Monday, 24 October 2011

What did the Romans ever give us?

Despite being officially retired, I found myself doing some undergraduate teaching earlier this month, contributing to a new course we're running this year on 'Topics in World  Economic History'. When the idea of this course was first under discussion, I piped up and said, 'why not look at the economic impact of the fall of Rome?' So naturally, that's the topic I ended up teaching, in the form of a lecture one week, and two seminars the following week, at which the students presented the essays they had written for me.

The students wrote on attempts to assess income distribution at the height of the Roman Empire, while my lecture covered the institutional features that enabled the Empire to perform well economically - such as the rule of law, security, good roads and other public infrastructure, and a monetary economy - and then discussed how things fell apart in Britain when the Roman legions left in AD 406 or so. I argued that the Dark Ages were indeed very dark! The students were hugely enthusiastic, so I think the whole thing went down pretty well.

The first picture shows Hadrian's Wall, the northern frontier of the Empire (in northern England), as it probably looked around AD 200-300. The second picture shows it as it is today, lots of the stone having been lifted for other buildings over the centuries. It's still amazing how much remains 1600 years after the Romans left Britain. They built to last!

Quite aside from the sheer inherent interest of the topic, there are two things that struck me while I was doing this teaching about the Roman Empire.

The first was a reminder of just how interesting it can be to vary what one teaches, and not teach the same thing year after year. I've always found it surprising when colleagues have tried to hold on to the same area of teaching more or less forever. Much of the fun of teaching is trying something different and new from time to time. It involves a bit more work, naturally, but I think it's better for both staff and students when the teaching is fresh and engaging.

The second point was a reminder of some issues that still don't get enough attention in our standard economics courses, namely the critical importance of good institutions for successful development. Although this is still debated among historians, it doesn't seem that Rome succeeded as a result of its amazing science, technology and innovation, though in some fields it was certainly impressive for the ancient world; rather, it established public order, a decent legal framework, money, and good infrastructure, and that boosted incomes and growth remarkably well for a long time.

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