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Total GDP around 1 AD for various regions of the Roman Empire[1]

The history of the Roman economy covers the period of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. Recent research has led to a positive reevaluation of the size and sophistication of the Roman economy. [2]

Gross domestic product[edit]

See also: Roman currency

All cited economic historians stress the point that any estimate can only be regarded as a rough approximation to the realities of the ancient economy, given the general paucity of surviving pertinent data.

Estimates of Roman per-capita and total GDP[A]
Unit Goldsmith
Lo Cascio/Malanima
GDP per capita in Sesterces HS 380 HS 225 HS 166 HS 380 HS 229 HS 260 HS 380
Wheat equivalent 843 kg 491 kg 614 kg 843 kg 500 kg 680 kg 855 kg
1990 Int$ $570 $620 $940
(Approx. year)
(14 AD)
(14 AD)
(100 AD)
(14 AD)
(150 AD)
(150 AD)

(14 AD)
Total GDP in Sesterces HS 20.9bn HS 13.5bn HS 9.2bn HS 16.7bn HS 13.7bn ~HS 20bn
Wheat equivalent 46.4 Mt 29.5 Mt 33.8 Mt 37.1 Mt 30 Mt 50 Mt
1990 Int$ $25.1bn $43.4bn
"–" indicates unknown value.

A ^ Decimal fractions rounded to the nearest tenth. Italic numbers not directly given by the authors; they are obtained by multiplying the respective value of GDP per capita by estimated population size.

Maddison's breakdown per region (14 AD)[10]
Unit Roman Europe Roman Asia Roman Africa Roman Empire
NDI per capita
(in 1990 Int$)
593 550 541 570
(in m)
23.1 12.2 8.7 44
Total NDI
(in m 1990 Int$)
13,689 6,710 4,710 25,109

Angus Maddison is the only economist cited who offers a detailed breakdown of the national disposable income (NDI) of the various parts of the Roman Empire. His "highly provisional" estimate (see right) relies on a low-count of the Roman population of only 44 million at the time of the death of Augustus in 14 AD. Italia is considered to have been the richest region, due to tax transfers from the provinces and the concentration of elite income in the heartland; its NDI per capita is estimated at having been between 40%[9] and 66%[11] higher than in the rest of the empire. The European NDI per capita was higher than in the Asian and African provinces if Italy is included, but without it lower.[10] The Hellenistic provinces (Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt) were about 20% wealthier than their mostly Latin-speaking western counterparts, but again Italia, which was not administered as a province, enjoyed a higher per capita income than any one of them.[12]


Main article: Classical demography

In recent years, questions relating to ancient demographics have received increasingly more scholarly attention,[13] with estimates of the population size of the Roman empire at its demographic peak now varying between 60–70 million ("low count") and over 100 million ("high count").[14] When adhering to a more traditional value of ca. 55 million inhabitants, the Roman Empire still constituted the most populous Western political entity until the mid-19th century and likely remained unsurpassed worldwide until the 2nd millennium AD.[15]


Mining and metallurgy[edit]

Main article: Roman metallurgy
World production of lead, estimated from Greenland ice cores, peaked in the 1st century AD, and strongly declined thereafter.[16] World production would only surpass Roman levels in the middle of the 18th century.

The invention and widespread application of hydraulic mining, namely hushing and ground-sluicing, aided by the ability of the Romans to plan and execute mining operations on a large scale, allowed various base and precious metals to be extracted on a proto-industrial scale only rarely, if ever, matched until the Industrial Revolution.[17]

Annual metal production in metric tons
Output per annum Comment
Iron 82,500 t[18] Based on "conservative estimate" of iron production at 1.5 kg per head, assuming a population size of 55m[19]
Copper 15,000 t[20] Largest preindustrial producer[21]
Lead 80,000 t[22] Largest preindustrial producer[23]
Silver 11,200 t[24] At its peak around the mid-2nd century AD, Roman stock is estimated at 10,000 t, five to ten times larger than the combined silver mass of medieval Europe and the Caliphate around 800 AD.[25]
Gold 11,119 t[26] Production in Asturia, Callaecia, and Lusitania (all Iberian Peninsula) alone

The most common fuel by far for smelting and forging operations, as well as heating purposes, was wood and particularly charcoal, which is nearly twice as efficient.[27] In addition, coal was mined in some regions to a fairly large extent: Almost all major coalfields in Roman Britain were exploited by the late 2nd century AD, and a lively trade along the English North Sea coast developed, which extended to the continental Rhineland, where bituminous coal was already used for the smelting of iron ore.[28]


Main article: Roman agriculture

Roman agriculture was self sufficient for most of the Roman population.[29] The Romans improved crop growing by watering growing plants using aqueducts and there is an increasing amount of evidence that some parts of the industry were mechanised. For example, extensive sets of Roman watermills existed in Gaul and Rome at an early date to grind wheat into flour. The most impressive extant remains occur at Barbegal in southern France. Sixteen overshot water wheels arranged in two columns were fed by the main aqueduct to nearby Arles, the outflow from one being the supply to the next one down in the series.


Number of Mediterranean shipwrecks, 8 BC – 15 AD[30]

According to archaeological evidence there was a large increase in the volume of long distance trade during Hellenistic and early Roman Imperial times followed by a large decrease. This is evidenced in the archaeological data on the number of shipwrecks found in the Mediterranean Sea.

See also[edit]

Economic sectors
Related economies

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ "Statistics on World Population, GDP and Per Capita GDP, 1–2006 AD". University of Groningen. Retrieved September 18, 2012. 
  2. ^ Bang 2009, pp. 199–203
  3. ^ Goldsmith 1984, pp. 263–288
  4. ^ Hopkins 1995/96, pp. 41–75. His estimates are upward revisions from Hopkins 1980, pp. 101–125, where he lays out his basic method.
  5. ^ Temin 2006, pp. 31–54
  6. ^ Maddison 2007, pp. 43–47; 50, table 1.10; 54, table 1.12
  7. ^ Bang 2008, pp. 86–91
  8. ^ Scheidel, Friesen Nov. 2009, pp. 61–91
  9. ^ a b Lo Cascio, Malanima Dec. 2009, pp. 391–401
  10. ^ a b Maddison 2007, p. 54, table 1.12
  11. ^ Maddison 2007, pp. 47–51
  12. ^ Maddison 2007, p. 57, table 1.14
  13. ^ Scheidel 2006, p. 2
  14. ^ Scheidel 2006, p. 9
  15. ^ Goldsmith 1984, p. 263
  16. ^ Hong, Sungmin; Candelone, Jean-Pierre; Patterson, Clair C.; Boutron, Claude F. (1994): "Greenland Ice Evidence of Hemispheric Lead Pollution Two Millennia Ago by Greek and Roman Civilizations", Science, Vol. 265, No. 5180, pp. 1841–1843
  17. ^ Wilson 2002, pp. 17–21, 25, 32
  18. ^ Craddock 2008, p. 108; Sim, Ridge 2002, p. 23; Healy 1978, p. 196
  19. ^ Sim, Ridge 2002, p. 23; Healy 1978, p. 196
  20. ^ World output, the large bulk of which is attributed to Roman mining and smelting activities (mainly in Spain, Cyprus and Central Europe): Hong, Candelone, Patterson, Boutron 1996, p. 247; Callataÿ 2005, pp. 366–369; cf. also Wilson 2002, pp. 25–29
  21. ^ Hong, Candelone, Patterson, Boutron 1996, p. 247, fig. 1 & 2; 248, table 1; Callataÿ 2005, pp. 366–369
  22. ^ World output, the large bulk of which is attributed to Roman silver mining and smelting activities (in Central Europe, Britain, the Balkans, Greece, Asia Minor and, above all, Spain, with a 40% share in world production alone): Hong, Candelone, Patterson, Boutron 1994, p. 1841–1843; Callataÿ 2005, pp. 361–365; Settle, Patterson 1980, pp. 1170f.; cf. also Wilson 2002, pp. 25–29
  23. ^ Hong, Candelone, Patterson, Boutron 1994, p. 1841–1843; Settle, Patterson 1980, pp. 1170f.; Callataÿ 2005, pp. 361–365 follows the aforementioned authors, but cautions that the Greco-Roman levels may have already been surpassed by the end of the Middle Ages (p. 365).
  24. ^ Patterson 1972, p. 228, table 6; Callataÿ 2005, pp. 365f.; cf. also Wilson 2002, pp. 25–29
  25. ^ Patterson 1972, p. 216, table 2; Callataÿ 2005, pp. 365f.
  26. ^ Pliny: Naturalis Historia, 33.21.78, in: Wilson 2002, p. 27
  27. ^ Cech 2010, p. 20
  28. ^ Smith 1997, pp. 322–324
  29. ^ Haywood, John (2000). Historical Atlas of the Classical World, 500 BC--AD 600. Barnes & Noble Books. p. 27. ISBN 0-7607-1973-X. 
  30. ^ Parker, A. J. (1992): "Ancient Shipwrecks of the Mediterranean and the Roman Provinces" , Archaeopress (British Archaeological Reports (BAR) International S.), ISBN 0-86054-736-1


  • Bang, Peter Fibiger (2008): The Roman Bazaar: A Comparative Study of Trade and Markets in a Tributary Empire, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-85532-2, pp. 86–91
  • Bang, Peter Fibiger (2009): "The Ancient Economy and New Institutional Economics", The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 99, pp. 194–206
  • Callataÿ, François de (2005): "The Graeco-Roman Economy in the Super Long-Run: Lead, Copper, and Shipwrecks", Journal of Roman Archaeology, Vol. 18, pp. 361–372
  • Cech, Brigitte (2010): Technik in der Antike, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt, ISBN 978-3-8062-2080-3
  • Craddock, Paul T. (2008): "Mining and Metallurgy", in: Oleson, John Peter (ed.): The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-518731-1, pp. 93–120
  • Goldsmith, Raymond W. (1984): "An Estimate of the Size and Structure of the National Product of the Early Roman Empire", Review of Income and Wealth, Vol. 30, No. 3, pp. 263–288
  • Healy, John F. (1978): Mining and Metallurgy in the Greek and Roman World, Thames and Hudson, London, ISBN 0-500-40035-0
  • Hong, Sungmin; Candelone, Jean-Pierre; Patterson, Clair C.; Boutron, Claude F. (1994): "Greenland Ice Evidence of Hemispheric Lead Pollution Two Millennia Ago by Greek and Roman Civilizations", Science, Vol. 265, No. 5180, pp. 1841–1843
  • Hong, Sungmin; Candelone, Jean-Pierre; Patterson, Clair C.; Boutron, Claude F. (1996): "History of Ancient Copper Smelting Pollution During Roman and Medieval Times Recorded in Greenland Ice", Science, Vol. 272, No. 5259, pp. 246–249
  • Hopkins, Keith (1980): "Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire (200 B.C.–A.D. 400)", The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 70, pp. 101–125
  • Hopkins, Keith (1995/6): "Rome, Taxes, Rents, and Trade", Kodai, Vol. 6/7, pp. 41–75
  • Lo Cascio, Elio; Malanima, Paolo (Dec. 2009): "GDP in Pre-Modern Agrarian Economies (1–1820 AD). A Revision of the Estimates", Rivista di storia economica, Vol. 25, No. 3, pp. 391–420
  • Maddison, Angus (2007): "Contours of the World Economy, 1–2030 AD. Essays in Macro-Economic History", Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-922721-1
  • Parker, A. J. (1992): "Ancient Shipwrecks of the Mediterranean and the Roman Provinces", Archaeopress (British Archaeological Reports (BAR) International S.), ISBN 0-86054-736-1
  • Patterson, C. C. (1972): "Silver Stocks and Losses in Ancient and Medieval Times", The Economic History Review, Vol. 25, No. 2, pp. 205–235
  • Scheidel, Walter (April 2006): Population and Demography, Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics, Version 1.0
  • Scheidel, Walter; Friesen, Steven J. (Nov. 2009): "The Size of the Economy and the Distribution of Income in the Roman Empire", The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 99, pp. 61–91
  • Settle, Dorothy M.; Patterson, Clair C. (1980): "Lead in Albacore: Guide to Lead Pollution in Americans", Science, Vol. 207, No. 4436, pp. 1167–1176
  • Sim, David; Ridge, Isabel (2002): Iron for the Eagles. The Iron Industry of Roman Britain, Tempus, Stroud, Gloucestershire, ISBN 0-7524-1900-5
  • Smith, A. H. V. (1997): "Provenance of Coals from Roman Sites in England and Wales", Britannia, Vol. 28, pp. 297–324
  • Temin, Peter (2006): "Estimating GDP in the Early Roman Empire", Lo Cascio, Elio (ed.): Innovazione tecnica e progresso economico nel mondo romano, Edipuglia, Bari, ISBN 978-88-7228-405-6, pp. 31–54
  • Wilson, Andrew (2002): "Machines, Power and the Ancient Economy", The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 92, pp. 1–32

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

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Without subsidies from the east, the urban breakdown that accompanied a lack of patrons to invest in infrastructure and never-ending problems of debasing coinage (leading to inflation), the Western Roman economy was stretched to the limit. The year ...

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