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Economic Performance and Well-Being in the Roman Empire: The Hope of Proxies

Date and Time: 
Friday, October 16, 2020. 12:00 PM
Meeting Location: 
Zoom
Workshop: 
Data Scarcity in the Ancient Mediterranean
Meeting Description: 

More than a decade ago the Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World and the Oxford Roman Economy Project put the question of the performance of the Roman economy at the center of historical debate. The debate has continued with some convergence: most historians would agree that there was some growth from the Iron Age as evidenced by urbanization and trade, while acknowledging that production remained predominantly agricultural and based primarily on somatic energy (i.e., human and animal). The challenge is to refine the analysis in order to put content into the broad description of “modest though significant growth” and to offer a deeper understanding of the dynamics of the economy. Was the ultimate decline of the Roman economy a function of endogenous or exogenous factors such as climate change and plague? In the absence of statistical data on aggregate economic performance and well-being, historians have searched for quantifiable proxies—for example, trends over time in ancient shipwrecks, stature of inhabitants, or levels of lead pollution resulting from mining as captured over the millennia in the Greenland icecap. This presentation will point out the methodological weaknesses of these proxies, as well as the challenges faced by a new, proposed proxy, the Economic Complexity Index (E.C.I.).

Speakers: Richard Saller and Kevin Ennis

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