[This is a transcript of Professor Joseph Peden’s 50-minute lecture “Inflation and the Fall of the Roman Empire,” given at the Seminar on Money and Government in Houston, Texas, on October 27, 1984. The original audio recording is available as a free MP3 download.]
Two centuries ago, in 1776, there were two books published in England, both of which are read avidly today. One of them was Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and the other was Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon’s multivolume work is the tale of a state that survived for twelve centuries in the West and for another thousand years in the East, at Constantinople.
Gibbon, in looking at this phenomenon, commented that the wonder was not that the Roman Empire had fallen, but rather that it had lasted so long. And scholars since Gibbon have devoted a great deal of energy to examining that problem: How was it that the Roman Empire lasted so long? And did it decline, or was it simply transformed into something else (that something else being the European civilization of which we are the heirs)?
I’ve been asked to speak on the theme of Roman history, particularly the problem of inflation and its impact. My analysis is based on the premise that monetary policy cannot be studied, or understood, in isolation from the overall policies of the state.
Monetary, fiscal, military, political, and economic issues are all very much intertwined. And they are all so intertwined because any state normally seeks to monopolize the supply of money within its own territory.
Monetary policy therefore always serves, even if it serves badly, the perceived needs of the rulers of the state. If it also happens to enhance the prosperity and progress of the masses of the people, that is a secondary benefit; but its first aim is to serve the needs of the rulers, not the ruled. This point is central, I believe, to an understanding of the course of monetary policy in the late Roman Empire.