The Roman Empire really did fall and stayed down for 1500 years

Amongst my favourite statistics, 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 is found in the latest IPA Review discussed here.

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. . . .

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.

And while we’re at it, a Happy New Year to you all as well.

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48 Responses to The Roman Empire really did fall and stayed down for 1500 years

  1. Brett_McS

    Ludwig Von Mises, who was a serious student of history, focussed his economic eye on this issue and came to the conclusion (going from memory, from a long time ago) that the fall resulted from inflation and the things done to ‘correct’ the inflation – such as price supports. I suppose a German from the early 20th century would be especially attuned to that particular fate, as would Zimbabwean economists today, if there are any.

  2. incoherent rambler

    A few mentally defective emperors did not help. Parallels with the current Romans?

  3. slackster

    The book Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon (1782) which can be found here:

    A bit archaic in its language but the parallels to the society we live in today is frightening

  4. JohnA

    Don’t forget the social changes – an indolent upper class, dissipating itself on orgiastic gluttony, an indulgent life of low morals, no longer focused on conquering the world, but inwardly focused on self pleasure.

    The Romans became apathetic but no-one cared anymore, so they were easy prey for battle-hardened “barbarian” invaders. The fourth century empire was a long time downwind of the Elder republic and Cato with his “Delenda Est Carthago”.

    Today the Italian peninsula can’t govern itself properly. Never mind 1500 years – the place still hasn’t got over it!

  5. Bruce

    Any parallels with the world today is, of course, strictly coincidental

    Another really interesting parallel is the potential for a transition from the current Modern Warm Period to a new multicentury little ice age. That did it for the Roman Empire as no longer could agriculture support the populations in places like Gaul, Germany and Britain. The decline into the Dark Age Cold Period coincided with the stashing of many coin and specie hoards in Britain from the late 3rd Century that farmers and metal dectectives keep digging up. The boat people of that time, Franks, Goths and Visigoths had to leave Poland and eastern Germany and flee westwards because they could not survive otherwise.

  6. Don’t forget the social changes – an indolent upper class, dissipating itself on orgiastic gluttony, an indulgent life of low morals, no longer focused on conquering the world, but inwardly focused on self pleasure.

    I didn’t know they had the Internet.

  7. JohnA

    “I didn’t know they had the Internet.”

    But they did have (according to Wayne & Schuster, Rinse The Blood Off My Toga) “little men standing in doorways trying to sell postcards from Gaul” 🙂

  8. Helen

    So animals would also have got smaller in order to cope with the cold and less food available, possibly less food from cold rather than lack of husbandry. It wuz the cold that did it!

  9. Any parallels with the world today…

    After a series of blows—not least from a cooling climate and the consequent crop-failures, abandonment of intensive agriculture, plagues and invasions, for example—the very literacy of the society, essential for efficient administration and the maintenance of cultivated learning, was almost annihilated by the disappearance of papyrus and the subsequent deterioration of books* and education. Luckily, in the far West, monks were able to preserve some learning in codices written on hide, but what newly-risen, major factor in the seventh century might have led to the halting of that important trade between Egypt and the West escapes me for the moment…

    * ancient books—expensive, handwritten, papyrus scrolls—needed constant maintenance and regular copying.

  10. james

    Animals would have also gotten smaller as a result of wildly fluctuating demand not allowing farmers to sufficiently build up blood stock.

    But ultimately a falling birthrate combined with a reliance on foreign immigration, the death of the old religion and the resultant flailing for a new moral base, the devaluation of the currency by increasingly desperate rulers, the fat pampered rich unable to relate to their ethnic brethren further down the societal chain, the death of obligation to those lower and the respect for those higher on the totem pole.

    Any of this ringing bells people?

  11. caveman

    “quality-controlled, factory-made pottery was replaced with poor-quality hand-moulded pots”

  12. manalive

    The decline is plain to see in Roman iconography.
    Rome inherited the classical sculpture tradition of the Greeks but this was gradually lost from about 200 AD and is very apparent in portrait sculpture. It’s the same story with the painted portraits.
    Both sculptured and painted portraits show a high degree of individuality, in other words they were real likenesses of real people.
    Their mural paintings show relatively developed techniques for depicting spacial depth.
    These skills were gone by the time of Theodosius I for the next 1000 years.

  13. Elizabeth (Lizzie) B.

    Best little demolition of the ‘Late Antiquity’ thesis regarding the Western Empire, see my favourite Bryan Ward-Perkins, “The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation”, Oxford University Press 2005. (Written after a stint at the Institute of Australian Studies btw). Review in British Sunday Telegraph “Hard hitting and beautifully written”. Ward-Perkins takes an economic approach drawing on much evidence; decline in an industrial system of production and collapse of markets and communications, loss of literacy and skills, and those unpleasant marauding tribes being pushed in by others escaping climatic changes.

    Also good, David Mattingly, “An Imperial Possession, Britain in the Roman Empire, 54bc – AD 409”, Penguin 2006. You can judge the second century yourself with Elizabeth Speller’s “Following Hadrian: a second-century journey through the Roman Empire”, Hodder Headline, 2003.

    And this one is for Professor Bunyip, afficonado and scholar of things Etruscan 🙂
    : Jacques Heurgon (Professor at the Sorbonne), “Daily Life of the Etruscans”, Phoenix Paperback, 1989

    Happy New Year, Bunyip, hope you return soon.

  14. Ivan Denisovich

    Any parallels with the world today is, of course, strictly coincidental.

    David Warren:

    He was beginning to see, like Dawson, the extraordinary role of faith itself in the sequences of history. Faith is the great life-giving force, and the loss of faith is death-dealing. By this we do not mean only Christian faith, for the same principle applies in all cultures, and has applied since time out of mind.

    The classical example is “the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.” As the pagan Romans lost faith in their own civilization, they stopped having babies. They rehearsed almost all the features of our modern West in their own later decadence: the sophisticated rejection of religious observances; the confident smugness of the half-educated; the degradation of family life; the acceptance of public pornography, and openly perverse liaisons; couch-potato obsessions with circus and professionalized gladiatorial sports; the shift from pride in productivity, to a shameless consumerism; the aesthetic decline in all manufactures; the spread of dishonourable trade practices; the inflation of money, and in all other kinds; debt crises; the growing dependence upon immigrant slaves and other cheap labour for all unpleasant work, including everything required of the Roman armies; the appeasement of enemies, and extravagant buying off of the tribal savages, now being let inside their frontiers. In a word, “individualism,” or in another, “atomization.” Stage by stage, we watch the implosion, until finally we have that wonderful spectacle conveyed in the painting of Delacroix: “Attila the Hun, followed by his hordes, trample Italy and the Arts.”

    A more careful historian would not present this decline as continuous, however. As we focus, we see the Roman hesitation. After taking steps back, they take steps forward. There were decades of recovery, when one could imagine the sage pundits of Rome saying, “What were we so worried about?” and boasting of the new Roman hyperpower after winning obscure bush wars. The sense of invincibility would seem to be returning, along with faith in Roman institutions. Then it falters again, because in prosperity the old Roman chests had been emptying out. They no longer believed in their own future, let alone in their gods. They had no mission any more, and could barely cope with even minor disasters. Still, they put off their fate for centuries, until the last legions scattered or ran home.

    But here is the mystery of our human history, in which nothing is inevitable, except in retrospect. The modern West will not go the way of Rome. It will go some other way; perhaps even to a restoration of sense, and recovery of faith — in our own Lord, and by extension, in our own future as a civilization. For after all, not everyone has stopped having children, as the faithless diligently weed themselves out of the garden of genes. All the symptoms of decline are there, but also symptoms of the Western “exceptionalism.” The Catholic Church, for instance, is not dead in the West, by a long shot. (See the millions of kids at those papal “youth days.”) She wins converts regularly among the best-educated, and that regardless of what is done in Rome. In the balance the Church is wanting, but she has always been wanting, in a world that has always been in a mess.

  15. Poor old Bunyip. I didn’t realise his latest relationship had gone ‘fffttttt’ (a rude noise made by horses and relationships).

    I hope he has a happier New Year.

    I intend to have a Happy New Year also, so I shall bid you all goodnight.

  16. Frank Brus

    If the warmists had their way our foregoing of fossil fuels would have a similar result going forward from here.

  17. will

    but what newly-risen, major factor in the seventh century might have led to the halting of that important trade between Egypt and the West escapes me for the moment…

    we all have memory lapses

    a reminder

  18. Bons

    Timothy E Gregory – A History of Byzantium – excellent coverage of the decay of the Western Empire.
    But you need some time – seriously long tome.
    Fascinating coverage of the political power obtained by ‘football hooligans’; in this case horse racing hooligans.

  19. Louis Hissink

    Mike Bailley, dendrologist, pointed to a climate catastrophe around 6th century AD that affected Europe. More likely that caused the downfall of the Roman Empire.

  20. johanna

    Woo-hoo, John A, someone else who loves “Rinse the Blood off my Toga.”

    Here is the script (it’s short)



    Flavius Maximus, private Roman eye. I’d like to ask you a few questions.

    What do you know about this?


    I told him, Julie, don’t go. Don’t go Julie, I said. Don’t go, it’s the

    Ides of March.


    Now look, Mrs. Caesar, I’d —


    If I told him once, I’d told him a thousand times, Julie, don’t go …


    Please, don’t upset yourself.

    You can watch a version of it here – full of jokes about Latin, the Romans, Jewish stuff and private eyes.

    Perfect for New Year’s Eve.

  21. Robert Blair

    Henri Pirenne reckoned the economic collapse of Rome from the time they lost their trade highway – the Mediterranean.

    90% of Rome’s trade was via this connecting waterway. When the Muslim invasions of the seventh century took it down, Roman trade collapsed.

    According to Pirenne, prior to that the new barbarian rulers in Rome (and Spain and France) were happily running the old Roman economy and system, romanising in the same way that the barbarian invaders of China were happy to adopt Chinese culture (as rulers of course).

  22. sdfc


    Mike Bailley, dendrologist, pointed to a climate catastrophe around 6th century AD that affected Europe. More likely that caused the downfall of the Roman Empire.

    The dark sun event. Have you ever read Catastrophe?

  23. thefrollickingmole

    A massive amount of their bread “dole” came from Egypt, any interruption to the breadbasket screwed them..
    But their reliance on it meant their own cultivation wasnt maximized. Think of it as similar to being an Ethiopian farmer now. Good years you get bugger all for your labour, bad years, you get less as the donor community floods your marketplace with “free’ wheat..

  24. nilk, Iron Bogan

    Woo-hoo, John A, someone else who loves “Rinse the Blood off my Toga.”

    I told him, “Julie don’t go!”

    I love Wayne and Shuster. Doesn’t everyone? I know it’s not on topic for the Romans, but Tex Rorschach, Frontier Psychiatrist is also a classic.

  25. stackja

    Rome reminds me of Bread and circuses

    Bread and circuses From Wikipedia

    which quotes:

    Satires (Juvenal) From Wikipedia

    Satires are concerned with perceived threats to the social continuity of the Roman citizens: social-climbing foreigners, unfaithfulness, and other more extreme excesses of their own class.

  26. JohnA

    Yay, Nilk, Iron Bogan, Johanna.

    I could probably still recite the opening from memory, up to about Marc Antony.

    FLAV: Hi, my name is Flavius Maximus, I’m a private Roman eye. My licence number is IXIVLLCCDIXMV – also comes in handy as an eye chart!

    BRUTUS: But… can I be trusted?

    FLAV: Alright, Brutus, you’ve got yourself a boy. I’ll take the case. My fee is 125 drachmas a day, payable in advance.
    BRUTUS: OK, here.
    FX: Long sound of cascading coins. Ends with short silence.
    FLAV: You’re one short!
    FX: Chink of one coin.
    BRUTUS: You got a good ear!
    FLAV: When it comes to money – perfect pitch!

    And so on.


  27. nilk, Iron Bogan

    Julius Caesar murdered!
    I couldn’t believe my ears! Big Julie was dead!
    Yes, it happened just a few hours ago. Happened in the Senate; he was stabbed.
    Stabbed? In the Senate?
    No, not in the Senate. They got him right in the rotunda.
    That’s a fatal spot. I had a splinter there once. Those marble splinters, you know.

    Comedy gold. 😀

  28. JohnA

    BRUTUS: Well Flav, what do you reckon? How will you solve this mystery?
    FLAV: I think I might mingle around town a bit, pick up the news.
    BRUTUS: Right, when in Rome, do as the Romans do, eh?
    FLAV: Yeah – uh, what was that you just said?
    BRUTUS: When “in Rome, do as the Romans do.” It’s an expression.
    FLAV: I like that, sounds good.
    BRUTUS: You like it? Well, OK, you can have it. It’s yours!

    Memory cells fading a bit, especially after midnight New Year.

  29. JohnA

    Darn, typo! Should read:
    BRUTUS: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” It’s an expression.

    Hey Rafe, any chance of this blogging software allowing us to edit posts and do corrections?

  30. nilk, Iron Bogan #1129715, posted on December 31, 2013 at 11:18 pm

    Woo-hoo, John A, someone else who loves “Rinse the Blood off my Toga.”

    Another here, Nilk

  31. Louis Hissink


    I have/had the book Catastrophe by – though I appear to have misplaced it. However the Wikipedia entry above does summarise his research well enough.

  32. Louis Hissink


    actually the book is Exodus to Arthur, but Baillie has published a new book summarising his research of the 14th century bubonic plague, and it supports my hypothesis that the MWP was terminated by a global catastrophe associated with the Earth passing through a meteoric event, possibly involving Venus if the Australian Aboriginal stories are accepted at face value.

    The real denialists are those who reject past climate catastrophes ever occurring, but who then have the gall to predict future ones like the present day CO2 one. Instead of accepting the past as it was reported by our ancestors, our modern catastrophists predict future ones that can only be mitigated by human sacrifice.

    But equally denying the catastrophic past and then postulating some or other economic theory to explain those past economic catastrophes, seems to be the real problem.

  33. Walter Plinge

    “Hey Rafe, any chance of this blogging software allowing us to edit posts and do corrections?”

    I’ve often wished for this. And the ability to ‘like’ or ‘not like’ posts. But I guess for that you’d need to have a system where you sign up and log in each time.

  34. JohnA

    Fans of Wayne & Schuster, I found the audio of the original LP “Rinse The Blood Off My Toga” at Community Audio Archives

    Available in MP3 and Ogg Vorbis formats, so should play almost anywhere.

    Enjoy 12:57 of classic clean humour!

  35. .


    I strongly resent any advice you have given me.

    My Amazon wish list is at 60 or so books. That site is like crack.

  36. johanna

    JohnA – thanks so much. Have saved, and will send to appreciative friends.

    Nilk, your link didn’t work for me. Seems to be a copyright problem.

  37. mundi

    The whole claim that ‘barbarians’ etc. over ran Rome is of course non-sense. They came in and took out the armies and let their own trade roll over Rome. They kept the Empire and the Emporer in place for along long time. The last emperor was eventually paid to quietly go away because they were sick of him being a middle man, reduced to do doing nothing but issuing edicts on their command without recieving a single coin in taxes.

    What socialists of course don’t like to point how is how crazy Rome eventually became. We know that at its peak the government directly fed over 30% of the population and counting the slaves, over 80% of the population of rome actually worked for the goverment. They did this by tieing slaves to land, then taxing the land when it was inheretance. So the son only got 90% of the fathers land/slaves. Slowly over the centuries the stand owned nearly everything and the economic output collapsed. The trade really had nothing to do with it. Romes wealth was always their net exports (which drove their armies and expansion).

  38. Mr Rusty

    I didn’t know they had the Internet.

    They had the Roman equivalent – wall paintings. There are some very interesting ones that tourists don’t get to see in Pompeii & Herculaneum. I suppose if you walked past them quickly enough a few times it might have the same effect as watching Sorority Sluts online. 😀

  39. Mr Rusty

    Here we are.

    I’m thinking of changing my name to Priapus after reading that.

  40. Yohan

    H.J Haskell wrote a book in the 1940’s about the economic decline of Rome.

    Essentially it was an economic collapse that come about due to a large and unsustainable welfare state. The huge imperial standing armies and constant frontier warfare also did not help.

    Eventually the Roman Emperors relied on monetary debasement to try and support the huge internal expenditure. Price controls then became common, for almost every commodity, the natural result being further reductions in supply, people fleeing agricultural production to come to the cities for welfare, and lowered living standards.
    The response to this was to bind farmers and craftsmen to their professions under pain of death, and their descendants also, essentially a form of feudal slavery.
    Reduced mobility, further restrictions on trade, price controls, e.t.c and the decline of civilization set in, to the point where citizens in places as close as Northern Italy actually welcomed barbarian invaders to throw the yoke of the Roman Empire off their back.

    It did not happen overnight but took about 200 years.

  41. Elizabeth (Lizzie) B.

    My Amazon wish list is hindered not by funds (I’d spend my last on books) but by time. As Dot says, the Cat provides enough good book links to be as heady as crack. I’m still plowing through Tel’s recent recommendation of Mat Ridley’s ‘The Red Queen’ – and thank goodness for Kindle, immediate and cheap.

    I read Baillie’s work in ‘Catastrophe’ (which got some very poor ‘serious’ reviews btw – the usual historians’ nit-picking at an important global theme; of course these ‘disruption’ explanations are partial, but they are nevertheless important). I haven’t read ‘Exodus to Arthur’, which I expect covers from the Santorini blast to 536. Graeme Philips has also written on this. Another for the list.

    Agree with Louis that climatic and geotechnic issues loom large as the backdrop or context in many histories and explanations. Jarred Diamond good in the ‘global’ analysis stakes too. Will’s ‘Political Islam’ link has some interesting graphics on jihad in practice, clearly showing the Roman loss of the Mediterranean trade, and the very swift early take-over of Byzantium – 25 years is all it took at the start.

    Neither should we forget that, in the Dark Ages, Christianity was also in locked horns with the remnants of Scandinavian Heathenism, as the Vikings responded to Charlemagne with some fairly significant raiding, which I believe can be linked as a reaction to the forced conversions to Christianity in Northern Europe and a resistance to the trade embargoes Christians placed on these non-believers. So the Christians were battling on two fronts, vs Islam and Heathenism, and internally they were still involved in securing their own populace from a latent Paganism.

    What emerges most strongly from all of these histories is the way in which human slave labour fuelled these civilisations until scientific approaches to energy and improved technologies changed the relationships between unit of labour/unit of energy/productive output. Transport and communications are also vital: see William Bernstein’s “The Birth of Plenty” for an analysis.

  42. Elizabeth (Lizzie) B.

    I’m thinking of changing my name to Priapus after reading that.

    Dear me. Perhaps you should consult with the good Professor Bunyip who is an expert in this field with regard to Etruscan Semiotics (or so he tells us when his field of expertise is enquired after 🙂 ). The Etruscans were earlier purveyors and appreciators of similar images in a style which permeated the Mediterranean. The Romans merely took on the theme. All such thematic works probably emerged from an Indo-European fertility god (such as the Scandinavian Priapic God Frey), whose presence can be seen in Britain in the Herne Giant, carved impressively upstanding in the chalk downs. Indeed, I find hints of this priapic triplicate god in Polly Garter’s song in Dylan Thomas’s ‘Under Milk Wood’, knowing as I do through my Welsh Nana’s tales and language that the old beliefs still carried on with the ordinary folk and must have been picked up by the poet’s attuned ear. Polly, you will recall, had three lovers, Tom, Dick and Harry – ‘good bad boys from the lonely farms’. Each was the proud possessor of a particular characteristic of virile manhood: ‘three yards long’, ‘two yards thick’, or ‘sweet as a cherry’. A Welsh Triad.

  43. Elizabeth (Lizzie) B.

    Actual words (mine were from memory) and song can be heard here.

  44. Elizabeth (Lizzie) B.

    Full lyrics of this haunting song here.

  45. Vicki

    Looking forward to reading this book that Chris Berg reviews. The role of the corn dole has an interesting equivalence to the modern unemployment benefit. After the Punic Wars many tenant farmers and rural labourers were dispossessed by the rise of the great senatorial estates (latifundia) throughout Italy that were extensively staffed by slaves. This instigated the familiar drift to the city (Rome) where the unemployed depended on old feudal obligations of noble families, and eventually – the state. Political leaders used their government appointments as magistrates (especially as tribunes and aediles) to organise distribution of the staple corn ( a variant of wheat) to the masses. Aediles were also able to organise public entertainment – especially lavish gladiatorial displays.

    This use of public office to win the support of voters has, of course, depressing similarities in contemporary politics.

  46. Jannie

    Roman history is so frustrating because of the lack of extant original sources. Roman technology was highly advanced, yet the only real source on it now available is Vitruvius who assumes his readers are technically literate, and leaves much unsaid. One speculates what they would have made of an accidental discovery of gunpowder, how long that would have compensated for their declining military capability. Would the steam engine, an early toy model said to be exhibited in the Library of Alexandria, have kept the Mediterranean safe from piracy.

    At any rate, when civilisation falls, its a long long drop. It would be possible to live on $1000 per year, but not pleasant.

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