Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.12.02 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.12.02

J. G. Manning, The Open Sea: The Economic Life of the Ancient Mediterranean World From the Iron Age to the Rise of Rome.   Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2018.  Pp. 448.  ISBN 9780691151748.  $27.95.  

Reviewed by Eric Wesley Driscoll (


Among the many virtues a work of scholarship might embody, conveying a crisp sense of the present disciplinary situation is one of the most instantly advantageous. Joseph Manning’s The Open Sea is an up-to-the-minute synthesis of contemporary work on the ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Near Eastern economies from the early first millennium to the end of the Hellenistic period. Impressive in scope, this book is also in effect an advertisement for—but a still-unperfected instance of—a new kind of ancient economic history. Readers are advised to begin reading Nature and Science and to develop collaborative research groups to address historical problems using the latest scientific results. As proof of concept, Manning deploys advances in paleoclimatology to shed light on how volcanic eruptions impacted Egyptian social history. While the book is free of problems in neither conception nor execution, its message is laudable, its arguments seasonable, and its learning deep.

The three chapters of part one, “History & Theory” (1–106), cycle between method and evidence to introduce readers to the study of the ancient economy. The introduction and first chapter lay out the parameters of Manning’s coverage and provide a literature review, emphasizing Finley and contemporary social-scientific approaches.1 The second chapter paints a general picture of ancient economic history while also surveying different types of available evidence. Turning to periodization, chapter three tries to think through broader “historical processes” (73), such as the consolidation of states in the Mediterranean during the first millennium, in place of the traditional culture areas. Manning is opposed to neo-evolutionary stage models of civilizational development, but also to the kind of extreme continuity he ascribes to Horden and Purcell’s work, for whom, he claims, “history was a random walk” (76). But the middle path here is left underexplored; it might be fruitful for ancient historians to engage more deeply with the work of archaeologists who have worked a great deal on just such questions.2

The fourth chapter opens the second part of the book, “Environment & Institutions” (109–270). Agriculture is the heart of all premodern economics, so questions of land tenure and labor are central to Manning’s project. The division between rain-fed and irrigated agricultural regimes, corresponding to the “classical world” versus the Near East and Egypt, has massive consequences for social structure and political form, although Manning’s views on irrigation are spread throughout several sections of the book.3 Manning admirably admits what some prefer to pretend was not the case: all ancient societies operated through the exploitation of slaves, and “labor/slavery” (127) formed a continuum from the brutalized chattel slaves working in Athenian silver mines through the nominally free laoi of Seleucid Syria (“freedom is a difficult concept in these cases,” 133) to the perhaps romanticized freeholder’s nuclear family.

I found “The Boundaries of Premodern Economies,” chapter five, to be the most exciting part of the book. Manning considers the direct effects of climate change on social and political history, providing a useful introduction to paleoclimatology as he does so.4 Climate change transpires under different temporalities, from very long-term trends in average temperature to discrete shocks that Manning explicitly treats as to events (170); and its effects are, moreover, spatially discrepant and “cumulative but nonlinear” (141). Manning’s take-home point is that the social history of ancient climate change is a complicated area of research and is still only beginning to take shape.

The centerpiece of the chapter is a discussion of climate shocks in Ptolemaic Egypt. Because Egypt’s ability to grow food is almost entirely dependent on the Nile, variation in the river’s annual flood was serious business. Large volcanic eruptions disrupt monsoon rainfall and thus reduce the Nile’s flood volume for one to three years. Manning makes three interrelated arguments based on this fact. The first is that these disruptions could cause social unrest, triggered by food shortages; a shift away from emmer and toward a durum wheat monoculture in the Ptolemaic period rendered Egypt’s agriculture less diversified and hence less robust.5 He calculates that almost all the Ptolemaic revolts follow a large eruption that could have reduced Nile flow. Second, these concerns could partly explain why the dynasty attempted to maintain control over territories outside Egypt—and as a result not subject to the same catastrophic variability—in an ingenious combination of the latest climate-change science with the now-traditional Mediterraneanist emphasis on risk buffering. Finally, Manning considers the entwined history of world volcanism and the Ptolemaic regime’s medium-term fortunes: their success in the early Hellenistic period, he seems to be saying, was essentially down to good luck, as Egypt’s wheat near-monoculture flourished in a volcanically quiescent time only to be stamped out by a cluster of eruptions beginning late in the third century BC. Conveniently, the Roman conquest coincided with another volcanically calm period. By showing how climate shocks impacted history on different timescales, Manning makes a powerful case for integrating human and natural archives. Yet many are sure to be unconvinced. Despite noting that human societies exceed simple causal explanations (they are “complex adaptive systems” whose relationship with climate change must be dynamically modeled, with allowances for feedback and resilience), the argument Manning advances is ultimately straightforward: eruptions led to unrest. Future work, as he fully recognizes, will have to consider at more fine-grained scales how climate change might impact social history, while also explaining how and why the social system in Ptolemaic Egypt may have been so vulnerable to these shocks. It would be interesting to consider, for example, whether Egyptians were primarily motivated to revolt by actual food shortage or by the ideological significance of their colonial pharaohs’ inability to ensure good water supply.

The sixth chapter surveys ancient households and their interaction with states. The conclusion that the Mediterranean household is no single type, but is instead characterized by flexible adaptability, is not a surprise, but Manning’s review of the evidence is stimulating and raises several questions. In the seventh chapter, Manning deals with money and law and with the interaction between the institutional development of property rights and overall economic performance. The section on money offers an especially clear example of both the strengths and shortcomings of The Open Sea. In just a few pages (195–202), Manning brings in and adequately discusses almost every topic one would expect to find in a treatment of money in antiquity, from the use of silver as a unit of account and medium of exchange in the ancient Near East to Hellenistic credit instruments. But beyond the claim that monetization facilitated market exchange, it is not clear what kind of big picture Manning is trying to convey. Coinage is said to be “transitional,” “revolutionary,” and “evolutionary”; but which and why? Seaford’s distinction between coinage and uncoined silver is mentioned but discarded because weighed silver still fulfilled the function of money, yet Manning all the same wants coinage to possess its own distinct and crucial role in history. The reader is left wondering exactly what Manning contributes to this much-discussed constellation of issues.

The final chapter deals with “Growth, Innovation, Markets, and Trade.” These are the dominant concerns of most contemporary research, and the recent literature on quantifying ancient economic performance is much rehearsed. The final sections deal with market exchange and trade. Manning notes, choosing his words precisely, that “long-distance trade market transactions without coinage based on contractual arrangements and private initiative” go back about as far in the Near East as our evidence does, but I struggled to see exactly what he thinks is at stake in the distinction between public (or state) and private initiative. Why, that is, and in what circumstances should the absence of “totally free, ‘self-regulating’ markets” matter for our historical imagination (229-32)? This was one of the few places in The Open Sea where the vulgar libertarianism that sometimes afflicts premodern economic history appeared, as if economic behavior were most properly fully “disembedded”—free of institutional context. The problem is a mirage; such markets do not exist in the modern world either (indeed this is the whole point of the New Institutional Economics).6

The Open Sea, then, surveys a great deal of ground. While this scope and Manning’s own areas of expertise lend the work an inevitably uneven feel, as does the fact that some of the most arresting sections are tucked away where one least expects them—the lengthy closing section on trade, for example, suddenly turns into a brilliant meditation on how to think about the Hellenistic period as such (247-51)—this book certainly succeeds admirably at one of its avowed goals: to present an “outline of key themes and a sketch of recent work in the developments of ‘Axial Age’ economics” (263). Where The Open Sea is less successful is in enacting a rigorous, comparative, Mediterranean-wide perspective. Despite its title, the book is not actually about the ancient Mediterranean as such, but about three civilizational areas: the Greek, Egyptian, and Near Eastern disciplinary specialties of Old World text-oriented culture history. Indeed, Manning has almost nothing to say about the Mediterranean west of Sicily, nor about the Syro-Hittite states or other Levantine developments, though these are a crucial and understudied aspect of the story. Manning argues that the correct unit of analysis is not the Mediterranean or its littoral, but rather the eastern Mediterranean together with western Asia. Yet what all this means pragmatically for the reader is that Manning’s book provokes more questions than it answers—hardly a major flaw.

Regrettably, it is also necessary to remark on the book’s production. Manning’s prose is often conversational and engaging, but sometimes his voice gets drowned out by what can only be described as a jarring lack of editorial care. Authorial variants, evidently from the revision process, have been printed in several places, and other misprints and slips are indefensibly common in both text and bibliography.

Despite these shortcomings, The Open Sea raises pressing and difficult questions about the nature of ancient economies: what kind of natural archive must we attend to, and what do we do with it? what does it mean to study “an” or “the” economy? what is the role of quantification? While my own answers might not always be the same as Manning’s, his book clarifies very openly what is at stake here. Professional ancient historians of all stripes should read The Open Sea. If a revised paperback edition is released, it will also be very useful for teaching. Everyone working on the social history of the ancient Mediterranean can learn from Manning’s big questions and curious heart.7


1.   It is interesting to see how Manning’s thought has evolved since he and Ian Morris wrote the introduction to The Ancient Economy: Evidence and Models (2005, Stanford).
2.   In particular I have in mind Norman Yoffee’s Myths of the Archaic State (2004, Cambridge) and Timothy Pauketat’s Chiefdoms and Other Archaeological Delusions (2007, Lanham).
3.   On irrigation, cf. now Brendan Haug, “Water and Power: Reintegrating the State into the Study of Egyptian Irrigation,” History Compass 15 (2017).
4.   Yet here I was surprised by Manning’s inattention to the vital natural archives of zoological and palynological data generated by archaeologists. Broad patterns evident in distant ice cores appear but discrepantly across the fragmented landscape of the Mediterranean. See, for instance, Benjamin Porter, “Toward a Socionatural Reconstruction of the Early Iron Age Settlement System in Jordan’s Wadi al-Mujib Canyon,” in From Gilead to Edom: Studies in the Archaeology of Jordan, Akkadica Supplementum XII (2014): 133–50. Also see now Ruben Post, “The Environmental History of Classical and Hellenistic Greece: The Contribution of Environmental Archaeology,” History Compass 15 (2017). Finally, for a host of provocative insights related to climate history, see Mike Davis, “Taking the Temperature of History: Le Roy Ladurie’s Adventures in the Little Ice Age,” New Left Review 110 (March–April 2018): 85–129.
5.   Cf. Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, The Corrupting Sea (2000, Malden): 176–82 and 201–4.
6.   Manning’s approach is strongly informed by NIE throughout (cf. 27-28). Ronald Coase, Oliver Williamson, and Douglas North are mentioned, but (as usual in ancient history’s encounter with NIE) Elinor Ostrom—who shared the Nobel Prize with Williamson and whose work on the commons, and specifically irrigation systems, could significantly buttress Manning’s view of Egyptian hydraulics and help conceptualize the different kinds of property rights relevant to common-pool resources—nevertheless gets left out. See, e.g., E. Schlager and E. Ostrom, “Property-Rights Regimes and Natural Resources: A Conceptual Analysis,” Land Economics 68 (1992): 249–62, and E. Ostrom, “Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems,” American Economic Review 100 (June 2010): 1–33.
7.   My thanks go to Noah Kaye, Emily Mackil, and Ruben Post for comments on earlier drafts, and to the many who over the past decade have shared their wisdom about the ancient world.

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