Roman Empire Roads, New Trade Theory and the history of Europe’s Economic Core

In preparing some tutorial notes on trade and geography, I was trying to convey some of the interesting agglomeration insights of New Trade Theory and got stuck on whether I should mention the Roman Empire and its network of roads and the effect it may have had on establishing Europe’s economic core. Ultimately, I decided against it because I thought it would confuse students and because I didn’t find any reference that said that is a cause of Europe’s core. Also, this is a group of people of whom I cannot assume any prior knowledge of the Roman Empire and I might just end up confusing them. So for practicality’s sake I’ll stick to the typical examples about financial services in the City and in Wall Street and about Silicon Valley.

However, and mostly for my own sake I wanted to highlight the following two maps:

The first is a map of the EU with shades of GDP/capita by subnational economic (NUTS) regions. Notice the axis running from Flanders to northern Italy.

The second is a map of Roman Empire Roads.Notice how the darker region in the EU NUTS map coincides with the region in the northern European part of the Roman Empire that had a lot of roads, mainly connection border garrisons protecting the Rhine frontier.


Clearly, the relationship is not linear. If roads were all there was to it, Italy would have been the most developed region in Europe. I am not suggesting we ignore the remaining and very substantial developments of European economic history that took place in the intervening 15 centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Clearly, the trade integration of northern Europe, human capital development, the right policies and industrialisation conspired to make that axis even richer.

But I like to think about the Roman Empire and I would venture the guess that the overlap described above is not without its merits, tiny though they might be. One interesting thing would be to test the pervasiveness of that Flanders to Northern Italy axis throughout history. May be Angus Madison has relevant data.. ?

Oh and if you are unhappy with the amateurish nature of the map of Roman roads, or if you are just interested in such things, I would point you to the “ORBIS” project of Stanford University which has very detailed road data for the Roman Empire.


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