Guest historian this week: Paul Krugman, the economist!

Historians in the News
tags: Paul Krugman

... For some reason I’ve been feeling the urge to write too much the past couple of days. I just put out a monster piece on trade war, but still have another itch to scratch, this time about Roman history, with relevance to current events.

OK, that should be a red flag right there. Anyone claiming to see modern lessons in ancient history, especially Roman history, should be considered a hack until proved innocent. Brad DeLong is rightly scathing about Niall Ferguson, who is now regurgitating the plots of Cecil B. DeMille movies as if it were scholarship, declaring that luxury and orgies brought down the Roman Republic. Silly man: doesn’t he know that it was bad statistics, that the true rate of inflation was ten percent?

But I find myself thinking, not about the fall of the Republic, but about the Pax Romana that came after — the two-plus centuries of stability that followed Augustus. Believe it or not, I think that era does have some lessons for us; this may be a sign of mental infirmity, but I’m gonna let it all hang out.

Not long ago, I would have said that very little about the Roman Empire was relevant to anything modern. It may have fascinated early modern Europeans like Edward Gibbon, but in the end it was a pre-industrial society, incredibly poor by modern standards, and sharing few modern values. True, the Roman Empire was bigger than most pre-industrial empires, and lasted a lot longer. But was it really different in any important way from, say, Assyria?

But I read a lot of history in my spare time, and as best I can tell modern scholarship is telling us that Rome really was something special.

What I learned first from Peter Temin, and at greater length from Kyle Harper, was that Rome wasn’t your ordinary pre-industrial economy. Of course it didn’t have a technological takeoff; but peace, interregional trade, and a sophisticated business and financial system made it surprisingly productive, with an overall standard of living probably not equaled until the 17th century Dutch Republic. Harper notes that Rome was held back in some ways by a heavy burden of disease, an unintentional byproduct of urbanization and trade that a society lacking the germ theory had no way to alleviate. But still, the Romans really did achieve remarkable things on the economic front.

They also achieved remarkable things on the political front. The Romans were not nice guys; they weren’t Edwardian gentlemen in togas. They had no qualms about slavery, were often casually cruel, and had no compunctions at all about using extreme force to put down any challenges to imperial rule. But while the threat of violence always lurked in the background, the Roman Empire wasn’t held together by a reign of terror. For the most part the Pax Romana was maintained through the willing cooperation of local elites.

How did they manage that? The secret, as I read the new literature, is that Rome actually exerted a lot of soft power. Local elites were offered a good life, with attractive Roman values — Amphitheaters! Bathhouses! Wine! Stuffed dormice! — and the imperial system was open enough that especially able and ambitious provincials could aspire to move to the center of things. And that thriving, interdependent economy rewarded those who adopted Roman values and assimilated with the Roman system. ...

Read entire article at NYT