The City in Decline: Rome in Late Antiquity

The City in Decline: Rome in Late Antiquity

By Kevin Twine

Middle States Geographer, Vol.25 (1992)

Roman Forum - photo by Bert Kaufmann / Flickr

Abstract: This paper addresses the question of what happens to cities in long-term decline. It uses as an example perhaps the most famous such city, Rome, whose population declined from about a million persons to 30,000 between the second and sixth centuries AD. The experience of Rome is considered from the point of view of its population, economy, and social structure. An inquiry is made into the methods for estimating ancient Rome’s population. The rate of the city’s population decline is considered, and compared with modem examples. The social structure of Rome is discussed, focusing on how its institutions contributed to its decline. Conclusions and avenues of future research in historical urban geography are suggested.

Introduction: In the fields of urban geography and city planning, much attention has been given to the dynamics of urban growth, while a good deal less has been devoted to long-term urban decline. This is true because most cities in the world are, and have been for some time, growing; however, an increasing number of cities and urban areas are experiencing population declines, in some cases substantial ones, especially in the English-speaking world. These declines have been the subject of extensive studies which focus for the most part on the immediate causes of decay, rather than long-term urban decline.

Perhaps the best-known example of long-term urban decline is the “fall” of Rome, which took place between the second and sixth centuries AD. During this period, the city of Rome experienced a decline of population from around a million persons to about 30,000. This paper reviews the demographic and socioeconomic changes that took place in the City of Rome during its decline. First, the overall societal changes which were taking place in the later Roman empire are summarized. Then, the demographic changes which occurred in the city are discussed, followed by a discussion of Rome’s socioeconomic structure during this period. Finally, conclusions and additional research are suggested relating to Rome itself as well as to long-term urban change in general.

The following is a brief summary of the major events in the history of the Roman empire, focusing on those which deal with its decline.

Eighth century BC: The city of Rome founded.

Third and second centuries BC: Rome establishes dominance on the Italian peninsula, and by the mid second century BC, in the western Mediterranean basin.

First century BC: Following close to a hundred years of civil warfare, Julius Caesar and his adopted son Octavian (Augustus) overthrow the republic and establish a centralized dictatorship (the Principate).

First and second centuries AD: The Roman Empire militarily dominates nearly all of the Mediterranean basin. Roman rulers and generals extract huge quantities of wealth, both material and human, from this territory. The government of the empire remains relatively stable, which allows the population to prosper. The city of Rome has a population of over a million persons. Wealth is concentrated in Rome on a scale seldom seen before or since.

Third century AD: Agricultural production falters, and the diminution of foreign conquests slows the influx of wealth. Fifty years of civil war, combined with increasing pressure from Germanic barbarians to the north, leads to virtual collapse of the government and economy.

284-305 AD: The Emperor Diocletian vastly reorganizes and increases the size of the bureaucracy. Diocletian’s often draconian reforms give the empire a new lease on life which lasts for another century, and his military reorganization succeeds in keeping the barbarians at bay.

Fourth century AD: The basic structural problems of the empire’s economy continue. Agricultural production continues to slip. The overall population of the empire is in decline, making it difficult to fmd enough manpower to keep the economy functioning. The heavy burden of taxation is a major drain; inflation is serious; corruption is rampant.

Click here to read this article from  the Middle States Division of the Association of American Geographers

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