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Escaping Malthus? The rise and fall of the Roman economy

Event details of ACLE seminar: Willem Jongman (Rijksuniversiteit Groningen)
Date 25 May 2009
Time 11:45 -13:15


The modern orthodoxy on pre-industrial economies is a pessimistic one: failing the kind of modern economic growth that we have known from the Industrial Revolution, all there was was a longue duree of life at or near subsistence. The change that there was, was the alternation between periods of growing populations and eroding standards of living, and the Malthusian remedy of mortality crises and subsequent recovery of that standard of living.

And yet, a completely different paradigm once prevailed. Both in the Renaissance, and even as late as the eighteenth century of Edward Gibbon, the economic history of pre-industrial Europe was not viewed as a story of changeless change, but as one of decline from the Golden Age of ancient Rome. That optimistic paradigm was squeezed out of fashion by the joint forces of English self confidence about the achievements of the modern industrial economy, and the romanticism of medievalists and economists of the Historical School, who underscored the vitality of the medieval economy, and really denied that there was much of a decline in the early medieval period: the Middle Ages were not a Dark Age.

I think that is all nonsense, only perpetuated because ancient historians have ceded the centre court of economic history to historians of later periods, and have withdrawn into philological nostalgia or its postmodern equivalent. My methodology will be different: rather than assume that the past is just a ‘discourse' I will hunt for large sets of empirical data. Traditional text bound Roman historians despaired of the chance to ever have large quantitative datasets of the Roman economy. I think they were right to despair, but wrong to give up: archaeology can provide us with the large quantities of data that written sources from antiquity cannot.

Interestingly, these data all reveal a highly similar pattern of quite dramatic growth from sometime in perhaps the third century BC, until late in the second century AD, after which the Roman economy quite suddenly went into apparently dramatic decline. Remarkably enough, the trends in population and standard of living both moved in the same direction, rather than in opposite directions. How could this be?

Reference material

Willem M. Jongman (2007) 'Gibbon was right: the decline and fall of the Roman economy.' in: Olivier Hekster, Gerda de Kleijn and Daniëlle Slootjes (eds.), /Crises and the Roman Empire. Proceedings of the Seventh Workshop of the International Network Impact of Empire (Nijmegen, June 20-24, 2006) /Leiden (E.J. Brill) 183-199.

Willem M. Jongman (2007) ‘The early Roman Empire: consumption' in: Walter Scheidel, Ian Morris and Richard P. Saller (eds.), /The Cambridge economic history of the Greco-Roman world/. Cambridge (CUP). 592-618.


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