Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.04.11


Fik Meijer and Onno van Nijf, Trade, Transport and Society in the Ancient World. London and New York: Routledge, 1992. Pp. xii + 201. $16.95 (pb). ISBN 0-415-00345-8.


Reviewed by Nigel Pollard, University of Michigan.

Many important topics in Greek and Roman economic and social history do not easily lend themselves to undergraduate teaching because of the difficult and scattered nature of the ancient evidence. Past years have seen the publication of a number of very helpful sourcebooks in translation by Routledge (for example, T. Wiedemann, Greek and Roman Slavery [London 1981] and T. Wiedemann and J. Gardner, The Roman Household [London 1991]) which make the teaching of such subjects a great deal more practical. The latest of these sourcebooks is a collection of evidence for trade and transport in the Graeco-Roman world, and it is a very useful addition to the series.

The range of issues covered in the volume adheres quite closely to the interests of post-Finley scholars as expressed in such collections as Garnsey, Hopkins and Whittaker's Trade in the Ancient Economy (London 1983). Part One brings together sources on the ideology of trade -- the social status of trade and traders through the eyes of (mostly) landowning classes from Hesiod to Libanius by way of Cicero -- with evidence for the practice of trade in the Graeco-Roman world. The authors' treatment of the latter is particularly thorough and effective, collecting appropriate inscriptions and papyri as well as more canonical sources in a usable form. Issues covered range from Homeric gift exchange, the impact of the fifth century Athenian empire on Aegean trade, and Ptolemaic economic activity as revealed by selected Zenon papyri, to evidence for corpora of Roman navicularii and customs collection in the Roman empire. For the most part the translations are chosen from existing works rather than provided by the authors themselves, and consequently they tend to be the best and most accurate available. Also the collection is sufficiently up-to-date to include, for example, a substantial extract from the lex portoria of the province of Asia, only published in 1989. The only major omission is the absence of sources regarding markets and fairs.

Part Two of the book deals with the commodities which were traded, from the day-to-day grain supply of Athens and Rome to trade in luxury goods between the Roman empire and the Orient, drawing on sources as diverse as Demosthenes' strictures on the importance of Black Sea grain to the Athenians and a Vienna papyrus on the import of goods from India to Roman Egypt. Part Three collects material illustrating the transportation of the traded goods, beginning with the important subject of the cost of transportation, and ending with technical information about ships and harbors.

Of course, at an advanced level, there is no substitute for reading the source material in Latin and Greek, and the presentation of extracts out of their wider contexts can be problematical, particularly some of the passages dealing with the ideology of trade, where issues of literary genre can be as important as contemporary value systems. However, M. and van N. have done an excellent job of making this evidence accessible to a wider audience, especially to students whose ancient languages may not be up to reading some of the difficult documentary material in the original language. In the classroom this volume would work particularly well in conjunction with a book on the archaeology of ancient trade, such as Kevin Greene's The Archaeology of the Roman Economy (London 1986). For, while the literary sources shed light on the ideological framework within which archaeologically visible economic activity took place, the archaeological evidence tells us more about the technical details of ships and harbors, and provides a quantitative dimension which goes beyond the sometimes anecdotal evidence of the literary and documentary sources.

In all, this book fills a significant gap in an intelligent and useful manner, and its publication is very welcome.