The Birth of Western Economy: Economic Aspects of the Dark Ages

By Robert Latouche | Go to book overview

CHAPTER I
The Roman World: State Control in the Late Empire

T HE ECONOMY OF THE ancient world deteriorated at a comparatively early date. The first signs of approaching decay appeared at the end of the second century A.D., and even before that time its inherent weakness had been vigorously denounced by clear-sighted contemporaries. It is a mere platitude to recall the anxiety felt by elderly Romans at the neglect of agriculture. The Elder Pliny was no doubt being rather absurd when he expressed regret that generals no longer cultivated the land;1 nevertheless he was voicing an opinion common to every conservative Roman. Wistfully they looked back to those far-off days, which seemed like a golden age, when the State of Rome, confined within the narrow bounds of Latium, was inhabited by small landowners who were at the same time ploughmen and soldiers. The plot of ground possessed by each of them was no bigger than 50 ares.2 Certainly things had changed since the close of the third century B.C.; the patriarchal age had gone for ever; trade and banking had already made their appearance. A laudator temporis acti like the Elder Cato viewed with disapproval 3 the growing number of merchants (mercatores) and moneylenders (foenatores), and held stoutly to the opinion of his forebears that the good citizen was essentially the good husbandman and the good farmer. He himself, however, no longer tilled the ground with his own

____________________
1
The Elder Pliny, Hist. Natur., XVIII, 4: 'Quaenam ergo tantae ubertatis causa erat? Ipsorum tunc manibus imperatorum colebantur agri.'
2
I are = a square of ten metres.
3
M. Porcius Cato, De re rustica, introd.

-3-

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