They Forgot Rome—Debunking Bad Economic History

Did China and India Really Have The Biggest Historical Economies?

We are constantly told by the media that Western hegemony is a historical aberration, and that China and India have traditionally been the centers of mankind’s economy and culture.

As evidence they site historical “facts” that show how China and India traditionally led the world economically.  This is supposed to make Westerners feel better about our economic decline—if it’s inevitable, why care?

Consider this graph that appeared in the Atlantic:

historical GDP chart

Notice anything?

Where’s Rome?  This graph distorts historical output so as to make it seem like the far east dominated the pre-modern world to the exclusion of other significant civilizations (including Rome or Persia).  This is nonsense.

Now before getting into this, I would like to state up front that any historical comparison of GDP is fraught with uncertainty and speculation.  This article is simply a corrective to pre-existing bad scholarship, although it is my opinion that this is a fairly fruitless line of inquiry.

Nevertheless, because they’ve made it a big deal, it’s become a big deal—and it needs revision.

Ancient Rome’s Economy Was Unmatched

Take 1 AD, for example.  This graph shows that India accounts for ~40% for the worlds GDP, while the regions included in the Roman Empire account for ~10%.  The creators of this graphic want you to believe that glories of Augustus Caesar were barely a drop in the bucket—despite the fact that Rome was building many of the ancient world’s greatest engineering feats at this time.

Rome was enterprising, daring, and industrious.

They crisscrossed Europe with roads, bridges, and aqueducts that have lasted, and served their function, to this day.  They built Europe’s original infrastructure—an infrastructure more elaborate than any found in the East (and even in Rome’s Western successor states) until the modern era.

Roman aqueducts were feats of engineering
Roman aqueduct in France.

It gets more absurd.

The Roman Empire’s Population Is Underestimated

The graphs based off erroneous data.  It pegs India’s population at 62 million people, and Rome’s at roughly half that.  If we believe this data, it means that India produced quadruple the goods as Rome with only double the population—meaning that Rome’s economy was only half as efficient as India’s.

Worse still, this population estimate is quite low.  Until recently, the historical consensus was that Rome’s population at the time of Augustus was just under 60 million people.  If we go with this estimate, then it means that Rome’s economy was only one quarter as efficient as India’s (same population, but one-forth the output).

Furthermore, the estimate of 60 million is probably low itself.  For example, to reach 60 million, one must assume that Egypt’s population was 4 million, and that Greece’s was under 2 million.  However, we know from Diodorus Siculus that Egypt’s population (c. 40 BC) was 7 million, and that classical Greece’s population was over 5 million.

More modern estimates place  the Roman Empire’s peak population at between 70 and 120 million people.  If we go with the high estimate, then this graph leads us to believe that it took 8 Romans to do the work of 1 Indian.  Unbelievable.

Using more reasonable population data, and assuming similar economic productivity, we find is that Rome’s economic output at 1 AD should have been at least equal, if not double either China or India’s.  

We also know that Rome’s economy was actually more productive than its eastern rival’s.  For example, because the Roman Empire mostly the Mediterranean’s coasts, it was able to take advantage of wide-scale bulk shipping, which India was largely unable to do.  Also, Roman technology was higher than Indian technology, which would have made their economy more productive (or at least the output would have been of a hypothetical higher value).

The Romans Had Better Technology

The size of an economy is determined by how much it can produce: the more it makes, the bigger it is.

How do you make more stuff?  Either you work more (have a bigger population), or work more efficiently (get more done in an hour).

Not only was ancient Rome as large, or larger than ancient India or China in terms of population (meaning that it’s economy should be equal to theirs), but it’s economy was also more efficient, and therefore relatively larger.

This is because the Romans had a technological edge over their competitors, which allowed them to make better use of their time.

For example, the Romans built using arches, which allowed them to build structures that were far more stable than any preceding or contemporaneous culture.  This not only meant that the Romans wasted less time rebuilding or upgrading structures, but the structures themselves created more economic value (better things are worth more).

Compare the following images.  On the one hand we have the Roman Colosseum, which makes use of stone arches to distribute weight.  This allowed Romans to build higher, and create larger open spaces.

Roman Colosseum arches
The Roman Colosseum (70 AD)

On the other, we have a traditional Chinese building, which makes use of columns to support the structure:

Chinese columnar structure
Traditional Chinese columnar building.

The Roman use of arches allowed them to construct buildings that were much more structurally sound, with large open interiors.  The output was simply of higher quality, and this would hypothetical inflate Roman GDP.

The Romans also invented concrete, which allowed them to build more efficiently, and on a scale that was impossible until the modern era (concrete was rediscovered in England in 1849).  The beautiful thing about concrete is that it was not only a superior building material, but it was easy to work with, and incredibly efficient.

Roman Pantheon, made of concrete
The Roman Pantheon.

There’s simply no comparing the output of Rome with other civilizations at the time—Rome’s economy was objectively more advanced and efficient than India’s, and China’s.  This alone should give us pause to critique any estimates to the contrary.

Why Perpetuate This Myth?

The fact is that the media, and the academics supporting them aren’t interested in the truth, they’re pushing a narrative.

They want us to believe that China and India have always been the world’s economic and cultural centers, and that the West has temporarily usurped that place in history.  This justifies their economic policies that diminish Western power, and return industry to the East.

The argument itself is fundamentally fallacious: even if the West was the historical “failure” they make it out to be, that still doesn’t justify our economic surrender—just because we lost in the past, doesn’t mean we must lose in the future.

Not that it matters anyways, because their evidence is wrong.

In truth, the West has always been a center of civilization, along with China and India.  To deny this is foolish, disrespectful, and dangerous.

It’s foolish because it’s obviously objectively wrong.

It’s disrespectful because it undermines the achievements of our forefathers—the West is the most successful of the world’s civilizations, and many of our ancestors died to make it so.  We owe them our respect.

And it’s dangerous because it undermines our ability to change course, if everyone believes that the West is second-rate, then our economic decline becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  This false history saps our will, and endangers our future.

We should be proud of our accomplishments, and we should seek to build upon them, to create a prosperous future.



Select Sources:

Maddison, Angus. The World Economy: Historical Statistics. Paris, OECD Publishing, 2003.

Siculus, Diodorus. The Library of History. Trans. C Bradford Welles. Harvard: Loeb Classical Library, 1963.

Thompson, Derek. “The Economic History of the Last 2,000 Years in 1 Little Graph.” The Atlantic, June 19, 2012. Accessed Dec 2, 2016.

About Spencer P Morrison 160 Articles
J.D. B.A. in Ancient & Medieval History. Writer and independent intellectual, with a focus on applied philosophy, empirical history, and practical economics. Author of "Bobbins, Not Gold," Editor-In-Chief of the National Economics Editorial, and contributor to American Greatness. His work has appeared in publications including the Daily Caller, the American Thinker, and the Foundation for Economic Education.