We are constantly told by the media that Western hegemony is a historical aberration, and that China and India have traditionally been the centers of mankind’s economy and culture.
As evidence they site (bogus) historical “facts” that show how China and India traditionally led the world economically. This is supposed to make Westerners feel better about our economic decline—if it’s inevitable, why care?
Look at this gem that was published in the Atlantic.
Where’s Rome? This graph distorts historical output so as to make it seem like the far east dominated the pre-modern world. This is nonsense.
Now before getting into this, I would like to state up front that any historical comparison of GDP is fraught with uncertainty and speculation. This article is simply a corrective to pre-existing bad scholarship, although it is my opinion that this is a fairly fruitless line of inquiry.
Nevertheless, because they’ve made it a big deal, it’s become a big deal—and it needs revision.
Take 1 AD, for example. This graph shows that India accounts for ~40% for the worlds GDP, while the regions included in the Roman Empire account for ~10%. The creators of this graphic want you to believe that glories of Augustus Caesar were barely a drop in the bucket—despite the fact that Rome was building many of the ancient world’s greatest engineering feats at this time.
Rome was enterprising, daring, and industrious.
They crisscrossed Europe with roads, bridges, and aqueducts that have lasted, and served their function, to this day. They built Europe’s original infrastructure—an infrastructure more elaborate than any found in the East (and even in Rome’s Western successor states) until the modern era.
Not only that, it gets worse.
Rome Was Big
The graphs based off erroneous data. It pegs India’s population at 62 million people, and Rome’s at roughly half that. If we believe this data, it means that India produced quadruple the goods as Rome with only double the population—meaning that Rome’s economy was only half as efficient as India’s.
Worse still, this population estimate is quite low. Until recently, the historical consensus was that Rome’s population at the time of Augustus was just under 60 million people. If we go with this estimate, then it means that Rome’s economy was only one quarter as efficient as India’s (same population, but one-forth the output).
Furthermore, the estimate of 60 million is probably low itself. For example, to reach 60 million, one must assume that Egypt’s population was 4 million, and that Greece’s was under 2 million. However, we know from Diodorus Siculus that Egypt’s population (c. 40 BC) was 7 million, and that classical Greece’s population was over 5 million.
More modern estimates place Rome’s population between 70 and 120 million people. If we go with the high estimate, then this graph leads us to believe that it took 8 Romans to do the work of 1 Indian. Unbelievable.
Using more reasonable population data, and assuming similar economic productivity, we find is that Rome’s economic output at 1 AD should have been at least equal, if not double either China or India’s.
We also know that Rome’s economy was actually more productive than its eastern rival’s. For example, because the Roman Empire mostly the Mediterranean’s coasts, it was able to take advantage of wide-scale bulk shipping, which India was largely unable to do. Also, Roman technology was higher than Indian technology, which would have made their economy more productive (or at least the output would have been of a hypothetical higher value).
Roman Technology Was Unmatched
The Romans built using arches, which allowed them to build structures that were far more stable than any preceding or contemporaneous culture. Compare the following images. On the one hand we have the Roman Colosseum, which makes use of stone arches to distribute weight. This allowed Romans to build higher, and create larger open spaces.
On the other, we have a traditional Chinese building, which makes use of columns to support the structure:
The Roman use of arches allowed them to construct buildings that were much more structurally sound, with large open interiors. The output was simply of higher quality, and this would hypothetical inflate Roman GDP.
The Romans also invented concrete, which allowed them to build more efficiently, and on a scale that was impossible until the modern era (concrete was rediscovered in England in 1849). The beautiful thing about concrete is that it was not only a superior building material, but it was easy to work with, and incredibly efficient.
There’s simply no comparing the output of Rome with other civilizations at the time—Rome’s economy was objectively more advanced and efficient than India’s, and China’s. This alone should give us pause to critique any estimates to the contrary.