Factors of Production in the Roman World

'Factors of Production' was the central 6-year research program of the Roman Society Research Center to study the three classical production factors in the Roman world : Land & Natural Resourse, Labour, and Capital. The program prefigured the network 'Structural Determinants of Economic Performance', of which it now forms a important part.

The Enigma of Performance

Certainly it is plainly visible to anyone that the whole world every day is becoming more cultivated and more filled up with people than in former times. All places are now accessible, all are well known, and all are involved in trade. Most pleasant farms have obliterated what were once famous wastelands; cultivated fields have subdued forests; flocks and herds have expelled wild beasts; sandy deserts are sown; rocks are planted; marshes are drained; and where once hardly a cottage could be found, there are now large cities. No longer are islands dreaded, nor their rocky shores feared; everywhere are houses, everywhere are people, everywhere is government, everywhere is life.

Tertullian, De anima 30.3[1]

Thus the Christian apologist Tertullian at the turn of the third century CE summed up the effects of Roman imperial domination on the lands that constituted the empire. Population had increased, forest and wastelands had been cleared and brought under cultivation. Cultivation itself had intensified, with more farms dotting the countryside and more people working the land, and more cattle and flocks of sheep grazing on it. Trade and cities flourished.

Modern historical and archaeological research bears out Tertullian’s judgement. The Roman empire was more urbanised, and had larger cities, than any state in European history before the eighteenth century. This level of urbanisation implies that the empire contained a comparatively high number of people who were not agriculturally active (even if this group did not overlap entirely with the total urban population). This in turn implies the production of a relatively high surplus in agriculture. Arguably, there are even indications in the archaeological record that standards of living among relatively broad swathes of the population rose somewhat during the early empire. If correct, these indications suggest an even more productive agricultural base.

The population growth that large parts of the Mediterranean had experienced since c. 800 BC continued as Rome conquered and organised its empire. The overall population of the empire grew, slowly but consistently until its growth was checked by the onset of the Antonine plague in the 160s CE. While the eastern provinces seem to have experienced a recovery particularly in the fourth to sixth century, the western provinces and Italy – despite improvements in the 4th century, never truly recovered.

Indeed, in the paragraph following the one just cited, Tertullian, foreshadowing the conclusions of Thomas Malthus centuries later, links the frequently occurring epidemics and famines of his day to high population pressure. Thus, like any pre-industrial economy, the Roman empire was not free from Malthusian checks and the resulting socio-economic crises. What is truly remarkable, however, is not the occurrence of such checks but the fact that the Romans had been able to put them off for so long. For over two centuries, while population grew steadily, the empire as a whole experienced a remarkable economic efflorescence, including an increasing rate of urbanisation, rising levels of consumption, and per capita growth. Parts at least of the eastern Empire (like Asia Minor and Syria) blossomed anew in Late Antiquity.  How was this achievement realised?

To study the long-term development of Roman economic performance, and to probe the reasons behind it, we have initiated an extensive 6 year research programme on factors of production. The first part (2009-2011) will focus on the Roman exploitation of land and natural resources from c. 200 BCE to 600 CE. It will be followed by a two year project on ‘Labour in the Roman World’ (2011-2013) and a two year project on ‘Capital in the Roman World’ (2013-2015).

The chronological limits are deliberately defined so as to include both Republican and late antique developments. This provides us with a broad stretch of eight centuries in which to study the ebb and flow of Roman economic development from the perspective of land and natural resource exploitation.


Our main aims are twofold. First, we want to study the Romans’ approach in theory and practice to land, natural resources, labour and capital. That is, we wish to describe and analyse the various techniques and modes of  exploitation, management and organisation of natural, human, financial and man-made resources in the Roman world, and the ways in which people thought about these and conceptualised them in law, science, philosophy, religion, and art. Why did the Romans opt for certain techniques and not others? Was there a specific culturally, socially, economically or environmentally determined logic to their choices? How did their conceptualisation of the natural world and its bounties influence their practices, and vice versa? Was Roman ‘economic’ rationality market oriented ?

Second, we want to investigate what this implied for the structure and performance of the Roman economy through time. Do Roman approaches to various resource exploitation modes and techniques offer us a key to explain the apparently simultaneous occurrence of extensive economic growth as suggested by sustained population increases and high levels of urbanisation on the one hand, and intensive (per capita) economic growth and rising living standards (for part of the population at least) on the other? Can it explain the later second century break and the divergent evolutions in East and West afterwards ?

Methodology & Theoretical framework

As information on factors of production in the Roman world is derived from historical and archaeological sources in the widest possible definition of those terms, the project is of necessity multidisciplinary, involving the work of specialists in all kinds of materials, techniques, and themes, be they historians, archaeologists, or scholars from other disciplines. We explicitly aim to encourage such a multidisciplinary approach, to learn from each other’s work and to build up as complete a picture as possible of the ways in which the Romans managed and exploited the natural resources available to them.

In order to avoid the pitfalls of using research results and theories drawn from other disciplines it is imperative, we believe, that we engage in an active communication with trained scholars in these ‘other’ disciplines. Thus for instance archaeological datasets have gained major importance in the ancient economy debates, yet some archaeologists have expressed doubts on the conclusions drawn by historians. Cliometricians have worked on quantitative data from the ancient world, yet some historians have doubts on the validity of the data drawn from incomplete and often biased sources.

Our project puts forward large and fundamental questions, but how should we go about answering them? To provide a theoretical focus for the project that might provoke, challenge and inspire contributors, and thus lead to new insights, the next two paragraphs describe what we think might be a useful theoretical guideline.

What is needed to tackle the questions formulated above and to facilitate a mutually fruitful communication between disciplines, is a coherent model or theoretical approach that will allow us to formulate testable hypotheses that can be used to make sense of the disparate data for Roman resource exploitation. Current models of the ancient economy do not quite suffice for the purpose. Finley’s broadly Weberian status model, though rightly insisting on the importance of mentalities and institutions, does not really allow for economic growth. Neo-Malthusian/Ricardian demographic approaches and ecological models have much to contribute, but generally operate on too large a time-scale and/or ignore the institutional set up or consider it a dependent variable. Meanwhile, straight neo-classical economic models, though analytically clear-cut, often tend to minimise or explain away precisely what is historically interesting about the ancient past, i.e. those aspects of Roman society that are decidedly un-modern or (apparently) ‘irrational.’

We therefore invite scholars to explore new ways to deal with the ancient economy, such as the New Institutional Economics developed by Douglass North and others which has been applied with success also by the Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World. Briefly, the central idea of NIE is that it is the institutional context of a society that determines whether that society is able to lower the ‘hidden’ costs of economic activity (of acquiring information, arranging transactions, drawing up and enforcing contracts, supervision, entering the market, the creation and maintenance of trust among parties...), and thus increase efficiency and produce economic growth. Institutions, in this analysis, are ‘the rules of the game’, i.e. constitutions, laws, regulations, customs, modes of conduct. Their shape and form is determined by the value systems, mentalities and world views prevalent in the society in question, while institutions themselves in turn determine the shape and form of society’s organisational units.

The strengths of the NIE approach in our view are:

a) that it makes the work of cultural, social and economic historians/archaeologists relevant to each other, thus directing us towards a more realistic account in which ‘the economic’ is not artificially separated from the rest of society for the purpose of analysis, while acknowledging the presence of functional (price-setting) markets and therefore the validity of key concepts from neoclassical economics.

b) that it allows us to focus on the specifically Roman institutional set-up for our analysis of performance. It allows us to entertain the possibility that Roman institutions were conducive to growth in ways that might not necessarily fit the European experience since c. 1700 CE but which nonetheless displayed their own historically specific rationality. However, it also draws attention to possibly negative effects of ‘path dependency’ curbing or limiting growth. Specific developments and choices create a set of constraints that limit future options and developments, thus constraints and possibilities for economic development are shaped by past developments. This is particularly true in the case of organisations and institutions that tend to ‘survive’ the historical circumstances in which they originated.

To be sure, we do not envisage the NIE model as a straightjacket into which we want to force all our contributors. As said, we wish to encourage methodological pluriformity, since only a multidisciplinary approach can reveal the complexities of Roman resource exploitation. For instance, especially the realisation of the first of the two aims of the project mentioned above, the precise description and analysis of Roman techniques of and thought concerning resource exploitation, will require the expertise of specialists in a variety of (sub)disciplines within classics, history, archaeology and perhaps other disciplines.

Nonetheless, we want to challenge our contributors to think hard about the possible (in)significance of modes of thought, institutions and organisational settings on economic performance. Thus, we offer the NIE approach as a device to encourage debate and produce new insights, and not as theoretical gospel. We welcome critical contributions concerning precisely the application of NIE as a research approach, and invite scholars to suggest new models and theories, providing always that contributors explicitly deal with the methodological aspects of their approach.

We believe that an exploration of Roman resource exploitation, management and organisationalong the lines proposed here will be relevant not only to ancient historians and classical archaeologists, but also to scholars studying other pre-modern societies in various parts of the world, and to those economists and social scientists whose theories we put to the test in a historical setting for which these were not initially designed. We aim to contribute not just to a better understanding of Roman economy and society, but also to greater insight into the causes and consequences of economic growth in pre-industrial societies generally. Ultimately, of course, such studies of pre-modern growth might lead to a better understanding of the reasons behind development and prosperity in our own society.

(1) Certe quidem ipse orbis in promptu est cultior de die et instructior pristino. Omnia iam peruia, omnia nota, omnia negotiosa, solitudines famosas retro fundi amoenissimi oblitterauenint, siluas arua domuerunt, feras pecora fugauerunt, harenae seruntur, saxa panguntur, paludes eliquantur, tantae urbes quantae non casae quondam. Iam nec insulae horrent nec scopuli terrent; ubique domus, ubique populus, ubique respublica, ubique uita.