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117 | 2019
Annuaire du Collège de France 2016-2017
Résumé des cours et travaux 117e année
Autres enseignements et recherches
IV. Conférenciers invités

Four lectures

Willem M. Jongman
p. 672-673

Editor's notes

Cycle de quatre conférences prononcées les 9, 16, 23 et 28 novembre 2016 (invitation sur proposition du Pr Jean-Pierre Brun). Ces conférences sont disponibles en audio et vidéo sur le site internet du Collège de France :

Full text

1For centuries after the Middle Ages classical antiquity was a civilization to envy and admire. Not surprisingly this faded with the Industrial Revolution, when modern society began to make a clear break with the past. That loss of admiration is reflected in twentieth century histories of antiquity, where the otherness and underdevelopment of antiquity were now increasingly emphasized. Research focussed on potential social and cultural explanations of ancient economic failure, and largely avoided to document actual economic performance, probably because at the time no one could imagine how this was to be done, in the absence of sufficient documentary sources of the kind available for later periods of history.

2In these four lectures (1. The weight of numbers: Demography ; 2. Standard of living ; 3. An urban economy ; 4. The rural foundations of growth), I tried to show that, largely thanks to the tremendous growth of archaeological information during recent decades, we are now in a position to reassess Roman economic performance directly. There are now plenty of data, and the challenge is to use them imaginatively. And unlike in the past, when data were few and far between, this new challenge involves dealing with an embarrassment of riches. We need to find methodologies to aggregate these data if we want to write big history in an empirical way: where indeed in world history does classical antiquity stand, and ancient Rome in particular?

3The biggest story in world history is that of the growth of human number. Here, the Roman Empire occupies a special place, as an empire of unprecedented population size for its time, and high population density. Thus far, however, such reconstructions of Roman population trends are largely based on limited and problematic written data. I will argue that modern archaeology offers far better tools to reconstruct population, and population trends in particular. Archaeology is beginning to show that in many regions population grew spectacularly, to decline similarly dramatically in late antiquity.

4This of course invites scrutiny of standard of living. Did it decline in Malthusian fashion when population grew, or not? Did it only improve in the imperial core, and as a result of imperial exploitation, or also in the provinces? I shall argue that precisely the period of highest population pressure also witnessed the highest levels of material wealth, and not just for a tiny elite, but that it was shared by relatively large segments of the population, and not only in the imperial core. And yet, that prosperity did not extend to physical health. It looks as if people paid for their material wealth with a deteriorating health, even if they may not have realized the trade-off.

5The final two lectures were devoted to a search for explanation, or at the very least a deeper description of why the Roman economy could have been so successful for a while, and to how it ultimately failed. The Roman world had a remarkable level of urbanization, and included some of the biggest cities of the pre-industrial world. Were these cities parasites on an underdeveloped economy, as has been argued, or symptoms and engines of its success? How much division of labour was there, both functionally, and between town and country, between regions, and even between continents?

6Finally, I discussed agriculture, because this was, after all, still a largely agricultural economy. Was it mostly unaffected by the busy world of trade and commerce, or did it change, under the forces of market integration? Did it suffer under the rapacity of urban landowners, or did it develop new techniques to cope with declining labour productivity under population pressure? Did it feed the people, and with what? And what happened when the Roman world began to disintegrate? Did labour productivity improve, and hence rural standard of living?

7My tentative conclusion was that at least for a while the Roman economy was remarkably successful, and probably reached levels of performance and standard of living comparable to the most advanced early-modern European economies. In that sense, its Renaissance admirers were absolutely right. And yet, the Empire declined and fell. Its success had been based on a precarious high level equilibrium that was too easily shattered by the combination of a deteriorating climate, military pressure from outside, and a social and political failure to safeguard its inclusive civil society and its potential for economic innovation.

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Bibliographical reference

Annuaire du Collège de France 2016-2017. Résumé des cours et travaux 117e année, Paris, Collège de France, septembre 2019, p. 672-673. ISBN 978-2-7226-0489-6

Electronic reference

Willem M. Jongman, « Four lectures », L’annuaire du Collège de France [Online], 117 | 2019, Online since 04 June 2020, connection on 02 August 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Willem M. Jongman

Professeur à l’université de Groningue (Pays-Bas)

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Collège de France

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