Elio Lo Cascio

Il declino economico dell'Italia romana e il declino dell'impero: due scenari a confronto

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Much of the historiography of these last decades seems to question the traditional paradigm of the "decline", which had characterised the assessment of Late Antiquity since Gibbon. But it is hard to substantiate a complete reversal of the paradigm, if one looks at the demographic, economic and political developments in the Mediterranean area that lead to the dissolution of a unitary political organization. These developments can be traced ultimately to a fall in population and consequently in total production, following the epidemics of the late second and third centuries. It is perhaps legitimate to say that this dissolution occurred when the costs for all the segments of society to keep a unitary political organization overcome the benefits accruing from it. The much less dramatic and more precocious economic decline which began to affect Italy as early as the last decades of the first century AD had at its roots population pressure or even overpopulation and the consequent fall in per capita income. Italy was no longer able to live above its resources, by draining a big surplus from the provinces as tax and rent and by selling the products of its specialised agriculture and of its manufactured goods. One can contend that the economic decline of the Empire at large was the result of a significant reduction of total GDP, whereas the economic decline of Roman Italy was the outcome of the abatement in per capita production.

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