Roman Economy in the Dark Ages

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  • 0:05 The Roman Empire
  • 1:51 Rome in the Dark Ages
  • 4:01 European Economy after…
  • 5:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Elam Miller

Jessica has taught college History and has a Master of Arts in History

This lesson explores the Roman Empire's economy from its beginnings as a farming culture to its expansion into trade and finally its deterioration after invasion from surrounding tribes.

The Roman Empire

For many years, Rome was the cultural capital of the world and sustained a huge empire through both military force and trade. Eventually, civilization declined and took Rome's once-great economy with it. This lesson will track the development of Rome's economy from its beginnings in agriculture to the height of the empire through its decline in the Dark Ages. We will begin by exploring the founding of Rome.

Rome was founded by the first Roman king, Romulus, around 753 BC. The city was formed by several tribes who united. The foundation of the economy of the city at the time was agricultural. Besides standard crops, Rome's agricultural products also included cloth and raw materials (like olives for oil and vineyards for wine). Farming the land in the area and using the Tiber River to assist with trade allowed the people there to flourish. Eventually, Romans developed roads. The roads created a new opportunity for trade and allowed the economy to thrive even more.

As Rome became involved in conflicts surrounding the tribes, farmers became soldiers. Without farmers to work the land, wealthy Romans brought in slaves to handle agricultural tasks. As Rome's agricultural output grew, many products had to be shipped across the Mediterranean Sea to where other Roman cities were located. Eventually, the Roman economy became largely dependent on imports and exports.

The Roman Empire expanded and grew so large that conflict began to occur more frequently within its borders. Eventually, civil conflict caused city life to deteriorate. By the third century AD, cities were full of sick and poor people. Wealthy estate owners hired their own troops to protect them from any disruptions.

Rome in the Dark Ages

Late in the fourth century, Rome began to experience increased threats from surrounding Germanic tribes. These tribes, like the Vandals, Goths, Franks, and Anglo-Saxons, were looking for land and being pushed out of their own by other groups like the Huns. These tribes moved into Roman territory by different means. Some were violent and unresponsive to native Roman culture (like the Anglo-Saxons), but some became assimilated, adopting many Roman practices (like the Franks).

Around 410, Rome was overtaken by a Visigoth named Alaric. Visigoths were a tribe that came from southern Scandinavia. This marked the beginning of a change in the Roman economy. Remember, up until this time, Rome's economy had shifted from its early years of being farming-based to becoming largely dependent on imports and exports to its surrounding territories. Additionally, a portion of all grain production was collected by the city to help feed the poor. As Rome came under attack from the Visigoths, Carthage, a major supplier of grain, was overtaken by the Vandals. This meant much of Rome's grain supply stopped.

The low grain supply affected both Rome and the rest of Italy. Agricultural technologies involving water power and horse power were not yet adopted by the Romans because, until now, they had no need for it. They had such a large population of slaves to create their products, especially grain, that no new technology was needed to increase efficiency. But now Rome's economy was in serious trouble. Not only was the populace experiencing an increasing distrust for its government and dealing with constant attacks from Germanic tribes and the growing Persian Empire - now Romans were having trouble feeding themselves.

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