A look at the discussions of Religious causes and Political causes for the fall of the Roman empire lead me to suggest two areas of interest when considering the Roman economy as an angle of approach to the reasons for the fall of the Roman empire…..
- The social effect of impoverished plebeians, not to mention the many slaves diffused across the population coupled with the ruling classe’s need to maintain their position as well as social stability had a dampening effect on innovation…..
- You may consider this a strange angle to take, but consider the level of ancient Roman innovation and technology. Couple that with the relative freedom of trade, high levels of infrastructure and you wonder why…. why was there no industrial revolution like that experienced by England many centuries later? I have taken a shot at that answer in the page regarding “considerations of ancient Roman innovation and technology”
- A further interesting insight is to be had by looking at that last section about political reasons. Why did the empire of the west fall whilst the empire of the east survived 1000 years on? Presumably the starting point from a social and political pov was similar. Military threat was also great. Technology available was similar. Might we desume that perhaps the one real difference was that “new Rome” was closer to the centres of trade? Or is it perhaps that the culture of the eastern individual was better suited to rule by a single despot?
This last thought takes us back to the considerations about religion and changing social attitudes: Many Latin authors denounce the change in society, the change in habits and the hunger for wealth as an underlying issue. This issue can also be viewed in economic terms: The love of wealth and the increasingly large population in Rome, in the west, was causing a severe imbalance of trade, coupled with inflation (as shown by the continued impoverishment of their coinage). These two effects are not of course disconnected, since much of the trade imbalance was also due to the need to feed the masses and general social costs which could only be funded either through (successful) war or through taxation and indirectly through inflation.
Rome’s wealth was sustained by its position as a service and trade centre. It was not a major centre of production of value-added goods. Ammianus Marcellinus tells us that in his time at approx 390AD, ie end of the 4th
century, the upper class were still consuming all sorts of highly refined foods and products. We can imagine what the impact must have been when these consumers reduced in number through war and plague or indeed reduced in wealth when Rome was sacked. In fact it is quite likely that with the sudden removal of gold (ie not all wealth but the basic standard of wealth) there may well have been a direct impact on lending and liquidity and hence on investment. Deflation
would have been quite a probable scenario of the time with the subsequent emigration of trade to more immediately profitable ventures at cities such as Alexandria or Constantinople.
A degree of economy remained of course, through reconstruction efforts, particularly of churches and other cult related sites, nevertheless, taxation exhausted the local economy and helped divert trade to other parts of the Mediterranean: an insight of this is given in 554 with Emperor Justinian’s “Pragmatic Sanction” which made Italy a province of the Byzantine empire (ie Roman empire of the East) and laid out taxation which was promptly suspended for three years due to the citizens’ relative indigence after the drawn out Gothic wars.
These aspects of the fall of the Roman empire will be given some further consideration in the following sections:
link to: society after the fall of the roman empire