Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.02.24

E. Lo Cascio, D. W. Rathbone, Production and Public Powers in Classical Antiquity (Cambridge Philological Society, Supplementary Volume, no. 26).   Cambridge:  The Cambridge Philological Society, 2000.  ISBN 0-906014-25-5.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Brent D. Shaw, Classical Studies, The University of Pennsylvania (
Word count: 1936 words

This slim volume, like many others of its kind, reminds one forcefully of the useful old adage about the curate's egg. In it, we face another set of conference proceedings where Ampolo, Andreau, Austin, Bagnall, Banaji, Foraboschi, Lo Cascio, Orsted, Rathbone, Sallares, Schneider, and van der Spek grappled with the problem of the links between ancient states and productive processes.1 The subject is important, the cast stellar, the results mixed. The plan, the editors tell us (1-2), is to approach the problem from two angles. The first is aimed at the nature of the specific intervention of the state in production; the second line of attack is directed, differently, on what might be described as the consequences for production that stemmed automatically from the simple existence of the state itself. The distinction is a very important analytical one whose parameters are not always carefully maintained, or recognized by the contributors.2 Some of the contributions reaffirm near-eternal verities. Schneider on the Roman Republic, for example, emphasizes state expenditures, the difference between 'bauerlichen Wirtschaft' and 'Gutswirtschaft' in the agricultural development of the mid-Republic, the system of the private societates bidding for government contracts, and the state's latent support for Italian negotiatores in the period of its Mediterranean expansion. Others are frankly confusing. Orsted's contribution on the Roman state's interest in mining seems confused on the nature of ager publicus and misleading on the nature of municipal laws and misconstrues the nature of the contract system, finally not to arrive at any general thesis on the role of the state in mineral extraction and refining of precious metals. Since this is one of the few well-documented cases of direct state intervention in the running of an extractive enterprise, it is a lost opportunity. Moreover, the original sessions, held at the Eleventh Economic History Conference in Milan in 1994, are now more than seven years in the past, and the collection already has a somewhat anachronistic air.3 I think it would be fair to say that most of the problems are now seen in a scholarly world divided into periods 'before' and 'after' The Corrupting Sea, and that the new demands for higher levels of coherent analysis of this particular question impart a slightly old-fashioned feel to a few of the contributions.4 And, indeed, in the intervening years, almost all of the contributors have offered more detailed and penetrating analyses of the same problems on which they have expatiated in these proceedings.

A problem larger than anachronism that bedevils this scholarly endeavor, as many similar ones, is a lack of a consensus on the issue at hand. Almost every contributor seems to construe what is meant by 'state impact' on production in a different fashion -- usually in ways that concur with his own peculiar research interests. The result is pervasive disagreement among the participants, sometimes latent and sometimes overt, over fundamentals. Michel Austin does attempt a basic typology for his period in making a distinction between the city-state or polis and the much larger 'territorial states' (20-21). The effect of the state on production in the former case, he argues, was rather limited, principally because such city-states were 'in practice largely a world of private enterprise and private ownership of the means of production'; therefore, most governmental influence tended to be 'indirect' (23). As Austin points out, however, this 'indirect effect' could be substantial and provokes a direct and basic disagreement with Sallares over the consequences of the state production (and guarantee) of a large supply of coinage that enabled systems of private ownership, acquisition, and production to function (25-26). Foraboschi's abbreviated contribution on 'the Hellenistic economy' takes much this same line: the deliberate choices of various Hellenistic states (Pergamum, Egypt, Athens) to develop different monetary standards (37-38) provides an example of state intervention that had clear economic effects (although the specific connection with production is never quite clinched). And Andreau affirms the obvious (68), that it is undeniable that a state like Rome of the Republic had a great 'productive effect,' if one considers only the slave trade and the huge influx of precious metals that were subsequently turned into coin. But since this is the essence of his argument, the eager historian who wishes to understand something more specific about the relationship between state and production is left only with a profound sense of deja-vu. In either of these cases, we might ask what specific role the state had in producing these outcomes and how can the historian assess these effects? What difference, in short, would it have made to the slave trade, say, had the various apparatuses of the Roman state not existed in the form that they did?

Even where there is frank disagreement with a Finleyan model of 'the ancient economy,' the new views on offer do not necessarily advance the problem. For example, Sallares is convinced that the agrarian economy was much more dynamic and heterogeneous than Finley allowed (6). But this does not lead him to question the Finleyan view of the nature of the relationship between the state and fundamental economic processes of production. The big movements in population that governed demand, Sallares claims, were beyond the abilities of even the largest and most powerful of states to alter. The most that states could do was not to affect basic conditions of production but rather to monitor and to control distribution (12-13). Ampolo's specific case of the category of 'sacred lands' in the world of the Greek polis would seem to confirm this view: 'il cosidetto "intervento statale" ha una portata limitata' (19) -- limited, in effect, to controlling the terms of leasing temple lands and monitoring expenditures -- expenditures which, in Ampolo's view, did rather little to effect local productivity. Also, the whole problem of what is meant or understood by a rational 'policy' for intervention raises issues that have been much debated in the interim.5 Given the date of the original contributions, however, a perhaps more serious concern is that the whole nature of the contrast between modern and premodern states and their involvement in economic development has become the subject of a profoundly revisionist questioning of the utility and accuracy of the traditional models.6

The shifts in historical interpretation offered by this collection might therefore be contrarian, but largely, it seems, by fine tuning or modifying existing orthodoxies. Whereas the Greek and Roman historians are willing to concede a greater role for the state, for example, van der Spek is more concerned to get away from the dominant model of the Seleucid state as a species of 'Asiatic economy' -- but not much more. Land, all seem to agree, was the basis of the economy. The ways in which the state, whether the monarch of a large empire or an oligarchic government like Republican Rome, managed land therefore significantly determined the nature, extent and kind of state involvement in production. Nevertheless, even on this score difficulties surface. It is easy to show, for example, that monarchs used land as a means to reward and to cajole, to tie local men of power to themselves and to punish dissidents (40) -- but that is not the same as having a productive economic effect. This is only one instance of what seems to be a certain lack of clarity on the problem of how legal and social categories related to productive processes. Only Rathbone seems to set up the problem in clear economic terms: what relationship did the state have to the land; what specific data did it have about the land, its working, and productive capabilities; how precisely did it move consciously to alter these conditions? And he offers a relatively clear-cut case of state intervention in the large-scale development of the Fayyum (46-47).

The contributors thus affirm several aspects of the problem that already command scholarly assent. What is needed is a road forward to more precision. One way is indicated by those who attempt at least a modest typology of states -- a more complex analysis of states into types of governance, instruments of control, interests of rulers and ruled, and perceived material needs that must be met. This means not just a gross distinction between 'polis' and 'territorial' state, but also an understanding of the process of state formation in which elements of its construction are locked into place in standard patterns and of the subsequent effects on the nature of the government's institutions and interests. There were, after all, huge differences between territorial states: some were relatively monolithic ones like Pharaonic Egypt, whereas there were others that seem to have been segmentary in type. The role of property regimes and the types of legal systems that governed them, as guaranteed by the institutions of the state, were important elements in the processes of production. Even so, in the case for which we have the best evidence, that of Egypt, which might well be just as typical as any other region of the Roman empire in this respect, the conclusion is that the government's aims were limited both in scope and in kind (90). But the declaration on limitation of purpose seems to reflect an assumption that privatization of land lessened 'state intervention.' In terms of direct intervention this must be true. But the quality of the involvement of the state in monitoring a complex legal apparatus that guaranteed regimes of private property might well be a critical variable -- it certainly is in the case of the operation of the mines in the empire. And Banaji is surely right to see the shifts in the relationship between the two as reflecting competing sectional interests within the state itself.

The one contribution that seems insistently to specify the type of state, its contributory parts, and the conflicting parties within it, and then to connect these elements of the government to its economic effects is Jairus Banaji's striking contribution based on his soon-to-be-published Oxford doctoral dissertation.7 The important point he makes is that the old Mickwitzian orthodoxy on the relationship of the so-called 'Third-Century Crisis' to the economic and regulatory responses of the state must be abandoned. The state of the crisis was not one driven to a 'natural' economy in kind, and its post-Diocletianic successors were just as interested in coinage as an instrument of the state. The question is what kind of system and why? 'Far from pulling in opposite directions, these [sc. the urban and rural] sectors were dynamically interrelated through mechanisms which we barely understand beyond the simplistic models that impose a "statist" vision of history and the economy on our perceptions of the Late Empire' (93). Again, Egypt offers the best evidence, and it seems to reveal a close linkage between agrarian and urban sectors of the economy that account for the substantial monetization of payments coming out of the rural sector. As Banaji traces the shift from the quality of monetization in the third and early fourth centuries to that of the fifth and sixth, he locates it in the domination of a new, more coherent upper class closely allied to the state. This 'new class' is described and typed so well by Banaji as to refute the characterization of it as either 'feudal' in kind or as the 'incorporated aristocracy' so dear to French scholarship of the 1990s. He has more to offer and provokes thought at almost every turn. Would that more of the other contributors had been as venturesome. His essay, along with those by Lo Cascio and Rathbone, especially, are the contributions in this collection that still bear close reading in the decade after the conference itself.


1.   For convenience of reference, the contributions are: R. Sallares, "Ancient Greece: Some General Considerations"; C. Ampolo, "I terreni sacri nel mondo Greco in età arcaica e classica"; M. Austin, "Ancient Greece: Some General Points"; R. van der Spek, "The Seleucid State and the Economy"; D. Foraboschi, "The Hellenistic Economy: Indirect Intervention by the State"; D. Rathbone, "Ptolemaic to Roman Egypt: the Death of the Dirigiste State?" H. Schneider, "Politisches System und wirtschaftliche Entwicklung in der späten römischen Republik"; J. Andreau, "Comment la res publica ne pouvait pas ne pas influer sur la vie économique"; P. Orsted, "Roman State Intervention? The Case of Mining in the Empire"; E. Lo Cascio, "The Roman Principate: the Impact of the Organization of the Empire on Production"; R. Bagnall, "Governmental Roles in the Economy of Late Antiquity"; and J. Banaji, "State and Aristocracy in the Economic Evolution of the Late Empire."
2.   M. I. Finley, "The State and the Economy," chap. 6 [in] The Ancient Economy, 2nd revised edition, pref. I. Morris (Berkeley-London, 1999), 150-76, at p. 151 f., where he uses the deliberate use of war as a good test case of the state's using force directly to promote its perceived economic interests; compare the counter comments by M. Frederiksen in JRS 65 (1975), 166 (citing Cic. De Leg. Manil., 11--which is susceptible of different interpretations, however).
3.   To take a few examples. At the time of the conference, the impact Alain Bresson's work was just beginning to be noticed in scholarly circles (see, e.g., Michel Austin's notes at p. 26). With much more of his research in print, and especially with the appearance of La cité marchande (Bordeaux, 2000), one can see much better the nature of his critique of the model of the 'consumer city' and the role of trade and commerce in price-setting markets. Important work on food supply and the role of the state in it by Garnsey, Sirks, and others has appeared in the interim. There have been significant improvements in our understanding of the nature of the Spartan state and its management of its land and human resources. One thinks of a series of exploratory papers by Paul Cartledge now collected in his Spartan Reflections (London, 2001); and, more recently, Stephen Hodkinson's pathbreaking monograph Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta (London, 2000). Of the contributors themselves, the many publications on this subject by Elio Lo Cascio since the Milan conference have made clearer and more specific the parts of his presentation here that were obviously still only prospective elements of his research project in the early 1990s. Much the same applies to the work done by Roger Bagnall on Egypt, where almost every reader of this collection will have read better, more up-to-date work on these problems by Bagnall published in the intervening years. So too, there have appeared in the interim a number of specific analyses of this same problem, an important one published in the very year of the original conference itself: J. Andreau, P. Briant & A. Descat eds., Les échanges dans l'Antiquité: le rôle de l'état, Saint-Bertrand-des-Comminges: 1994 [Entretiens d'archéologie et d'histoire]; and much that has been published by Andreau since 1994 has brought into focus the generalities in his essay in this volume.
4.   P. Horden & N. Purcell, The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History (Oxford, 2000).
5.   Jean Andreau & J. Maucourant, "A propos de la 'rationalité économique' dans l'antiquité gréco-romaine," Topoi 9 (1999), 47-102 offer a broad and complex review, centered directly on Rathbone's analysis of the Heroninos archive.
6.   Peter Musgrave offers a clear, if sometimes stark outline of the differences between the old and the new historiography on this question: "The Role of the State," ch. 4 [in] The Early Modern European Economy (New York, 1999), 86-111.
7.   J. Banaji, Rural Communities in the Late Empire, A.D. 300-700: Monetary and Economic Aspects, DPhil Dissertation, Oxford University, 1992; a much revised version of which is just about to appear in its book version: Agrarian Change in Late Antiquity: Gold, Labour and Aristocratic Dominance (Oxford, 2001).

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