Typically, thoughts about the economy of the ancient world hit a wall of ‘they didn’t have a solid idea of how finance works’. Similarly, talk of the Roman Empire doesn’t generally get any further away than it’s immediate political neighbors.

McLaughlin tackles both of these in a very interesting book. He starts by assembling an idea of how big the Roman budget was during the First Century. This is presented in detail in an appendix, that uses at it’s base current population estimates of the Roman world, makes a high-level assumption of the average amount of tax contributed by the population (based off a couple of reasonably solid numbers given in primary sources), then similarly estimates expenses by knowing how many legions there were, what legionary pay was like, and so on. This is all extremely problematic, but is systematically done, seems to give possible numbers, and moves the discussion into the realm where it’s possible to argue about it.

To some extent, the book was worthwhile to me just for giving a good list of currency conversions up front. I’ve never been able to keep track of the Roman money system, and this also gives conversions to Greek and Egyptian currencies. However, that allowed me to note a place where he converts a figure into Greek talents, but the math says he means Egyptian talents. Combined with another place where he makes a basic interpretation mistake of a source he just quoted shows that this isn’t as thoroughly checked over as it should be. I assume that’s at least partially the fact that Pen & Sword seems to be a smaller publisher, and probably does not have the robust editorial staff of more traditional publishers (nor as wide a circle of pre-readers and consultants as it should).

However, the bulk of the book is McLaughlin looking at the various areas around the Indian Ocean that Rome had contact with, and describing what sort of trade was going on. He actually starts inside the Empire with the grain dole, related trade from Egypt, and some knock-on effects thereof (which seem a bit speculative, but sound reasonable). He then gives an introductory essay on incense and Classical medicines before talking about the production of balsam (an ointment from a now-extinct tree) in Roman-controlled Judea. From there, he tackles Nubia, Arabia, East Africa, India and beyond in turn. The earlier parts are especially interesting as he pulls in a few early Imperial wars in the Roman East that you generally don’t hear much about, but also demonstrate the Empire’s interests in the area.

Pretty much all of this comes out an examination of one source, the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (Indian Ocean), a very handy guide to trade written in the mid-First Century. There are some other sources which help shore up parts of this, and are notably used for the later parts of the book, though the real annoyance is the author re-introduces us to the Periplus from scratch on a few separate occasions, which shows that this was probably originally formatted as a series of smaller separate works (and one part of this was separately published about four years earlier).

He finishes up with Chinese records of an envoy from the Roman Empire (and since there’s record of this in the Empire, contrary to the author, I suspect, actual official or no, he was acting on his own initiative, which might explain some other oddities), before turning to the Antonine Plague of 165. He posits that this as having created a military and financial crisis… that he doesn’t explicitly say dooms the Western Empire, but it’s not far from what he does say. He points out that the plague apparently shut down the silver and gold mines in Spain, and once spare silver and gold coinage left the Empire to the east in the decades after, Rome’s main export was gone (which is something he refers to during the entire book, and is a concern in some of the primary sources).

McLaughlin is putting up a fairly rickety structure with all the assumptions he has to make to put together a large-scale picture of the Roman economy. But I’m still impressed that he got it to stand up at all. As I mentioned before, this is a needed starting point for further study and argument. Just as a fuller description of the Periplus, and the bits of corroboration of it he provides, it’s well worth a read.