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Lead pollution and the Roman economy

October 11, 2021

More than a decade ago, the Oxford Roman Economy Project (OXREP)1 and the Cambridge economic history of the Greco-Roman world put the question of the performance of the Roman economy at the center of historical debate, prompting a flood of books and articles attempting to assess the degree of growth in the economy.2 The issue is of sufficient importance that it has figured in the narratives of economists analyzing the impact of institutional frameworks on the potential for growth.3 As the debate has continued, there has been some convergence: most historians would agree that there was some Smithian growth as evidenced by urbanization and trade, while acknowledging that production remained predominantly agricultural and based primarily on somatic energy (i.e., human and animal).4 This is, of course, a very broad framework that does not differentiate the Roman empire from other complex pre-industrial societies. The challenge is to refine the analysis in order to put content into the broad description of “modest though significant growth”5 and to offer a deeper understanding of the dynamics of the economy.