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From Warfare to Wealth: The Military Origins of Urban Prosperity in Europe

Author(s):Dincecco, Mark
Onorato, Massimiliano
Reviewer(s):Koyama, Mark

Published by EH.Net (February 2018)

Mark Dincecco and Massimiliano Onorato, From Warfare to Wealth: The Military Origins of Urban Prosperity in Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. xi + 196 pp. $30 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-316-61259-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Mark Koyama, Department of Economics, George Mason University.

Mark Dincecco and Massimiliano Onorato have authored numerous papers on the relationship between warfare, urbanization, state capacity, and economic development. This book presents the results of their research program in a single slim volume.

Their research sheds new light on the role warfare played in Europe’s urban and economic development before the industrial revolution. In particular, it helps to illuminate the historical origins of the “blue banana” — the corridor of urban development that spreads out from south-eastern England to northern Italy. Rather than relying on geography or national-level institutions to account for different patterns of economic development, Dincecco and Onorato focus on the role played by warfare

There are two main elements to their argument: (1) the safe-harbor effect; and (2) the warfare-to-welfare effect. The safe-harbor effect links frequent interstate warfare to rural to urban migration, which in turn spurred city growth. The warfare-to-welfare effect links conflict to modern economic development via several channels including human capital accumulation, state capacity, and more inclusive political institutions.

The Low Countries, for example, is often referred to by historians as a “cockpit of war.” Indeed, from the Hundred Years’ War to World War I many contests for European supremacy have involved battles in what is now modern Belgium. And, the Low Countries was both high urbanized in the past and highly developed today. A similar argument could be given for northern Italy.

Rather than just relying on historical examples, however, Dincecco and Onorato bring together several different types of data on historical conflict, city size, and regional development today to establish their argument. Chapter 2 confirms that Europe was indeed very bellicose and that the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period were especially warlike. Chapters 3 and 4 show that conflict helped give rise to urban development in a panel setting. Chapter 5 links the data on conflicts with regional income levels today. The authors find that the legacy of this bloodshed is a positive one. A one standard deviation increase in historical conflict exposure is associated with a 5 to 9 percent increase in regional per capita GDP today. The majority of the analysis is conducted for all Europe. But the authors also draw on specific evidence from regions like Italy and from historical case studies.

The main focus of this volume is on Europe but in Chapter 6 the authors consider why similar developments did not occur in East Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa. China tended to be historically unified and hence did not experienced frequent interstate warfare (Ko et al., 2018). In sub-Saharan Africa, in contrast, the high land-to-labor ratio meant that warfare was over slaves rather than territory. War in Africa did not lead to urban growth.

This is a very focused book. The writing is clear and concise and Dincecco and Onorato excel at presenting their empirical results in an intuitive and transparent fashion. As a result, this volume will be a very valuable resource for scholars working on related themes and an excellent model for students learning how to write research papers.

One consequence of this brevity is that Dincecco and Onorato do not make use of the opportunity afforded to them to develop a more expansive argument. Many of the 112 pages of main text are devoted to tables and discussions of empirical results. Perhaps the argument would have been strengthened by considering counterarguments and possible exceptions in more detail?

In summary, this book will be very useful for scholars in economic history, political science, political economy and development economics. But, despite the discussion of historical case studies, it is not probably not a suitable book for the lay reader.


Chiu Yu Ko, Mark Koyama and Tuan-Hwee Sng (2018), “Unified China; Divided Europe,” International Economic Review 59(1), 285–327.

Mark Koyama is an Associate Professor of Economics at George Mason University and a National Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the author of Persecution and Toleration: The Long Road to Religious Freedom (with Noel Johnson) which is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

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Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Military and War
Markets and Institutions
Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century