Peter Temin is a Professor of Economics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts. In the article, “The Economy of the Early Roman Empire”, Temin argues that the Early Roman Empire had a similar economic standard to the civilized European capitals in the 18th century with improved water supply, paved streets, fire protection, etc (133). He attributes the prosperous economy to the stable government and market institutions that existed then i.e. the stable political conditions plus the available markets for goods, capital, as well as labor, which increased efficiency and specialization. This article offers an economist’s analysis of the Roman Empire with emphasis on the role of markets. It is worth noting that, there is limited evidence with regards to the economic prosperity of the Early Roman Empire, because a majority of the daily transactions of the Romans were recorded via incision of the wax that covered a wooden oblong. However, the medium was extremely perishable and as a result, nearly all the written records of such transactions have been lost (134).
The article relies on four types of evidence e.g. written sources (writings of economic activities in various works of literature), archaeological evidence, such as buildings, pottery, metal etc., papyri from Egypt (for instance, the Muziris papyrus which recorded a maritime loan for a voyage from the Red Sea), as well as vital directives, which were chiseled into stones. The author discusses various issues in this article, such as the living standards in Ancient Rome, a Mediterranean market for goods, labor and financial markets during the Early Roman Empire, as well as the growth of the Ancient Rome markets. In general, this article is very informative and detailed, and it is written in a very simple language that is very easy to understand.
Temin’s article is very thorough and educative, giving an insight of the economic history of the Early Roman Empire. In discussing the living standards in Ancient Rome, Temin notes that there was a high cost of living especially in the Roman Italy, which was 30% urbanized as suggested by the archeological evidence, which indicated a growing population. However, income levels were lower out of Roman Italy though there is no evidence to prove that. There was a high inequality in income and asset distribution during the early Roman Empire, with only the elite group, which consisted of very few people, holding great wealth in the form of land (136). It is worth noting the similarity between the early Roman Empire and the governments of today in terms of the economic disparity between the poor and the rich; an indication that income inequality has been in existence since time immemorial, and the rich will always strive to get richer to maintain their high living standards and class at the expense of the poor.
While the author maintains that the early Romans had high standards of living, there is no clear evidence to prove that since the facts presented state otherwise. For instance, the Romans resided in a high-disease atmosphere, and as a result, they constantly suffered from malaria, which reduced their life expectancy to just twenty-five years (136). In addition, they lacked technological advances, such as printing services, and they worked strictly on a cash basis. How did they attain economic prosperity comparable to the modern European capitals in the 18th century with a sick population? In my opinion, economic prosperity can only be achieved in a nation with healthy people who engage in work and trade among other activities to promote economic growth.
In discussing the financial markets in the early Roman Empire, the author notes that Romans loaned each other money frequently to finance consumption and production with every money lent accumulating interests. The standard interest rate for every loan was “1 percent a month or 12 percent” (Temin 144). To ensure that rates did not exceed the set maximum rate, the Roman Empire transferred loans to outsiders who were not exposed to restrictions; an implication that ownership transfer of commercial loans between interested parties was allowed and common in Early Roman Empire. Though there is no data to prove the literacy capability of the early Romans, all indications show that a majority of them were literate, as evident in this statement, “Literacy appears to have been universal for any Roman in a managerial role and may have extended to skilled workers as well” (147). The high literacy rates contributed to their high economic growth owing to the fact that most skilled workers could engage in economic transactions. This shows just how education is important in the growth of economy. While I agree with most of Temin’s arguments that are backed by secondary sources, I think that his constant assertion that there is limited or no literary evidence to prove his facts, weakens his points, because it makes the reader to start doubting whether his claims are correct. If only he would incorporate primary sources, such as first-account narratives of economists in the early Roman Empire, or attach pictures of archaeological evidence of the economic prosperity of the Romans, his facts would have been more credible.
In conclusion, market forces played a vital role in the prosperity of the early Roman Empire Economy. Large-scale production of goods and services, coupled with vast education, political stability, as well as availability of labor, capital and markets for goods, increased efficiency and specialization resulting in a prosperous economy. The facts in “The Economy of the Early Roman Empire” are well presented and well- organized in a clear and understandable language, making the article very interesting to read. Thanks to this article, I have been able to learn about the economy of the early Romans and what fueled their economic growth. I highly recommend this book to anyone with interest in economic history of the early Roman Empire.