The World Economy by the OECD Development Centre
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Europe's decline from the first to tenth centuries

In the first and second centuries, the Roman Empire was at its peak, a political entity that stretched from the Scottish border to Egypt, with a population of 20 million in Europe, another 20 million in Western Asia and 8 million in North Africa. Within this area there was a common legal framework, and the security of the pax romana. There were about 40 000 miles of paved road; 5 per cent of the population was urban with an active secular culture. The major cities were supplied with aqueducts, public baths and fountains, amphitheatres, libraries, temples and other public monuments. The Mediterranean was a Roman lake with tribute shipments of grain from Alexandria and Carthage to the Roman ports of Puteoli (near Naples) and Portus Novus (near Rome). Silk and spices from Asia came overland via Antioch, and up the Red Sea to Egypt. By the first century, Roman citizens (Greeks, Syrians and Jews) had discovered how to use the monsoon winds to trade directly with Western India.

Roman imperialism was based on plunder, enslavement and ability to exercise control through military force. The strains in running such a large system were already obvious when Diocletian created separate Western and Eastern Empires in 285. Eventually the Western Empire’s capacity to levy taxes and tribute eroded. It relied increasingly on barbarians to man its armed forces. When they revolted, the system collapsed.

By the fifth century the West Roman Empire had disintegrated. Gaul, Spain, Carthage and most of Italy were taken over by illiterate barbarian invaders and Britain was abandoned. There was a brief reprise in the sixth century when the East Roman Emperor recovered Italy, Spain and North Africa. The final blow came with the Arab takeover of Egypt, North Africa, Spain, Sicily, Syria and Palestine between 640 and 800. The only remnant of Roman civilisation was the rump of the Byzantine Empire.

The main changes between the first and tenth centuries were

a) the collapse of a large scale cohesive political unit which was never resurrected, and its replacement by a fragmented, fragile and unstable polity;
b) disappearance of urban civilisation and predominance of self–sufficient, relatively isolated and ignorant rural communities where a feudal elite extracted an income in kind from a servile peasantry;
c) the virtual disappearance of trading links between Western Europe, North Africa and Asia.

The Belgian historian Pirenne (1939) provided a succinct description of the situation in the ninth century: “If we consider that in the Carolingian epoch, the minting of gold had ceased, the lending of money at interest was prohibited, there was no longer a class of professional merchants, that Oriental products (papyrus, spices and silk) were no longer imported, that the circulation of money was reduced to a minimum, that laymen could neither read or write, that taxes were no longer organised, and that the towns were merely fortresses, we can say without hesitation that we are confronted by a civilisation that had retrogressed to the purely agricultural stage; which no longer needed commerce, credit and regular exchange for the maintenance of the social fabric.