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Roman gross domestic product

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Title: Roman gross domestic product  
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Roman gross domestic product

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.

Gross domestic product

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

Estimates of Roman per-capita and total GDP[A]
Unit Goldsmith
Scheidel / Friesen
Lo Cascio / Malanima
GDP per capita 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 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.

Italia is considered to have been the richest region, due to tax transfers from the provinces and to the concentration of elite income in the heartland; its GDP per capita is estimated at having been around 40%[10] to 66%[12] higher than in the rest of the empire.


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

Main article: Roman metallurgy

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 mills 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, near Arles. Sixteen overshot water wheels arranged in two columns were fed by the main aqueduct to Arles, the outflow from one being the supply to the next one down in the series.


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.

Industrial output

The majority of the people of the Roman Empire lived in destitution, while the small fraction of the population that engaged in commerce was much poorer than the elite. Industrial output was minor, due to the fact that the majority poor could not pay for the products. Technological advance was severely hampered by this fact. Urbanization in the western part of the empire was also restricted by low overall population density and the poverty of the region. Low labour costs brought about by slavery may also have contributed to the lack of development in mechanical means of production.[31]

See also

Related topics
Related economies

Notes and references


  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • Population and Demography, Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics, Version 1.0
  • 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
  • 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
  • Patterson, C. C. (1972): "Silver Stocks and Losses in Ancient and Medieval Times", The Economic History Review, Vol. 25, No. 2, pp. 205–235
  • 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
  • Wilson, Andrew (2002): "Machines, Power and the Ancient Economy", The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 92, pp. 1–32
  • 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

Further reading

The Oxford Roman Economy Project

  • Bowman, A. K. and Wilson, A. I. (eds) (2012), Settlement, Urbanisation and Population, Oxford Studies in the Roman Economy 2. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Bowman, A. K. and Wilson, A. I. (eds) (2009), Quantifying the Roman Economy: Methods and Problems, Oxford Studies in the Roman Economy 1. Oxford University Press, Oxford .
de:Wirtschaft im Römischen Reich

es:Economía en la Antigua Roma fr:Économie romaine

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