BMCR 2001.03.24

Hellenistic Economies

, Hellenistic economies. London/New York: Routledge, 2001. xvi, 400 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm. ISBN 0415234662. $85.00.

Economic history is back in fashion among ancient historians and so is hellenistic history, but reading lists for students rash enough to desire to work on the economy in the hellenistic period still have to start with Rostovtzeff. This volume, which derives from a Liverpool conference of 1998, starts and finishes explicitly with M.I. Rostovtzeff. But Archibald’s introduction to Part I acknowledges that no systematic alternatives to the ‘Finleyan’ vision have yet been proposed, and it turns out to be the world of M.I. Finley that is primarily illuminated here.

The book, which is particularly well illustrated with maps and plates, is divided into six parts, the first five of which are prefaced by introductions by Archibald. The first part, ‘Setting the scene’, consists of a single chapter by Davies, ‘Hellenistic economies in the post-Finley era’. The second, ‘Structures’, of a chapter by Aperghis modelling the Seleucid economy and one by Kloner on Maresha. The third, ‘Geographies and place: regional economies’, of chapters by Oliver on Rhamnous, by Kitchen on Arabia and by Lowe on eastern Spain. The fourth, ‘Economic relationships’, of chapters by Bringmann on Hellenistic kings, finance, buildings and foundations, by Gabrielsen on Rhodian associations, and by Archibald on western Asia Minor. The fifth, ‘Movements and markers’, of a chapter by Gibbins on Shipwrecks and one by Panagopoulou on Antigonid coinage. The final section, ‘Destinations’, has a chapter by Paterson on Rome as a hellenistic economy and Archibald’s ‘Away from Rostovtzeff’.

As the book’s title suggests, pluralism abounds. The separate sections do not so much bring together papers that are similar as juxtapose very different approaches to what talking of ‘structures’ or ‘regional economies’ or ‘economic relationships’ might mean. We end up with a series of forays into economic history, all of which have something to do with the hellenistic world, but we certainly do not end up with anything that could be called an economic history of the hellenistic world. The collection is excellent as a stimulus to discussion and debate, and as such more valuable than simply the sum of the parts, but it might have been more valuable still had the various authors explicitly discussed their methodology and how their individual approaches might contribute to the bigger (and smaller) pictures. Archibald’s prefatory remarks to Part I make it clear that the issues flagged up from the beginning included whether the hellenistic period was economically distinct, how local and global pictures could be related, the impact of the ‘public economy’ on the economy generally, and what the economic impact of such things as city foundations and population movements was; but only a minority of contributors choose explicitly to grapple with any of these issues.

The gap between the book that we have and the book that we might have had is underlined by John Davies’ opening chapter. In characteristic and eclectic style he enumerates his view of what we want to know, where we are coming from, what the available evidence is, and what the models currently available for understanding ancient economies are. There are clues to a way out of simply repeating the routes taken by Rostovtzeff and Finley here, but few of the papers that follow take them.

Two of the papers that introduce underinvestigated places (but do no more) might have pleased Rostovtzeff but would not have pleased Finley. Kloner’s account of Maresha deduces its economy from the olive presses and dovecotes to be found in surviving subterranean constructions in the lower city. Not the least interesting feature here is the (weakly substantiated) claim that 15-30 individuals lived in each house. Kitchen’s account of ancient Arabia, only 4 out of the 24 pages of which are devoted to the hellenistic period, is similarly descriptive rather than analytical. Rostovtzeff would surely also have been pleased by Archibald’s treatment of the archaeology of Asia Minor, which draws attention to the rich archaeological evidence from surface survey in Lycia and elsewhere and to the value of snippets of economic information embedded in the work of Strabo. But Archibald struggles to keep at bay the Finleyan move to embed all actions in social rather than economic motivation, reluctantly acknowledging e.g. that economic contacts cannot be read off directly from proxeny grants. Her final remarks are important: our emphasis on social factors in inter-community exchange is intimately connected with the nature of our sources, which concentrate upon the individual careers of men prominent for reasons that are not simply economic.

Such sensitivity to the bias of the evidence is not always on show, which is one reason why rather more chapters are firmly Finleyan. Oliver uses epigraphic evidence from Rhamnous to demonstrate effectively the continuing importance of local grain to the inhabitants of hellenistic Attica. Gabrielsen emphasises the way in which Rhodians and non-Rhodians alike used membership of large numbers of associations to economic as well as social and political ends, and in particular to manipulate manpower resources. Benedict Lowe’s story of the Spanish salt trade traces the varying use of more or less fixed local resources over a long timescale, stressing that the Iberian communities manipulated rather than were manipulated by demand by outside powers for their resources. David Gibbins’ useful survey of hellenistic wrecks (including a long section on classical wrecks) talks in explicitly Finleyan terms when it suggests that the shell-first technique of shipbuilding ‘is symptomatic of a society in which labour was rarely short, units of production were generally small and there was limited incentive towards economic ‘rationalization” (p.282). His emphasis on the small size of most ships, the high incidence of wrecking (c.4%), a predominant pattern of tramping, and the need to focus on the socio-cultural needs that traded goods satisfy, all belong to Finley’s world (though it is not hard to imagine that Rostovtzeff might have made rather different use of the rich data from individual wrecks). Bringmann’s fascinating collection of evidence for the financing of buildings and foundations also weighs in on Finley’s side, revealing as it does the shortage of liquidity of hellenistic rulers and their preference for making in kind the payments obliged by their need to maintain their status in the eyes of Greek communities. There are glimpses here too, however, of a rather different picture, both in the possible economic motives for prefabricating in one’s own kingdom buildings gifted upon Greek cities and in the investment of public moneys in maritime loans. The most powerful support for Finley’s views comes from Katerina Panagopoulou. In the most technically demanding of all the papers, abundantly illustrated with distribution maps and tabulations of data, she analyses Antigonid coin issues and concludes that they can be more or less closely tied to military activity but were never sufficient to finance it and were not sufficient to be ‘utilized predominantly for commerce’.

Although he would be unlikely to approve of its methods, Finley would not be at all dismayed by the conclusions of Makis Aperghis’ chapter on the Seleucid economy, which is the closest the book comes to analysis of an economy on a large scale. With virtually no good data except some commodity prices, Aperghis uses plausible population densities and a few literary figures to give the Seleukid empire at its peak a population of 20 to 25 million (with 5-6 million in Mesopotamia); claims made about taxation in the Achaemenid empire and under Alexander, and Egyptian evidence for levels of taxation per head of population, to give a figure of one talent per 1,000 head of population for Seleucid taxation; and a barley price of 60 litres a drachma to reckon the value of subsistence cereals in Mesopotamia at 10,000 talents annually. Tax on these cereals and on water to irrigate them is then reckoned at 4,000 talents annually, two thirds of the king’s total revenues from the area, and the figure is justified by comparison with literary information from Judaea. Numbers of coin dies are used to calculate a total amount of coin circulating in Mesopotamia and northern Syria at 1-2 talents per 1,000 head of population. Aperghis concludes (p.97): ‘Local trade simply facilitated the conversion of the producers’ goods and services into the tetradrachms required to pay the tax.’ All this is fun to run with, and well worth exploration, but the conclusion that this was a closed system seems too pre-ordained by the assumptions taken (e.g. p.86 ‘The value of this inter-regional trade was probably small compared to that of agriculture and local trade and industry’) to carry much general force.

Davies begins his chapter by emphasising Finley’s failure to ask about the interaction of the distinct ‘ancient’ and ‘oriental’ sectors that he detected in the hellenistic world. Jeremy Paterson’s examination of Rome as a hellenistic economy explores the various ways in which the tensions between what he calls the ‘natural’, the ‘political’ and the ‘market’ economy were played out, emphasising the greater long-term importance of the natural economy. Like Finley, Paterson relies on the telling detail, but his exposition is anti-Finleyan both in specifics (transport by land is cheap) and in conception (trade is a significant element in the total movement of goods). But for all the hopeful remarks about ‘post-Finleyan discourse’ made by Archibald in the final chapter, the book that nails the alternative Patersonian picture to the mast of the Greek world is still awaited.