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Outline

This module looks at evidence for the Roman economy and the debates about the nature of that economy. The arguments are partly derived from material evidence and partly from textual evidence and, as we will see, there is no consensus about the meaning of much of this evidence. The Romans had no real concept of a distinct area of human activity that we would recognise as 'the economy', and so did not tend to express themselves in economic terms. This means that we often find textual evidence about the economy embedded in sources that were written or inscribed for entirely different purposes. The nearest we come to economic treatises are a set of texts on the management of private estates. However, the documentary evidence includes texts that were never intended for public display or circulation, such as private contracts and accounts. The material evidence is diverse and difficult to synthesise, but very important because it provides evidence about the degree of economic integration and the kinds of trading activities that took place, about monetary integration, and about technological development, to list but a few themes.

The lack of hard data (trade figures, output, etc.) presents a particular challenge. Although much of the evidence seems to imply that the Roman empire experienced economic growth and an increase in long-distance trade, the ambiguity of the data makes it possible to present alternative explanations. For example, how valid is it to use pottery from archaeological excavations to draw conclusions about the quantity of materials being traded? For a long time it was thought that technological change had been either very slow or non-existent (slavery was thought to have been responsible for discouraging innovation). Recent discoveries (or re-interpetations of old discoveries) have demonstrated that technologies once thought to be unique to medieval or early modern times were also utilised in the Roman empire as labour-saving devices. The question remains to what extent these inventions might have contributed to improvements in economic productivity. We will also explore the possible constraints presented by ancient mentalities. Did elite disdain for commerce impinge on trade and prevent the emergence of an important merchant class in the Roman world? Or was there a difference between how they expressed their views on commerce in their writings and what they actually did?

Given the ambiguity of the data, the role of models assumes great importance. Some of these models present an empire that is composed of cellular, self-sufficient local economies with only limited long-distance exchange, and with little economic growth and little technological development, while others present an empire with a market economy and communities that are economically interdependent. Some emphasise the central role of taxes in stimulating trade and economic growth. Yet others emphasise the integration of the Roman empire into even larger networks of trade in the ancient world.

There is plenty of scope for debate, and debate forms an important element of this module. Come prepared to enter the arguments.