Wednesday 10 April 2013

Did the slave economy stop the Romans having an industrial revolution?

Obviously there are more variables at work for the failed mechanisation of the Roman world other than Hero of Alexandria never visiting a flooded Spanish mine. The simplest explanation is that Roman industry must have had lower labour costs than that of England in the 18th-century, right? Slavery is always used to explain how the ancients managed without machines, but when factoring in purchase costs, housing, clothing and feeding, a Roman slave could easily have cost just as much - if not more - than those employed in the factories of the 18th and 19th-centuries. As evidence of this, by the 1st-century AD automated urban flour mills powered by local aqueducts were appearing throughout Rome and the provinces, proving Roman industry was just as big on labour minimisation as those in the modern world. In the end, the difference between the 1st-century AD and the 18th-century - the two occasions when steam power was harnessed for useful work - is more about geopolitics than a Roman reliance on slavery.

Put simply, the 1st-century AD was a time of relative peace for Rome - sure there were invasions of Britain and the Judean revolt - but both used only fractions of the Roman military and economy to effect. All of the great empires that had opposed Rome were gone, there was no longer a need to out-compete an aggressor of equal capacity and for all intents and purposes the 1st-century world was one of coasting along in a dull status quo. Change that to the 18th-century with the birth of the industrial age and you have Britain and France struggling for world dominance, ending with Napoleon's global war and the colonial wars across North America. In other words, outnumbered by the French, the English had to find ways to outproduce their arch rival...mechanisation was the only way...and it is very likely that without the English-French rivalry of the 18th-century, the industrial revolution might still be waiting to happen.

Put back into the Roman world, the time for the steam engine to have changed history was the late 3rd or 2nd-century BC, at a time when Rome and Carthage had risen to be the two masters of the Mediterranean, with each vying for the other's downfall. After Carthage, the Gauls, the Germans, the Greeks and Egyptians were all minor players, none of whom could so completely employ the Roman economy to overcome. So, as we've seen in the last century, the time for the greatest human inventiveness is always at the time of most urgent need - the Pax Romana might have brought peace to the western world - but, ironically, it strangled classical-era innovation. For more on Roman history you can read 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon now, just follow the link   

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