James McCormick reviews Bryan Ward-Perkins on the fall of the Roman Empire.

the era between Pompeii’s suppression of the pirates in the mid-first century BCE and the fall of Carthage to the Vandals in 439CE is the longest period of Mediterranean safety in its history. Thus professionalization of security in the empire, and its reallocation to face its most grave danger (the Sassanids), had left huge economically-productive areas to prosper … but they were also extremely vulnerable to even casual predation.

Ward-Perkins’ thesis is that Rome created a strong economy based on trade, and that living standards collapsed when Rome fell. McCormick writes,

Who can fail to be swayed by Roman prosperity and logistical excellence when Ward-Perkins describes Mount Testaccio near the old river port of Rome … one kilometer around and up to 45m high, containing the broken remains of 53 million amphorae, representing 6 billion liters of olive oil imported from around the Mediterranean?

Or by the ice caps of Greenland recording the pollution from Roman smelting of lead, silver, and copper at levels unmatched til the 16th and 17th century.

Or by Gaulish pottery spread across archaeological sites in the entire western end of Europe from Scotland to the Baltic to North Africa.

Using only the labour of man and beast, the energy of wind and tides, the Romans created a trading network much like that of the 13-15th centuries … the era of the Italian trading city-republics. The Romans clothed, armed, fed, and paid a professional army of 600,000 men spread over thousands of square miles and resupplied them from a series of specialized factories located mostly in Italy. They drew agricultural and manufacturing products from North Africa at such a huge scale that returning ships were ballasted with Italian construction brick … used in turn to create massive public works in Africa throughout the imperial era.

Most of Ward-Perkins’ thesis reflects inferences drawn from excavation of pottery. In order to hold onto my view that this was not a modern economy, I would have to argue that such inferences are a crock. As McCormick puts it,

Earlier scholars considered the Roman economy to be modest, mostly local, and where not local, overwhelmingly driven by the state and the army. The archaeological record says otherwise. The distribution of artifacts and discarded pottery and coinage establishes a massive and vital commercial economy, geared to satisfying the appetites of humble and modest customers, well away from the State and military installations of the era. And as for that, one can only wonder at what the economic impact was of the soldiers stationed in Wales and Mesopotamia … They were paid in gold, many were literate, and … they had access to hundreds of different well-made and mass-produced items of ordinary daily use.

UPDATE: This review of After Tamerlane piques my interest.