This question – could Rome have had an industrial revolution? – is prompted by Kingdom of the Wicked, a new book by Helen Dale. Dale forces us to consider Jesus as a religious extremist in a Roman world not unlike our own. The novel throws new light on our own attitudes to terrorism, globalization, torture, and the clash of cultures. It is highly recommended.Indirectly, however, Dale also addresses the possibility of sustained economic growth in the ancient world. The novel is set in a 1st century Roman empire during the governorship of Pontus Pilate and the reign of Tiberius. But in this alternative history, the Mediterranean world has experienced a series of technical innovations following the survival of Archimedes at the siege of Syracuse, which have led to rapid economic growth. As Dale explains in the book’s excellent afterword (published separately here), if Rome had experienced an industrial revolution, it would likely have differed from the actual one; and she briefly plots a path to Roman industrialization. All of this is highly stimulating and has prompted me to speculate further about whether Rome could have experienced modern economic growth and if Dale’s proposed path towards a Roman Industrial Revolution is plausible.Roman Economic ProsperityFor decades, historians were deeply skeptical of the potential of the ancient world to generate sustained economic growth. Influenced by Moses Finlay and Karl Polanyi, historians saw the ancient and modern worlds as separated by a cultural and economic chasm. Prior to the Industrial Revolution-era leaping of this chasm, individuals supposedly lacked “economic rationality,” did not seek opportunities to maximize profit, and were disinclined to use new technology for economic purposes.This view is no longer credible. In his recent book, The Fate of Rome, Kyle Harper depicts a Roman economy which supported both population growth and rising per capita incomes. It was an economy in which inequality was high— the rich were super rich — but even the middling classes or urban poor had access to a wide range of premodern “consumer goods”. Moreover, according to Harper, this was based on market-orientated Smithian growth:“Peace, law, and transportation infrastructure fostered the capillary penetration of markets everywhere. The clearing of piracy from the Mediterranean in the late Republic may have been the single most critical precondition for the burst of commercial expansion that the Romans witnessed; risk of harm has often been the costliest impediment to seaborne exchange. The umbrella of Roman law further reduced transaction costs. The dependable enforcement of property rights and a shared currency regime encouraged entrepreneurs and merchants . . . Roman banks and networks of commercial credit offered levels of financial intermediation not attained again until the most progressive corners of the seventeenth-eighteenth century global economy. Credit is the lubricant of commerce, and in the Roman empire the gears of trade whirred” (Harper, 2017, p 37).This assessment is bold but consistent with the recent findings of archaeologists who continue to uncover evidence of dense trading networks and widespread ownership of industrially produced consumption goods across the empire. Willem Jongman’s chapter in the recent Cambridge History of Capitalism summarizes many of these new findings:“crucial performance indicators show dramatic aggregate and per capita increases in production and consumption from the 3rd century BCE, or sometimes a bit later, until the Roman economy reached a spectacular peak during the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE, lasting until perhaps the middle of the 2nd century CE” (Jongman, 2015, 81).Jongman’s chapter provides evidence of intensified coal production, pollution, building construction, and animal consumption. I’ve reproduced one of his figures. It depicts the rapid increase in pottery shards from Netturo (approximately 50 km south of Rome) in these centuries.
From this wealth of evidence, we know that the classical world experienced what Jack Goldstone has called a “growth efflorescence”.But at even the Roman empire at its peak in the reign of Marcus Aurelius does not appear to have been on the verge of modern economic growth. Rome lacked some of the crucial characteristics of Britain on the eve of the Industrial Revolution. There was no culture of invention and discovery, no large population of skilled tinkerers or machine builders, and no evidence of labor scarcity that might have driven the invention of labor-saving inventions.
The Roman Counter-FactualBefore concluding that a Roman Industrial Revolution was impossible, however, perhaps some caution is required. In many respects the British Industrial Revolution was overdetermined. Nick Crafts made this point eloquently almost 40 years ago in his comparison of Britain and France:“there are no “covering laws” which explain England’s primacy; the best we can do is to formulate explanatory generalizations with an error term. Given that the “event” is unique, the tools of statistical inference are inadequate to explain the timing of decisive innovations . . . Furthermore, if the Industrial Revolution is thought of as the result of a stochastic process, the question, “Why was England first?” is misconceived: the observed result need not imply the superiority of antecedent conditions in England” (Crafts, 1978).Craft’s point is that the timing of Industrial Revolution was partly random and, in the absence of repeated experiments, we will never have precise causal estimates of the impact of any single factor that distinguished 18th century England, from France, Qing China, or indeed ancient Rome. All that we can say is that the balance of probabilities was such so as to make an economic breakthrough much more likely in 18th century Europe than in China or the ancient world....MUCH MORE