What Did The Romans Ever Do For Us!?

Leiden, a.d. XIV Kal. Sep. MMDCCLXVIII A.U.C.,

I love Romans. I know they were brutal sexist imperialists, who remorselessly butchered and enslaved entire peoples, they had a slave based economy, they had crazy, nay absolutely completely and indubitably lunatic emperors etc. etc. etc. Yet, at the same time, they built an impressive civilization, had a surprisingly modern economy, based at large on some degree of property rights protection, rule of law, free markets, in short, they revolutionized politics and economics by working on a scale not seen before, and not seen after for a very long time. Western laws, languages, philosophy, in other words, Western civilization is based on Romans civilization.

Apart from their impressive architecture, military, art, etc., I have been wondering how this all was made possible. In the classics I read in high school (I took Latin), it appears that the Roman Republic was a rather backward place, with large unemployed masses, the original plebs or proletariat (those who only had children), oppressed by a small senatorial class, who bribed them into submission with ‘bread and games.’ At a certain point this situation reached its climax, with the Gracchi brothers revolting against the senatorial class, but ultimately being killed. The ideological offspring of the Gracchi (the Populares) kept struggling against those who defended a more stratified society (the Optimates), culminating in several civil wars which led to the fall of the Republic after Octavian became Emperor August.

While this certainly makes for a good narrative, with the Gracchi as proto-Marxists rebelling against the aristocracy, from a political economic perspective it does not make a lot of sense. Unlike Saudi Arabia nowadays, the Roman Republic, and later the Empire, did not have a lot of natural resources which they could sell to foreigners, so they could use part of profits to bribe the population. This is how the government of Saudi Arabia and other resource-rich countries, such as Venezuela, maintain stability, it is a system usually referred to as a rentier state.

It could be argued that the Roman upper class transferred wealth produced by slaves to the Roman under class citizens, and they certainly did to some degree, but an economy simply based on transferring wealth from slaves to Roman under class citizens, while making the upper class very rich, would never have achieved what the Romans actually achieved. While usually the Colosseum, the Forum Romanum and Baths of Diocletian are seen as the most impressive achievements of Roman civilization, in my 3rd year at LUC I was so lucky to encounter Dr. Ir. Driessen, an archaeologist at Leiden University, who gave me a whole new perspective. Because what possibly is even more impressive than Roman monuments, is the size of Roman industry. Although there is far less of it left in terms of large ruins or monuments, the scale was vast, and of the same level as Western Europe had right before the Industrial Revolution. For example, the scale of Roman lead mining was not surpassed until the 18th century, parts of Spain are still ‘scarred’ by Roman mining (Source). They had water-powered factories (Source), intercontinental trade networks of all kinds of products, and they produced gigantic amounts of pottery using ‘rational’ production methods and very demanding quality standards. Lastly, they had a huge permanent Army, which is no mean feat. Firstly, because the troops need to be fed and armed, secondly being on duty permanently meant they were not at home to produce food themselves, in other words Roman agriculture must have been highly efficient for the time. The use of resources by the Roman army can hardly be exaggerated, for example, archaeologists have unearthed seven tons of iron nails in Scotland, which once held a Roman fort together. The Romans buried the nails when they left. Yes, they buried them, indicating they were not in a hurry to leave, and yet the nails had so little value to them that it was not worth it to take them with them (Source).

Unless everything we know about economics is wrong, Roman society must have had a productive middle class, which could consume, and did not need the government to dole out bread, even though they must have loved their games, seeing the size of the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus. There probably was a very poor underclass, living just above subsistence levels, but this does not mean there was no affluent middle class which could pay for a permanent military and could consume at considerable levels.

All this begs the question, what kind of institutions the Romans really had, if Roman literature seems to depict them from a rather politicized point of view, thus probably misrepresenting them. Why did the Roman government protect property rights? Did they have free markets and free enterprises? How did the Roman government interfere in markets? Did they implement labour laws? To what degree functioned Roman society like a modern Western society? Why did the Roman Republic not evolve to a democracy, even though the first steps that were set were much like England’s small progress in the 17th century? Questions, questions, questions!

Bottom Line: Romans had large scale industry and very efficient agriculture, which both sustained an intercontinental trade network. As a student of political economy, I wonder what kind of institutions they had, that made all this possible.

P.S. The dates I use above every article, are in the Julian calendar, of the Ab Urbe Condita type. This calendar counts the years since the foundation of Rome.


2 thoughts on “What Did The Romans Ever Do For Us!?

Add yours

  1. A sensible question, so where’s the evidence that Rome *had* a large middle class, and if there was, then why is it not mentioned in all the “roman literature” that we still have? More interesting, what happened to them after the empire split? Did they go to Constantinople? Move to Germany?


    1. With regards to the evidence, I think the production of goods speaks for itself. I guess that is our evidence.

      The second question, my best guess is that people simply left the cities, and became farmers. Meanwhile, population started to decline, due to wars, famine and disease, and the middle class simple disappeared. But this is an ongoing research process, I really do not have the answer to this, but I hope to find out more, and report about that on this blog!


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