8 Comments
Aug 2, 2023Liked by Jason Crawford

Interesting article, Jason.

In my estimation, several factors must have converged to spark an industrial revolution in the Roman Empire. Besides the importance of geography and geology (both of which would have determined their natural resources, weather patterns, and--to an extent--necessities for survival), innovative minds would have needed (i) free rein to pursue their ideas; (ii) financial support to develop them into machines; and (iii) an economic model that supports their adoption. Thus, in addition to its low-velocity flywheels of progress, the Roman Empire did not possess an environment for optimal flourishing of the intellect.

Expand full comment

The Rome question is interesting. Another important reason industrialization did not happen in Rome is that, as you allude to with their lack of Arabic numerals, they didn’t think about mathematics and number as we do. Specifically, they hadn’t yet reached the point of thinking about physics and the natural world in mathematical terms. Makes certain kinds of engineering very difficult or impossible.

Expand full comment

"In a sense, I’m saying the same thing as Devereaux: Rome couldn’t have had an IR because they didn’t have the preconditions. But rather than conceiving of those preconditions as very narrow and seeing the IR as highly contingent, I am taking a much broader view of the preconditions."

As soon as I read Devereaux's rationale I had the same thought. I think the challenges were more institutional than technological or environmental. Should the institutions of the Empire have protected property rights, IP, encouraged creative destruction...etc, any technical limitations could have been overcome.

Expand full comment

The Roman Empire did not collapse. The less-developed Western half did, while the Eastern half continued on for another couple centuries before losing the bulk of their empire to the Arabs. During that time they developed Greek Fire, a flamethrower-type weapon that today we are not sure how it worked. Obviously technological advancement continued to happen in the Empire after 476, And after Arab conquest, scientific advancement continued for four centuries. By this time, Europeans picked up the ball, so there was no collapse of scientific/technological advancement throughout the supposedly "Dark Ages". Advances rolled on for more than a thousand years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, without anything like an Industrial Revolution.

The real factor behind the industrial revolution was the combination of Capitalism and the scientific revolution. Periods of scientific advance had happened before, but without capitalism they did not lead to an industrial revolution.

https://mikealexander.substack.com/p/how-cultural-evolution-works

Expand full comment

I understand the emphasis on science and manufacturing progress I am all for it. What I don't understand is the lack of progress or emphasis on social development, government efficiency, and general democratic governance. Over the last 250 years we have made the most amazing progress in technology and very little progress in sociology. Is the problem the lack of ability to conduct social experiments on a large scale? Why can't we adequately evaluate what works well in governance and what works poorly and make that part of our general discussion. I see no effort to apply empirical methods to governance and publish the results. This seems to be the greatest impediment to our progress both in social and technical progress.

Expand full comment

Your argument is largely an appeal from incredulity. But there’s no evidence that Rome would have advanced to the industrial age if it survived, because it didn’t when it existed.

It looks like the industrial age needed the collapse of Rome.

Expand full comment