A Roman Industrial Revolution?

By skepticlawyer

Kingdom of the Wicked is set in a Roman Empire that’s had an industrial revolution, something long considered plausible by economic historians. There are all sorts of theories as to why it didn’t actually happen, although the presence of chattel slavery looms large. The Roman society I’ve depicted has abolished slavery; I’ll be frank and admit I did this to make the economics work.

This very fine essay by economist Mark Koyama is an excellent introduction to some of the ideas I drew upon when I was writing the book. It has the benefit of including lots of links to other people’s research, and is well worth your time. Excerpt:

How advanced was the Roman economy? Specifically, how did it compare to the economy of Europe in late medieval or early modern times? Was the Roman economy only as developed as that of Europe circa 1300 or was it as advanced as that of western Europe on the eve of the Industrial Revolution in say 1700?

This question is not mere idle speculation. It matters for our understanding of the causes of long-run economic growth whether an industrial revolution could have happened in Song China or ancient Rome. This type of counterfactual history is crucial for pinning down the causal mechanisms responsible for sustained growth, especially as historians like Bas van Bavel are now proposing explicitly cyclical accounts of growth in societies as varied as early medieval Iraq and the Dutch Republic (see The Invisible Hand? (OUP, 2016))

Temin’s GDP estimates suggest that Roman Italy had comparable per capita income to the Dutch Republic in 1600. The Empire as a whole, he suggests, may have been comparable to Europe in 1700 (Temin 2013, 261).

As they say, read the whole thing.

One Comment

  1. Posted May 21, 2017 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    Roman economic history is fascinating, and undergoing a surge in fine scholarship. I am currently reading The Roman Bazaar by Peter Bang.

    Raoul McLaughlin’s book The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean was an enlightening read on the importance of foreign trade to Roman revenues. Including why Trajan invaded Dacia (the silver mines the Principate’s economic system relied upon were failing).

    Peter Temin, a fine economic historian, has stimulated various responses to his The Roman Market Economy. (The emerging view among historians is that he overstated his case.)

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