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Overview of Late Antiquity--The Classical Prologue

Section 4: Politics and North-South Trade in Antiquity

Steven Muhlberger



In the year A.D. 300, the dividing line between the urbanized south and the lightly populated north was nowhere near the natural one between Mediterranean and northern climatic zones. Rather, it roughly corresponded to the boundary of the Roman Empire, along the Rhine and Danube rivers, deep in central Europe.

The rule of a Mediterranean city, Rome, over these northern regions connected to the expansion of the Mediterranean economy. From 200 B.C. to 300 A.D., Mediterranean demand for resources had led to a great extension of commercial networks into central Europe. The demand was generated by the Roman Republic, now entering its most belligerent phase. The armies of Rome and its huge capital city were insatiable. We know from a variety of sources that Roman traders drew on northern Europe for food (pork, honey, cheese, cattle), cloth, woodland produce (resin, pitch, wax), in all probability leather, and certainly slaves. Such trade was quickly followed by the rise of fortified settlements dependant on trade, which archaeologists call oppida. Then, from the time of Julius Caesar (60-44 B.C.), Roman armies penetrated and swallowed up the economically most promising areas, and added others necessary for imperial defense.

Thereafter, Rome drew a line (roughly along the Rhine and Danube rivers) that cut off the rest of northern Europe from easy participation in the Mediterranean economy. It is unlikely that they thought of their policy in those terms. But Roman rulers were concerned to keep the "barbarians" too weak to threatened the empire. This required preventing the accumulation of power by any would-be monarch. Control of trade (in part through the fortification of the frontier), careful management of tribute, the manipulation of alliances to set potential enemies against each other were all important tools of Roman border policy, perhaps more important on a daily basis than military campaigning. And these tactics were very successful for a long time. Outside the frontier, Europe developed no cities.

This division of Europe, into an urban-rural economy controlled by Rome and a completely rural one excluded from the benefits of free commerce, still existed in the year A.D. 300. The frontier was weaker, and the distinction between the two economies less, than had been the case in A.D. 14, when Augustus died. But the distinction is worth keeping in mind for the moment. For it was the urbanized culture of the Mediterranean that produced some of the most important and dynamic ideologies and institutions of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. The development of these out of the urban matrix is the subject of the next several sections.


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Copyright (C) 1996, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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