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Interview with Professor Taco Terpstra

January 31, 2019


When I was an undergraduate at the University of Groningen, I initially was in Law School, meaning I had to study Roman law as part of my training. But I discovered that I found the world I saw behind the Roman legal texts more interesting than contemporary Dutch law. When I subsequently did a Classics degree, I saw a lecture by the historian Willem Jongman about ancient demographics, Model Life Tables and economic development. I was blown away by this approach to the study of the ancient world and decided that is what I wanted to do. Dr. Jongman became my mentor at Groningen, and we remain friends to this day.



Economic growth, hands down. As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Lucas famously remarked: “Once you start thinking about growth, it’s hard to think about anything else.” To my mind nothing is more interesting than what produced the Great Enrichment – the enormous increase in wealth the world witnessed after the Industrial Revolution – and as a corollary why that development did not occur earlier. The Roman world produced awe-inspiring engineering yet did not create the windmill or even the humble wheelbarrow. What is the major difference between the Roman Empire at its height and the European world that produced the Industrial Enlightenment? Even if the breakthrough moment toward the Great Enrichment did not happen in antiquity, our long-term datasets are increasingly in agreement that there was growth in the Roman Empire. What kind of growth are we seeing? Malthusian (rising population numbers), to be sure. But how about Solovian growth (capital accumulation) and Smithian growth (allocative efficiency)? These are questions that fascinate me no end.



Demography, I’d say. Nothing drives home more viscerally the difference between the premodern experience and our modern experience than an understanding of ancient demographics. Life for most people in antiquity was nasty, brutish and short, with an estimated life expectancy at birth in the Roman Empire of ca. 25 years. In addition, fertility rates were extremely high; they had to be with mortality rates at that level. Knowing ancient demography really furthers one’s understanding of, among other things, the role of gender and women in the ancient world, and the premodern world in general.



Electronic databases have enabled large bodies of information to be easily searchable, from inscriptions to papyri and ostraca. These are crucial sources of information on everyday life, and the fact that they are now available online means a major leap forward for socioeconomic history. I should also not omit to mention that the internet has allowed the building of electronic mapping tools such as ORBIS that are very useful for both teaching and research.



The databases of inscriptions and – most of all – papyri I just mentioned have in my view caused a major shift in the way classics material is accessed and used. Previously such data were the preserve of a small number of specialists. Now that they are electronically available and easily searchable, also non-specialists (including historians such as myself) have started using them in their research.