The Age of Abundance

Economic Growth from Octavian to Modern Times


According to the researchers at GGDC, real or inflation adjusted income per person around the time of Octavian (63 BC – AD 14) varied from $1,546 in Italy to $973 in Spain. That amounts to between $4.2 and $2.7 per person per day. It is a testament to the unevenness of economic development that, over two millennia later, some countries are still stuck at those (and even lower) levels. In 2016, GDP per person in Burundi, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Malawi and Niger was $692, $619, $836, $764, $950 and $906 respectively.

Those African countries are outliers, of course. In most of the world, GDP per capita has risen dramatically, especially over the last two centuries. To get a sense of how recent and unprecedented the Age of Abundance is, consider France. In AD 1, GDP per person in the Roman province of Gaul was $1,050 – and that’s where it remained for the next 13 (yes, thirteen) centuries. During the first half of the 14th century, however, French incomes rose by some 50 percent, reaching a high of $1,553 in 1355. Why?

The end of the Medieval Warm Period in the late 13th century led to cooler weather and higher rainfall. Harvests shrunk and famines proliferated (e.g., 1304, 1305, 1310, 1315–1317, 1330–34 and 1349–51). To make matters much worse, the Black Plague (1347-1351) wiped out between 75 and 80 percent of those French who survived the climate change. Curiously, the two catastrophes had a salutary effect on both the economic and institutional developments in Western Europe. Abundance of land and agricultural tools seemed to have increased productivity of the surviving peasants, while labor shortages encouraged the lower classes to demand better treatment from their feudal overlords. As a consequence, serfdom gradually disappeared from the region, although it continued to persist in Eastern Europe, where the Black Plague was, due to lower population density, much less deadly.

As the population of Western Europe recovered, incomes waxed and waned, neither falling to their pre-plague levels, nor rising above their mid-14th century maximum. Thus, as late as 1831, the average GDP per person in France was only $1,534. Put differently, in the 18 centuries that separated the reigns of the first Roman Emperor and the last French king (Louis Phillipe), incomes rose by a paltry 50 percent. The Industrial Revolution, a British import, changed French fortunes considerably. Between 1831 and 1881, incomes rose by 100 percent ($3,067). As such, France made twice as much economic progress in 50 years as it did in the previous 1,800 years. In 2016, French GDP per capita stood at $38,758, meaning that a modern Frenchman is roughly-speaking 24 times better off (in real terms) than his ancestor 200 years ago. Remarkable.
Comment: Helpful reminders below:


  1. Not my house (although we have a nice one)

    Not my boat (don't have one)

  2. Should have put that graph on log scale, don't you think?

    I think you should have posted a picture of you in your bespoke suit eating dinner with Kathee in her pearls, too! (just skip your son with a black eye....looks like you "toughened him up" for the Marines, j/k)


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