he documents the trade in grains including from Poland up the Vistula then transported to Amsterdam by League.

Mark Seecof writes:

What about the Phoenicians? There seems to be good documentation that they maintained very extensive trading networks which were not based on plunder (though home cities may have repatriated the profits from their trading colonies). The Phoenicians traded the produce of their manufacturing industries, wool and textiles obtained by trade, metals (especially tin obtained by trade from England and the Scillys), and so-forth, for bulk foodstuffs at least part of the time. They moved a fair amount of wine and grain around. In the end, the Phoenicians succumbed to plunder-based polities (Persia followed by Alexander's Macedonians).

I agree that much of material which moved from North Africa and other portions of the Roman empire toward the center was plunder ("tribute") but I think there's a lot of evidence for real, mutual-advantage trade as well, in luxuries (silks, dyes, spices), manufactured goods (ceramics, cloth, metal implements), industrial raw materials (wool, metals, shipwrights' lumber), edibles (oil, wine, salted meat and fish), and animals (horses, for one).

Troy Camplin writes:

Well, basic foodstuffs couldn't travel very far until preservation techniques were improved. Still, we do see trade in such things as grains over long distances, as noted in reference to Rome and Egypt, but also with such things as preserved eels in ancient Greece. Beoetia seemed to be a preferred source of eels for Athens, which received them from Beoetia through trade. Again, Aristophanes famously complained that war was getting in the way of trade.

Also, why does British hegemony guarantee free trade, but Roman and Athenian hegemony over the seas mean that they were only plundering? All three created hegemony over the seas to reduce plunder -- piracy -- to guarantee trade with their neighbors wouldn't be interrupted.

Lord writes:

Plunder to production would have likely been small even then. Most production was subsistence and only a limited portion would have traveled to local markets. Bulk food transfers were likely for governmental ends, but it seems unlikely government would constitute much more than 10-20% of production. Meanwhile, nonbasic items, such as olive oil and wine that would be transported long distances, usually represented personal luxuries that would be market exchanged. Value-wise, these would likely have dominated long-range commerce.

dearieme writes:

The trade in coal from Newcastle to London had thrived for hundreds of years before the 1850s, surely?

spencer writes:

If you are right that before the emergence of the British empire that most trade was all about plunder rather then fair market exchanges aren't you just providing another argument that capitalism is highly dependent on good government. I know of plenty of examples of government without capitalism, but am hard pressed to come up with a single example of capitalism without good government.

Troy Camplin writes:

What do you mean by "good government"? Singapore is a capitalist country, and it's a dictatorship that likes to pretend it's a democracy. There does seem to be a trend of free markets giving rise to more representative government giving rise to more socialism, but those seem to be the only correlations. The foundation of the U.S. seems the real odd man out.

Arnold Kling writes:

Of course capitalism requires good government, in the sense of a government that does not participate in or allow large-scale plunder. Bad government that lets the Mafia run loose or bad government that behaves like the Mafia will ruin capitalism.

An anarcho-capitalist would say that private agencies could provide the service of protection against plunder. A minarchist (like me) thinks that we need government to keep the private agencies from warring.

Tim Worstall writes:

"But my sense is that basic food rarely traveled more than a few miles until the late 19th century."

It's one of the more boring bits of the recent Power and Plenty that grain markets in Europe were pretty much integrated early on: 14th c. I think they say.(That's from memory, so open to question.) But it's a lot earlier than 19th c.

John F. Opie writes:

Hi -

Goodness, the apparent lack of history in modern education shows.

Not all foodstuffs must be preserved to be easily transported. Grains, obviously, need only be packaged; oil and wine travel very nicely in amphora (fired and internally glazed clay vessels) and fruit, plucked early, ripens on route to market. Meat doesn't spoil during transit because it was shipped live, slaughtered first at the destination.

Even ice was transported from the Alps to Rome for the pleasure of Nero, transported in winter and kept underground, thawing only very, very slowly and lasting through the summer.

Grain and the like was the major part of tribute for lands conquered by the Romans, and set free vast numbers of Romans to join the legions to go and conquer more. Rome attacked Carthage because Carthage threatened Roman naval might, which protected trade links and enabled large numbers of ships to forgo most armaments, relying instead on Roman naval ships to ensure that piracy was not a lucrative option. Sea transportation is vastly more efficient than land transportation - this is also true today - and while the Romans had no right and proper sailing vessels, they had more than enough slaves for the galleys.

Or do y'all think that the Roman Empire could have lasted if it did not function economically? It did quite well, albeit for the benefit of the Romans, for literally centuries. You can't do that without transportation of goods, and those goods must arrive fairly intact and fairly fresh. Otherwise the empire doesn't work.

And while Roman armies lived off the land, the sheer numbers of troops out in the field meant that the Romans knew their logistics.

If reading history is too hard, watch the BBC series called "Rome" to get a basic idea of the economics of the period (it's also pretty good entertainment...). Roman citizens served in the military, sent their pay largely back home to finance their families, bringing back slaves as well. When they returned, their wives were to have saved and invested the money to provide for a life of leisure, or to have set up a business, more often than not predicated on personal relationships and knowledge of foreign markets. Generals were given land and grain rights as rewards for defeating their enemies, which points to an excellent understanding of how economic incentives served to cement the interpersonal relationships that formed the core of the Roman Empire.

Worked until the society became totally corrupt and indolent, where sons refused to become soldiers and instead hired barbarians to do the killing. The barbarians did the killing, but it was Romans who died...

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top