Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.04.28

Elio Lo Cascio, Crescita e declino: studi di storia dell'economia romana. Centro ricerche e documentazione sull'antichità classica. Monografie 32.   Roma:  L'Erma di Bretschneider, 2009.  Pp. 386.  ISBN 9788882655624.  €120.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Kyle Harper, University of Oklahoma (

Crescita e declino is a collection of sixteen previously published studies by Elio Lo Cascio. The contributions, whose original publication dates range from 1982 to 2007, are organized into four subject areas: agriculture, demography, money/exchange, and Max Weber. The essays have been lightly corrected and updated, with more recent bibliography noted. Lo Cascio is a prolific contributor to the study of the Roman economy, and he accounts for 71 different entries in the bibliography of Crescita e declino. This volume is avowedly not a systematic treatment of Roman economic history, but it lives up to its claim to have a sort of coherence (p. 1). The book presents a panoramic view of the maximalist interpretation of Roman economic growth by one of its ablest defenders, and it thus adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

This review concentrates on the elements of the volume which contribute to Lo Cascio's distinctive and important interpretation of Roman economic history. The book's Introduction provides an overview of the principal lines of development in scholarship on the Roman economy over the last three decades. Lo Cascio invokes proxy data (the now familiar litany of pollution, shipwrecks, etc.) and comparative examples (both non-Western and late medieval) to argue that economic history before the Industrial Revolution is not the story of "un'economia immobile." Lo Cascio claims that the association of capitalism with modernity, transmitted from Weber via Finley (and, as Lo Cascio notes, partially accepted by some of Finley's earliest and most trenchant critics, the Istituto Gramsci circle), obscures the autonomous role of market forces in shaping Roman history. Lo Cascio's own method employs the toolbox of neo-classical economics, supplemented by historical demography and the new institutional economics. Lo Cascio contends that Roman economic growth was not only extensive (population growth leading to higher output) but also, and more remarkably, intensive (higher levels of production and consumption per capita).

The first section of the book, "L'agricoltura romana tra autoconsumo, rendita e profitto," presents four studies of Roman agricultural history. The first chapter is a survey, of some fifty pages, of Italian agriculture from the archaic period to late antiquity. The focus on Italy is characteristic of the book as a whole. The chapter traces the rise of commercialized agriculture in the late republic and sees in the villa the characteristic form of rural production for the market. First published in 2002, this chapter has not been able to incorporate some recent, thoroughgoing critiques of the traditional villa model, e.g. the studies of Roth and Marzano.1 Lo Cascio convincingly attributes the crisis of the small farmer to commercialization and overpopulation rather than simply the displacement of free peasants by slaves. Lo Cascio sees the early empire as the peak period of settlement density and production in Italian agriculture, even if changes were underway from the Augustan revolution onward. Lo Cascio frames the dynamics of Italian agriculture in the early empire in terms of the relative availability of the primary factors of production, especially land and labor. Because the price of Italian land was high relative to the price of provincial land, investment capital and the production of commodities were driven to the provinces. Building on the work of Freyberg, Lo Cascio's hypothesis offers the most persuasive explanation we have for why the processes described by Rostovzeff ("provincial competition") occurred.2 Italian exporters gradually lost their dominance on the Mediterranean market, even as the end of conquest meant a reduction in the slave supply. Lo Cascio gestures towards the work of Scheidel on the slave population and cites his own 2002 study, but the older, conquest-centered view of Roman slavery retains its tenacious hold.3 The supposed reduction in the slave supply drove up the price of slave labor even as demographic expansion provided a greater supply of free labor, thus driving down wages. Although Lo Cascio identifies costs rather than efficiencies as the driving force in the supersession of slave labor by tenancy, there are still traces of an older narrative in which landowners accumulate progressively larger properties, rendering slave labor less profitable. The acquisition of ever larger properties is one of those narrative tropes that persist in Roman economic history despite, and partly because of, a lack of evidence. In the discussion of land tenure, types of labor, and prices, a more quantitative approach is both possible and desirable. Indeed this seems to be the direction in which the field is heading.4

Chapter 2 is Lo Cascio's still useful analysis of Varro's taxonomy of labor at de re rustica 1.17. Chapters 3 and 4 discuss Roman farm tenancy. These chapters, which build on the work of De Neeve, Scheidel, and Kehoe, fill out Lo Cascio's view that the relative availability of land and labor was determinative in Roman agrarian history. Lo Cascio sensibly places tenancy in the mainstream of Roman economic development. Tenancy was shaped by the commercialization of the Roman economy and did not represent the failure of slave-based commodity production. Lo Cascio contrasts the success story of tenancy in Africa, where there was land to accommodate an expanding population, with a more pessimistic story of tenancy in Italy. Lo Cascio interprets the penuria colonorum of Pliny, Ep. 3.19 not as "the lack of tenants" but as "the poverty of the tenants." Lo Cascio's contribution is to integrate this reading within a broader demographic account of Roman Italy. The problem in Pliny's Italy was not a shortage of labor, but rather a superabundance of it. Lo Cascio sees Malthusian pressures -- too many people, not enough land -- as influencing the trajectory of the Italian economy. He repeatedly uses the letters of Pliny as evidence for a general trend in which tenancy was replacing slavery over the first and second centuries. The argument reminds us of the thin empirical basis for any such deduction, not to mention that the parameters of this trend are unstated. Lo Cascio argues that the slaves with whom Pliny intends to stock his estates were not to replace the instrumentum of the coloni (if the coloni are poor, they could not have such valuable capital). But, paradoxically, this means the slaves were part of a strategy of direct exploitation of the land (which Lo Cascio would also minimize). Ultimately, the cumulative population growth that persisted into the second century and promoted the impoverishment of tenants also made Italy a sort of epidemiological ticking time-bomb on the eve of the Antonine plague, a catastrophe which, in this account, marked the beginning of the decline of the Roman economy.

The second section of the book, "Popolazione e risorse," includes three chapters setting out Lo Cascio's position on Roman demographic history. Lo Cascio is the primary defender of a high count of the Roman population. He argues against the Beloch-Brunt reading of the Augustan census figures and maintains that the total population of peninsular Italy at the dawn of the imperial period was on the order of 12-14 million people. The first chapter in this second section takes stock of the ancient evidence. The chapter includes a critique of Beloch's interpretation. This rehearsal of the case is neither Lo Cascio's most complete nor his most developed presentation of his argument. The second chapter revisits the relation between land and demography, making the argument that imperial expansion was driven in part by population growth. The final chapter in this section is a critique of Finley's Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology. Here, Lo Cascio argues that demography must play a role in the study of slavery and the colonate. The methodological thoughts are still valuable, but the assumptions about the colonate and late antiquity would require such substantial revision that this chapter (originally published in 1982) has been left unaltered.

The third section, "Merci, mercati e prezzi," contains six studies which explain the mechanisms promoting economic growth in the Roman empire. The first chapter argues that Roman society was thoroughly monetized. Lo Cascio has helped make the analytical apparatus of institutional economics familiar to Roman historians: the pax Romana, a common currency, a uniform commercial law, inter alia, lowered transaction costs and encouraged trade, integration, specialization, etc. The second chapter, originally published in 1992, takes aim at Jongman's minimalist interpretation of Pompeii's economy and argues instead that the town provides compelling evidence for extensive levels of rural commodity production, urban industry, and commercial/financial services.5 The third chapter is a version of Lo Cascio's 1997 paper on nominal prices and "prices in gold" from the late second to the fourth century CE. It has become the modern consensus that the "inflation" of the high and late empire cannot be described as a steady rise in prices. Instead, there were discrete phases in which the purchasing power of Roman silver currency abruptly declined.6 The main instances seem to have been during the reign of Commodus, the years after Aurelian's reforms, the decade or so leading up to the Price Edict of Diocletian, and then a series of jumps in the fourth century, until ca. 360. These "inflationary" episodes had different causes and their explanation is a matter of lively, ongoing scholarly debate. In this paper, Lo Cascio proposes to trace the price of commodities in terms of gold, in order to distinguish what he calls "authentic inflation," caused by disjunctions in global supply and demand, from monetary causes (such as changes in the money supply, the availability of precious metals, debasement, etc.) (p. 238). This is exceedingly difficult to do because there are virtually no commodity prices expressed in gold over this period and because, at some unknown point in the second half of the third century, gold started to be traded as a commodity, not just as coin. In addition, after AD 324, the price of gold was left to the market. Lo Cascio's conversion strategies for establishing "prices in gold" can be and have been challenged.7 But the basic conclusion of this paper is that the Antonine inflation was "authentic" because nominal prices and prices in gold both clearly rose. He thus argues that the Antonine inflation should be explained by demographic contraction while the changes during the reigns of Aurelian and Diocletian were ultimately monetary in nature. The next chapter of Crescita e declino interprets the fourth-century price reports published in volume 54 of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri as market observations that were necessary to provide up-to-date information for the system of coemptiones. The fifth chapter argues for the structural primacy of the market in price formation even when imperial taxation and distributions were at stake. Similarly, the sixth chapter argues for the importance of mercantile networks in the supply of the Roman army.

The fourth and final section of the book is titled "Weber e l'economia romana." Weber's influence on the study of the ancient economy has been pervasive and enduring. This discussion is intimately related to the central themes of Crescita e declino, for ultimately Weber insisted on the uniqueness of modern, rationalized capitalism, in contrast to ancient, "political" capitalism (in which the conjunction of imperial expansion, tax farming, and slave-based plantations permitted the circulation of capital). Ultimately, Weber held, this system was temporary because conquest was finite. The payoff of this section is Lo Cascio's acute observation that, while Weber can explain the expanding economy of the Roman republic and the supposed regression of the late empire, he has no model for the high empire (first and second centuries). Any model of the Roman economy in which fiscal and political mechanisms (Hopkins' famous model is in mind) are privileged over the fundamentals of the market will have trouble explaining the high imperial peak.

Crescita e declino is exactly what it claims to be: a collection of essays, diverse in register, unsystematic in their approach, but ultimately offering a cogent statement about the fundamental character and trajectory of the Roman economy. Lo Cascio is at his best when he is presenting an internally consistent model for large-scale growth and explaining the mechanisms of that growth. He repeatedly shows, with considerable technical acumen, how the evidence (whether census figures, agricultural manuals, letters of Pliny, numismatic or papyrological material) is consistent with his broader interpretation. This collection leaves the reader wishing for a systematic exposition of the maximalist view, one even more explicit about scale, quantity, and comparative implications. Moreover, the discussion of the crescita is more detailed and more persuasive than the account of the declino. Lo Cascio traverses the third-century divide with greater facility than most Roman economic historians, but there is much left to be said about the vitality of the late Roman economy, in precisely the neo-classical terms used by Lo Cascio. The volume is handsomely produced and the standardization of format has been achieved with admirable care, two facts which partly account for the rather prohibitive price-tag (120 euros in paperback).


1.   U. Roth, Thinking Tools: Agricultural Slavery between Evidence and Models (London, 2007); A. Marzano, Roman Villas in Central Italy: A Social and Economic History (Leiden, 2007).
2.   H.-U. von Freyberg, Kapitalverkehr und Handel im römischen Kaiserreich (27 v. Chr. - 235 n. Chr.) (Freiburg, 1988).
3.   W. Scheidel, "Quantifying the Sources of Slaves in the Early Roman Empire," JRS 87 (1997): 156-69; idem, "The Slave Population of Roman Italy: Speculation and Constraints," Topoi Orient-Occident 9 (1999): 129-44; idem, "Human Mobility in Roman Italy, II: The Slave Population," JRS 95 (2005): 64-79. Cf. E. Lo Cascio, "Considerazioni sul numero degli schiavi e sulle loro fonti di approvvigionamento in età imperiale," in Etudes de démographie du monde greéco-romain, ed. W. Suder (Wroclaw, 2002): 51-65.
4.   E.g. A. Bowman, A. Wilson, eds., Quantifying the Roman Economy: Methods and Problems (Oxford, 2009); W. Scheidel, S. Friesen, "The Size of the Economy and the Distribution of Income in the Roman Empire," JRS 99 (2009): 61-91; P. Temin, "Estimating the GDP of the Early Roman Empire," in Innovazione tecnica e progresso economico nel mondo romano, ed. E. Lo Cascio (Rome, 2005): 31-54.
5.   W. Jongman, The Economy and Society of Pompeii (Amsterdam, 1988).
6.   R. Bagnall, Currency and Inflation in Fourth Century Egypt (Chico, 1985); R. Bagnall, "Fourth-Century Prices: New Evidence and Further Thoughts," ZPE 76 (1989) p. 69-76; D. Rathbone, "Monetarization, Not Price-inflation, in Third-century A.D. Egypt?," in Coin Finds and Coin Use in the Roman World: The Thirteenth Oxford Symposium on Coinage and Monetary History, eds. C. E. King and D.G. Wigg (Berlin, 1996): 321-39. See now M. Corbier, "Coinage and Taxation: The State's Point of View, A.D. 193-337," in CAH, 2nd ed., vol. 12 (Cambridge, 2005): 327-92.
7.   See D. Rathbone, "Earnings and Costs: Living Standards and the Roman Economy (First to Third Centuries AD)," in Bowman and Wilson 2009 (see note 4): 299-326, at 302-3.

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