Journal of Economic Perspectives: Vol. 20 No. 1 (Winter 2006)
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The Economy of the Early Roman Empire
Temin, Peter. 2006. "The Economy of the Early Roman Empire." Journal of Economic Perspectives, 20(1): 133-151.
Many inhabitants of ancient Rome lived well. Tourists marvel at the temples, baths, roads and aqueducts that they built. Economists also want to understand the existence of a flourishing and apparently prosperous economy two millennia ago. Market institutions and a stable government appear to have been the combination that produced this remarkable result. This essay provides an economist's view of the Roman economy that emphasizes the role of markets. I focus on the early Roman Empire, from 27 BCE to around 200 CE. I begin with some indications suggesting that the standard of living in ancient Rome was similar to that of early modern period of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, an extraordinary achievement for any economy in the ancient world. I then argue that ancient Rome managed to achieve this high standard of living through the combined operation of moderately stable political conditions and markets for goods, labor and capital, which allowed specialization and efficiency. After surveying the labor and financial markets in turn, I return to the broad questions of how the Romans prospered and the economy appears to have grown.
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