Arnold Kling  

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James McCormick reviews Bryan Ward-Perkins on the fall of the Roman Empire.


the era between Pompeii’s suppression of the pirates in the mid-first century BCE and the fall of Carthage to the Vandals in 439CE is the longest period of Mediterranean safety in its history. Thus professionalization of security in the empire, and its reallocation to face its most grave danger (the Sassanids), had left huge economically-productive areas to prosper … but they were also extremely vulnerable to even casual predation.

Ward-Perkins' thesis is that Rome created a strong economy based on trade, and that living standards collapsed when Rome fell. McCormick writes,

Who can fail to be swayed by Roman prosperity and logistical excellence when Ward-Perkins describes Mount Testaccio near the old river port of Rome … one kilometer around and up to 45m high, containing the broken remains of 53 million amphorae, representing 6 billion liters of olive oil imported from around the Mediterranean?

Or by the ice caps of Greenland recording the pollution from Roman smelting of lead, silver, and copper at levels unmatched til the 16th and 17th century.

Or by Gaulish pottery spread across archaeological sites in the entire western end of Europe from Scotland to the Baltic to North Africa.

Using only the labour of man and beast, the energy of wind and tides, the Romans created a trading network much like that of the 13-15th centuries … the era of the Italian trading city-republics. The Romans clothed, armed, fed, and paid a professional army of 600,000 men spread over thousands of square miles and resupplied them from a series of specialized factories located mostly in Italy. They drew agricultural and manufacturing products from North Africa at such a huge scale that returning ships were ballasted with Italian construction brick … used in turn to create massive public works in Africa throughout the imperial era.


Most of Ward-Perkins' thesis reflects inferences drawn from excavation of pottery. In order to hold onto my view that this was not a modern economy, I would have to argue that such inferences are a crock. As McCormick puts it,

Earlier scholars considered the Roman economy to be modest, mostly local, and where not local, overwhelmingly driven by the state and the army. The archaeological record says otherwise. The distribution of artifacts and discarded pottery and coinage establishes a massive and vital commercial economy, geared to satisfying the appetites of humble and modest customers, well away from the State and military installations of the era. And as for that, one can only wonder at what the economic impact was of the soldiers stationed in Wales and Mesopotamia ... They were paid in gold, many were literate, and ... they had access to hundreds of different well-made and mass-produced items of ordinary daily use.

UPDATE: This review of After Tamerlane piques my interest.


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CATEGORIES: Economic History



COMMENTS (10 to date)
Rue Des Quatre Vents writes:

I mentioned Ward-Perkins's book over at Marginal Revolution during the whole Gregory Clark book club discussion. Unfortunately no one took to my point that it was countervailing evidence against Clark's thesis. Rereading this, I will stand by that.

Since I read the book based on Tyler's recommendation, I'm surprised he didn't refer to it in his criticisms against Clark either.

Tim Worstall writes:

"the era between Pompeii’s suppression of the pirates"

Trivial I know but it leapt out at me. Pompey's...Pompeii is the city at the foot of Vesuvius.

AMW writes:

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Mark.Koyama writes:

I am a big fan of Bryan Ward-Perkins thesis though admittedly I am slightly biased as he taught me History as an undergraduate.

Arnold is right to be sceptical of archaelogy alone. It strikes me that it should be the task of economic historians to try to connect the archaelogy of the ancient world to basic economic theory. Nevertheless, with a few exceptions such as Peter Temin, they have by and large failed to do so. Thus economists are left with the picture that the world before about 1775 had no markets and was in a permanent Malthusian equilibrium which I think is very misleading.

Bryan Ward-Perkins by the way is a pure historian with little background in economics but the argument he makes fits in perfectly with a Smithian model of economic growth based on specialization and market based development.

I thought the lead-pollution data showed that Roman industrial production had declined well before the barbarian invasions. The barbarian invasions were a consequence of Rome's weakness, not a cause.

David Friedman writes:

One measure of prosperity in poor societies is population growth. If things are going well more people can afford to produce children, children are less likely to die, population goes up.

From this standpoint, it's interesting to look at the graph of (estimated) European population in the Atlas of World Population History. It peaks at about 200 A.D. and then starts down. At about 600 A.D., with the Roman Empire barely cold in its grave, it starts back up again. By 1000 A.D. it has passed its Roman high and by 1300 is more than twice what it was in 200. I take that as some evidence against the idea that things were, on net, better off in the Roman Empire than in the medieval period.

I think there is some tendency to overrate past societies that were centralized--because they produce splendid buildings, support poets, and in other ways do things visible to us but not necessarily worth doing from the standpoint of the population that paid for them.

Troy Camplin writes:

One measure of rich societies is population growth. Italy currently has negative population growth. Are we to thus conclude that it is not rich? In fact, we know that the poorer a country is, the more children families have. True, fewer survive, but the net result is population growth. Countries that have been wealthy for a while have low population growth. If you combine this tendency with the collapse of a government and economy, as happened with Rome, we should expect to see devastating effects. It might take a few hundred years to recover.

Mark Koyama writes:

David, I have two responses to your point about population. First, Europe and the Roman empire were geographically different entities so you are not comparing like with like. Second, classical and medieval demography is much disputed.

In the Rome period, for instance Germany was covered with forests and had a much smaller population than did it in the Middle Ages. A fair comparison would be with Italy in 0 AD and Italy in 1300 or 1500. Or with Gaul in 100 AD and France in 1700. This illustrates the first point I wanted to make.


The census of Augustus seems to imply that there were 4 million adult male Roman citizens in Italy around 0 AD which may imply a total population of 15 - 20 million. This is the only data point we have yet it implies that the population of Italy was as high in Roman times as it would be in the 19th century! unsurprizingly historians dispute these implications. This supports may second point about the reliability of the estimates we have.
Similarly the estimated population of Roman Gaul of around 15 -20 million compares favourably with any estimates for French population until the Revolution.

spencer writes:

The After Tamerlane review raised an interesting though for me.

What about the impact of the American gold in European development. The great increase in the gold supply in the 1500 generated what historians use to call the great inflation in Europe. Did this play a significant role in the cost of capital, the rise of the merchant --capitalist -- class over the old medieval rulers, etc., and the emergence of the great break out of European standard of living.

This seems to be an question of economic history that seems to be neglected in the current discussions. Or is it an issue that has been resolved among economic historians since I studied this area some 40 years ago?

David Friedman writes:

Mark points out, correctly, that the Roman Empire isn't the same thing as Europe. The source I was citing, the Atlas of World Population History, has separate figures for Italy and France; the pattern is pretty much the same as I described for Europe.

He also points out that historical population figures are uncertain, which is surely true.

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