The Roman economy reached a high level of sophistication and complexity that was not reached again until the Renaissance.
Ward-Perkins’s fairly short history is packed with the latest archeological knowledge. He rebuts two myths – 1) That the Roman Economy was primitive 2) that the Germans did not destroy the Civilization
The Germanic Invasions and the Dark Ages left Europe intellectually and economically stagnant for almost a thousand years. If all civilizations are equal, where were the German mathematicians of the 500s AD?
“It is currently deeply unfashionable to state that anything like a “crisis” or a “decline” occurred at the end of the Roman Empire, let alone that “civilization” collapsed and a “dark age” ensued. The new orthodoxy is that the Roman world, in both East and West, was slowly, and essentially painlessly, “transformed” into a medieval form. However, there is an insuperable problem with this new view: it does not fit the mass of archaeological evidence now available, which shows a startling decline in the western standards of living during the fifth to seventh centuries. This was a change that affected everyone, from peasants to kings, even the bodies of the saints resting in their churches. It was no mere transformation — it was decline on a scale that can reasonably be described as ‘the end of a civilization’”
I’ll start with a simple example.
Ward-Perkins describes the history of a small Syrian village. It had poor rocky soil which could not be farmed to support a large population. Yet a large town thrived on this land. How? The soil was good for olive trees.
So the townsmen and farmers specialized in producing olive oil. They packaged the olive oil and shipped it out to the rest of the Empire. This is an example of the benefits of comparative advantage and an economy of scale. It may not have been the absolute best place to grow olives, but they were comparatively better at it. They sold olive oil in many places of the Empire where demand was high but local production was low. They traded their oil for foreign wine, grain, pottery, metal tools, roofing tiles, everything they could possibly have needed. The town supported a relatively wealthy and advanced population due to specialization.
After the Fall, this Syrian village fell apart. The trade routes shut down. Pirates infested the seas, and bandits closed off the highways. Merchant activity declined and economic flows of goods halted. How could they trade? Who could they sell the olive oil to? Where could they import grain and iron tools from? They were reduced to sustenance agriculture, trying to grow their own food from the poor rocky soil, making their own low-quality pottery from the lousy local clay, and scrap together whatever metal they had over to make tools. They were olive farmers; they were unskilled at blacksmithing, grain farming, pottery and the rest. The land could not support the population, so many people left. The population shrank drastically and the remnants were reduced to extreme poverty.
And this Syrian village was not even attacked. Imagine how rough the Europeans had it.
Sow how did the Roman Economy work?
Military conquests do not create empires. Militaries merely pass over land. A state needs to hold and integrate this new territory into its economy. Stone roads and Triremes made the Empire.
The foundation of the economy was the transportation network and Roman Engineering. The Mediterranean Sea and the Roman Highways created commercial flows and the Roman legions and navy provided the needed security. Communications and information flowed along the same transportation routes. Without transportation, there would be no trade and the military would be struck in one place.
The ancient triremes and biremes were common ships of the period, but there were an assortment of different transport ships. Most were rowed ships (and some sail), which made frequently nightly stops at each port along their journey. The Sea was a trading hub, connecting every coastal port to Rome. And every port was connected to the hinterland with a highway. The Empire stopped everywhere the roads ended.
Water travel was cheap and fast. Even cities on the same landmass were primarily connected through their ports rather than their roads. Triremes and other ships could carry large amounts of cargo, but overland routes could only be transversed with oxen-drawn carts. Highways were still useful by connecting the hinterlands to the towns and nearest port.
Italy virtually deforested itself through massive construction projects and ship-building. Construction was shifted to other regions of the empire. The Romans put more ships on the Mediterranean than any civilization would for over a thousand years.
Outside the Empire, the Romans traded with the Persians and connected to the Silk Road. The entire Eurasian economy was linked together – even if not on the same scale as the Mediterranean.
Rome was unique because it was built around a giant lake. Goods flowed in a small-worlds network. Merchants at a port city were just two or three ports away from any destination in the empire. No where else in the world was there so much commerce. The Chinese perhaps came closest, but their trade was restricted by slow overland and river commerce.
The Empire provided a standardized legal system and language to facilitate trade and reduce the costs of transactions. It safeguarded merchants, farmers, and manufacturers to prevent criminal and warlord predation.
It was seemingly stable. Rome suffered many crises in its history – plagues, economic recessions, civil wars – but the trade never stopped. The economy corrected for errors and disruptions and continued to expand.
Economy of Scale
This created the economy of scale. This meant that the long run average cost of manufactured goods decreased. Say you’re a Roman guy and you have to build one pot on your own. You have to buy the necessary materials and tools to make the pot and learn the needed skills. This means the first pot you produce is very expensive. The second pot you build is considerably cheaper. An economy of scale means you can sell a larger number of goods than possible in your neighborhood, and mass production reduces the marginal costs per unit.
This encouraged mass production to meet market demand across the Mediterranean. The large market produced diversity and specialization.
Some of these were absolute advantages. Britain supplied lead and tin, Egypt supplied wheat and papyrus scrolls. Others were comparative advantages, as in the Syrian village example I mentioned at the start. And so ships from North Africa would sail to Italy and unload their stores of grain. The ships would be loaded with roofing tiles and metal tools to return back to Africa.
Specialization and Complexity
One example of this specialization is the high quality pottery. The produced a wide variety of smooth high-quality standardized pottery. Manufacturing centers specialized in certain types of pottery and build massive kilns to produce thousands of ceramic containers on demand. These centers “labeled” their pottery with the company name. They acted just like our companies and corporations today by stamping their logos on their goods. These logos signaled reliable high-quality goods.
Roman Manufacturing centers supplied pottery throughout the empire. Ward-Perkins showed the wide distribution of merchandise and artifacts. Pottery produced in one Gallic kiln was found everywhere, from Britain, to Germany, to North Africa, Italy, and the Middle East.
One type of popular pottery was the amphorae – a large ceramic container which transported and stored wine, oil and other goods. It was produced in such massive quantities so cheaply that excess was disposed instead of reused. “Mount Testaccio” was the pottery garbage dump of Rome. In this garbage heap, there are 53 million amphorae which brought in 6 billion liters of olive oil and wine to the capital city.
Pottery was not the only mass-produced good. Roman iron works and metallurgy were far more expansive than anyone in later times realized.
The Ice Cap samples from Greenland allowed historians and archeologists to test the pollution levels during ancient times and the results are intriguing. Smelting from iron production during the Roman Era produced atmospheric pollution at a level not reached again until the 1600s. The Romans produced more tonnage of iron, bronze, silver, lead, copper and other metal tools than any other civilization of its time period.
For example, Legionary armor and weapons were produced from over a dozen manufacturing centers. Other manufacturing centers mass produced iron for carpenters, farmers, and others. Each manufacturer specialized in mass producing one type of high-quality standardized weapon or tool. The standardization of products was astounding in the pre-industrial era.
Architecture was technologically advanced, with inventions such as concrete. Public works are well known – aqueducts, sewers, public baths, and urban buildings. Less well known, but equally advanced were basic houses for the common classes. Roofs had tiles and underfloor central heating. A furnace in the basement would heat the home through flues in the walls.
This advanced and highly specialized economy enriched everyone, from the elites to the common citizens and even the slaves. Large cities with suburbs flourished because the market brought them food from distant lands. Ward-Perkins and many other historians showed that literacy in Rome was widespread and not restricted to the urban elites. People could specialize in engineering, sciences, mathematics.
The End of Complexity
The Barbarians battered their way through the gates and they were bad at math.
The Roman civilization depended on economic flows and transportation. The Germans destroyed this flow of goods. No transportation meant no movement of cargo. No cargo meant no distribution of resources. Complexity ends.
Back to Ward-Perkins:
“In my opinion, the fifth century witnessed a profound military and political crisis, caused by the violent seizure of power and much wealth by the barbarian invaders. The native population was able, to some extent, to adapt to these new conditions, but what is interesting about this adjustment is that it was achieved in very difficult circumstances. I also believe that the post-Roman centuries saw a dramatic decline in economic sophistication and prosperity, with an impact on the whole of society, from agricultural production to high culture, and from peasants to kings. It is very likely that the population fell dramatically, and certain that the widespread diffusion of well-made goods ceased. Sophisticated cultural tools, like the use of writing, disappeared altogether in some regions, and became very restricted in all others.”
The Germans attacked the Roman economic networks and disrupted the flow of commerce. Some of this was due to poor maintenance and the lack of security. Bandits took over highways, cities were sacked, and suburbs shrank as people left for the farms. Pirates returned to the Mediterranean, ports rotted, and the number of ships at sea declined by more than half. Every region was disconnected and isolated.
The Germans brought disunity. The Western Empire was cut up into rival micro-empires, with the Franks ruling one bit, the Visigoths ruling another, the Ostrogoths ruling a bit of Italy, and so forth. Worse yet, they cut off unfavorable trade, basically favoring a form of trade protectionism. “Free Trade” in the Mediterranean ended due to the lack of security and political feuding.
Each German government created a different legal and political system, all of which were quantifiably inferior to their Roman predecessors. Germans were illiterate and did not understand basic arithmetic needed to resurrect complex economic systems such as banking. There was a sharp decline in coinage, offering a way to quantify the economic collapse. Many areas were reduced to a barter-economy. Political divisions prevented stable and secure trade networks from regenerating.
Trade broke down as merchants lost confidence. The German invasions disrupted the entire economy. When this happened, specialization became impossible, as every local areas needed to become agriculturally and militarily self-sufficient.
This was the economic autarky of the dark ages. Every region needed to grow enough food to feed itself, produce its own pottery, weapons, and tools. Specialist laborers disappeared, and everyone was a “generalist” – good at producing a small amount of low quality goods.
This is typified by the feudal system which emerged in the Dark Ages. Warlords became landowners ruling over impoverished serfs. The estate had to be self-sufficient – the warlords raised their own small armies, their own foods and supplies.
The population declined sharply. Cities declined in size, many were less than 1/3 their original size at the height of the Empire. This shut down the manufacturing factories which provided so many of the manufactured goods that created Roman wealth. Advanced metallurgy and stone cutting became lost arts. The loss of food supplies from Egypt and North Africa left many regions with a “surplus” population that just disappeared.
Agricultural outputs declined sharply. The diet was less diverse and the calories were reduced compared to the Roman period. Ward-Perkins noticed that cows shrank in size.
The height of cattle, as measured from hoof to shoulder decreased. Cows in the Dark Ages were smaller and scrawnier because there was less feed.
Iron-Age Cattle: 115.5cm
Roman Cattle: 120cm
Early Medieval: 112cm
The quality of buildings plunged. Instead of stone buildings with tiled roofs and underground heating, Dark Age building were built in the traditional German style – a big wooden house with a bonfire in the center and a hole in the ceiling to let out the smoke.
“There is no evidence whatsoever of the continued quarrying of building stone, nor of the preparation of mortar, nor of the manufacture and use of bricks and tiles. All new buildings in the fifth and sixth centuries, whether in Anglo-Saxon or unconquered British areas, were either of wood and other perishable materials or of drystone walling, and all were roofed in wood or thatch.”
It was all they could do. Quarries were shut down or simply cut off from most regions, so everyone lacked the stone and mortar to build proper homes. The Germanic buildings were less sanitary and posed greater fire hazards.
The collapse caused the loss of loss of technology like concrete. Construction projects came to a halt, so what were starving artisans to do? They knew how to mix concrete, but they could not get the resources, nor was their any money to pay for new buildings. Specialists abandoned their old professions out of necessity and their knowledge was lost.
Roman Concrete is something of a mystery. It was probably a mixture of lime, pozzolan ash and rocks. The method of construction must have differed though. Modern concrete did not last as long as the Roman buildings. Instead of making single concrete blocs which is cheap and easy, the Romans may have spread the concrete in successive thin layers, similar to how we build dams today.
It was so bad, that Britain was returned to a Pre-Iron Age Economy and was completely isolated from Continental Europe. It was in worse condition than the Pre-Roman era Celtic society prior to 43AD. When archeologists study the Sutton Hoo gravesites in the 7th century, the realized the Anglo-Saxon nobility had less material possessions than a Roman plebe. Most of what they owned was poorly manufactured crap. British pottery was homemade, improperly fired, hand molded junk which broke easily. That’s assuming they could fill it with much, which is doubtful. There was also little variety in pottery – there was one or two types, but that was it. Strangely, just a few decades before, diverse types of high-quality Romano-British pottery would have been sold across Continental Europe.
Not only was the Roman system destroyed, but the pre-Roman systems were destroyed as well. The British were genuinely reduced to depraved barbarity suddenly within one generation.
Not every region suffered as badly, but the damage was extensive. Every pocket of prosperity was wiped out. Even those areas not invaded were crippled by the loss of their trading partners.
“Comparison with the contemporary western world is obvious and important. Admittedly, the ancient economy was nowhere near as intricate as that of the developed world in the twenty-first century. … We would be quite incapable of meeting our needs locally, even in an emergency. The ancient world had not come as far down the road of specialization and helplessness as we have, but it had come some way.
The enormity of the economic disintegration that occurred at the end of the empire was almost certainly a direct result of this specialization. The post-Roman world reverted to levels of economic simplicity, lower even than those of immediately pre-Roman times, with little movement of goods, poor housing, and only the most basic manufactured items.
It took centuries for people in the former empire to reacquire the skills and the regional networks that would take them back to these pre-Roman levels of sophistication.”
And so the most complex and advanced economy of antiquity was obliterated. People were reduced to subsidence agriculture through the Dark Ages. This is the product of a cascade failure. One failure caused another failure, like falling dominos.
It took less than 100 years for this highly specialized economy to fall into impoverished simplicity and barbarism. This is not the first time that a civilization collapsed. Historians are now discovering that the complex economy of the Song Dynasty of China rivaled Rome, but was destroyed by the Mongolian invasions in the same way as the German invasions of Rome. In the distant past, the invasion of the Steppe Charioteers destroyed the early Babylonian, Indian, and Greek civilizations and threw them into dark ages. The fall of the Aztec and Incan Empires were even more catastrophic than the fall of Rome.
The Late Antiquity narratives actually tell us more about the corruption of modern historians than about the Fall of Rome. Today, historians are moving away from “Hard” facts towards “Soft” facts. They are pushing aside quantitative economic and political history in favor of cultural and artistic debates about spirituality during the time period.
To cultural scholars who dispute the “Fall” thesis, I must ask, what were there great advances in mathematical knowledge in Europe between 500 and 1200 AD? Why were there no advances in the problems of geometry, algebra, engineering or the sciences until after the Renaissance? Why was there such intellectual stagnation for one thousand years?
History, sometimes, moves backwards. Quality of living and technology are more fragile and less certain than they appear.