Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.03.48 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.03.48

Sven Günther (ed.), Ordnungsrahmen antiker Ökonomien: Ordnungskonzepte und Steuerungsmechanismen antiker Wirtschaftssysteme im Vergleich. Philippika, 53.   Wiesbaden:  Otto Harrassowitz Verlag, 2012.  Pp. vii, 275.  ISBN 9783447067225.  €54.00.  

Reviewed by Benedikt Eckhardt, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster (

[The authors and titles are listed below.]

Based on a workshop held in Mainz in 2010, this volume brings together fourteen contributions on different aspects of Greek and Roman economic history. The title suggests a preference for state economic measures and legal frameworks, but the spectrum is much broader, including the social dimension of economic thought and interaction.

In the first contribution, Priddat justly points out that Aristotle’s views on money are anachronistic and contain strong elements of an older view of exchange, based on reciprocity and barter. In Aristotle’s examples, the personal and social relations of two agents are as important as the relations of their goods to each other; a transaction is only valid if it involves no unjust gains that lead to status usurpation. This view ignores some primary features of money as well as market dynamics. Priddat suggests that these anachronisms aimed to preserve the social solidarity and economic dominance of the core ethnic group, limiting as they did the possibility for outsiders to purchase land- ownership (and citizenship). This is a rather one-sided explanation, but the connection of Aristotle’s questionable economic thought with a conservative worldview is very plausible.

In her comparative study on the state income of Athens and Sparta, Rohde systematically presents the known facts on liturgies, syssitia etc. She concludes that in Athens, economic inequality was accepted, while in Sparta, it was not; therefore Athens could develop the liturgical system, while Sparta could not. When Sparta’s state expenses exploded in the course of the Peloponnesian War, the perioikoi had to step in and structures were developed somewhat similar to those at Athens. According to Rohde, they readily accepted the new demands due to their sense of belonging to the Lakedaimonian community. This may be somewhat optimistic, and the whole reconstruction is difficult to substantiate. But Rohde makes a reasonable attempt to define the differences between the two systems in abstract terms.

Fischer gives a competent overview about economic data in Linear B texts. In the context of the volume, evidence for state regulation of agriculture and trade (e.g., shepherds or blacksmiths) is most relevant. Due to the peculiar nature of the sources, many questions have to remain open.

Günther himself analyzes the use of the Persian king as a model in the Pseudo-Aristotelian Oikonomika and Xenophon’s writings. He follows the interpretation that oikonomia basilike does not refer to the financial administration of the Persian Empire, but rather to the king’s own oikos. However, the argument that a thorough interest in the empire’s financial administration is not attested for real Persian kings (p. 87) is not quite convincing, given the distorted image of Persia prevalent in Greek literature. Günther justly singles out the didactic nature of Xenophon’s writings and the presentation of the Persian king as an ideal economist and statesman. Just why Xenophon chose the Persian king to fulfill that function remains an open question.

Based on epigraphic sources and prosopographical studies, Burgemeister and Köcke convincingly discuss the appearance of women as benefactors in Miletus from the 2nd century BCE onwards. They rightly reject simple explanations and stress gradual development (before the Roman period, women still needed a kyrios when acting in public), as well as the multilayered developments that caused the rise of women as benefactors. Emphasis is placed on economic needs of the polis, but due attention is given to the self-presentation of elite families as well.

While the “Greek” part of the volume consists of five very disparate studies covering a time-span from 1200 BCE to the first century CE, the “Roman” part is much more coherent. Nine contributions treat diverse, but often related subjects from the late republic to late antiquity.

Rollinger gives an introduction into recent debates on use and supply of money in Roman antiquity. He discusses Ciceronian evidence for non-monetary forms of payment for large sums, such as credit and the enigmatic permutatio. He convincingly argues that permutatio was not a concrete procedure, but rather a generic term that encompassed several options for transferring money without physically transporting tons of silver (it normally took the form of transferring debts). He justly stresses the importance of networks and amicitia as the basis for permutationes, which were not legally regulated, and concludes that this way of transferring money was available only for the upper echelons of society.

In his treatment of Pliny the Younger’s economic thought, Page takes him as representative for the aristocratic habitus of his time and argues against a “primitivist” understanding by highlighting Pliny’s economic competence and foresight. He also shows that agricultural and economic competence was part and parcel of aristocratic identity and self-presentation.

Schartmann discusses the monetary crisis of 33 CE. No new explanation is offered – Schartmann basically presents the diverse reconstructions of earlier scholars without taking sides (p. 155: “Suchen Sie sich das passende Szenario aus”). Apart from some remarks on details, the strength of the article lies in the economic competence of the author, who re-describes common historical explanations in terms of economic theory. The closing remarks attempt a comparison with the financial and economic crisis of 2009 – not a new idea, as Schartmann duly acknowledges. His caution in drawing an analogy between Tiberius’ grant of 100 million HS and the EU rescue-fund is certainly justified, given the very different social and economic contexts (but this does not keep Schartmann from using the word “Rettungsschirm” a number of times in the article).

Edelmann-Singer illuminates the economic dimension of Roman provincial councils. She notes the immense costs that could be connected with the high priesthood of the province, partly depending on the priest’s willingness to engage in euergetic activity. She also stresses the financial burden caused even by a seemingly small institution such as the hymnods (but in the treatment of IvP 374, more attention should have been given to the self- financing of the Pergamene hymnods via the members’ contributions). While cities and individuals could use the provincial councils for self-presentation, Rome could use them as an administrative instrument that offered access to resources and networks.

The late antique state has long been infamous for strong state regulations in different social fields, including the economy. One of the elements of that picture has always been the colonate. Based on juristic sources, Schipp reconstructs the history of this institution. Up to the third century, continuity of land lease was desired, but not legally enforced. Schipp then describes the development of a system that first tied people to the land, but later – in reaction to economic necessities – to land-holders, who could move them within their estates. Schipp’s evaluation of the economic use of the colonate is negative: The main agricultural problems the state had to face, especially the cultivation of deserted lands, would have been easier to deal with if there had been less severe regulations for potential leaseholders. This “liberal” view may be correct, but it would be all the more interesting to know why Roman emperors in late antiquity thought otherwise not only in this, but also in other contexts.

Two archaeological contributions by Ehmig and Hensen do not exactly show concepts of order or steering mechanisms, but illuminate the inherent laws of trade. Ehmig discusses the provenance and contents of amphorae in Noricum and the north-western provinces. Her conclusion that the import of goods is determined to a large degree by practical considerations (like easy access to certain goods) is not really surprising (but note the justified criticism of the theory that absence of amphorae for olives in the periphery indicates “culinary resistance” against Romanization, p. 204). Hensen presents evidence from a large necropolis in Heidelberg and concentrates on the large number of oil lamps. He collects evidence from this and other sites for a conscious reduction of oil-use and speculates about the possible reasons for a rise in the price of oil. It may be true that Spanish oil-merchants achieved a monopoly and used it for their purposes. This – together with the search for alternative sources of lighting by consumers – would be an example of self-regulation by the market, which does not figure prominently in the volume.

Droß-Krüpe gives a concise presentation of the procedures and actors involved in supplying the Roman military with textiles. Based on Egpytian papyri and a comparison with the grain supply, she reconstructs the regular process from the declaration of demand to the production of the actual textiles. She plausibly explains the small numbers mentioned in some papyri as indicating the assignment of an order to different villages and regions; she also speculates about the function of professional collegia in this regard. It is clear from the evidence that the organization of textile-supply for the military took place on a supra-regional basis; Droß-Krüpe uses this observation against a primitivist view of ancient economies.

In the final contribution, Vögler discusses the modalities of river traffic in Roman antiquity. It is concerned mainly with the technical requirements and geographic conditions. The subject of the volume is touched upon when Vögler inquires into state intervention to ensure navigability, but it seems to be impossible to pin down actors or procedures (the corporations are mentioned only in a sidenote).

The contributions are diverse, but at least in the Roman section, they yield a pretty coherent picture. Still, it is difficult to pinpoint overarching connections. The editor’s preface starts with the financial crisis of the 21st century, which is an easy point to make, but its relevance as a parallel is thin. Scharmann’s contribution does most to incorporate this dimension, but modernizing language can be found more often, e.g. Hensen’s “energy crisis”. This fits the tendency of some contributions to opt for a “modernist” instead of a “primitivist” view on ancient economics – another dimension pointed to in the introduction, but explicitly addressed only by Rollinger, Page, Schartmann and Droß-Krüpe. Surprisingly, modern economic theory is almost totally absent from the volume, although Günther does point to New Institutionalism in the introduction.

All in all, the volume has its strengths and weaknesses. Many contributions can be used as good, sometimes excellent introductions to their topics, which makes the volume especially interesting for students or scholars not well-acquainted with ancient (especially Roman) economic history. On the other hand, many contributions do not present new information or interpretations. This is at times due to their introductory character, but more often to their being derivative from earlier work. Ehmig and Hensen clearly state that their results have already been published elsewhere; the same is true (with varying degrees) for Priddat, Rollinger, Schipp and Droß-Krüpe. For the purpose of the volume, this works very well, but specialized scholars may at times be disappointed. In addition, the editing could have been better. Proofreading seems to have been left solely to the authors, resulting in a very uneven distribution of grammatical and typographical errors. In the first contribution by Priddat, the number of such errors is beyond belief, in some others, it is above what may be called an average level. More care should have been given to this issue. An index of subjects would also have been useful.

Notwithstanding these observations, the volume is a useful contribution to ongoing debates on the nature of ancient economies. It can be recommended as a valuable tool especially for students as well as for scholars looking for a first approach to the broad field of ancient economic history.

List of contributions

Birger P. Priddat: Aristoteles über Markt und Geld, 5–21
Dorothea Rohde: Bürgerpflicht und Gleichheitsideal. „Besteuerung“ und ihre diskursiven Grundlagen in Sparta und Athen, 23–40
Josef Fischer: Die mykenische Palastwirtschaft. Aspekte frühgriechischen Wirtschaftslebens im Spiegel der Linear B-Texte, 41–81
Sven Günther: Zwischen Theorie und Praxis. Der Perserkönig als idealer Ökonom in Xenophons Schriften, 83– 96
Katja Burgemeister/ Lara Sophie Köcke: Spenderinnen und Stifterinnen: Zur ökonomischen und gesellschaftlichen Rolle von Frauen in Milet, 97–110
Christian Rollinger: Zur Bedeutung von amicitia und Netzwerken für das Finanzwesen der Späten Republik, 111– 126
Sven Page: Wirtschaftliche Fragen und soziopolitische Folgen – ökonomische Ordnungskonzepte bei Plinius dem Jüngeren, 127–143
Günter Schartmann: Die Krise des Jahres 33 n. Chr., 145–164
Babett Edelmann-Singer: Die finanzielle und wirtschaftliche Dimension der Provinziallandtage in der Römischen Kaiserzeit, 165–179
Oliver Schipp: Der ökonomische Nutzen des Kolonats? Das System der Bodenpacht und die ökonomischen Folgen, 181–197
Ulrike Ehmig: Produktive Nähe. Archäologische Beobachtungen zu wirtschaftlichen Abläufen in der Römischen Kaiserzeit, 199–213
Kerstin Droß-Krüpe: Stoff und Staat – Überlegungen zur Interaktion von Textilökonomie und römischer Staatlichkeit im 1.–3. Jh. n. Chr., 215–226
Andreas Hensen: Öl für den Norden: Energieversorgung und -krise am Beispiel des römischen Kastellvicus von Heidelberg, 227–241
Alexander Vögler: Des Kaisers schwimmende Güter – Die Bedeutung der römischen Administration für die antike Flussschifffahrt, 243–260
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