[Poll] When did post-Roman Europe exceed the peak economical level of the Roman empire?

When did post-Roman Europe exceed the peak economical level of the Roman empire?


  • Total voters
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This is a question that puzzles me since years, but I really see unsatisfactory or empty claims from the scholarly sources I read so far.

I've seen some claim that the Roman empire around the 2nd century CE was the strongest economy up to the industrial revolution and I've seen such claims in different fields, such as levels of trade, extraction and availability of precious metals and coinage, ability to produce on a mass scale, architectural/public works and urbanization.

At the same time I hear the claim that during the high middle ages Europe grew demographically past its Roman levels, both in ex-Roman or never-Roman territories and that in regards to trade and urbanism the medieval system was both more resilient and also , regarding urbanization, a more real indication of economical strength as opposed to Roman cities, which relied on the presence of elites and the funneling of massive amounts of wealth from outside to stay big(consumer vs producer city debate that goes on since a century).

In my opinion Europe as whole surpassed the Roman peak by the 14th century even if for both cases the apex was relatively short lived, as the Marcomannic wars and the Antonine plague already made Rome quite weaker and later on the 3rd century crisis set in and for High Medieval Europe the black death caused massive demographic decline.
I base this on the fact that Europe was able to achieve a high degree of inter-connectivity and urbanization without having to rely on a unified political situations that lasted for generations and without the vast amount of funneled wealth in its richest regions through imperial success and on the fact most of Europe seemingly grew past the Roman demographic peak, outside maybe Italy, Iberia and the Balkans.
 
I would believe it was in the years and centuries leading up to the Renaissance. Europe had been quite rural and feudal till then. However, Black Death and the revival of Ancient Philosophy and Knowledge gained through the Crusades, Reconquista, Ottomon influence and Byzantine scholars moving West, propagated the shift.

Feudalism collapsed with the Black death and eventually, the collective factors led to the Birth of the Renaissance.
 
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I would believe it was in the years and centuries leading up to the Renaissance. Europe had been quite rural and feudal till then. However, Black Death and the revival of Ancient Philosophy and Knowledge gained through the Crusades, Reconquista, Ottomon influence and Byzantine scholars moving West, propagated the shift.

Feudalism collapsed with the Black death and eventually, the collective factors led to the Birth of the Renaissance.
I don't believe there was a massive difference in urbanization befteween Europe in 1300 and Europe in 1550, but some estimates of Roman urbanism would make Rome more urbanized than Europe until the industrial revolution.
How valid those estimates are is something I would debate, given the number crunching involved especially for the bigger settlements which by themselves made an high amount of the urban population. Although the consumer vs producer paradigm could explain away Roman urbanization as a cultural and socio-political feature, at least for some settlements.
 
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I don't believe there was a massive difference in urbanization befteween Europe in 1300 and Europe in 1550, but some estimates of Roman urbanism would make Rome more urbanized than Europe until the industrial revolution.
How valid those estimates are is something I would debate, given the number crunching involved especially for the bigger settlements which by themselves made an high amount of the urban population. Although the consumer vs producer paradigm could explain away Roman urbanization as a cultural and socio-political feature, at least for some settlements.
It isn't just about Urbanization. Of course, there were cities. But Feudalism dominated the economy till then, which essentially made that the Center of their World.

Coming to what happened just before the Renaissance, Black Death had wiped out a huge segment of the population, making feudalism crumble. Ottomon Empire dominated the East, bringing Trade opportunities, fall of Greek Constantinople led to an exodus of Greek scholars whose knowledge were used in the West. Crusades and Reconquering of Spain brought new exposure to more knowledge. All these collectively acted.

Spread of Knowledge was the most important part of it. With new knowledge comes new experience and ideas. This is what built the foundation of the Renaissance.

Finally, discovery of Americas propelled it into the Age of Enlightenment.

Europe came close to regaining the Roman Glory when Charlemagne founded the HRE and placed an emphasis on learning. However, with the subsequent Viking invasions and the rise of Feudalism, that didn't materialize.
 
It isn't just about Urbanization. Of course, there were cities. But Feudalism dominated the economy till then, which essentially made that the Center of their World.

Coming to what happened just before the Renaissance, Black Death had wiped out a huge segment of the population, making feudalism crumble. Ottomon Empire dominated the East, bringing Trade opportunities, fall of Greek Constantinople led to an exodus of Greek scholars whose knowledge were used in the West. Crusades and Reconquering of Spain brought new exposure to more knowledge. All these collectively acted.

Spread of Knowledge was the most important part of it. With new knowledge comes new experience and ideas. This is what built the foundation of the Renaissance.

Finally, discovery of Americas propelled it into the Age of Enlightenment.

Europe came close to regaining the Roman Glory when Charlemagne founded the HRE and placed an emphasis on learning. However, with the subsequent Viking invasions and the rise of Feudalism, that didn't materialize.
While Rome had many novel inventions and practices(medicine, siege craft, some engines etc.) they seem to have been dead ends, so personally I don't think "intellectualism" or "learning/ideas" are a particular strong factor, it seems to me economic and social sophistications acts as a better signal for that than ideology/mentality which is harder to track.

Though it does seem to me that 15th and 16th century Europe was more able to facilitate spread of ideas and written texts than Rome.
 
While this is a poll, it would be nice to hear the reasoning behind and if you have any new argument or source, especially for the more extreme positions.
 
And "Europe" isn't uniform. Iirc Italy and Flanders were getting pretty urbanised by the 11C, but other places a lot less so.
 
And "Europe" isn't uniform. Iirc Italy and Flanders were getting pretty urbanised by the 11C, but other places a lot less so.
I mean same goes in the Roman empire, as a caveat I think it's fine to compare a Roman area to its future counterpart, but comparing the MENA territories of Rome with non-Roman land in the north is probably unfair, at least prior to the early modern era.
 
In theory, yes, it seems like it should happen by the "High Middle Ages" if we go by decomposing the empire into component parts and then the product of estimated GDP per capita and population.

But that's total productive activity. People usually tend to implicitly be adjusting for the medievals having a lot of technology and crops the Romans didn't because of time trends, and talk about how sophisticated the economy was in its structure. If you've got a world where 90% population are subsistence farmers and the mouldboard plow and a better horse collar and so on are introduced, then that makes total economic activity much more productive (and of course similar things happen in the central / southern parts of what were the empire), and that can matter more for total economic activity, even if some productive sectors which are much smaller are quite a bit less productive (if your urban businesses are 50% less productive but only have 5% population, that can matter less than farmers being 90% pop and 10% more productive).
 
In theory, yes, it seems like it should happen by the "High Middle Ages" if we go by decomposing the empire into component parts and then the product of estimated GDP per capita and population.

But that's total productive activity. People usually tend to implicitly be adjusting for the medievals having a lot of technology and crops the Romans didn't because of time trends, and talk about how sophisticated the economy was in its structure. If you've got a world where 90% population are subsistence farmers and the mouldboard plow and a better horse collar and so on are introduced, then that makes total economic activity much more productive (and of course similar things happen in the central / southern parts of what were the empire), and that can matter more for total economic activity, even if some productive sectors which are much smaller are quite a bit less productive (if your urban businesses are 50% less productive but only have 5% population, that can matter less than farmers being 90% pop and 10% more productive).
The question is how free from agriculture was Rome vs medieval Europe.
Maybe urbanization is not a good proxy for how many people work outside agriculture, in early modern England and elsewhere a lot of nominally rural people were free from agricultural work.


At the same time I've seen a scholar argue that small urban centers in Southern Europe and Mediterranean were generally more agricultural than their northern counterpart. I believe David M. Nicholas gave 1000 people for the treshold for when northern settlements became majority non agricultural in the middle ages vs 2000 for southern ones.
So maybe Roman Eastern and Italian urbanization doesn't really signal as much freedom from agriculture as we think.
 
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Skallagrim

Banned
I think "economic level" can be hard to judge. Roman and mediaeval economies functioned quite differently, so -- as has been pointed out -- "degree of urbanisation" (while not useless by any stretch of the imagination!) can be misleading.

What strikes me is that in in the poll, some pretty obvious potential answers are completely absent, and as a result, some of the existing options are somewhat misrepresented. I'll attempt some suggestions:

1) "End of stagnation" should be at "Early 9th century: Carolingian Renaissance + End of Byzantine Dark Age". The Carolingian Renaissance, while not the definitive break-through that some fondly imagine it to have been, was the definitive end to anything that could be call the "post-Roman Dark Ages".

2) I'd descibe the next option as "Early 11th century: increased state formation and urbanization in non-Roman Europe"

3) Completely absent is "Mid-to-Late 12th century: resulting from Scholasticism and the Renaissance of the Twelfth Century"

4) Likewise absent is the more cautious interpretation of the beneficial effects of the Scholistic revolution and the Renaissance of the Twelfth Century: "13th century".

5) Finally, notably absent is "Late 15th century: recovery after Black Death, resulting relaxation of social rigidity, plus scientific revolution persuant to the Scholistic revolution and the Renaissance of the Twelfth Century". (In which context I'd like to note that those two factors were instrumental in creating greater interest in the classics, which led to the greater import and translation if classical texts.)

As such, my list of option would look like this:

-- Early 9th century: Carolingian Renaissance; End of Byzantine Dark Age; End of Post-Roman chaos/stagnation
-- Early 11th century: Increased state formation and urbanization in non-Roman Europe
-- Mid-to-Late 12th century: Resulting from Scholasticism and the Renaissance of the Twelfth Century
-- 13th century: More cautious interpretation of the beneficial effects of Scholasticism and the Renaissance of the Twelfth Century
-- Early 14th century: High Medieval demographic and urban peak in Europe before the Black Death
-- Late 15th century: Recovery after Black Death & resulting relaxation of social rigidity + Scientific Revolution

-- Mid 16th century: Columbian exchange
-- Mid-18th century: Agricultural Revolution + Early Manufacturies
-- Early 19th century: Industrialization

I'd say that only the bolded options deserve serious consideration, really. Charlemagne laid some pretty impressive foundations, but he wasn't quite there yet. And at the other end, we may safely contend that Europe bursting out upon the the world was a result of the fact that it had achieved a dominant position-- not the other way around. There is no doubt in my mind that by the time Columbus set sail, European culture had economically surpassed the Roman civilisation in every way that matters.

For the period from 1000 AD to 1500 AD, there is a case to be made for all five options, depending on how you care to judge "economic level".

Personally, I would point to the Thirteenth Century as the period in which the economy of Mediaeval Europe quietly and gradually surpassed the Roman economy in all the little ways, without the great comfort of there being one single dramatic moment you can point to as being definitively "it". This would by definition make it a fait accompli by the early Fourteenth Century, so that's presently the answer I'm choosing. But it's on the late side, for my liking.
 
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In my upcoming timeline about Iron Age Europe, I am actually covering a scenario where there will be a full Political and Demographic continuity from Bronze/Iron Age to the Modern era. The inputs here help.
 
1) "End of stagnation" should be at "Early 9th century: Carolingian Renaissance + End of Byzantine Dark Age". The Carolingian Renaissance, while not the definitive break-through that some fondly imagine it to have been, was the definitive end to anything that could be call the "post-Roman Dark Ages".

2) I'd descibe the next option as "Early 11th century: increased state formation and urbanization in non-Roman Europe"
I guess the problem is that maybe some people misunderstand the option as referring to "turning point" when maybe they are rather the end product of a previous process, I'm definitely not consistent as the later options definitely sound as I'm referring to a date as a turning point rather than the end product, maybe I should fix those(EDIT: if I could, the last 3 options should be shifted about 50 years later).

IMO the stagnation really ended in the late 10th century, the Carolingian renaissance was followed by fragmentation, dynastic fighting, Magyar, Arab and Viking raids etc.
Definitely not yet the kind of environment that started the high medieval explosion.

3) Completely absent is "Mid-to-Late 12th century: resulting from Scholasticism and the Renaissance of the Twelfth Century"

4) Likewise absent is the more cautious interpretation of the beneficial effects of the Scholistic revolution and the Renaissance of the Twelfth Century: "13th century".
I tried to space out the options a bit, the options between the 11th and 14th century seem a bit too granular for my liking, the point behind omitting them was just to re-focus attention on either the stabilization of Europe during the 11th century(most of pagan Europe is solidly Christian now, end of rampaging Magyars or other nomads for a while etc.) or on the tail end of the medieval growth. The effects of scholasticism can be placed in the 14th century option, because I find hard to separate them from the general demographic and urban growth when talking about the economy.

5) Finally, notably absent is "Late 15th century: recovery after Black Death, resulting relaxation of social rigidity, plus scientific revolution persuant to the Scholistic revolution and the Renaissance of the Twelfth Century". (In which context I'd like to note that those two factors were instrumental in creating greater interest in the classics, which led to the greater import and translation if classical texts.)
The scientific revolution really started in the 16th century, which coincided with the start of the columbian exchange. Also the problem with focusing on the intellectual part is that we are still talking about the economy at large and I would argue the scientific innovations or the general layout behind them(printing press, higher literacy etc.) was set parallel to the interest in the classics and not directly causally linked, at least that's my opinion(cultural renaissance is overrated IMO compared to the new stuff that was being produced)

I'd say that only the bolded options deserve serious consideration, really. Charlemagne laid some pretty impressive foundations, but he wasn't quite there yet. And at the other end, we may safely contend that Europe bursting out upon the the world was a result of the fact that it had achieved a dominant position-- not the other way around. There is no doubt in my mind that by the time Columbus set sail, European culture had economically surpassed the Roman civilisation in every way that matters.
And yet I've heard some scholars argue that in some fields the Romans were ahead until industrialization, such battlefield medicine and particularly even as quantity of goods transported by river transport(as far as I recall). Maybe you have heard it being claimed for some other field.

Personally, I would point to the Thirteenth Century as the period in which the economy of Mediaeval Europe quietly and gradually surpassed the Roman economy in all the little ways, without the great comfort of there being one single dramatic moment you can point to as being definitively "it". This would by definition make it a fait accompli by the early Fourteenth Century, so that's presently the answer I'm choosing. But it's on the late side, for my liking.
You mean specifically relative to peak Roman economy? If you had to use a more generalized Roman situation between 50 BCE and 230 CE(rather than the peak) would that push the date earlier?
 
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This is a table I've produced showing Roman urbanization by selected region, I used the book "Settlement, Urbanization, and Population " by Alan Bowman and Andrew Wilson for Urban populations and Frier's demographic data from a book I can't recall just now(and some other makeshift source for Dacia and Crete), one strong point is that Roman urban centers were concentrated in 3 regions: Egypt, Italy and the Maghreb and I believe the number crunching done with the larger cities(Rome, Alexandria and Carthage) might be partially responsible.
The data should be roughly representative for 150 CE, around peak period:
Region​
Total population​
Urban population​
% Urban​
Gaul and Germany​
9,000,000​
300,000​
3.3​
Hispania​
7,500,000​
310,000​
4.1​
Britain​
3,000,000​
120,000​
4​
Dacia​
900,000​
30,000​
3.3​
Danube and Illyria​
4,000,000​
270,000​
6.8​
Italy​
7,600,000​
1,550,000​
20.4​
Sicily​
600,000​
220,000​
36.7​
Sardinia and Corsica​
500,000​
20,000​
4​
Maghreb​
6,500,000​
1,030,000​
15.9​
Crete​
200,000​
50,000​
25​
Cyrenaica​
600,000​
70,000​
11.7​
Egypt​
5,000,000​
1,500,000​
30​
Anatolia​
9,200,000​
710,000​
7.7​
Levant​
4,800,000​
710,000​
14.8​
Southern Balkans​
3,000,000​
430,000​
14.3​
Cyprus​
200,000​
60,000​
30​
Total​
62,600,000​
7,380,000​
11.8​
 
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Skallagrim

Banned
IMO the stagnation really ended in the late 10th century, the Carolingian renaissance was followed by fragmentation, dynastic fighting, Magyar, Arab and Viking raids etc.
Definitely not yet the kind of environment that started the high medieval explosion.
I don't think that the post-Roman period and the post-Carolingian period ought to be lumped together; the post-Roman "Dark Ages" should certainly be seen as ending with Charlemagne. That there is also a post-Carolingian fracturing is true, but that's a different period, with different things going on.

Either way, though, are we asking for the point where Europe econompically exceeded "peak Rome" temporarily, or a point where it became permanent? I assumed the former, since you mention the point before the Black Death. This suggests that such a "summit followed by a decline" counts, in your approach. If so, then a temporary Carolingian peak should likewise count, even if it's followed by another decline. I also note that you explicitly count the Byzantines, and I've kept into account that the Byzantines gradually decline while Western Europe ascends, in the following ages. This is why there is an argument to be made that the economy of all Europe (including the Byzantines) during the Carolingian period is a contended in this list. (But I don't find it convincing, mind you. My point is that there was a Carolingian peak, and that it does meaningfully divide the post-Roman 'slump' from the post-Carolingian 'slump'.)

The effects of scholasticism can be placed in the 14th century option, because I find hard to separate them from the general demographic and urban growth when talking about the economy.
Also the problem with focusing on the intellectual part is that we are still talking about the economy at large and I would argue the scientific innovations or the general layout behind them(printing press, higher literacy etc.) was set parallel to the interest in the classics and not directly causally linked, at least that's my opinion(cultural renaissance is overrated IMO compared to the new stuff that was being produced)
We disagree here, although that's a matter of historiography. I'm firmly in the "ideas are leading; material advances follow intellectual advances" camp. Moreover, I think that advances in philosophy always precede (and make possible) the intellectual steps that facilitate advances in specific sciences. As such, I definitely believe in a direct causal link between the greater interest in classical (and non-Western!) thinking, as examplified by the Scholastics, and all the advances that followed.

And yet I've heard some scholars argue that in some fields the Romans were ahead until industrialization, such battlefield medicine and particularly even as quantity of goods transported by river transport(as far as I recall). Maybe you have heard it being claimed for some other field.
I think you can find some things the Romans were really good at, and fields in which Europe later lagged quite a bit. I don't think this means that the European economy couldn't and didn't surpass the Roman one at a point well before industrialisation. You can just as easily argue that Romans didn't have the horse collar, or the heavy plough, or the blast furnace, or a three-field rotation system, or gun-powder, or, or--

All things that the Europeans had gotten their greedy hands on by 1300, and went on to develop further.

You mean specifically relative to peak Roman economy? If you had to use a more generalized Roman situation between 50 BCE and 230 CE(rather than the peak) would that push the date earlier?
I think that it's hard to generalise. I'm attempting to compare peak performance to peak performance, and even that is hard. Even today, we still can't agree on the "proper" way to measure economic performance. Most metrics are lacking and/or biased in some way. We're working with estimates at best.
 
The scientific revolution really started in the 16th century, which coincided with the start of the columbian exchange.

A bit later, actually. The scientific revolution started in the early 17th century, and didn't really get going till the last quarter or so of that century.
 
I don't think that the post-Roman period and the post-Carolingian period ought to be lumped together; the post-Roman "Dark Ages" should certainly be seen as ending with Charlemagne. That there is also a post-Carolingian fracturing is true, but that's a different period, with different things going on.

Either way, though, are we asking for the point where Europe econompically exceeded "peak Rome" temporarily, or a point where it became permanent? I assumed the former, since you mention the point before the Black Death. This suggests that such a "summit followed by a decline" counts, in your approach. If so, then a temporary Carolingian peak should likewise count, even if it's followed by another decline. I also note that you explicitly count the Byzantines, and I've kept into account that the Byzantines gradually decline while Western Europe ascends, in the following ages. This is why there is an argument to be made that the economy of all Europe (including the Byzantines) during the Carolingian period is a contended in this list. (But I don't find it convincing, mind you. My point is that there was a Carolingian peak, and that it does meaningfully divide the post-Roman 'slump' from the post-Carolingian 'slump'.)
Given we are comparing a brief peak during Roman times(between Jewish/Dacian wars and the Marcomannic war and Antonine plague) I guess it's fair to compare it to a European peak.

The problem with the Carolingian renaissance is that it was incredibly brief and followed by such a big resurgence of political stagnation in the west and of pagan raiding that to me the Carolingian period is an exception to the otherwise stagnating period and simply set the stage for the real HRE and the real stabilization and christianization of Scandinavia and the East between 950 and 1050 or so. I find too many similarities between the 2 slumps to distinguish them, with nomads making trouble from Pannonia, with Eastern pagan vassal groups being troublesome(Saxons for the Franks, Moravians for the Germans), there is still fighting in Iberia, Italy is even under more Muslim raiding as Sicily just became Muslim etc.

While maybe Charlemagne set the stage for the complete Christianization of North and Eastern Europe with what he achieved in his life, I believe that it would take a century or more to properly materialize and in the mean time the slump that followed wasn't particularly unlike what came prior, if not worse arguably(given viking and hungarian raids were far more damaging than late Avars or late Umayyads were)
 
A bit later, actually. The scientific revolution started in the early 17th century, and didn't really get going till the last quarter or so of that century.
At this point the 16th century choice should rather refer to re-growth from the black death's decline and refer to renaissance and printing press, while the 18th century choice should instead refer to Columbian exchange and scientific revolution.

I can't edit though.
 
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