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The rise and fall of the Ancient Economy part 1

Posted June 7th, 2012 at 04:23 PM by Guaporense
Updated June 7th, 2012 at 05:23 PM by Guaporense

Behold! All the graphs that I have ever posted in the forum condensed in one blog post.

Using the products of modern archaeology it is becoming possible for us to reconstruct the trajectory of the total volume of economic activity of the classical world during antiquity. The evidence apparently indicates that aggregate economic activity in the ancient world peaked in the 1st century AD, after rising for nearly a thousand years and then started to decline, nearly continuously, for nearly a thousand years.


Recent research using the levels of metal pollution in the ice cores from greenland is enabling researchers to determine the trajectories of pollution and hence production of several metals, allowing us to reconstruct the performance of several industries of the Graeco-Roman world.


Measured from levels of lead pollution, world production of lead increased continuously from the discovery of cupellation up to the height of the Roman Empire:

Click the image to open in full size.(1)

Each dot represents the point estimates of lead production in the world while the outputs in other periods were derived from interpolation. The graph was made in logarithmic scale, which fails to show the massive difference in levels of lead production of the Roman period to other periods, so I converted this data to linear scale:

Click the image to open in full size.

Lead production levels during Roman times reached levels attained only again in the 18th century. After rising continuously from 3000 BC, lead production started to decline from the 1st century AD, failing from 80,000 tons to 4,000 tons in the 8th century AD. Production took a thousand years to recover to former Roman levels, reaching 100,000 tons in the late 18th century.

Lead was a by-product of silver smelting. The growing classical economy demanded increasing quantities of coinage, which increased the demand for silver and thus increasing the production of silver and it's by products. With the decline of the ancient economy, starting in the 2nd century, silver production also declined and thus the levels of lead production. So lead pollution can be viewed as a thermometer of overall level of economic activity in the ancient world.

Average Greco-Roman silver production in tons per year

350-250 BC -------- 25
250-150 BC -------- 60
150-50 BC -------- 100
50 BC-100 AD ---- 200
100-200 AD ------- 100
200-300 AD ------- 30
300-400 AD ------- 25

Roman levels of silver production of the 1st century were only surpassed in the late 16th century, with the opening of the mines in the new world. Yet, in the mid 18th century, world levels of silver production were in the order of 600 tons, three times Roman levels, but dispersed across a much larger population, so Roman per capita levels of silver consumption were higher.

Lead was also used to manufacture pipes in the ancient world, in Pompeii many lead pipes running though the streets have been found.

Roman lead ingots:

Click the image to open in full size.


Like lead, the global trajectory of copper production followed a similar path: increasing continuously from the discovery of copper smelting to the height of the Roman empire, then it started to fall and reached it's lowest levels in the 8th century, starting to increase again and finally surpassing the Roman levels in the late 18th century. Though with one major difference, which was the economic boom in Song China during the 10th - 12th centuries, that resulted into a medieval peak in copper production similar to the Roman and 18th century levels.

World copper production (logarithmic scale):
Click the image to open in full size.

And here is a table detailing the evolution of copper emissions:
Click the image to open in full size.

Note: from 1000 BC to 1 AD world copper emissions increased from 20 tons a year, to 300 tons a year in 500 BC to 2,300 tons a year in 1 AD. Increasing by a over 100 times, showing clearly the rise of the ancient economy during the period. From 1 AD to 750 AD world copper emissions declined from 2,300 tons to 300 tons, back to the levels of 500 BC, a decline of 87%, smaller than the decline in lead emissions/production of 95%. The difference can be explained by the fact that China was a significant producer of copper, while they didn't produce lead in significant quantities. Thus, mediterranean levels of copper production declined by an even greater margin than 87% from the 1st to the 8th centuries. And also, in 500 BC, the main center of copper production was centered in the mediterranean (Hellas and the Persian Empire), while in 750 AD, China probably produced more copper than the western world. So actual levels of copper production in the western world were lower in 750 AD than in 500 BC.


(1) Hong et al, Greenland Ice Evidence of Hemispheric Lead Pollution Two Millennia Ago by Greek and Roman Civilizations, Science, Vol. 265 no. 5180 pp. 1841-1843, 1994
(2) Hong et al, A History of Ancient Copper Smelting Pollution During Roman and Medieval Times Recorded in Greenland Ice, Science, 1996
(3) Edited by Wilson & Bowman, Quantifying the Roman Economy, 2009
(4) Edited by Scheidel et al, The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman world, 2007
(5) Patterson, C. C., Silver Stocks and Losses in Ancient and Medieval Times, The Economic History Review, Vol. 25, No. 2, 1972
(6) Cleere, H., The Iron Industry in Roman Britain, 1981
(7) Sim & Ridge, Iron for the Eagles, 2002
(8) http://orbis.stanford.edu/#
(9) http://www.humanist.de/rome/ironwheel/index.html
(10) Maddison, The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective, 2001
(11) Temin P., The Economy of the Early Roman Empire, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2006
(12) The Ancient Economy: Methods and Problems, 2007
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  1. Old Comment
    markdienekes's Avatar
    Interesting stuff, Gua, thanks mate!
    Posted June 8th, 2012 at 01:17 AM by markdienekes markdienekes is online now

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