PARIS — What if all of France's current economic and social problems were the fault of Julius Caesar? Could the nation be suffering from weaknesses that have been concealed for two millenniums?

These strange questions have captivated many people on voxeu.org, an interesting European website for ongoing economic debates. The most-read article last month compared the settlement of cities in France and in England — under the Roman Empire and during the Middle Ages. Of course, it may seem scatterbrained to study such a topic amid an economic slowdown, social tragedies and populist temptation. But it may help to understand the economy better.

Let’s go back in time: Julius Caesar invades France. Emperor Claudius conquers England a few decades later. The Romans create colonies and build roads so their troops can move around. And cities begin emerging with sometimes defensive, often commercial, and always administrative purposes.

But at the start of the 5th century, the Roman Empire begins collapsing along with its entire network of organized living and infrastructure. Roads deteriorate, and cities lose their inhabitants. The first period of urbanization comes to an end. These cities, of course, eventually resurfaced, but in an environment transformed by technical progress, when people could navigate on rivers with heavy cargo. Waterways become more important than roads for transportation. People begin building canals for the first time, not for drinkable water, like the Romans did, but to navigate.

This is when France and England took different paths. In England, towns began being built along rivers. In France, they were rebuilt where Roman cities used to stand, alongside lost roads and often far from major waterways. Dijon, Chartres and Troyes, which were rich medieval cities, were located along non-navigable rivers.

Seventeenth-century engraving of Chartres's skyline — Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“Only three of the 20 largest cities in Britain are located near the site of Roman towns, compared to 16 in France,” economists Guy Michaels and Ferdinand Rauch found in their academic research, which is summarized on voxeu.org.

Water means prosperity

Cities that are accessible by waterways are more prone to high growth. In the year 1300, transporting voluminous goods by waterways was 10 times less expensive than by moving it by land. So these cities grew quickly. In 1700, 87% of English city-dwellers lived in towns that had access to naval navigation — inland or outland — compared to 58% in France. Thanks to a more efficient urban network, England managed to gather more precious resources to finance its industrial revolution.

The origin of this difference between France and England may be religious. Above the English Channel, the Roman Catholic Church disappeared with the Empire. Beneath it, it resisted. Bishops were major local figures with economic and social roles. In the 6th century, the first unification of the kingdom by King Clovis, who was about to convert to Catholicism, prevented the kind of political fragmentation that was destroying the English urban network. And the French cities survived. 

All of this, of course, is ancient history. Over the last century, roads and trucks have filled in for these French weaknesses. So how is this distant past relevant? First, because it shows the long-term importance of earlier choices. “Path-dependence in city locations can still have important welfare costs today,” one researcher concludes. In an emerging world’s booming urbanization, this is a precious reminder.

This comparative study of medieval towns also reveals the importance of factors that have been left out of economic analyses for too long. By being schematic, “mainstream” economists have focused on market forces — and their oppositions. They then discovered (or rediscovered) the roles institutions play. But history and technology serendipitously play roles that are at least as important. Researchers have shown that techniques existing in regions 3,000 years ago have an influence on the income per capita today, that early access to plowing has weighed on modern productivity. Others have shown how strong or weak family ties have changed the organization of a country’s economy. Others still have argued that countries with artificial borders (as many have been drawn in Africa) have had real economic and political handicaps.

In other words, the ancient past models the present in depth. This is undoubtedly very true in France. Many of the country’s current strengths and weaknesses find their origins in centralized power initiated by Clovis 15 centuries ago, earlier than in any Western country. The multi-layered bureaucracy, the ultra-presidential regime and heaps of regulations, for instance, are all part of this ancestral movement. This, of course, does not prevent change. But there is a deep-rooted resistance, down to the most archaic layers of our collective mind.