‘Productive War' (Clone)
The Roman Military, Economic Growth, and Technological Innovation
The idea of productive warfare seems counterfactual. War, especially during the time of Roman supremacy, was extremely destructive, with the Roman armies slaughtering and enslaving entire populations, and cities being leveled. However, even these destructive acts have positives as the wealth of one area is transferred to another. But, even more importantly, the greatest benefit brought by warfare and the military complex of Rome was what happened after the wars ended, and the Roman legions enforced and defended peace across Europe.
Warfare itself in terms of productivity is, at best, a zero sum gain between the combatants, with the victors carrying off wealth back to their homelands, and the defeated coming off all the poorer. This could take the form of more monetary loot like precious metals, but more importantly for the greater Roman economy, this could also take the form of slaves. Especially in the wars of the Republican period, Roman armies often returned to Italy with hordes of slaves who would eventually work on their large estates. Like everything else there are pros and cons to this – for example, by the 1st century BCE slave labor had seriously depressed the profits and viability of small farmers in Italy – but slaves would serve as a vital development in the agricultural side of the Roman economy.
The conquest of foreign regions also benefited the Romans in terms of the actual acquisition of land and resources. Land was a major source of economic power during the Classical period, as most economies were based on agricultural output. However, as Rome continued to expand their land holdings, something vital to economic development became available to them – specialization. Individual locations could begin to specialize in a particular type of crop, whether for food or for luxury goods like wine and olives (Mattingly, The Imperial Economy, 289). This had a type of snowball effect, where specialization became easier to accomplish as more land was acquired, and as more specialization took root surpluses rose, and more specialization, even outside of agriculture, could thrive as a result of the growing food supply.
Far more vital to the Roman economy than the warfare itself was what it brought – peace and stability. By the 1st century CE, Rome was exerting its military power unopposed throughout most of the Mediterranean world. For the central government that meant millions of taxable peoples spread from Britain to Egypt. However, importantly for the individual, this meant developments in all aspects of life that could only occur without the threat of violence. For example, technology concerning irrigation and farming undoubtedly would help raise the levels of food production and therefore the population, but such technological innovations are difficult to accomplish when raids destroy irrigation systems already in place. This was a problem in the Bronze Age empires of the near east, but no longer. Rome held a strong monopoly on violence throughout Europe thanks to their supreme military power, and as a result irrigation technology, along with a number of other agricultural technologies would improve (Green, Roman Technology, 216).
Trade also directly benefited from the high levels of Roman military power. Like the development of agrarian technology, trade benefits immensely from enforced peace. Various times throughout the history of Rome, raiders have greatly stalled out trade in some regions. One particularly well known instance of this was in the 1st century BCE, when pirates were tormenting the eastern trade routes. It was so bad, in fact, that Pompey Magnus (although not yet Magnus) was given an extraordinary command – something not seen before in Rome – to solve the pirate problem. As the power of the Roman military grew, so too did the importance and success of trade. Two centuries after Pompey was solving defeating the Eastern pirates, traders were regularly moving throughout the empire, crossing massive swathes of land to transport far more goods than earlier in Roman history (Mattingly, The Imperial Economy 294), all because they were assured safety within Roman borders.
One of the best examples of Roman military supporting an enlarged economy is Roman Briton. Once the island people had been brought into the Roman Empire they were welcomed by new technologies and a vast array of trade goods coming from across the empire – for example, trade goods from Africa have been found in Roman burials. Britain was unique within the empire, by the sheer volume of military – there were more Roman legions on Britain than any other region of a similar size anywhere in the Empire. This meant that the island was extremely safe from foreign attacks, which helped further the development of Britain. At the same time, the importance of the Roman military apparatus becomes even more apparent when it departs. In 410 the legions were forced to make a final retreat from Britain to defend Italy from other foreign invaders. Within decades, the peaceful island was dominated by war as the Saxon’s invaded and then proceeded to fight amongst themselves. Industrial production on the island dropped precipitously – so much so that even nails were suddenly a precious commodity (Fleming, Recycling in Britain). This was probably effected by the specialization of imperial regions – Britain was never an iron tool producing region – but the trade routes that made such specialization possible had also clearly fallen apart as a result of the loss of military power by the Western Roman Empire.
One final aspect of warfare driving economic growth in Rome was that the army itself served as a major consumer of goods, and therefore a catalyst for the development of trading. Rome had a massive standing army to defend their borders and ensure military domination within the empire, and that meant the central government had to feed, clothe, and house hundreds of thousands of men. Some regions of the empire flourished as a result of their trading connections with the army – the Rhine border saw massive economic and population booms as the legions developed permanent bases in the region, and the same with the northern reaches of Roman Britain. This is hardly unique throughout history however, even today in the United States military development means more than adding soldiers to the army, it means creating manufacturing jobs to supply the growing military apparatus.
Kevin Greene, “Perspectives on Roman Technology,” in Oxford Journal of Archaeology: 209-219.
David Mattingly, “The Imperial Economy,” in Blackwell Companion to the Roman Empire: 283-297.
Robin Fleming, “Recycling in Britain after the Fall of Rome’s Metal Economy,” in Past and Present 217(2012): 3-45.