Resource cost of cities

Peter Temin has published a fascinating article regarding economic conditions in the early Roman Empire. The story he tells describes the remarkable economic progress that the Romans had achieved.

Temin, Peter. 2006. “The Economy of the Early Roman Empire.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 20: 1 (Winter): pp. 135-51.

One particular graph suggests another side to his story. It shows the price difference between grain in Rome and in other parts of the Mediterranean region on the vertical axis and the distance from Rome on the horizontal axis. The graph has an excellent fit. The closer to Rome, the higher the price.

The picture I get from the graph is one of Rome as a black hole, sucking in resources from the rest of the Empire. The closer to Rome, the stronger the demand. Temin, in effect, was confirming Lewis Mumford’s thesis that urban life depends upon the surrounding areas supplying its resource deficits. The provision of these resources often creates environmental havoc.

 

 

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5 comments so far

  1. John Mage on

    Madrid? Lusitania? Madrid was not settled in Roman times. And its site was not in Lusitania, but in Tarraconensis. Most likely urban center near Madrid would have been Toletum, also in Tarraconensis.

  2. mperelman on

    Thank you. We economists specialize in making grand statements about matters beyond our expertise.

  3. Iceman on

    “The picture I get from the graph is one of Rome as a black hole, sucking in resources from the rest of the Empire. The closer to Rome, the stronger the demand. Temin, in effect, was confirming Lewis Mumford’s thesis that urban life depends upon the surrounding areas supplying its resource deficits. The provision of these resources often creates environmental havoc.”

    In an ancient or medieval economy, that was often the case. Rome also had the power to command its conquered territories to supply it with resources far beyond what would have been sustainable for them to produce, which led to massive deforestation and other environmental destruction in its provinces.

    However, in the modern developed world, urban residents use far fewer resources per capita than suburban or rural residents. And rural regions receive many services (and often financial subsidies) from urban regions, so the urban-rural relationship isn’t a one-sided relationship the way it was before the Industrial Revolution.

  4. TheJew on

    Seems to me that a large sack of money would do the same thing in the presence of transportation costs.

    In other words: suppose urban centers are fonts of value. How else could that value be transported out of the city other than through higher prices for rural goods? The slope is simply due to the localization of the urban production (as opposed to the relatively uniform distribution of rural production) in the presence of transportation costs.

  5. sheila on

    great idea\’r!


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