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Research Groningen Institute of Archaeology Research Research groups GIA

Standard of living in the Roman Empire

Geertje Klein Goldewijk

Geertje Klein Goldewijk


Promotor(s): Prof. Dr. P.A.J. Attema (Archaeology), Dr. W.M. Jongman (History), and Dr. J.P.A.M. Jacobs (Economics & Econometrics)

Period of employment: 28 October 2007 – 27 October 2011

Financed by: NWO (Toptalent)

Project description:

The elite of the Roman Empire, Sir Moses Finley argues, frowned upon commerce. The true gentleman was a gentleman farmer, an absentee landlord of a series of estates. He cherished self-sufficiency, and preferred prestige over profit. Agriculture therefore never became much more productive, regional markets never merged into one. The Roman economy was different, Finley concludes, and, above all, underdeveloped.

Although in Ancient Greek History Finley’s ideas have gained more or less universal acceptance, many a Roman scholar has found his picture of a primitive, underdeveloped society difficult to accept. So-called formalists flood the scientific fora with ever more examples of large-scale trade and manufacture, and of elite involvement in them. In the Finley camp, however, these are routinely brushed aside as exceptions to the – substantivist – rule. Debate is stuck.

Both formalists and substantivists seem to regard specialisation and trade as the main motor for pre-industrial economic growth. And both camps seem to equate this type of growth to long-distance trade. Indeed, long-distance trade often plays a part in pre-modern economic growth, but it is not a necessary ingredient. For a period of time in which the level of technology set a limit to economies of scale and kept transportation costs high, we must be careful not to confuse specialisation and division of labour with the spatial division of production. Besides, both formalists and substantivists focus on the supply side of the economy, on trade and production. Hardly any attention has been paid to the demand side, to consumption.

For my PhD thesis, I will therefore focus on the demand side of the Roman economy: I will try to measure standard of living. Reconstruction of real wage – and other such traditional indicators of living standards – is problematic: we simply do not have enough reliable data. Physicians and epidemiologists of a.o. UNESCO have long been using stature as an indicator of living standards. Since the famous article by Fogel many economists and historians have followed suit.I will get on the bandwagon and collect stature data from Roman skeletons – allthough for technical reasons I will gather long bone length rather than total body stature.

For my first Masters, I performed a pilot study. The results were promising. As would be predicted by Malthus for the primitive Roman economy Finley draws up for us, stature was related to population pressure: men from the densily populated areas around the Mediterranean Sea were some 2.5 cm shorter than those living elsewhere. The development over time, however, did not conform to Malthus' and Finley’s theories. On the contrary: in the Early Empire men were tall, very tall, despite an Empire-wide peak in population density. The Antonine plague in the second half of the second century, and the population decline that followed in its wake, appears to have made things worse instead of better.

Admittedly, the data upon which this graph is based are not too sound: for one thing, they are unevenly spread over time and place. For my PhD thesis I therefore intend to collect more long bone lengths. I would like my dataset to be more representative for the Empire, and Roman history, as a whole. Besides, I will collect additional skeletal indicators of living standards. Chemical analysis of the collagen in bones, for example, provides valuable information on diet. Defects in teeth enamel indicate childhood disease. Cribra orbitalia possibly signals anemia. Careful comparison of these ‘new’ indicators of living standards will hopefully provide us with new information and a new perspective on the Roman economy.

Last modified:23 July 2018 1.29 p.m.