A portrait of Henri Pirenne

Seminar IV: Liberalism and the Roman Economy – M. I. Rostovtzeff and Henri Pirenne

This week’s seminar is about two historians whose approaches illustrate another side of the academic culture of the first-half of the twentieth century. Both produced enormously influential studies of the Roman economy. Born in Kiev in 1870, Mikhail Ivanovich Rostovtzeff was based in Russia until 1918 when he was driven into exile by the Bolsheviks. He first took refuge in Oxford where he began his seminal work, The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire (1926). Having failed to find acceptance in Britain, he moved on to the United States of America in 1920, first to the University of Wisconsin and then in 1925 to Yale University where he remained until his death in 1952. A Belgian born in 1862, Henri Pirenne was also profoundly affected by the events of the First World War. Though descended from a family of Walloon (i.e. French-speaking Belgian) industrialists, he had a position at the University of Ghent in the northern, Flemish-speaking, part of Belgium. His son was killed at the Battle of Yser in 1914, and it was in a German internment camp, to which he had been sent in 1916 for refusing to collaborate with their plans to reform his university as a nationalist, ‘Flemish’, institution, that he formulated what became known as the ‘Pirenne Thesis’, a radical theory about the origins of the European economy. Pirenne published his ideas in a series of articles which appeared in 1922 and 1923. Mahomet et Charlemagne, a unified account of the theory, appeared two years after his death in 1935. An English translation followed in 1939.

A portrait of M. I. Rostovtzeff

Cosmopolitan intellectuals of bourgeois origin, Rostovtzeff and Pirenne looked at the Roman Empire from much the same perspective. Both were concerned to refute crude, racialised, views of the past of the kind represented by Tenney Frank. Both argued that trade, enterprise, the cities and ‘the middle classes’ were crucial to the prosperity and civilisation of the Greco-Roman world. But, working at almost exactly the same time, without direct knowledge of each other’s work, and in different countries, they arrived at somewhat different conclusions, not least with regard to how the Roman economy coped over the long term. Though there are important similarities in their views of how that economy worked, they account for its decline and failure in radically different ways.

For Rostovtzeff the crucial period was the so-called crisis of the third century, a period of fifty years from 235 until 284 when the Empire was ruled by no less than thirty emperors. Most were proclaimed by the army in one region of the empire and lasted a few years before falling victim to a rebellion originating from some other region. The empire’s recovery from this crisis was accompanied by a change in the style and operation of government effected by generals of relatively humble social background, above all the emperors Diocletian and Constantine. They ruled with the support of a vastly expanded army and bureaucracy. They passed laws which gave the state much greater control over taxation and internal order, and they transformed the style and organisation of the imperial court, elaborating its rituals and its hierarchies of officials. Rostovtzeff saw this change as a revolution in government perpetrated by the peasantry acting through the army: it was driven by the rank-and-file’s jealousy of the urban ‘bourgeoisie’, and its upshot was the disappearance of ‘the active and thrifty citizens of the thousands of cities in the Empire, who formed the link between the lower and the upper classes’. Rostovtzeff would later, within a few years of publishing The Social and Economic History, repudiate the idea that the actions of the army were driven by class antagonism, but he continued to regard the oppression of the urban middle classes as a crucial factor in the Decline and Fall of Rome.

For Pirenne the crucial period was the seventh century. In his view the Roman economy was ‘not greatly altered by the invasions’, but survived largely intact until the seventh century when the rise of Islam destroyed the unity of the Roman world. In his view it was the conquest of the lands bordering the eastern and southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea by the Arabs which destroyed the trade network which was the basis of the Roman prosperity. Direct trade was inhibited by religious warfare. Forced to rely on its own resources western Europe reverted to a pre-Roman, agricultural, economy which operated at subsistence level with no long-distance trade. It was only when the north was reconnected with the Byzantine and Islamic worlds at later date and by alternative routes that the West revived. Pirenne was one of the first historians to challenge the late nineteenth-/early twentieth-century consensus that the constitutional narrative was central to understanding the fate of the Roman world – and one of the first to place its end in the West well after the arrival of the barbarians.

Paul Hayward (10.xii.07).

Photos: Henri Pirenne (left), M. I. Rostovtzeff (right).

Set Texts

  1. Rostovtzeff, Michael, The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire, 2 vols. (2nd edn, Oxford, 1966), chp. 11 (pp. 490–501), ‘The Empire during the Anarchy’. Read from the words ‘Incomplete as it is...’.
  2. Pirenne, Henri, Mohammed and Charlemagne, trs. B. Miall (London, 1939). Ideally students should read all of part one (‘Western Europe before Islam’), but for the purposes of the present seminar it will be enough to have read one extract from part one, ‘Money and the Monetary Circulation’ (pp. 107–17), the conclusion to part one (pp. 140–4), and the conclusion to part two (‘Islam and the Carolingians’). These sections may be downloaded from the website. The entire book is available on short loan at MB.*

Worksheet Questions

  1. How, according to (a) Rostovtzeff and (b) Pirenne, did the Roman economy work?
  2. What, according to (a) Rostovtzeff and (b) Pirenne, were the crucial changes that brought about a weakening of the Roman Economy?
  3. When, according to (a) Rostovtzeff and (b) Pirenne, did these changes take place and what consequences did they have? What was it exactly that was lost with the decline of the economy in each of these scenarios?
  4. Why do Rostovtzeff and Pirenne emphasise such different turning points in their arguments? A clue: think about the different backgrounds and experiences of the two men.

Strongly Recommended Reading

Additional Reading, including Background Reading on the Roman Economy

  • Bachrach, B. S., 'Pirenne and Charlemagne', in A. C. Murray (ed.), After Rome's Fall: Narrators and Sources of Early Medieval History: Essays Presented to Walter Goffart (Toronto, 1998), pp. 214–31. MBR7.
  • Banaji, J., Agrarian Change in Late Antiquity: Gold, Labor and Aristocratic Dominance (Oxford, 2001). LVL.E.
  • Bowersock, G. W., ‘Rostovtzeff in Madison’, American Scholar, 55 (1986), 391–400. Available from Academic Search Premier.
  • Bowersock, G. W., ‘The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire by Michael Ivanovitch Rostovtzeff’, Daedalus, 103 (1974), 15–23. Journals K6.
  • Brogiolo, G. P., and B. Ward-Perkins (eds), The Idea and Ideal of the Town between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, Transformation of the Roman World 4 (Leiden, 2003). MBQ.
  • Brown, P. R. L., The Rise of Western Christendom, Triumph and Diversity, AD 200-1000 (2nd edn, Oxford, 2003), pp. 9–12 (on the Pirenne thesis). Though primarily concerned with religious and cultural history, this volume contains useful summaries of recent research in this area. PO.A.*
  • Christie, N., and S. T. Loseby (eds), Towns in Transition: Urban Evolution in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Aldershot, 1996). LTC.
  • Dow, S., ‘The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire: Rostovtzeff’s Classic After Thirty-Three Years’, The American Historical Review, 65 (1960), 544–53. Journals L6. JSTOR.
  • Duncan-Jones, R.., ‘Economic Change and the Transition to Late Antiquity’, in S. Swain and M. Edwards (eds), Approaching Late Antiquity: The Transformation from Early to Late Empire (Oxford, 2004), pp. 20–52. LVL.
  • Hodges, R. C., and D. Whitehouse, ‘The Decline of the Western Empire’, in L. K. Little and B. H. Rosenwein (eds), Debating the Middle Ages: Issues and Readings (Malden, Mass, 1998), pp. 58–72. MB7. There are also two copies of this book on long loan. This is an abbreviated version of a chapter in Hodges, R. C., and D. Whitehouse, Mohammed, Charlemagne and the Origins of Europe: Archaeology and the Pirenne Thesis (London, 1983), pp. 20–53. OQH.
  • Hodges, R. C., Dark Age Economics: The Origins of Towns and Trade AD 600–1000 (London, 1982), chps. 1–2. MBH. See also R. C. Hodges, ‘Dark Age Economics Revisited’, in his Goodbye to the Vikings? Re-reading Early Medieval Archaeology (London, 2006), pp. 63–71. MB4.
  • Jones, A. H. M., ‘M. I. Rostovtzeff’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 38 (1952), 347–61. Journals L6.
  • Krause, J.-U., and C. Witschel (eds), Die Stadt in der Spätantike—Niedergang oder Wandel? Akten des internationalen Kolloquiums in München am 30. und 31. Mai 2003, Historia Einzelschriften 190 (Stuttgart, 2006). LVL.H. The proceedings of a recent conference about the decline or transformation of the city in late antiquity: many of the articles are in English, so don’t be put off by the title.
  • Little, L. K. (ed.), Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541–750 (Cambridge, 2007). HQZA3.B.
  • McCormick, M., Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce, AD 300–900 (Cambridge, 2001). MBD.E. See also R. C. Hodges, ‘Pirenne after McCormick’, in his Goodbye to the Vikings? Re-reading Early Medieval Archaeology (London, 2006), pp. 176–86. MB4.
  • Morley, N., Theories, Models and Concepts in Ancient History (New York, 2004).
  • Pirenne, H., Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe, trs. I. E. Clegg (London, 1961). MBN.
  • Randsborg, K., The First Millennium AD in Europe and the Mediterranean: An Archaeological Essay (Cambridge, 1981). MB4.
  • Reinhold, M., ‘Historian of the Classic World: A Critique of Rostovtzeff’, Science and Society, 10 (1946), 361–91.
  • Shaw, B. D., ‘Under Russian Eyes’, Journal of Roman Studies, 82 (1992), 216–28. A review of a book about Rostovtzeff and of a new edition of his Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire. Journals XD6. JSTOR.
  • Ward-Perkins, B., The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford, 2005). LVS.*
  • Van Dam, R., ‘The Pirenne Thesis and Fifth-Century Gaul’, in J. Drinkwater and H. Elton (eds), Fifth-Century Gaul: A Crisis of Identity (Cambridge, 1992), pp. 321–33. LTE.

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