If you think today’s recession is bad, be glad you’re not living in Britannia at the close of the Western Roman Empire.
For two or three hundred years, beginning at the start of the fifth century, the economy of Britain reverted to levels not experienced since well before the Roman invasion of AD 43. The most startling features of the fifth-century crash are its suddenness and its scale… [S]outhern Britain just before the Roman invasion was a considerably more sophisticated place economically than Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries: it had a native silver coinage; pottery industries that produced wheel-turned vessels and sold them widely; and even the beginnings of settlements recognisable as towns. Nothing of the kind existed in the fifth and sixth centuries; and it was only really in the eighth century that the British economy crawled back to the levels it had already reached before Emperor Claudius’s invasion. It is impossible to say with any confidence when Britain finally returned to levels of economic complexity comparable to those of the highest point of Roman times, but it might be as late as around the year 1000 or 1100. If so, the post-Roman recession lasted for 600-700 years.
600 years… and here we are, complaining about a two year recession. Of course, there’s a lesson in this for us. Bryan Ward-Perkins, the author of the column and a well-respected Oxford historian, explains:
The more complex an economy is, the more fragile it is, and the more cataclysmic its disintegration can be. Our economy is, of course, in a different league of complexity to that of Roman Britain. Our pottery and metal goods are likely to have been made, not many miles away, but on the other side of the globe, while our main medium of exchange is electronic, and sometimes based on smoke and mirrors. If our economy ever truly collapses, the consequences will make fifth-century Britain seem like a picnic.
At least the goods the early medievals traded had inherent value — a bushel of grain can be eaten as well as traded; a horse can be ridden or used for farming, etc. In a modern economic collapse, our standard currency — paper money — would be worthless, and we’d be forced to trade household goods and services, just as our ancestors did. Now that would be a recession.