The study of how ancient economies, such as the Roman Empire, and how they operated can be a fascinating topic to learn about. It’s easy to see why given how enduringly popular this ancient civilisation is, with many a historian and archaeologist looking at how these ancient societies operated and how Romans and their vast wealth of philosophers and culture influenced the course of modern history today.
Many economies in place in the world today are built on principles we are all familiar with, such as:
However, ancient economies looked very different to how we understand economics today.
As we shall see below, the ancient Roman economy was not as developed as you may have expected, and actually placed a lot of emphasis on agriculture as well as the slave economy.
Of course, the ancient Roman economy is not completely alien to the economic systems that we have in place today, as there were some features, such as their monetary system and basic trade routes, which feel a little more familiar.
You may have already studied a little about ancient Rome and its economy at school or university, although many more will likely have never learnt anything about the workings of ancient economies.
Perhaps understandably, the focus of many economics courses is on key areas such as:
To the frustration of some, there is actually a tendency in economics courses, whether at A-Level or university, to focus on the above economic areas, along with particular schools of economic thought, such as classical or neoclassical economics.
As a result, economic history, or the history of economic theory, can fall by the wayside on some courses.
So, if you do find yourself naturally drawn to learning about the ancient world, including how their economic system operated, you may be better off reaching out for a specialist to help teach you about such systems in your own time.
Superprof, for instance, offers a range of tutors that specialise in subjects from history and ancient history to economics and maths. This means it’s never been easier to search for a tutor that has great knowledge about a topic or subject you’d like to improve your knowledge of.
Roman farming and agriculture was a huge part of the economy. (Image: CC0 1.0, TheDigitalArtist, Pixabay)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ancient Roman economy placed a huge emphasis on agricultural production.
Given the Mediterranean climate in which the empire was placed, the main agricultural outputs were wheat and grapes, as well as foodstuffs such as olives. As a result, the main exports of the ancient Roman Empire were products such as:
These products are still famous exports within modern-day Italy today.
Generally speaking, agricultural output in ancient Rome was carried out by both small-scale farmers, as well as landowners who had space and resources available to put both workers and slaves on their land to produce crops.
Much of the ancient Roman economy was based on the leverage of slave labour, although the jury is out among historians as to whether this bolstered, or ultimately hindered the progression of the ancient Roman economy.
Regardless of historical opinion, it is accepted that slave labour was widely employed during this age. The Roman economy became even more dependent on the use of slave labour as the Republic progressed, due to the impact and cost of numerous wars and expeditions that were commonplace in such ancient civilisations.
However, it has been noted that, once conquests reduced in the Roman Empire, hired labour became more popular, as the price of slaves increased.
Although certain developed agricultural practices, such as two-tier crop rotation, were used during the Roman Empire, they didn’t yield substantial results for the amount of manpower it required.
For completeness, two-tier crop rotation is a practice whereby land fit for crops would be divided into two or more separate fields. While one field would be used to plant and grow crops, such as wheat, the other field or fields would remain unused, in order to help the ground recover for the next crop rotation.
Agriculture formed a huge part of the ancient Roman economy in no small part due to the empire’s need to feed its inhabitants as well as the military men that served. In fact, often a conquest, for example to areas such as Egypt, could be partly attributed to the need to find more grain-producing regions, in order to feed the empire.
Port routes were also a key part of the Roman Empire’s economy. (Source: CC0 1.0, DanyJack Mercier, PublicDomainPictures)
Trade was another cornerstone of the ancient Roman economy. Ancient Roman coinage was actually quite well established, although the supply of money wasn’t as controlled as it is in global economies today. For instance, there was no central bank at the time of the ancient Roman economy, and very little regulation.
Nevertheless, there was a single currency, and a variety of different coins in circulation, from brass and bronze coins to coins made of other precious metals.
Although there was a currency in circulation, it was not the sole way that goods were exchanged during the Roman Empire. Bartering still remained a highly viable option within the ancient economies, and taxes could also be settled through bartering instead of using coins – quite an alien concept today!
Ancient Rome’s monetary system, however, formed only a part of the total trade network at play.
Ports, such as Ostia, formed a crucial part of the empire’s trade network, and there were also a large number of roads that connected the empire to diverse corners of the world, including:
Marble was one of the minerals extracted as part of the ancient Roman mining industry. (Source: CC0 1.0, PRAIRAT_FHUNTA, Pixabay)
As we’ve seen, the economy in the ancient Roman Republic was not as developed as you may have thought, given the Roman Republic’s status as one of the major empires of the ancient world.
Instead, there was a heavy emphasis on both agricultural output, as well as the use of slave labour in order to complete both skilled and unskilled work, even if it meant launching a conquest or two in order to gain access to arable land.
Although the economy of ancient Rome may not have been as established or developed as many may think, there was features of this classical period economy that seem fairly similar to the systems we have in place today, from the operation of a single currency to the establishment of a variety of trade and port routes.
In fact, some historians, such as Peter Temin, have even argued that the Roman Empire was essentially a market economy.
Despite some of these parallels, the fact remains that ancient civilisations, from Ancient Greece to the Roman Empire, and their economies differed in a great many ways to global economies at play today.
Just as the monuments and architecture of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire are foreign to us today, bartering was a prominent feature in ancient Rome, and the Empire’s focus on agriculture is not one that we see as much today, as many modern-day nations have turned towards production and manufacturing.
Ancient Rome, on the other hand, did have a manufacturing sector, but by no means did it take pride of place in the Empire when compared to sectors such as agriculture.
The primary industry during the Roman Empire was mining, with the resulting minerals used for a variety of purposes, for example:
Understandably, the features of many ancient economies differ from what we understand as the norm today. This makes them fascinating to study, as they provide a small insight into what life would have been like during those times, and how our economic systems and practices have changed.
Should your Economics teacher merely gloss over these topics, perhaps you need a Superprof Economics tutor!
If you’re drawn to history and would like to learn more about the economies of ancient Rome or Greece, or even if you would like to learn more about ancient history in general, then you can always turn to a tutor for help.
History and economics tutors, such as those featured on Superprof, should be able to answer any questions you have about ancient economies, and can also help improve your overall knowledge and understanding of this captivating area of economics and history.
So whether you’d like to learn about Egyptian gods, Christianity during the Roman Empire, the earliest instances of Ancient Greek civilisation and the Persian Empire, or the temples, texts, sculptures and philosophy around during antiquity, you can find a tutor for you.