Rome: Civil Wars, Plague, Economics - And Paul Krugman

by Geoff Gannon


Paul Krugman blogs about the fall of Rome and Adrian Goldsworthy’s book. Goldsworthy is a great military historian (for proof, read his dissertation turned book: The Roman Army at War 100 BC - AD 200). But he’s not an economist. Krugman is. Yet Krugman doesn’t look at Rome's economy.

Krugman – following Goldsworthy – confuses a symptom for the disease. He says Rome was brought down by civil war. It was. But Rome fought civil wars before.

Rome built its Mediterranean empire from the destruction of Carthage and Corinth (146 B.C.) to Antony’s defeat at Actium (31 B.C.). During that time: the Gracchus brothers were assassinated, there was a full scale Italian civil war (the Social War), Marius ignored the constitution, Sulla marched on Rome (twice), there was a purge of Roman politicians, Caesar marched on Rome, Caesar was assassinated, and Antony and Octavius fought a civil war.

I’m leaving stuff out.

My point: 100 years of bloody Roman politics breaking out into civil war didn’t stop Rome from rising in the world. Nor did the American Civil War stop us.  And Rome’s civil wars were nothing compared to Europe’s civil wars (Napoleonic, World War 1, and World War 2).

The Roman economy made it through 100 years of pre-Augustan blood politics. The American economy made it through our own civil war. And the European economy made it through Napoleon, Hitler, and the war to end all wars sandwiched in between.

So why did Rome fall?

Krugman says it was partly because childless emperors picked competent heirs. That streak ended with Marcus Aurelius. The timing makes that sound plausible. But Krugman leaves out something kind of important. Marcus Aurelius – along with millions of other Romans – died in a plague.

Any model of a plague like that has to tell you that capital, labor, money, banking, and government will be the wrong size in the wrong places for the economy that comes out the other side.

Rome was hit by a population shock that no society economists seriously study ever faced.

Remember: when we talk about inflation in the modern world, there is more than one currency to reference. When we talk about Japan’s demographics, there is more than one country to sell to. What money but Roman money could the Romans think in terms of? What customers but Roman customers could they sell to?

We overestimate our own intelligence and underestimate theirs, when we don’t take Roman economic problems seriously. The Romans faced a nasty economic puzzle. And they faced it alone. Without our knowledge of economics? Yes. But more importantly: without another example to guide them. There was no G8 or G20. There was a G1.

Rome's economic problems were damn near unique. But because historians study Rome and economists study the modern world, we act like economics didn't apply to Rome. 

It did. The civil wars were symptoms. The disease was economic.

Does that mean America is like Rome?

No.

It means Krugman should keep his economist hat on when reading Roman history.

It means ancient historians should think about economics. And economists should think about ancient history. Not just curled up with hot cocoa. But professionally.