The physical evidence
While most types of evidence from this period have disappeared by now, there are a few that have survived, most notably pottery, coins, and roof tiles. Evidence from the Pax Romana shows a large quantity and wide variety of high quality pottery made on pottery wheels. Just as significant is the wide geographic distribution of different regions’ pottery, suggesting a highly sophisticated and specialized system of production, transportation and distribution. Apparently, people from one province could get and afford specialized goods from the far-flung provinces of the empire. Similarly, coinage was plentiful in gold, silver, and bronze. The large numbers of bronze coins suggests money was widely used even by the poor. Especially telling is the fact that a significant number of these coins were found lying around in a casual manner, the sign of prosperous times, as opposed to all of them being hidden in hoards, which was typical of hard times and economic decline. The plentiful remains of ceramic roof tiles produced elsewhere, even in the ruins of peasant houses, is another sign of the high standard of living and sophisticated economy of the Pax Romana. This changed radically starting in the fifth century. Pottery remains and coins, especially bronze ones used by the poor become scarce. There are virtually no surviving ceramic roof tiles from this period, suggesting the use of thatch, which can leak and harbor insects. The question is: how did this happen?
Conditions of prosperity
First, we need to understand the sorts of conditions that made the highly specialized and interdependent economy of the Pax Romana possible. Overall, it relied on a combination of five factors:
- A skilled specialized labor force able to mass-produce excellent but cheap goods;
- A sophisticated network of transportation and trade to move and distribute goods;
- An imperial government that minted enough coins and maintained the roads to sustain the economy;
- An influx of money from the central government to pay the thousands of soldiers and bureaucrats in the less developed frontier provinces, thus tying them into the larger empire-wide economy; and
- A large and wide-spread consumer market.
Process of decay
Rome’s highly interdependent economy and trade was similar to today’s global economy, although on a much smaller scale. Despite that difference, its decay and collapse hold a cautionary lesson for us today. In each case, the high degree of inter-dependence of all the regional economies of the empire on the other regional economies carried the danger that, if one regional economy collapsed, that weakened the whole economy and its individual parts needing that area’s goods and markets. That, in turn, would lead to the collapse of one or more other regional economies, weakening the rest of the economy, and so on. Therefore, rather than collapsing all at once, the Mediterranean and Northwestern European economy went in stages, the northern frontier provinces going first by 500, the western Mediterranean economy next in the 500s, and finally the Aegean area after 600. The first region to go was the northern frontier, especially Britain, in the 400s. This part of the empire was the most recently civilized region of the empire, with less deeply rooted cities than other regions around the Mediterranean. Two major factors wrecked its economy. First of all, being on the frontier, it bore the brunt of the violence and destruction wrought by the Germanic invasions. Secondly, its economy was especially dependent on the imperial government for money to pay the legions. Therefore, as the empire declined, the government was increasingly unable to pay its soldiers, thus undercutting the whole regional economy as well its ability to defend the empire, further wrecking the economy, and so on. After the final demise of the Western Empire (c.500 C.E.,) the Western Mediterranean went into a steady decline. Three main factors brought this about. For one thing, there was no longer an imperial government to maintain roads and protect trade. Also, the markets and resources the Mediterranean economy had depended on were gone. So were any imperial revenues that helped fuel the economy. As personal accounts from the time indicate, trade continued during this time, but became increasingly difficult. Most pottery found from this period was primitive compared to the wheel thrown pots of the Pax Romana. The small number of high quality pots suggests they were made exclusively for the rich. Similarly, bronze and silver coinage, the mark of a broadly based consumer economy, disappeared, while the gold coinage was crudely made compared to its predecessors. Clearly, money based trade had taken a nosedive. Starting in the late 500s, invasions by Slavs and Avars in the Balkans, Persians, and then the Arab Muslims in the Eastern provinces, and the first outbreaks of bubonic plague combined to send the economy of the Aegean into precipitous decline. Aggravating this were two other factors: the loss of trade and markets in the Western Mediterranean as its economy collapsed, and the loss of taxes and revenue from Syria, Palestine, and Egypt when they fell to the Arabs. Cities in the Balkans and Asia Minor either disappeared or shrank dramatically in size, not being able to recover for 200 years or more.
Aftermath of the collapse
The economic collapse of most of the Roman Empire had several results. For the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire difficulties continued as it bore the brunt of successive waves of nomadic invaders to the north and constant pressure from the Arabs to the south. However, by 750, the Byzantines had weathered the worst of these troubles and would begin a prolonged period of recovery and expansion. By contrast, the economy of Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Persia prospered, since those areas fell rapidly to the Arabs with minimal material damage and disruption and seem to have suffered less from the Plague than the rest of the Mediterranean. Therefore, this area entered upon a cultural golden age that also expanded across North Africa and into Spain. Italy and the frontier regions of the Roman Empire (Britain, Gaul, and Germany) would experience a brief revival under the Carolingian Franks, thanks largely to an influx of silver and trade from the Muslims via Russia and the Baltic. However, overspending by the Caliphs in Baghdad would bring and end to this prosperity soon after 800, triggering new rounds of raids and invasions by the Arabs in the Mediterranean and Vikings in the North. Political order in Western Europe would then collapse, to be replaced by feudal anarchy for two centuries.