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H - 107 : Unequal Prosperity in the Roman Empire

Rainy today – no chance to spend time outdoors.

Time for another blog then. Wondered  for a while as to why the Eastern Roman Empire was more developed and wealthier than the West. Most historians allude to the East’s far more sophisticated civilization, its older history, the beneficial impact of previous empires or the lucrative trade with Asia. Whilst these factors certainly contributed, it cannot be the full truth. After the Middle Ages, Western Europe pulled to par and then overtook the East. Had the Middle East no oil, it would be a backwater today (there are exceptions I know).  What are the economic drivers nobody talks about?

Wealth Distribution in the Roman Empire in 395 AD - The Darker : The Richer. Italy with its large Slave Population & Tax free Status is the Outlier. Andalusia had Silver. Carthage Wheat

Wealth is a function of a society’s productivity which in turn is driven by three input factors: labor, capital and technology. We have seen this over the last fifty years when China brought its people into the production process and obtained access to western capital and technology. The country is a developed nation today. 50 years ago it was poor. But what does this have to do with the Roman Empire?

Population Density was highest in Egypt, followed by Asia, Africa and Andalusia. Germania, Gaul and the English Island were sparsely populated

Eastern Rome always had more people, one of the input factors for productivity. Maybe we should start here. How was it possible that so many more people lived in Rome’s eastern part than in the west? Well, because of the East’s large agricultural surplus. Syria, eastern Anatolia, the Lebanon and northern Israel were fertile regions in antiquity, specifically during the Roman Climate Optimum (RCO), when the Med’s climate was warmer and more humid.

Land Quality Assessment in Europe - The Quality in the Fertile Crescent is High - Medium

It was not just the climate. The Middle East is also known as the Fertile Crescent from there the agricultural revolution spread. Almost all of our staple plants and vegetables originate from some wild ancestors found in this region. These plants were thus well suited to the local soil and climate. With a bit of selective breeding, the early farmers were able to increase the agricultural surpluses significantly. First, about half of each harvest had to be set aside as seeds for the next season. This portion dropped considerably leading to agricultural surpluses which were either taxed or sold. Thus, the 90% of people living in the countryside could feed the 10% who lived in towns.

The agricultural surplus had big consequences for society. A large priestly class formed, society was stratified, big armies could campaign in far-away lands and division of labor increased among town dwellers. One does not need to look any further than to the Army of the Great Persian Kings. With a logistics system based on barley, they could invade Egypt and Greece. The sea port of Knidos which we are going to visit this summer is another good point in case. Chosen for its location between two wind systems, it needed to import every single bite of food.

Relief of Two Persian Officials Serving the King of Kings

What about capital and technology, the other two input factors for productivity? The concentration of people in towns provided the critical mass for a thorough division of labor. One only needs to look at  5’000-year-old Enkomi in Cyprus. In this ancient town, a few craftsmen smelted and refined copper to high purity levels, others made tools and household good, some produced jewelry. A few others cast copper into Oxhide forms for sale to foreign rulers. The demand for their products was high.

The Enkomi Hoard has an amazing Range of Products

A copper ax has a much higher tensile strength than flint or obsidian. It made lumber work faster and easier. It was worth the high price. The same holds true for household staff who now could boil water in copper pots – try that with pottery! Entirely new ways of cooking became possible – soups, pot-au-feu, porridge. Copper produced an innovation in cuisine! Also, when kings stocked copper as aa strategic reserve, they could prepare for war at short notice. At the last minute, they could cast whatever was necessary  – be it arrow heads, spear tips or helmets. The examples above are far too few. I cannot cover all the innovations  – my blog would never end. Towns were hotbeds of innovation – they still are. And new technology allowed the next invention to emerge. With each step, productivity increased.

People from Enkomi were wealthy - Finds from Enkomi Tomb 93 now in the British Museum

With many people in production and the application of new technology came wealth. Consumer were willing to pay for the new goods. They could do things they were never able to do before. Boiling water sounds trivial. But it was probably as innovative as the savings we discovered with the iPhone. Wealth accumulated. It was stored in copper, silver and gold coins. People could use their new wealth for buying exotic consumer goods and enable trade – or reinvested it into production and transportation. Productivity increased further since capital is nothing else than not-consumed labor.

So here we have it: big agricultural surplus = more people working off land = big settlements or towns = division of labor = innovation = time savings = wealth creation = higher levels of consumption or re-investment in production. Beneficiaries of these developments were the early kings who would tax the new revenue streams. The proceeds were invested into armies to gain control of more territory. The ancient kings may have been brutes but they understood that the agricultural surplus was the mother of any development.

The Expansion of Farming into Western Eurasia from 9600 - 4000 BC

So how does the West compare? In a nutshell, very differently. The agricultural revolution also reached Germania, the lands north of the Danube, Gallia, the English Islands and Scandinavia. But soil and weather were different.  The temperature was cooler, the climate wetter. The soil was heavier and the plants from the Middle East not native. They had to adapt which resulted in lower yields. Most of the time, half of the harvest had to be kept as seeds for next season.

Climate in the Roman Empire varied considerably - much colder and wetter in the North

Not surprisingly, the agricultural surplus was much smaller. There were a few larger settlements and hill forts but none of the big towns as in the east. A certain division of labor existed – there were copper and iron smith, pottery makers and weavers. But the sustenance level of the people living in the country side was much higher.

Reconstruction of the Old Oswestry Hillfort in England

When these regions were conquered and integrated into the Roman Empire, the local industry had to compete with efficient factories from the East. Long distance trade made it easy for goods to travel. Local production was mostly replaced by cheaper goods from far away. Even pottery for day to day use was imported. Not surprisingly, the knowhow of making pottery on a spinning wheel vanished. When the Roman Empire and long-distance trade expired, people were left off worse than before Roman time. They did not even know how to make bricks anymore. For a few hundred years, Roman bricks were recycled. That is the reason all Roman buildings are in ruins. The Dark Ages in Western Europe were really dark. With no own agricultural surplus, the population decreased quickly, then stagnated. It had lost its access to capital and technology.

With Horse Collar and new Plough a West European Farmer could double his Productivity

For a few centuries, civilization hunkered down in monasteries. Things started to change in the 10th century when two major innovations reached Europe (some people say it came from China). The padded horse collar allowed horses to plough double the surface which oxen could cover. The coulter and share plow also inverted the soil and made a proper furrow thereby creating a much better bed for the seeds. Finally, the heavy soils of northern Europe could be farmed. Western Europe started to catch up. And when new plants were introduced like beets and potatoes, food production took off. Western Europe suddenly had the agricultural surplus needed to support big towns. The rest is history.



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