Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.08.70

Stephen Mitchell, Constantina Katsari (ed.), Patterns in the Economy of Roman Asia Minor.   Swansea:  The Classical Press of Wales, 2005.  Pp. xxxii, 335.  ISBN 1-905125-02-X.  $79.50.  

Reviewed by David B. Hollander, Iowa State University (
Word count: 2099 words

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Published back in 2005, Patterns in the Economy of Roman Asia Minor has thus far received little critical attention.1 This is a shame as the book makes important contributions to the study of the ancient economy and should be a model for future efforts in the field.2 The book began as a conference on the economy of Roman Asia Minor at the University of Exeter in 2002. It consists of an introduction and 13 chapters grouped into five sections. The introduction, by Mitchell and Katsari, provides a good overview of prior work on the region, brief remarks about the various contributions, and the inevitable (though well-done) discussion of Finley's views on the ancient economy. The editors emphasize that, despite the tremendous amount of evidence, the study of the economy of Roman Asia Minor "is still in its infancy" (xvii). Because of this, their purpose in this volume "is not the detailed and exhaustive analysis of the economy of Roman Asia Minor" but "rather to detect and highlight patterns of activity that help to explain features of the economy, and to point the way towards future research" (xxvi).

The first section, "Roman Agriculture: The Systematic Exploitation of the Land," consists of three chapters. Thomas Corsten's essay discusses two large estates, owned by Roman families in the second and third centuries CE, in the territory of Kibyra, a city in southwest Asia Minor. Analysis of epigraphic evidence allows Corsten to conclude that indigenous free tenants, rather than slaves, farmed the land, and speculate about the estates' relationship to the city of Kibyra and the nearby village of Alassos. An epigraphic appendix includes the texts of 14 of the inscriptions he discusses in the essay. The second chapter (and the one with by far the best title in the entire volume) is Johannes Nollé's "Boars, bears, and bugs: farming in Asia Minor and the protection of men, animals, and crops." Nollé notes at the outset that the battle between farmer and pest in Asia Minor "has so far hardly been investigated or located in the broader context of economic activity" (54). The same could be said for the rest of the ancient Mediterranean. Given the considerable interest in estimating yield rates for ancient agriculture, it is salutary to consider the many ways that things could go wrong even when crops received ample water. Boars, Nollé reports, "were and still are one of the greatest enemies of agriculture in Asia Minor... A pack of boars can strip whole fields bare to the soil in a single night" (61). There is more here than just boars, bears and bugs as the author also discusses red deer, rabbits, birds and the "swarms of mice" which threatened vineyards. In the absence of modern pesticides, farmers resorted to religion and magic, so we also learn about Apollo Smintheus, whose oracle at Chryse "gave advice in the event of mouse plagues" (66); about gems and talismans to ward off pests; and about the belief that menstruating women walking barefoot through one's fields could protect crops from insects. Nollé concludes that insect swarms and mice caused "heavy damage to crops... fairly regularly" but concedes that "[t]he ancient sources do not allow any exact measure of the extent of damage" (68). The final chapter in this section is Stephen Mitchell's "Olive cultivation in the economy of Roman Asia Minor." Mitchell presents "an introduction to the evidence and a preliminary exploration of its implications," focusing on three issues: where olives grew, their role in the local economy, and olive oil as a commodity produced for export (84). He argues that markets rather than climate or culture "dictated the spread of the olive" (93). Locally, Greek urban demand promoted olive cultivation but Roman demand, for Constantinople and the frontier armies, was especially important and benefited southern coastal areas in particular.

Section Two looks at "Trade and Commodity Exchange." David Braund's chapter brings literary, numismatic and archaeological evidence to bear on imports and exports "across the Black Sea." The focus is on the Roman period but, as in many of these chapters, the author sometimes strays into earlier and later periods -- though with good reason, since there were some long-term continuities. Agricultural commodities receive much attention but so do goods such as slaves, wood, and ruddle, a red pigment used as paint. Braund emphasizes the need for caution in using the literary sources, noting, for example, that "though the point is often lost in the billowing fog of Demosthenic rhetoric: the fact that the Bosporan kingdom could from time to time generate a large surplus in grain does not mean that it could do so every year" (121). The archaeological evidence, of course, can be just as difficult to interpret. Braund tentatively concludes that the coastal area west of Amisus was most active in trade with the north while Trapezus, despite "its location at the head of a significant route to the south into the interior," appears to have been "remarkably inactive" (131). Veli Köse's chapter addresses the economic importance of market-buildings for cities such as Pergamum, Priene and Assos in both the Roman and Hellenistic periods. The nature and quality of the evidence, however, necessarily limits the precision of his conclusions. It may not be especially surprising to learn that market buildings remained important to urban economies during the Roman period but it is certainly helpful to have the available information clearly laid out.

The third section of Patterns, entitled "The Economy of Cities and Sanctuaries," turns to the issue of public and private intervention in the economy of Asia Minor. Arjan Zuiderhoek's chapter, which looks at the relationship between benefactors and the urban economy, provides a nice complement to Köse's essay. Zuiderhoek reevaluates the importance of public benefaction in the city economy and suggests that scholars have overestimated it. Combining rough calculations of urban population, élite wealth, and the cost of public amenities with attested examples of public benefaction, he argues that "élite munificence was hardly a dominant force in the urban economies of the Roman east" (177). He sees local government as playing a much bigger, though "persistently underestimated" (176), role in the financing of public building. Two brief but useful appendices list, respectively, over forty donations for public building in Asia Minor dating to the second and third centuries CE and a "comparison of costs for similar building projects from cities in Roman Lycia" (180). In the next chapter, Giovanni Salmeri examines the role of imperial intervention in the economy of Pontus and Bithynia. The correspondence of Pliny with Trajan obviously plays a prominent part in this discussion. Salmeri argues that Roman authorities did not have economic ends principally in mind when they intervened in local affairs though their "essentially political decisions" did have "embedded economic implications" (197). Far more significant, he suggests, was the economic impact of Roman armies traveling through or stationed in the region. The third and final chapter in this section is Beate Dignas' examination of the relationship between Roman authorities and Greek sanctuaries in Asia Minor. She notes that Rome frequently intervened to protect the sanctuaries from "greedy individuals, short-sighted politicians... war and natural catastrophes" (217) and attributes Roman aid to a combination of respect and self-interest. While the Romans had a genuine reverence for these sanctuaries and saw themselves as "religious benefactors" (218), they also recognized that temples, like the Artemision at Ephesus, were important institutions which, when financially sound, could contribute to the economic health of their respective cities or regions.

Section Four considers "The Monetary Economy." Margherita Facella examines the coinage of Commagene in the first century BCE and first century CE, while Stanley Ireland looks at Pontus and Paphlagonia over a lengthier period. Though the numismatic evidence for these regions poses some major difficulties, there are indications of increased monetization in the first and second centuries CE. Both authors link this development at least in part to Rome's increased attention to the eastern frontier. Constantina Katsari's essay, the last in this section, examines Roman Asia Minor as a whole during the third century CE. Working primarily from hoard and excavation evidence, she suggests that "the accepted view of an increasing mint output in the Roman world [between 193 and 275 CE] may be an illusion" (278) and argues that the economy became "partly demonetized" in the late third century as, with the quantity of aurei in circulation decreasing, many resorted to bullion or barter for large transactions.

The final section, entitled "Population Movements and Their Impact on Local Economies" consists of two essays. In the first, Hugh Elton addresses the role of the Roman military, an issue to which many other contributors have called attention at least in passing. He focuses on "the process of supply for campaigns, as opposed to standard provisioning of garrisons" (289), and how it affected cities along the south coast of Anatolia. Elton compares the "minting profiles of cities on and off the military route" (297) and detects no differences attributable to the regular passage of Roman armies. Though he concedes that "there were indirect benefits from the requisitioning process" (296), he argues that "the military presence and involvement in the supply process were probably not beneficial to local economies" (300). Turhan Kaçar looks at somewhat smaller population movements, those of Christian clergy attending church councils in the fourth and fifth centuries. He considers the clergy's use of the cursus publicus as well as their impact on local markets. The relationship between early Christianity and the ancient economy has only recently begun to receive the attention it deserves,3 so this contribution is especially welcome. Kaçar argues that "the regular gatherings of bishops and clergy in provincial centres... surely contributed to the economic health of provincial capitals" (313) and suggests they may have even stimulated the building of churches in such locales.

So what economic patterns have Mitchell and Katsari and their contributors uncovered? On the broadest level, the pattern is clearly one of the gradual integration of Asia Minor into the wider Roman economy. A variety of agents brought about (more often than not unintentionally) this integration, including most conspicuously the army, the tax collectors, and provincial governors but also private individuals who sought to exploit the region's people, resources and markets. Clearer than the patterns, however, are the challenges that will hinder any attempt to write a comprehensive economic history of Roman Asia Minor. Not only must one assimilate, as the editors put it, "an enormous abundance of evidence" (xvii), but there is also plenty of fundamental work yet to be done on prices, population, and the rural economy to name only a few topics. Nevertheless, this well-produced volume4 is an important step in the right direction and, it should be emphasized, contains much that will be of use to scholars interested in the economy of other regions and periods in antiquity.

Table of Contents

List of figures (vii-viii)

Preface and acknowledgements (ix)

Abbreviations (xi-xii)

Introduction: the economy of Roman Asia Minor Stephen Mitchell and Constantina Katsari (xiii-xxxii)

Roman Agriculture: The Systematic Exploitation of the Land

1. Estates in Roman Asia Minor: the case of Kibyratis Thomas Corsten (1-51)

2. Boars, bears, and bugs: farming in Asia Minor and the protection of men, animals, and crops Johannes Nollé (53-82)

3. Olive cultivation in the economy of Roman Asia Minor Stephen Mitchell (83-113) Trade and Commodity Exchange

4. Across the Black Sea: patterns of maritime exchange on the periphery of Roman Asia Minor David Braund (115-138)

5. The origin and development of market-buildings in hellenistic and Roman Asia Minor Veli Köse (139-166)

The Economy of Cities and Sanctuaries

6. The icing on the cake: benefactors, economics and public buildings in Roman Asia Minor Arjan Zuiderhoek (167-186)

7. Central power intervention and the economy of the provinces in the Roman Empire: the case of Pontus and Bithynia Giovanni Salmeri (187-206)

8. Sacred revenues in Roman hands: the economic dimension of sanctuaries in Western Asia Minor Beate Dignas (207-224)

The Monetary Economy

9. Coinage and the economy of Commagene (first century BC - first century AD) Margherita Facella (225-250)

10. Coinage in Roman Pontus and Paphlagonia: problems of evidence and interpretation Stanley Ireland (251-260)

11. The monetization of Roman Asia Minor in the third century AD Constantina Katsari (261-288)

Population Movements and Their Impact on Local Economies

12. Military supply and the south coast of Anatolia in the third century AD Hugh Elton (289-304)

13. Church councils and their impact on the economy of the cities in Roman Asia Minor Turhan Kaçar (305-318)

Index (319-335)


1.   This reviewer would like to emphasize, however, that he only bears responsibility for the last six months of the delay in the BMCR review. It is also worth mentioning that BMCR apparently only received the volume in September of 2007.
2.   Ancient economic history seems to favor topically themed edited volumes (on, for example, land, markets and money) rather than ones with a regional focus. More of the latter would nicely complement the former.
3.   The Society of Biblical Literature launched a 'consultation' on "Early Christianity and the Ancient Economy" in 2007. I serve on its steering committee.
4.   The book is amply illustrated with maps, plans, photos and graphs. I detected few typographical errors aside from the repeated misspelling of Sitta Von Reden's last name.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2009
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010

HTML generated at 13:05:53, Monday, 31 August 2009