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Roman baths at Bath, England.	Source: bnoragitt/Adobe Stock

New Study Shows Britain Enjoyed Explosive Economic Growth in Roman Era

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A fascinating new study has produced ample evidence to show that after the Roman Empire conquered Britain in the year 43 AD, the occupied region experienced a period of sustained and intensive economic growth. This finding emerged from analysis of archaeological discoveries from all over the United Kingdom, which reveal a marked increase in economic prosperity and wealth distribution in Roman times.

The research responsible for this eye-opening discovery was carried out by a team of anthropologists and behavioral scientists from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and the University of Colorado in the United States. They credit changes in technology, laws, and institutional structures for the accelerated economic growth, which they assert was quite substantial.

“Over that period of about 350 years, you’re looking at roughly a two-and-a-half [fold] increase in productivity per capita,” study co-author Rob Wiseman, an anthropologist from the University of Cambridge’s McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, told New Scientist.

As Wiseman explained, it has long been thought that economic growth in ancient times resulted from population growth and heavier exploitation of resources. But in the new study, the data obtained revealed that Roman Britain experienced a more intensive type of growth than that associated with simple population growth. In this case it seems people became more productive, not just more plentiful.

A treasure of Roman gold and silver coins. Trajan Decius. AD 249-251. AV Aureus. (bukhta79/Adobe Stock

A treasure of Roman gold and silver coins. Trajan Decius. AD 249-251. AV Aureus. (bukhta79/Adobe Stock)

How the Roman Empire’s Economic Innovations Changed British History

To explore the impact of the Romans on ancient Britain’s economy, the team of researchers studied three types of archaeological evidence from Roman times, collected from dozens of archaeological sites in different parts of the United Kingdom: coins, pottery, and buildings. They were looking for signs of change that could be linked directly to the arrival of the Romans, or to the changes in lifestyles associated with the Roman occupation between approximately 43 and 400 AD.

In fact, the study of these classes of artifacts produced some significant and highly informative results.

The researchers found that houses got bigger in Roman times, indicating an increase in wealth among the population at large.

They also discovered that people apparently became more relaxed about preserving their coins, as these presumably valued objects were lost beneath the floorboards of homes much more frequently during the Roman era. This suggests people were getting more careless with their money, and that they had more of it to lose.

Finally, the quality and variety of the pottery used by ancient Britons to prepare meals and store or hold food and drinks improved noticeably during the Roman period, another indication that the people were growing more wealthy.

All of this is consistent with intensive economic growth, of a kind not explainable by population growth and more resource use alone.

What Caused the Boom?

The researchers believe this growth is best explained by the introduction of certain important Roman innovations. These would have included dramatic improvements in transportation infrastructure, including much better roads and more accessible and developed seaports.

In addition, it is known that the Romans introduced several new technologies to Britain, including more productive and efficient techniques for concrete making and improved milling techniques. They also brought advanced knowledge about animal breeding, which would have increased agricultural production.

At the same time, the Romans reformed British law in ways that likely made it easier to enter the marketplace and sustain businesses once they were started. Roman experts could have helped Britons improve their manufacturing techniques and make smarter design choices, leading to significant increases in efficiency.

The inputs of Roman consumer spending and investment funds undoubtedly supported economic growth in general, as it is always easier to innovate in economically prosperous times.

Revealing the Cyclical History of Intensive Economic Growth

Most research into ancient economic trends has been conducted with preconceived ideas about the limitations people faced. Supposedly, these limitations restricted the potential for explosive economic growth of any kind.

But based on their findings, the team of researchers from the United Kingdom and the United States disagree with this notion.

“We suggest that nonindustrial and contemporary economies may be differentiated more by the drivers and pace of economic growth than by the presence of intensive growth itself,” the study authors wrote in an article about their research published by Science Advances.

The study authors reference past research that purportedly shows that intensive economic growth is associated exclusively with modern trends, specifically with the industrialization and technological advancement that changed the shape of the global economy in the 19th and 20th centuries. But what they discovered during their study contradicts this claim, at a fundamental level.

They wrote in their paper:

“We argue, in contrast, that, in certain ancient societies, institutional and technological change resulted in similar economic patterns of growth observed for the recent past…. We are not implying a continuity between past and present, but rather allowing for breaks and changes in direction.”

In a broader sense, the new study could be seen as providing evidence to suggest that history is cyclical rather than being defined by a story of continuing progress. Just as technological and institutional changes had a decisive and even radical impact on economic development in the industrial and post-industrial ages, so too did they promote robust economic growth at certain times and in certain locations in the past.

The study authors are quick to point out, however, that just because ancient Britain experienced accelerated economic growth under Roman rule doesn’t mean that other satellites or colonies of the Roman Empire experienced anything similar. Each region controlled by the Romans had its own unique historical traditions and supply of natural resources, and what applied in one such region may not have applied in others.

Nevertheless, the results of this new research raise the possibility that Roman colonization might have jump-started economic growth and development in other far-flung regions of the Empire as well. This is obviously a question that requires more archaeological and historical research, and the methodology used by the team of experts involved in this most recent study could be quite useful for others studying the impact of Roman rule in other parts of the world.

Top image: Roman baths at Bath, England.       Source: bnoragitt/Adobe Stock 

By Nathan Falde

Nathan Falde's picture


Nathan Falde graduated from American Public University in 2010 with a Bachelors Degree in History, and has a long-standing fascination with ancient history, historical mysteries, mythology, astronomy and esoteric topics of all types. He is a full-time freelance writer from... Read More

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