|Rome had adopted a winning
strategy. It also came on the world stage at an advantageous time.
The process of urban expansion, agricultural intensification and
population growth we have already examined was well underway by 300
B.C., and offered vast profits to successful imperialists. There
were plenty of towns to loot, and, once the looting was over, to
tax. Swallowing the Hellenistic cities as far east as Syria was
especially lucrative. The Roman expansion was extremely costly to
its victims, especially after 250 B.C. when it really began to
roll: millions were killed, enslaved, or dispossessed and entire
cultures were destroyed. Yet the Roman conquest did not permanently
devastate the countries it rolled over. Julius Caesar
destroyed many of the new cities of Gaul, and drained the country
of gold and silver, yet a century later Gaul was more populous and
prosperous than ever before.
The growing prosperity is explained by a conjunction of favorable circumstances which enabled the Mediterranean world to thrive, even under the Roman boot. In so far as we can tell, the climate was unusually favorable to agricultural expansion. It was a time without epidemics. New resources were available if there was demand for them, and Roman profiteering itself created an unusual demand. Conquered countries were not left empty and poor, at least not for long. They were reorganized for the benefit of Roman settlers, absentee landlords, and tax collectors, and their local collaborators.
Economic and demographic growth continued after the Roman empire ceased to expand about A.D. 14. Rome had swallowed a great deal of territory, and the colonization and exploitation of them took some time. In the first and second centuries A.D., both new, Latin-speaking cities in Europe and on the boundary of the Sahara and older, Greek-speaking cities in Syria, Egypt, and Asia Minor grew to unprecedented size. They built monuments and public works -- theaters, temples, fora, aqueducts - that still exist and impress today. Imperial rule (the so-called "Roman peace") encouraged these developments. Those who gained most from this boom were the Roman citizens, who owed their prosperity in large part to their legal privileges, and blessed the gods of Rome and the genius (guiding spirit) of the Roman emperor for their good fortune. Even the Greeks were slowly won over. Without ever forgetting their Greekness, the Greek elite in the East came to regard Roman citizenship as a sort of pan-Greek identity.
Copyright (C) 1996, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including this copyright notice, remain intact.