The Economic Development of the Northern Frontier Provinces of the Roman Empire (1st Century BCE – 5th Century CE).

→ Erik Timmerman

This research project aims to contribute to the general debate about the nature of economic growth in the Roman world. That debate revolves around the question whether the growth of the Roman economy was just aggregate growth, a result of territorial and demographic expansion, or whether it also involved per capita growth, brought about by an increased efficiency of the economy. In addition, the debate is concerned with the distribution of prosperity: there is consensus that Italy prospered for a while, but did Italy prosper at the expense of conquered provinces, or did those provinces also witness per capita growth?


The main question that will be answered is this: “to what extent did the Northern frontier provinces of the Roman Empire experience aggregate and per capita economic growth in the period between the first century BCE and the fifth century CE and what causes may we identify to explain such growth and subsequent decline?” This project chooses a regional approach with a focus on the Northern frontier provinces of the Roman Empire (Germania Inferior and Germania Superior, see the map below), for both practical and conceptual reasons. By doing so it can tap into a wealth of archaeological data that have become available in recent years, and of high quality data in particular (unlike in some other regions of the former Roman Empire). A wide variety of archaeological proxy datasets will be used to investigate the demographic and economic trends in this peripheral region (e.g. settlement patterns, coins, ceramics, and archaeobotanical and archaezoological material). The project takes a longue durée approach as it will trace developments from the pre-Roman period, through the Roman era, until the eventual demise of the Western Roman Empire in Late Antiquity (between the third and fifth century CE). Did population and urbanization grow, and are there indications that per capita incomes also rose? Did such improvements extend into the lower strata of society, or were they confined to a relatively small elite? Conceptually the advantage of the focus on this peripheral region is that it allows us to investigate the extent of and limitations to Roman economic growth and development precisely for one of the conquered regions that was not part of the imperial core. Its potential economic success cannot be attributed to imperial exploitation. Did the militarization of the Germanic frontier, provincial taxation, the introduction of a beneficial institutional framework, and some technological innovations (e.g. in agriculture and mineral extraction) provide important stimuli for the development of a market-economy in these provinces?

The current debate about economic growth in the Roman world is primarily conducted on an empire-wide scale. This has the disadvantage that the new archaeological data are not necessarily available at that scale, but rather at a more regional and local level. Moreover, such an overarching perspective cannot sufficiently account for the high degree of interregional variability that undoubtedly existed in an empire of such a vast extent, and that merits study if only to find out what conditions induced growth, and what not. Studies that use existing and newly available archaeological material from the different regions of the Roman Empire are vital in fleshing out the general picture of economic growth in the Roman Empire, and to isolate and explain regional variation. Investigations into the economic development of the more peripheral provinces of the empire are particularly interesting, because these provinces have traditionally been viewed as exploited for the benefit of the Italian core. By finding out whether these peripheral provinces also profited from Roman conquest, an important contribution to the general debate about economic growth in the Roman Empire can be made. Taking this and the developed state of high quality archaeological research in precisely north Western Europe into account, an investigation into the economic development of the Northern frontier provinces of the Roman Empire provides an ideal test case.

The methodological approach that I will take will be essentially quantitative. I will identify indicators and drivers of aggregate and per capita economic growth in archaeological proxy datasets. The diagram below illustrates the relation between proxy datasets and economic growth. To discern drivers and indicators of per capita economic growth in the ancient sources, I will follow the approach set out by Bowman and Wilson of The Oxford Roman Economy Project (Bowman and Wilson, 2009). We can look for evidence of potential drivers of per capita growth in the ancient evidence, like evidence of trade, improved technology, intensification of capital investment, increased division of labour, education of the workforce, and institutional attitudes and stimuli. We can also look for indicators that suggest that this growth did indeed occur, like urbanization, import replacement, increased consumption, and higher standards of living. Taken individually, such analyses do not yet make a strong case, but together they do make a solid argument. Therefore, I will combine a variety of these datasets to provide a general synthesis of the main trends within the economic development of the Northern frontier provinces.

Fig. 1 Map showing the frontier provinces Germania Inferior and Germania Superior. The ellipse shows the main area on which the research will focus (

Fig. 2 Diagram showing the relation between economic growth and proxy datasets (N.B. this is no exhaustive overview, it only serves to give several examples).

Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Peter Franz Mittag, Prof. Dr. Eckhard Deschler-Erb