My favourite statistic, which may be entirely wrong but it has been said, is that the Roman Empire reached its highest living standard during the reign of Marcus Aurelius and from his death in 180 A.D., and the ascension of his son Commodus (i.e. Joaquin Phoenix, the emperor in the film Gladiator) it took until the middle of the 16th century for living standards to reach where they had been 1500 years before. Some corroboration from the latest IPA Review:
In the next IPA Review, Chris Berg will review The Roman Market Economy by Peter Temin – a fascinating new book which shows just how extensive the Roman market economy was. You can read the review here.
Rome was an extremely wealthy society. It had a complex market economy. People living in Britain could easily purchase products made in Anatolia, and vice-versa. Large cities flourished, and would not be outsized in Europe until Industrial revolution. There is even evidence that Roman pottery factories adopted quality control measures.
This changed after Rome fell. Brian Ward-Perkins published this controversial book in 2005, showing just how catastrophic the fifth and seventh century crises were. Here is an excellent review of it by Canada Free Press. And here is an interview with Ward-Perkins on Historically Speaking.
Based on a range of evidence – including the size of Roman cows, the size of cities, building activity and the dispersion of farms outside Rome – he concluded that there was indeed a catastrophic economic collapse between the fourth and seventh centuries.
On both sides of the Mediterranean, cities declined or were abandoned altogether. Factories disappeared. Domestic animals were smaller due to lack of nourishment. In some regions, quality-controlled, factory-made pottery was replaced with poor-quality hand-moulded pots. Different regions were impacted at different times, and some were more hard-hit than others, but as a general rule economic activity declined everywhere.
Overall, ‘Late Antiquity’ would hardly have been a time of ‘peaceful’ transition for anyone involved.
Any parallels with the world today is, of course, strictly coincidental.