Were the Romans Close to an Industrial Revolution? (Part 2): a lesson and a warning to post-industrial societies

Garrett Ryan, “Were the Romans Close to an Industrial Revolution? (Part 2)” (Toldinstone, 5 March 2022)

You guessed it … after the first video in which he presents evidence of the Romans being a pre-industrial society, narrator Dr Garrett Ryan brings forward in Part 2 the cultural, political and economic barriers that ultimately prevented the Romans from developing an industrial society. And these barriers are considerable: the lack of financial institutions that would fund research and development; the disdain of political elites for technological innovation; poor communications throughout the Roman empire; an education system – or rather, lack of one – that would encourage the spread of scientific and engineering knowledge; the lack of a large market for mass produced goods like textiles; and the oversized domination of a landholding aristocracy and its values, favouring investment in property and luxury goods over production, in Roman society and politics that had the effect of discouraging the formation and growth of an entrepreneurial class and its associated values and beliefs. All these barriers, singly and together, worked to prevent the rise of a culture that would favour industrialisation and the social, political and economic transformation that it would have brought to Ancient Rome.

The depth that Dr Ryan achieves in presenting the reasons for Roman failure to industrialise, in such a short film, is impressive though the speed with which he packs in the information is nothing short of breathtaking (ahem!) and viewers would be well advised to listen to the video again (if not watch it) again for as many times as they wish for everything he says to soak in. I often say with Dr Ryan’s Toldinstone videos that they could be slower, with perhaps more pauses between statements of fact, and this observation applies more to this video than to others in the Toldinstone series because the arguments the professor makes come thick and fast. Comparisons with the social, political and economic context of late 18th century / early 19th century Britain are apt though comparisons with other cultures that were also in a pre-industrial state (such as China at various stages of its history, or Japan during the Tokugawa shogunate) could also have been made.

The real lesson to be learned from Part 2 is not so much why Ancient Rome failed to industrialise but why Britain succeeded in industrialising, and knowing the context in which this success took place. By emphasising that Ancient Rome lacked the financial structures that made financing mass production on a large scale possible; that Ancient Rome did not have an education system that reached out to all its people regardless of their class or wealth and which might have given them the general scientific and engineering knowledge and skills to carry out research and make new discoveries and inventions; and moreover, that Ancient Rome and its politics were dominated by landowning elites who poured their money into property acquisition and conspicuous luxury consumption, the video makes its case in a backhanded way that a context in which various social, political and economic ideologies and belief systems, that favour particular trends in science, engineering and technology, come together at the right time in the right place must exist for breakthroughs to occur. Often such ideologies and belief systems put the common folk and their needs, individual and collective, before the needs and desires of a small privileged class.

In an age where the English-speaking world is now obsessed with class and hierarchy and the values of its political elites have become much the same as those of the Roman elites (property acquisition and speculation, conspicuous luxury consumption, privatising education and knowledge rather than spreading knowledge and skills to everyone regardless of class) to the extent that money is going into non-productive avenues instead of productive ones, this video should serve as a warning to us all.