Economic Conditions

III. Economic Conditions

The economic preponderance of West over East is a product of comparatively recent history. In ancient times, despite the Roman conquests, the West always lagged somewhat behind. not that it had remained altogether undeveloped before those conquests. In many parts of Western Europe a knowledge of agriculture, of textile industry, of ceramics and metallurgy had been introduced in the second millennium B.C., if not earlier. In the first millennium economic progress was stimulated under the influence of immigrants from the Eastern Mediterranean, Phoenicians, Etruscans, and Greeks. In Central Italy the Etruscans introduced intensive agriculture and opened up the copper and iron mimes of those regions. In Spain the Carthaginians established colonies along the southern coast, where they collected the produce of the rich silver and copper mines. In Britain the same people developed the traffic in Cornish tin, which they disturbed over the Mediterranean. In Sicily and Southern Italy Greek settlers introduced the cultivation of the vine and olive. In Gaul the colonists from Greece at Massilia (Marseille) set in motion a general trade for which the natives presently provided their own coinage.

The Romans, in their turn, following the example of their Etruscan and Greek neighbours, gave their attention to the scientific development of the lands which they appropriated: by the beginning of the Christian era they had gone a long way towards converting Italy into the “Garden of Europe.” Yet the Roman conquests in Western Europe at first retarded as much as they advanced economic development. Roman rule, as we have seen in Chapter II., entailed upon the provinces regular payments of tribute and not infrequent additional exactions by governors and tax-gatherers. It also brought in its train visitations by unofficial Roman money-lenders, who certainly filled their own pockets and probably did little to stimulate local production. For this drainage of wealth from the provinces to Rome, the as yet somewhat precarious state of peace, which was all that the Romans at first could offer in return, was hardly an adequate compensation. In Italy one source of wealth which might have ensured additional prosperity to the countryside was left untapped. The rapid growth of the city of Rome in the age of the great conquests created an urgent demand for increased supplies of corn. But the Roman governments, instead of stimulating corn production in Italy, met the need by increased importation from Sicily and more especially from Africa, whose subject populations could conveniently be made to pay their tribute in wheat rather than money. Under these conditions the cultivation of corn in Italy, which should have expanded proportionately with the growth of the capital, remained stagnant or even underwent a reduction. In the days of the Republic, therefore, the Roman conquests brought with them a sporadic rather than a solid increase of prosperity.

Under the Roman emperors the benefits of Roman rule soon began to show more plainly in the economic sphere. Not that Augustus and his successors formed any consistent plan for the development of the provinces. Their outlook, as a rule, was narrowly fiscal, and their attitude to economic problems may best be described as one of laissez-faire, punctuated by spasmodic and not always well-considered interventions. But to those who were ready to help themselves the new system of government offered far better conditions. The “pax Romana” now became firmly established and everywhere produced a profound sense of security. The illegitimate exactions of the officials and the attendant harpies, as we have seen in Chapter II., were severely checked.

But these negative aids to prosperity were not the only ones which accrued under the new regime. Among the greatest gifts of Rome to her subjects was the network of roads which she built in every corner of her empire. Though primarily an instrument of conquest, these roads sooner or later also became arteries of commerce. Under the Republic a complete road-system, radiating from Rome, had been established in Italy; but in the provinces not much as yet had been achieved. On the other hand, the construction of new roads was vigorously pushed forward under the early emperors, many of whose mile-stones survive to attest their activities. In Gaul radial routes, following wherever possible the commodious river valleys of that country, spread out in every direction from the central hub of Lyon. In Britain a similar system, whose general lines are still followed by hte main railway tracks, had its inevitable meeting-point in London. In Spain no universal road-centre was offered by Nature, but sectional systems were constructed round Saragossa, Cordova, and Merida, and a trunk road extended from the Eastern Pyrenees to Cadiz. No less remarkable than the high mileage of the Roman roads was the solidity of their construction. Their surfaces were made of the hardest material available (blocks of volcanic lava in the neighbourhood of Rome, concrete in regions where no durable stone was to be found); their foundations were deep enough to prevent water-logging or subsidence. Where rivers crossed they were usually provided with substantial bridges. At Alcantara on the Lower Tagus, 150 feet above flood-level, may still be seen a Roman bridge in an almost perfect state of preservation; in many other parts of the Roman Empire medieval or modern bridges are carried on the old Roman foundations. The Roman roads, therefore, were all-weather roads, and they afforded better facilities for travel then Western Europe has possessed at any time previous to the nineteenth century. Of the waterways of Western Europe in Roman times there is less to be said. Though the Romans did comparatively little to improve these, they made full use of such as were navigable. Rome itself, London and Seville were busy river ports; but the most striking development of inland navigation took place in Gaul and the Rhineland, where all the available rivers were made into regular avenues of traffic.

Another stimulus to economic development was provided by the mere presence of Roman garrisons in Western Europe, and of “colonies” – i.e., corporate settlements of retired soldiers, of whom large numbers were pensioned off in the western provinces, especially in Southern Gaul and in Spain. These Roman or romanised settlers usually brought with them a higher standard of living, and by their residence in undeveloped countries created profitable new markets. It is no mere accident that districts like the Rhineland and Belgium, in whose vicinity were large Roman camps, became conspicuously prosperous under Roman rule. Again, the provinces benefited by the diffusion of Roman law, which not only had force in the courts of the governors, but was also in large measure adopted by the municipal tribunals. Under the emperors the civil branch of Roman law in particular had become a most equitable and adaptable instrument, and under its protection traders could count on fair play. Lastly, commerce in the Roman Empire had the advantage of a sound and uniform system of coinage. Although the emperors did not wholly prohibit the issue of money in local mints, in point of fact their coinage acquired a virtual monopoly in Western Europe, and during the first two centuries A.D. it remained plentiful and of good quality. Under the early Roman emperors the trading community was probably less troubled with currency problems than in any subsequent age. For these reasons Western Europe was opened up more rapidly in the first two centuries A.D. than in any previous period of equal length.

A notable if somewhat uneven progress was realized in agriculture. In Italy the standards of the Republican period, already high, were hardly improved upon, but there is no reason to believe that they were not in general maintained. The cultivation of the olive may have suffered a decline, but that of the vine was carried to the furthest profitable point. In Spain, Gaul, and Britain agriculture development was somewhat sporadic. As might have been expected, the Plateau of Castile and the West and North of Britain remained largely under timber, or scrub and heather; and Central Gaul was allowed to retain large preserves of forest. But in Province, in Andalusia, in Southern and Eastern Britain there is plentiful evidence of intensive development. In Southern Gaul and Spain the “Mediterranean trinity” of corn, wine, and oil were produced in excess of local needs; the drier and warmer parts of England were thickly sown with corn, and furnished a surplus for export. Great enterprise was shown by the Romans in acclimatising Mediterranean or Asiatic fruit-trees, such as the cherry and the peach, and in transplanting their favourite garden trees. The agricultural development of Western Europe under Roman rule was hardly equal to that of Northern Africa, which might almost be called phenomenal, but it definitely converted this region into an area of intensive cultivation.

The most characteristic and ubiquitous industry under the early Roman emperors was that of building, which received a powerful stimulus from the extensive road construction of the period, and from the rapid growth of towns. The history of mining is marked by one outstanding failure. Except for a few outcrop workings, the immense deposits of coal in Western Europe were not exploited at all. Of the other minerals resources, the copper of Etruria appears to have become definitely exhausted, the tin of Cornwall was temporarily supplanted by that of Spain, and the iron-field of Lorraine was not yet attacked in earnest. In general, however, Western Europe was ransacked for its metal deposits. In Gaul the iron mines of the South, the Centre, and the Meuse district were in operation. In Britain extensive slag-heaps on the iron-fields of the South and the West and not a few surviving ingots of lead attest the activity of miners in the Roman period. In Spain, which had long been the chief source of metal for the Mediterranean peoples, mining operations were carried on more vigorously then ever, the principal products being tin on the Atlantic Coast, copper in the south-west, silver in the south-east, iron and mercury in the centre of the peninsula. The ceramic industries were confined to comparatively few regions. In Italy the fine table ware of Arretium (in Etruria) had a considerable vogue in the days of Augustus, but suffered an early decline. In Spain there were no important potteries except at Saguntum on the east coast, and in Britain all the better ware of the first two centuries A.D. was imported. On the other hand, in Gaul and the Rhineland ceramic were was produced on an unprecedented scale. In the first century A.D. mass manufacture of table ware was begun in the south-west; form one factory at Graufesenque nearly 300,000 pieces have been registered by modern archaeologists. In the second century the centre of production shifted to Lezoux, in Auvergne, and about A.D. 200 to Rheinzabern (near Speyer), tp Trier, and to Tongres (in Belgium). From one centre or another Gaul provided pottery for the greater part of the Roman Empire. Of minor industries, several which had previously been localised in the Levant eventually spread to Western Europe. The making of paper out of papyrus reeds, which had for many centuries been an Egyptian monopoly, was transplanted under Augustus to Rome, where the considerable book trade henceforth found its raw materials ready to hand. About the same time the craft of glassmaking which had lately received a fillip by the invention of the blow-pipe, travelled from Egypt and Phoenicia to Italy, and thence to Gaul and Britain. The principal centres of glass-production in the West were in Campania (near Naples), at Lyon, and chief of all at Cologne.

From the consolidation of Roman rule the traders probably derived more benefit than any other class. Italy, which still drew tribute from the provinces, suffered in consequence from a somewhat lop-sided traffic. Rome itself, by virtue of its sheer bulk and of the high-life in its fashionable quarters, created a large import trade for itself and for its seaport at Ostia. In Western Europe the development of agriculture and industry produced a more than corresponding growth of trade. This traffic comprised not only articles of luxury but cheap commodities, and even the necessities of the poor; and these objects sometimes travelled the entire length or breadth of a continent. Of the numerous ramifications of the commerce of Western Europe it will suffice to give a few outstanding examples. The surplus corn, wine, and oil of Southern France and Southern Spain were exported wholesale to Rome. outside this city there may still be seen an artificial mound (the “Monte Testaccio”) consisting of the debris of coarse pottery, in which the wine and oil from overseas were transported. Similarly the wine trade between Bordeaux and England, which played such a part in the Middle Ages, had its prototype under the Roman emperors. Other evidence of transmarine trade to England comes from London and Richborough, some of whose buildings were faced with marble from Carrara in Italy. Fragments of bronze stamped with the name of the great founder Cipius Polybius of Capua (near Naples) have been discovered in Scotland and Northern England; other bronze ware from Capus found its way to Northern Germany and Sweden, and brooches from Belgium penetrated as far as the Causasus. But the most striking evidence of the scale of Roman commerce is furnished by the exports of pottery. The fine tableware of Arretium (near Reading). The somewhat less luxurious products of Gaul were traded even in remote parts of Wales and Scotland. Two unopened boxes of Graufesenque fabric have been found in a retailer’s shop at Pompeii, and specimens of precisely the same ware have been noticed in the Neckar valley. Even the coarser wares were sent to distant countries. Cheap lamps bearing the trade-mark of a potter from Modena, in Northern Italy, have been recovered from rural cemeteries in Northern Africa, and conversely lamps from Morocco are found in Spain. Similarly, rough textile products, such as the friezes of Flanders, had a sale among the poorer folk in Italy. It was largely due to this long-distance trade that the bigger towns of Western Europe, Arles and Lyon, Cologne and London, owed their prosperity.

While the volume of production and exchange in Western Europe rose to dimensions which were probably not surpassed until the eighteenth century, economic technique and, in consequence, economic organization hardly progressed beyond the conditions of the later Middle Ages. On the land the engrossing of small holdings into “latifundia,” or large estates, which had already been in full swing under the Republic, went on as before. The emperors themselves, and the numerous body of enriched manufacturers and traders, who were eager to acquire the social status of landowners, accumulated real property wherever the chance offered. Yet the rate of transfer from small to large owners was never rapid, and it was partly set off by the continuous provision of alloments to ex-soldiers. Moreover, the owners of the “latifundia”  did not introduce large-scale methods of production, which in the almost complete absence of machinery would have brought little advantage. As a rule they reserved a moderate-sized home farm for direct exploitation by their own staff, but let and sublet the outlaying portions to groups of small cultivators who followed the time-honoured methods of the peasant proprietor. Industry, too, continued to be “manufacture” in the literal sense of “production by hand,” and tended to remain in the hands of small masters. Some exceptions to this rule must be admitted. In Rome and Italy, where building activity reached its highest point, quarrying and brick-making were organized on a large scale. Similarly, the larger pottery works in Gaul must have been factories in the modern sense. Yet in general the unit of production remained a mere shop. The small local industries of Pompeii, as one would expect, were mostly practiced in single-rooms; but commodities intended for sale at a distance were often produced under similar conditions. The brisk export industry of Belgium was in large part located in annexes to the bigger farmsteads. The mining fields of Western Europe were mainly exploited by small entrepreneurs, each driving his adit separately in medieval fashion, although the actual ownership of the mines was usually vested in the emperor himself.

It is rather more strange that commerce was no more highly organised than industry. The Romans certainly did not lack the wit to conduct trade on a large scale. Already in the days of the Republic the tax-gatherers had associated in companies resembling our present joint-stock concerns, and the mercantile world was familiar with such devices as letters of credit and bankers’ orders. Under the emperors the easy conditions of travel and the large volume of long-distance traffic might have been expected to favour the growth of “big business.” Nevertheless, most of the trade continued in the hands of individual merchants or of simple partnerships engaging their personal capital, and banking operations did not assume the dimensions that might have been expected. Under such conditions it is not surprising that much of the retail trade was still carried on at occasional street-markets or fairs, and that the large store had not yet come into existence.

A common feature of Roman industry and commerce consisted in the large number of gilds in which craftsmen and traders were associated. But these gilds were almost wholly confined to social activities and hardly concerned themselves with the regulation of prices or wages or methods of production.

The least satisfactory part of Roman economic life, if we may judge by the somewhat inadequate evidence on the subject, was the depressed condition of the labouring class. In Italy a large proportion, perhaps as much as one-half, of the labourers consisted of slaves. This servile system of labour was essentially a result of the great conquests, when unlimited supplies of war prisoners were brought into Rome. The stocks of slaves were subsequently kept up by organized kidnapping in the backward parts of the Mediterranean area; and under the emperors, when opportunities for man-hunting became more restricted, the gaps were partly filled by breeding. In the provinces the slaves formed a smaller but not a negligible part of the population. While a portion of the slaves were occupied with domestic service, or in the lowest ranks of the public services, the majority of them were put to work in agriculture or industry. On the whole, the Roman system of slavery compares well with that of negro slavery in modern times. It was capable of better results, for the slaves were mostly of similar race to that of their masters. Even those who came from the backwoods of Thrace or Germany could be trained to a fair level of skill; the Levantine slaves of Greek or Syrian stock were often more intelligent than their masters. Moreover, the Roman owners not only realized that it was good business to keep a slave in proper physical condition, but they recognized that a specially clever or trustworthy servant would repay promotion to a better status. Hence slaves commonly acted as bailiffs on farms, as skilled craftsmen or foremen on workshops, as cashiers or managers of commercial firms. Better still, in return for good service Roman slaves had a reasonable chance of receiving their personal freedom, and perhaps of being set up by their former masters in a small business. Among the inhabitants of the Roman Empire the ex-slaves formed a conspicuous and a most enterprising class. Yet slavery at best was not a substitute for free labour. It would perhaps be unfair to lay much stress on the conditions in certain Roman mines, where slaves of certified bad character were worked and whipped to death in rapid relays, for cruel treatment of this kind was probably quite exceptional. But even under favourable circumstances slaves tended to be half-hearted and required more supervision then freem ne. In the case of agricultural work the wastefulness of servile labour was openly admitted when the great landowners of Italy began to replace their slave staffs with free tenants. Again, it is not unlikely that slavery was part cause of the lack of industrial inventiveness which characterised the Roman world, for the same deficiency has been a feature of modern slave-owning societies. Lastly, while slave labour can hardly be said to have driven free labour to the wall, since under the conditions of Roman economic technique the demand for labour probably kept ahead of the supply, it would unfailingly tend to depress the level of wages and the status of the free workers. It is unfortunately almost impossible to obtain trustworthy estimates of the free workmen’s rates of real wages; but such information as we possess suggests that they seldom rose much above the line of mere subsistence.

But in spite of the various economic shortcomings which we have noticed, it is probable that the general level of material welfare in Western Europe under the Roman emperors was as good as at any time before the Industrial Revolution. There is hardly a district of Western Europe which does not contain remains of well-built towns, of handsomely furnished houses, or of comfortably equipped farmsteads of the Roman era. In any case, the economic life of the Roman Empire provided a sufficient material base for the continuance of a high civilisation.