Scholars don’t agree on exactly when the Romano-British economy started to decline. While some put the downturn in the late 3rd century, others put it in the early 4th century. But one thing is clear: The trajectory of the economy of Roman Britain was downward, beginning at some point around 300 or so. So what happened to cause the decline of Roman Britain?
The Flourishing Economy of Roman Britain
After the Roman’s conquest of Britain, residents of Britain had had access to manufactured goods from all over the Roman Empire; this was part of the integration into Roman life that had resulted from the conquest.
There was a particularly active trade in pottery, as there were extensive ceramic manufacturing centers in southern Gaul, and the goods they produced were shipped up the Rhône River and then down the Seine, whence they were shipped to Britain. There were even pots from as far away as North Africa, which was another major center of ceramic production.
However, there were also local ceramic manufacturers in Britain that produced lower quality, but still quite serviceable pottery, so people had a choice of price ranges. They could even buy different kinds of pots for different uses, the way a modern family might buy their everyday china from one source and their fine china from another.
This kind of market differentiation is a sign of a thriving economy.
This article comes directly from content in the video series England: From the Fall of Rome to the Norman Conquest. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Every Rise Has Its Fall
But in the 4th century, we start to see a decline in manufacturing. And by the 5th century, trade from the continent had dried up, particularly in the south and east, which had previously been the region that was most open to trade with the rest of the Empire.
To give one tangible example of this decline, consider this: wheel-thrown pottery was no longer widely made in Britain by the 5th century, and would not be produced again in large quantities for hundreds of years. Wheel-thrown pots are far superior to hand-formed pots; they are more regular in shape, more stable, and less prone to defects, and they are easier to mass-produce.
If people in the ancient world had access to them, they always opted for them. But they require specialized tools and expert potters to produce them at a commercially viable scale. So the decline of their production tells us that the market for these items had simply dried up, and with it, an entire industry had downshifted to a more rudimentary form.
Think about what a step backward that must have been, to suddenly find yourself living in a world where everyday objects you once took for granted had become extremely rare.
Decline in Iron-forging
Archaeology can tell us other quite worrisome things about how the economy was doing. For one thing, there is evidence that people in Britain were scavenging among ruins for anything usable they could find, especially manufactured metal goods like nails and other hardware.
This tells us that the building industry had basically shut down, as had ancillary businesses like iron-forging. Today, one metric that economists use to tell how well an economy is thriving is the level of steel production, because it’s a proxy for all sorts of other things that the economy makes, like cars, appliances, and heavy manufacturing machines.
Iron-forging was the same kind of indicator in the ancient world. Archaeologists have noted that the level of iron slag being produced at the end of the Roman Empire declined sharply; the demand for iron had simply collapsed.
Passing Down of Heirlooms
In Britain, we see this collapse in another very interesting way in the archaeological record. Normally, archaeologists use changing fashions in jewelry and other articles of dress and adornment to establish the date of a find. This works because fashions do tend to shift.
But this process of relative dating gets very difficult in late Roman Britain, because in addition to scavenging for the usable metal in ruins, people were also passing down heirlooms rather than changing their fashions in jewelry with the same regularity as before.
Again, this was a sign that people were clinging rather desperately to what they had, because they could not easily replace these objects.
The Economic Collapse
So, what caused the economic collapse?
The reason this question is so difficult to answer is because there was a great deal of political instability in late Roman Britain, and it’s hard to say whether the economic troubles caused the political instability, or it was the other way around.
It is certainly true that political instability is bad for business. Quite apart from the disruption to trade caused by military threats, if people are worried about their safety, they are going to take fewer economic risks, so that will depress demand all by itself. But it is also true that people whose livelihood is under threat are far more likely to become disgruntled with the powers that be.
Scholars disagree among themselves about what caused what, but something bad was clearly happening in late Roman Britain.
Common Questions about the Economic Collapse of Roman Britain
In the 4th century, the economy of Roman Britain began to decline. At that time, the people saw a decrease in the production of various products, and in the 5th century, the region’s trade with the rest of the empires practically dried up. This is considered a step backward in Roman Britain’s economy.
Wheel-thrown pots were much superior to hand-formed pots. They were more regular in shape, more stable, and less prone to defects, and they were easier to mass-produce. However, they required specialized tools and expert potters to produce them at a commercially viable scale. So the decline of their production meant that the market for these items had simply dried up, and with it, an entire industry had downshifted to a more rudimentary form.
One metric that economists use to tell how well an economy is thriving is the level of steel production, because it’s a proxy for all sorts of other things that the economy makes, like cars, appliances, and heavy manufacturing machines. Iron-forging was the same kind of indicator in the ancient world.