Title: Economic Influences in the Decline of the Roman Empire
There are many theories about the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire. Everything from barbarian invasions, to a decline in the moral standards of the Roman society has been blamed for the destruction of one of the greatest empires in world history. But more than external factors, economic issues contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire. In this regard, there are three key elements which will be explored: economic issues involving how wealth was distributed within the society, demographic and resource issues which affected the strength of the economy of the empire, and political instability and growing bureaucracy arising from economic instability.
One of the economic factors that contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire was that the distribution of wealth within the citizens was highly inequitable. Estimates claim that about 50-55 million people lived in the Empire in the 3rd century, a population that was not significantly expanding due to high infant mortality, ongoing wars, and other factors—a newborn only had about a 20 to 25 year life expectancy (Goldsmith, 1984, pp. 270-272). Of the overall population, about one person in 50 lived in the city of Rome and perhaps as many as 6 to 7% of the Empire’s total population lived in urban environments (Goldsmith, 1984, p. 271-272). While much has been made of the slave population, probably only about 10% of the population was “unfree” or slave labor (Goldsmith, 1984, p. 270).
While information on the distribution of income in the Roman Empire is scanty, some estimates estimate that a Roman senator’s family (a senator being one of 600 people, or about .004% of the families in the empire) represented an average income that was 100 times larger than the average family income, or about 0.5% of total income—and this excludes the emperor’s income, which may separately have represented as much as 0.1% of the Empire’s total income (Goldsmith, 1984, pp. 276-277). At the next financial level, 40,000 knights’ (sometimes called the “equestrian” class) families in the Empire represented about 0.3%of the population, yet their family income was estimated to be about 20 times higher than an average family, and represented about 6% of the total income of the Empire (Goldsmith, 1984, pp. 277-278). These estimates appear to be conservatively low, rather than high, since they don’t reflect individual incomes from other sources.
Agriculture was always the linchpin of the Roman economy. With the urbanization of the population, it was more important than ever that there be plenty of agricultural resources to feed those people in the cities. It has been documented in many places that the reason for Rome’s focus on bringing Egypt into the empire was because Egypt was a reliable source of grain for the hungry cities of Rome.
Emperors loved to go to war to expand the empire, and while much of that impulse may be due to ego and the desire to be bigger and better than previous emperors, the fact is that the spoils the military sent back to Rome from their conquests were important contributions to the Roman economy. These spoils not only included gold, silver, and other material objects, but also gained increased acreage for agricultural development, as well as an ongoing source of captured slaves to provide nearly free labor to Rome’s economy.
Yet there were other reasons Roman emperors tended to want to expand the size of the empire. Economic growth in the Roman Empire didn’t come from an increase in productivity or efficiency. Instead, it derived from increasing the growth—the scale—of the economy (Hughes, 2004, pp. 32-35). One of the consequences of the dependence on agriculture was the deforestation of much of the Roman territory. Trees were chopped down to make way for arable fields, but also to supply both the primary building material (wood), and the fuel needed for fires for cooking and heating (both wood and charcoal). In addition to deforesting areas to gain arable fields, forests were cut down around mines to provide fuel to process the ore. Finally, industries such as the ceramics industry also needed extensive amounts of wood to fuel the kilns needed to fire the pottery. Deforestation was thus a serious problem for the Roman Empire, and a significant reason for the need for constant expansion. Forests, once cut down, don’t rapidly replenish, so these operations had to constantly move to new locations as the deforestation completed in one place. Because it was important to continue to find new arable land and more trees to chop down, the empire constantly needed to expand its physical territory to continue economic growth. Thus, natural resources were both depleted and wasted rather than exploited sustainably (Hughes, 2004, pp.33-35).
The Roman Empire also engaged in extensive trade with foreign nations. Trade began with intra-empire exchanges of goods and services: grain from Egypt, wine and olives in Italy and Hispania. Most bulky items were traded via sea because it was far cheaper to transport items like grains and other bulky items by water than by land.. This resulted in the development of extensive fleets of commercial vessels and extensive port facilities.
In the 3rd century, Chinese author Yu Huan documented products the Chinese could trade with the Romans as including: gold, silver, copper, iron, lead, tin, “divine tortoises,” white horses with red manes, fighting cocks, rhinoceroses, sea turtle shells, black bears, “red hornless (or immature) dragons,” “poison-avoiding rats,” large cowrie shells, mother of pearl, carnelian, “southern gold,” kingfisher feathers, ivory, veined and colored jade, “bright moon” pearls, luminescent “pearls,” white pearls, yellow amber, red coral, glass in various colors, white carnelian, rock crystal, semi-precious gems, various ores, wool rugs of various colors and patterns, lower quality wool carpets (i.e., kilims rather than knotted), gold threaded embroidery, warp twill silk or chiffon, woven cloth of many types, a dozen types of aromatic herbs and incense (Huan, 429 CE, Section 12, “Product List”). Clearly, the trade with the Far East was both extensive and expansive, including many “luxury” goods. The same author noted two main types of trade routes to the Far East: three overland routes plus the sea routes (Huan, 429 CE, Section 4, “The three main overland routes to the Western Regions”).
The highly inequitable distribution of wealth was thus a growing problem within the empire, with more and more of the resources constrained in fewer and fewer hands. As the rich got richer, the poor got poorer. Complicating this economic problem were some serious demographic and resource issues.