Economic Growth Essay
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'The economic impositions of Roman rule drove economic growth throughout the empire.' Discuss. To evaluate this proposition in a single thrust is impossible, because it raises two questions around which there has been serious debate. The first debate concerns the question of whether or not significant growth took place under the Roman Empire, for this is far from self-evident: in his seminal work on the topic, The Ancient Economy, M. I. Finley took a position that has since been characterised as 'static minimalism'. He argued that the economic structure of the ancient world did not change significantly throughout the period of antiquity stretching from classical Greece to the early middle ages, and that even under Roman rule the principal aim of production was selfsufficiency, with trade making only a small contribution to gross product. Historians who have followed in the Finley tradition, most notably Howgego and Duncan-Jones, have nuanced this position somewhat, but continue to argue that economic networks existed only on a small-scale and within individual regions. The most conspicuous opponent of this view is K. Hopkins, who has put forward a model of gradual economic development taking place under the empire. According to Hopkins, Roman rule saw increased production, the development and elongation of trade networks together with monetisation, urbanisation with an economic basis and, above all, the emergence of an interconnected empire-wide trading network. Only once we have addressed this question can we consider the second: the mechanisms by which growth, however significant or insignificant, was driven. For Hopkins, the economic impositions of Roman rule, that is taxes and rents, were the main factor, but we must also consider other possibilities. Strong cases have been made for the role played by the diffusion throughout the empire of more advanced technology, for the role of the Roman government in maintaining order and the prolonged period of peace that Roman rule brought, and for the initiative taken by enterprising provincials. It would therefore be legitimate, if a little radical, to conclude that not only did significant economic growth not take place under Roman rule, but that what limited growth that there was was the result of organic development rather than the actions of the Roman state and her agents. In short, we can see the economic power of Rome as a reflection of her political might. Thus our answers to both of these questions will have implications not only for our understanding of the ancient economy, but also for our understanding of the nature and scope of Roman rule over the subjects of the empire. It is worth touching upon the nature of our sources, as this has consequences for the way historians have approached the problems of economic history in our period. It is now generally agreed that ancient economic history cannot be based purely on figures collected from ancient texts relating to prices, production and output, due one the one hand to the rarity of such information, and on the other to its suspect credibility. Hopkins cites the example of a passage in Strabo in which the historian quotes Cicero as having given the income of Egypt in the last century BC as 300 million HS, a number which is implausibly high when compared to modern estimates of the total product of the empire as a whole, of which 300 million HS would account for 35 to 45%. More generally, we might expect Roman sources to exaggerate the unity - political and cultural as well as economic - of the empire, as well as its wealth. The basis for 'quantitive' studies has undoubtedly improved in the last few decades, with archaeology in particular providing historians with a more solid foundation of statistical evidence, but despite this, the main debates over Roman economic history can still be conceived
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