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Hadrian’s Wall and economic development

The Romans ruled Britain for 400 years (well, most of it). Hadrian’s Wall wasn’t there just to keep the Picts out; it was a customs barrier, taxing trade. At Housesteads Fort, the tour guide made a very interesting comment. Before the Romans took over, Britain was a moderately prosperous farming and mining economy, but under the Romans the economy soared, thanks to infrastructure (Roman roads, safer water supply), trustworthy common currency, international trade with the rest of the empire, and the consistent and widespread rule of law. You’d think that 400 years of steady and consistent economic development would be incredibly robust, but no. In the economic history of Britain, the Roman period was an anomaly.

When the Romans left, the economy nose-dived, as narrow local interests broke the country apart and raiders like the Norse, Saxons and Angles found easy pickings.. It took another 700 years before the economy regained its scale (thanks to wool and the Normans).

Hopefully, economic development in the modern world is more robust, built as it is on other countries’ earlier development. But then, so was Britain’s in Roman times.

First posted July 2nd, 2008