"Structural Determinants of Economic Performance in the Roman World" (SDEP) is a Scientific Research Network funded by the Research Foundation Flanders (Belgium) (FWO). Besides four Flemish research teams (from Ghent, Brussels and Leuven), SDEP brings together ten international reasearch groups. Our aim is to study what drove economic development and how this in turn changed Roman society. Our ambition is to combine textual data—epigraphic, papyrological and literary—and data from economic archaeology and natural science research with new theoretical frameworks drawn from neo-institutional and development economics and to put these in a comparative and longue durée perspective.
The study of ancient economies entered a new phase in the 1990’s. Economic archaeology and natural science research provided new data on economic performance. Neo-institutional and development economics offered new theoretical frameworks. Comparative and longue durée analyses gained central importance. Most scholars today think that levels of economic performance in the Roman world peaked c. 2nd century CE and were not surpassed until well into the early Modern period.
Paradigmatic and methodological shifts, however, raise new research questions. How reliable are archaeological proxy data? How can we ensure that cross-cultural or trans-epochal comparisons are meaningful? Was the course of economic development (e.g. of markets) determined by changes in the institutional framework or vice versa? What structural constraints and possibilities were determined by ecological factors ?
The challenge is considerable. Studying ancient economies through time from a combined theoretical, proxy data based and comparative approach requires a joint and interdisciplinary effort. We want to create such an effort to study the structure and performance of the Roman economy from roughly the 2nd c. BC to the 6th c. AD.
The research program we propose asks three broad questions to inquire what drove economic development and how this in turn affected society:
- How did humanly 'devised' institutions determine the growth or decline of the Roman economy ? How resilient was this institutional frame to stochastic shocks ?
- Did the institutional framework change significantly in response to economic developments?
- What was the role of ecological factors as geography, climate, or disease pools? Did nature-culture interactions sustain regional trajectories in the long term?