BMCR 1990.02.06

Structure and Scale in the Roman Economy

, Structure and Scale in the Roman Economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. xvi, 245 pages. ISBN 0521892899

Richard Duncan-Jones is to the Roman empire what the new generation of statisticians is to baseball. They share a specific skill: the ability to frame a question that can be answered precisely and quantitatively by the available evidence. That skill is complemented by a principled disinclination to ask questions that, however intriguing they may be in themselves, the available evidence is not prepared to answer. For an ancient historian, the skill and the principle are equally valuable.

So this is expressly a sequel to D-J’s The Economy of the Roman Empire: Quantitative Studies, and could indeed be simply another volume in the same series. It contains thirteen essays, of which eight are newly published, while five others rework material published in seven earlier articles. As characteristic of D-J, he does not attempt to mold his pieces into specious greater wholes, so the thirteen pieces are divided into five sections of the loosest coherence. This leaves each piece free to be shaped carefully to ask the best question in the most concentrated way and get the best possible answer—even if this leaves other questions that we would like to have answered but cannot.

Some of the articles are nuts-and-bolts economics: “The price of wheat in Roman Egypt” ( inter alia, some dramatic evidence for third century A.D. hyper-inflation) or “Taxation in money and taxation in kind” (less of the former than often thought). Others ask economic questions with consequences of several sorts (the first essay is on speed of communication from one part of the empire to another and advances magisterially on the already classic treatment by D-J’s teacher, A.H.M. Jones), and some are almost journalistic in their appeal, though sober and measured in their argument, e.g., “Age-awareness in the Roman world” (Zsa Zsa-esque for the most part, but ignorance rather than mendacity the cause) and “Roman life-expectancy” (D-J won’t swear to “nasty and brutish,” because they are unquantifiable, but “short” is irrefutable—most sensible Romans my age had been dead quite some time [no silly wonder I’m such a hypochondriac]—and August to October were very good months to visit your place in the country).

For convenience, the other pieces are: “Trade, taxes and money” (rather Reaganomic conclusions), “Separation and cohesion in Mediterranean trade” (more of the former), “Stability and change” (rather a hodge-podge of smaller studies: Hadrian’s reign good for construction, Marcus Aurelius’ marked by the plague), “Pay and numbers in Diocletian’s army,” “Land and landed wealth,” “The social cost of urbanisation,” “Who paid for public building?” and “Land, taxes and labour: implications of the iugum.” If one theme emerges, it is that if we look at the big picture less changed between early and late empire than is often thought to be the case; but that looking at the little picture is often more fruitful and interesting and polymorphous.