The sophistication and scale of the Roman economy was a marvel that powered all of its other achievements, from monumental buildings on three continents to its famed and feared professional army. Although it was an agrarian economy focused around agricultural production, it was surprisingly complex, with whole regions specializing in particular goods (olive oil in North Africa, fish sauce in Spain, grain in Sicily and North Africa) that were sold in commercial markets with prices set by market activity. There was manufacturing activity on a scale that could nearly be considered mass production, especially of pottery and other small consumer goods.
In basic ways, though, this whole edifice of economic vitality was built on the Roman state. Its tax regime tied together whole regions, bringing huge amounts of grain from North Africa to Rome and Egypt to Constantinople on ships subsidized by the state. Supplying an army of hundreds of thousands of troops along the frontier required the state to retool the economies of entire regions, stimulating demand and economies of scale that produced surpluses for commercial sale. The state minted money and pumped it into the economy via payments to soldiers and other officials. The most extensive infrastructure of roads, bridges, canals, and ports the world would see until the Industrial Revolution, all of it either built or subsidized by the Roman state, moved those goods to market.
When the state disappeared over the course of the fifth century, so too did the economy it had supported.
This happened in much different ways across the vast, diverse expanse of the Roman Empire. In Britain, which had depended entirely on the presence of the Roman state to pump coinage into the economy and stimulate demand for goods, the drop-off was disastrous: Within 80 years of its peak in 350, the money economy was gone, cities and market towns had disappeared completely, and industrial production of pottery and metalwork no longer existed. In the big port cities of the Mediterranean, however, life continued much as it had beforehand, though on a progressively smaller scale. Places like Carthage, Marseille, Tarragona, and even Rome (though much diminished) remained islands of concentrated commercial demand, importing pottery, agricultural produce, and luxury goods in substantial quantities.
As time went on, though, everything that had characterized the Roman economy—commercial markets, large-scale trade of cheap bulk goods, and the money economy—slipped away even from these last bastions of demand. By 700, only rare luxury goods still traversed the Mediterranean, and the Roman economy was gone for good.
I’m Patrick Wyman, and I just finished my PhD on the end of the Roman Empire. It seems pretty silly to me that professional historians don’t actually talk to the general public—why would you spend decades working on something if you don’t want to tell people about it?—so that’s why I’m doing this podcast on the fall of Rome.
In this week’s episode, we look at the decline and fall of the Roman economy, and why the Roman state had been so important. We follow the lives of two people, a woman living in a small market town in Britain and a merchant in Rome, to try to humanize these abstract, long-term shifts and bring them back down to earth.
If that sounds interesting to you, give this episode a listen, and if you have any questions, let me know in the comments.