In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Roman Economy

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Classics Roman Economy
Dennis Kehoe
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0120


As in other preindustrial societies, the economy of the Roman Empire was based on agriculture, which employed the vast majority of the empire’s population. At the same time, one of the most striking characteristics of the Roman Empire is that it achieved a level of urbanization that would only be matched in early modern Europe. The relationship between Rome’s rural economy and the development of cities has thus been a focal point of scholarship. Scholars have been concerned to investigate how the rural economy supported the empire’s urban population and whether the process of urbanization and the changes it necessitated in the rural economy led to economic growth. Population was a key factor in any preindustrial economy, and to a large extent, increases in the gross domestic product (GDP) for the Roman Empire as a whole were largely the result of population growth. This situation would not be favorable to the bulk of the farming population, which would find itself in increasing competition for land; as population increased, real wages would decline, and the carrying capacity of the land would eventually be exhausted. One basic issue is whether the Roman Empire ever escaped Malthusian constraints on the economy, with its population enjoying an improving standard of living resulting from increases in the productivity of workers. In terms of periodization, scholars tend to divide Roman economic history into three major periods: the later Republic (202 BCE to 31 BCE), the principate (31 BCE to 284 CE), and the later empire (the 4th century CE and later). In the Republic the most important economic changes were those fueled by the increasing wealth of the aristocracy and the growth of the city of Rome. Under the principate it is possible to consider economic developments not only in Roman Italy but also in the provinces as well as to analyze how the Roman Empire functioned as an economic system. The economy of the later empire was characterized by increasing intervention on the part of the state, largely to assure itself of tax revenues, but there is much continuity between the economy of the principate and that of the 4th century.

Historical Perspective

Scholarship on the Roman economy must be understood as part of a broader debate about the nature of the ancient economy. The terms of this debate have been largely set by M. I. Finley (see Finley 1999), who differentiated ancient economies from modern ones and argued that economic activity in the ancient world was largely influenced by social values and practices. Finley’s views have provoked a strong reaction, as in Frederiksen 1975, among many works. The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World (Scheidel, et al. 2007) seeks to establish new terms for the debate by presenting studies of production, consumption, and distribution in the Greek and Roman worlds, and many of the contributors apply to their analysis of the ancient economy theoretical approaches drawn from other fields. Horden and Purcell 2000 sets the Roman (and Greek) economies in a broader perspective of Mediterranean history. Duncan-Jones 1982 is a pioneering work in drawing conclusions about the Roman economy from the few quantitative data available to modern historians. Duncan-Jones 1990 applies much the same methodology to ask additional questions about the Roman economy, such as the distribution of land. Bowman and Wilson 2009 is the first in a series of studies using quantifiable evidence to come to a better understanding of basic issues in the Roman economy, such as wages and standards of living.

  • Bowman, A., and A. Wilson, eds. 2009. Quantifying the Roman economy: Methods and problems. Oxford Studies on the Roman Economy. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199562596.001.0001

    The first volume of the Oxford Studies on the Roman Economy project, this book applies quantitative approaches to issues surrounding Roman standards of living.

  • Duncan-Jones, R. P. 1982. The economy of the Roman Empire: Quantitative studies. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This book uses a pioneering quantitative approach to investigate many aspects of the Roman Empire, such as the amount of wealth over which people disposed and the costs associated with many institutions important to the Roman economy.

  • Duncan-Jones, R. P. 1990. Structure and scale in the Roman economy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511552649

    This book provides additional studies of the Roman economy based on quantitative analysis of ancient evidence.

  • Finley, M. I. 1999. The ancient economy. 3d ed. Sather Classical Lectures 43. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    A new edition of Finley’s pioneering work originally published in 1973. It includes an introduction by Ian Morris that addresses Finley’s contribution to the debate about the ancient economy.

  • Frederiksen, M. W. 1975. Theory, evidence, and the ancient economy. Journal of Roman Studies 65:164–171.

    DOI: 10.2307/370070

    A critical review of Finley 1999; suggests some of the many areas of debate that Finley’s work has inspired.

  • Horden, P., and N. Purcell. 2000. The corrupting sea: A study of Mediterranean history. Oxford: Blackwell.

    A wide-ranging series of studies of Mediterranean history focusing in particular on the influence of the climate and the ecology on the economic history of the Mediterranean world.

  • Scheidel, W., I. Morris, and R. Saller, eds. 2007. The Cambridge economic history of the Greco-Roman world. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521780537

    The twenty-eight chapters of this book cover production, consumption, and distribution in the economies in the Mediterranean world from the Bronze Age through the early Roman Empire, with additional chapters on ecology, demography, household and gender, law and economic institutions, technology, the passage to Late Antiquity, and the economies of the Roman provinces.

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