Diocletian's Inflation: Primarily in Gaul

Article excerpt

In the annals of historical scholarship, the decline and fall of the Roman empire continues to be among the most vexing and controversial problems.' Although many explanations from drought to race mongralization have been proffered over the past several centuries for bringing about the end of classical civilization, the arguments made by Sir Edward Gibbon, focused on Christianity and barbarism, dominated for a long time. For more than a century and a half, many scholars, following Gibbon, have blamed Christianity, which supposedly turned men's minds and efforts from using their talents and resources to address pressing worldly matters toward attaining otherworldly salvation.

No less frequently, scholars have blamed the Germanic invasions, which are credited with bringing about the massive destruction of the Roman empire's physical and institutional infrastructure.2 In more recent times, as social scientists, governments, and the population, in general, have come to give increased attention to the economic problems of the modern world, historians too have come to argue that the weaknesses of the Roman economy played an important or even the key role inbringingaboutthefalloftheempire.3 In this context, as Kingand Heni g observed, "inflation" during the later third and early fourth centuries "obviously had a debilitating effect on the economy."4

In light of what are thought to have been the empire's economic problems, very high rates of inflation during the later third and fourth centuries have been singled out as playing a key role in the fall of the Roman empire.5 Thus, for example, scholars such as Daniel Sperber have argued that "the whole fabric throughout the empire was radically and negatively impacted by the inflation of this period."6 In a similar vein, James Ermatinger has asserted, "The increase in prices during the third century, caused inflation [and] nearly destroyed the economic fabric of the empire."7 These views are a more moderate echo of Harold Mattingly's famous dictum that inflation caused unmitigated evil. His heartfelt observations regarding economic problems in the later third century were inspired directly by the Weimar hyperinflation that began in 1923 and its highly negative impact on the history of Europe."

Not all scholars, however, have been carried along in considering economic weakness and especially inflation as a massive problem, which ultimately led to the decline and fall of the Roman empire. For example, Ramsey MacMullen has taken a less pessimistic view. He supposes that "all these events [mainly radical price rises] had some effect on people's lives.'"* Other scholars, including A. H. M. Jones, reject the notion that what some historians consider "inflation" in regard to this period had any demonstrable effect on the economy.1" In this context, there is a substantial body of scholarship that suggests that coinage debasement, the supposed type of inflation at issue here, does not necessarily reflect economic matters, and certainly cannot be classified a priori as an economic crisis or disaster.11

In this study, it is my intention to examine the "inflation question" as it relates to the later third and early fourth centuries in the hope of providing some clarity where now, as noted above, there is a considerable fog of conflicting perceptions. First, it is important to emphasize that the "inflation" of this period is usually seen by scholars as an empire-wide phenomenon. This view is conditioned by "The Edict on Prices" (Edictum de Pretiis) issued by Diocletian's government in 301. The emperor indicates in the preface to this legislation that it is intended to curb avaritia, i.e. inflation, throughout the entire Roman world ("universo orbi").12

In this study, however, when speci fie examples have been needed for purposes of illustration, I have tried to focus attention on the Gallic provinces. The value of examining economic matters in regional terms has much to recommend it in light of the great diversity of the various parts of the empire, as a whole, and particularly in terms of the economy, i. …