Should-Read: Mark Koyama: The End of the Past

Should-Read: Mark Koyama: The End of the Past: “Temin’s GDP estimates suggest that Roman Italy had comparable per capita income to the Dutch Republic in 1600…

…Schiavone… raises important points that I had fully not considered previously…. Aelius Aristides celebrating the wealth of the Roman empire in the mid-2nd century AD… a panegyric addressed to flatter the emperor but its emphasis on long-distance trade, commerce, manufacturing is highly suggestive. Such a speech is all but impossible to imagine in an predominantly rural and autarkic society. Aristides is painting a picture of a highly developed commercialized economy that linked together the entire Mediterranean and beyond. Even if he is grossly exaggerates, the imagine he depicts must have been plausible to his audience.

In evaluating the Roman economy in the age of Aristides, Schaivone notes that:

Until at least mid-seventeenth century Amsterdam, so expertly described by Simon Schama—the city of Rembrandt, Spinoza, and the great sea-trade companies, the product of the Dutch miracle and the first real globalization of the economy—or at least, until the Spanish empire of Philip II, the total wealth accumulated and produced in the various regions of Europe reached levels that were not too far from those of the ancient world…

This is the point Temin makes. Whether measured in terms of the size of its largest cities—Rome in 100 AD was larger than any European city in 1700—or in the volume of grain, wine, and olive oil imported into Italy, the scale of the Roman economy was vast by any premodern standard. Quantitively, then, the Roman economy looks as large and prosperous as that the early modern European economy. Qualitatively, however, there are important differences….

Roman history leaves no traces of great mercantile companies like the Bardi, the Peruzzi or the Medici. There are no records of commercial manuals of the sort that are abundant from Renaissance Italy… no political economy or “economics”…. The most obvious institutional difference between the ancient world and the modern was slavery. Recently historians have tried to elevate slavery and labor coercion as crucial causal mechanism in explaining the industrial revolution. These attempts are unconvincing (see this post) but slavery certainly did dominate the ancient economy….

Schiavone’s chapter “Slaves, Nature, Machines” is a tour de force. At once he captures the ubiquity of slavery in the ancient economy, its unremitting brutality—for instance, private firms that specialized in branding, retrieving, and punishing runaway slaves—and, at the same time, touches the central economic questions raised by ancient slavery: to what extent was slavery crucial to the economic expansion of period between 200 BCE and 150 AD? And did the prevalence of slavery impede innovation?…

Schiavone suggests that ultimately the economic stagnation of the ancient world was due to a peculiar equilibrium that centered around slavery…. The apparent modernity of the ancient economy—its manufacturing, trade, and commerce rested largely on slave labor…. The ancient reliance on slaves as human automatons—machines with souls—removed or at least weakened, the incentive to develop machines for productive purposes…. There was also a specific cultural attitude….

None of the great engineers and architects, none of the incomparable builders of bridges, roads, and aqueducts, none of the experts in the employment of the apparatus of war, and none of their customers, either in the public administration or in the large landowning families, understood that the most advantageous arena for the use and improvement of machines—devices that were either already in use or easily created by association, or that could be designed to meet existing needs—would have been farms and workshops…

The relevance of slavery colored ancient attitudes towards almost all forms of manual work or craftsmanship. The dominant cultural meme was as follows: since such work was usually done by the unfree, it must be lowly, dirty and demeaning:

technology, cooperative production, the various kinds of manual labor that were different from the solitary exertion of the peasants on his land—could not but end up socially and intellectually abandoned to the lowliest members of the community, in direct contact with the exploitation of the slaves, for whom the necessity and demand increased out of all proportion… the labor of slaves was in symmetry with and concealed behind (so to speak) the freedom of the aristocratic thought, while this in turn was in symmetry with the flight from a mechanical and quantitative vision of nature…

Thus this attitude also manifest itself in the distain the ancients had for practical mechanics:

Similar condescension was shown to small businessmen and to most trade (only truly large-scale trade was free from this taint). The ancient world does not seem to have produced self-reproducing mercantile elites…. The phenomenon coined by Fernand Braudel, the “Betrayal of the Bourgeois,” was particularly powerful in ancient Rome. Great merchants flourished, but “in order to be truly valued, they eventually had to become rentiers, as Cicero affirmed without hesitation: ‘Nay, it even seems to deserve the highest respect, if those who are engaged in it [trade], satiated, or rather , I should say, satisfied with the fortunes they have made, make their way from port to a country estate, as they have often made it from the sea into port. But of all the occupations by which gain is secured, none is better than agriculture, none more delightful, none more becoming to a freeman’” (Schiavone, 2000, 103)…

Such a cultural argument fits perfectly with Deirdre McCloskey’s claim in her recent trilogy that it was the adoption of bourgeois cultural norms and specifically bourgeois rhetoric that distinguished and caused the rise of north-western Europe after 1650….

The most advanced economies of early modern Europe, say England in 1700, were on the surface not too dissimilar to that of ancient Rome. But beneath the surface they contained the “coiled spring”, or at least the possibility, of sustained economic growth—growth driven by the emergence of innovation (a culture of improvement) and a commercial or even capitalist culture. According to Schiavone’s assessment, the Roman economy at least by 100 CE contained no such coiled spring.

We are not yet at the point when we can decisively assess this argument. But the importance of culture and the manner in which cultural and material factors interacted is clearly crucial. The argument that the slave economy and the easy assumptions of aristocratic superiority reinforced one another is a powerful one. For whatever historical reasons these cultural elements in the Roman economy were relatively undisturbed by the rise of merchants, traders and money grubbing equites. Likewise slavery did not undermine itself and give rise to wage labor.

Why this was the case can be left to future analysis. The full answer to the question why this was the case and a more careful consideration of the counterfactual “could it have been otherwise” are topics deserving their own blog post.


Brad DeLong


Connect with us!

Explore the Equitable Growth network of experts around the country and get answers to today's most pressing questions!

Get in Touch