Intensive economic growth in Roman Britain suggests ancient economies were more complex than thought

AMERICAN ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF SCIENCE (AAAS)—Ancient economies in the preindustrial world were more dynamic than previously thought, driven by factors beyond simple population growth (or “extensive growth”), according to a new archaeological study* of classical Roman Britain. The analysis suggests that levels of per capita productivity in this province rose over a 400-year period, in part because of complex changes in transportation costs and societal exchanges. This suggests the society also experienced “intensive growth,” which arises from technological innovation or social change and has been considered a hallmark of modern, post-industrial economies. “The identification of a preindustrial society in which both intensive and extensive economic growth occurred is important because it suggests the differences between the economic systems of preindustrial and contemporary societies are more a matter of degree than of kind,” Scott Ortman and colleagues write. Researchers have theorized that preindustrial economies primarily relied on extensive growth, while modern economies also display intensive growth. This raises the question of whether ancient economies could generate sustained increases in per capita productivity, or whether the observed differences are due to limitations with current archaeological methods. To understand economic dynamism in the ancient world, Ortman et al. examined archaeological data from settlements in Roman Britain, which was incorporated into the empire as a province by the emperor Claudius in 43 AD. The scientists analyzed the relationship between the sizes of Roman settlements in Britain and three socioeconomic measures: the loss of coins, the consumption of fine wares, and the expansion of housing. All three measures increasingly scaled as the settlements grew in population and showed consistent patterns of intensive, per capita economic growth from the Late Iron Age (200 BC to 50 AD) through to the end of the Late Roman period in 400 AD. The calculations also linked the rise in productivity to a two-fold reduction in transportation costs gleaned from pottery excavations. The team speculates these costs decreased as the Romano-British inhabitants adopted a more Roman identity, built towns with standardized layouts, and gained access to more powerful draft animals and advanced food preparation technologies.


Remains of Bath, an iconic ancient Roman settlement in Britain. eduardovieiraphoto, Pixabay


Article Source: AAAS news release

*Identification and Measurement of Intensive Economic Growth in a Roman Imperial Province, Science Advances, 5-Jul-2024. 10.1126/sciadv.adk5517 

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