BMCR 2003.11.23

The Ancient Economy. Edinburgh Readings on the Ancient World

, , The ancient economy. New York: Routledge, 2002. 1 online resource (xxi, 282 pages) : illustrations, maps. ISBN 9781136069383 $24.95.

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The strength of this book lies in Scheidel and von Reden’s judicious selection and skillful editorial enhancement of articles of high quality and compelling content, almost all by authors of commanding scholarly stature. Yet in a field of rapid and recent metamorphoses this Ancient Economy is strangely anachronistic. All but two of the twelve essays have appeared previously; even the most recent article, first published in 1998, was originally presented at a conference in 1994. Although the editors justify the “retrospective” nature of the collection as an “uneasy compromise with the overall objective” of the series Edinburgh Readings on the Ancient World (see below), this orientation toward the old frustrates the editors’ professed goal of “enabl(ing) the reader to appreciate the true scale of variation in ancient economic structure as well as in modern interpretative approaches” (p. 5).

Contemporaneity is especially critical to the study of Greek and Roman economic history, a field in which the very existence of a wide spectrum of scholarly methodologies and interests is a markedly new phenomenon. The editors themselves note the “divide between the Finley era of the 1970s and 1980s and the more diverse and forward-looking research now appear(ing) at an accelerating pace” (p. 4). But prior to this “diverse and forward-looking research” of the last ten years or so, almost two centuries of polarized dispute between proponents of “primitive” and “modern” interpretations had preceded the publication in 1973 of Moses Finley’s The Ancient Economy — and Finley’s “primitivist” interpretations generated a further two decades of discussion largely focused on the old binary paradigm (by then often viewed as a division between those who seek to understand the ancient economy through modern economics and those who look to anthropology). But by the final years of the twentieth century, a proliferating assortment of sophisticated methodologies and a broadening of academic interests and approaches were clearly working to ameliorate the prior paralysis of antithetical struggle over the ancient economy. Novel comparative models, transformative monographs, imaginative surveys of material and topographical remains, innovative demographic and statistical studies are now being produced by a striking profusion of “Marxists,” “structuralists,” “substantivists” and “formalists,” by practitioners of cultural poetics and by traditional economic historians, by archaeologists, papyrologists, numismatists, epigraphers, legal scholars, agricultural historians and many others, who have largely ignored the “endless battles about ‘the ancient economy'” that now seem “to have run their course.”1 This paradigmatic shift has been the catalyst for the recent publication of about a dozen collections of articles discussing from differing orientations various aspects of the “ancient economy” — but, unlike this book, all consisting of contributions newly prepared, generally for conferences specially convened.2

The editors’ “retrospective” orientation is further exacerbated by a seeming fixation on Moses Finley’s own persona and contribution. This Ancient Economy not only appropriates “the deliberately evocative title” (p. 5) of Finley’s book, but it seldom departs entirely from issues and approaches advanced by the maestro. Homage to Finley is in fact consistent with the editors’ antecedents — Scheidel was previously the Moses Finley Research Fellow at Cambridge University’s Darwin College (where Finley was earlier Master), and von Reden wrote her doctoral thesis at Cambridge under the supervision of Finley’s student and close collaborator, Paul Millett. And so, following a brief introduction largely devoted to presenting the views of Finley (“the only scholar to design a coherent and comprehensive general model of the ancient economy”), the collection opens with a section tellingly titled “After Finley,” consisting of two previously-published survey articles. One (by Cartledge) is dedicated to Finley (“to whose memory in affectionate gratitude it is dedicated”), and the other (by Jean Andreau) is taken from a discussion focusing on Finley’s work (“Vingt ans d’après L’économie antique de Moses I. Finley”). The volume concludes in similar fashion — with two articles summarizing “the nature of the ancient economy,” the former based on the belief that Finley “exposed the futility of the modernist case” (Scott Meikle, p. 235), the latter largely analyzing what Finley (and Rostovtzeff) “really wrote,” authored by Richard Saller, one of the editors of the seminal collection of Finley’s articles and a former member of an “international group of research students in ancient history presided over by Professor Finley in the 1970’s.” In between these opening and closing sections, Finley is seldom far from center stage. In “Production,”one of three substantive sections, Paul Halstead muses on “Finley’s conviction that self-sufficiency … was a moral precept with no basis in economic rationality” (p. 68), and Robert Bruce Hitchner, writing in 1993, notes that discussion on olive production in the Roman Empire has “for more than a decade been dominated by the paradigm originally advanced by Finley” (p. 81). In the section entitled “Money and Markets,” Robin Osborne starts with the question “repeatedly asked by Finley, ‘How did an ancient city pay for its necessities?,'” and Gary Reger notes Finley’s dominance of “study of the ancient economy” for the three decades prior to the 1990s (p. 136). “The character of ancient economic behavior,” Finley’s essential subject (p. 164, n. 20), is one of three topics featured in Dominic Rathbone’s 1989 plea for greater attention to material available from Graeco-Roman Egypt (a call rendered supererogatory in part by Rathbone’s own subsequent magisterial studies). In the third section (“Trade and Transfer”), Clementina Panella and André Tchernia do avoid broad questions of economic scale and significance in their 1992 positivistic study of agricultural products transported in amphorae. But for such “general issues,” the editors refer the reader to Keith Hopkins’ model-oriented “attempt to explain the dynamics of the Roman imperial economy” (pp. 174, 191). In fact, Hopkins, although Finley’s student and successor at Cambridge, struggles (successfully, in my opinion) to refute Duncan-Jones’ reification of “the grand Cambridge tradition of Finley,” viz. treatment of “the Roman economy (as) more a command economy than a market economy” (p. 217).

Hopkins’ conflict with Finley is, however, not unrepresentative. To the editors’ high credit, the appearance of uncritical fealty to a distinguished master is largely belied by the actual content of the volume. Only Meikel’s article actually focuses on the “modernism”/”primitivism” issue, and only Meikel’s article is uncritically supportive of Finley’s positions. Cartledge’s survey is a tour de force summarizing the state of research on “The Economy (Economies) of Ancient Greece,” scrupulously balanced, impressively erudite and wittily comprehensive. Andreau gingerly but skillfully demonstrates how recent scholarship “breaks new ground by comparison with the orthodoxy of fifteen or twenty years ago.” Saller is guardedly critical of aspects of Finley’s work: his previously unpublished contribution skillfully assays how “recent economic theory and modern economic history” can produce “intellectual progress” in the study of the ancient economy. Kurke’s contribution, the other “new” chapter, itself is a striking illustration of the revolutionary transformation of recent work in ancient economic history. Neither historian nor economist, uninterested in (and in critics’ opinion unknowledgeable of) traditional numismatics, but long involved in the literary and cultural study of the representational significance of money in archaic and classical Greece, Kurke favors “imaginary history” over the “historical reality” of conventional scholars whom she here claims to offer “an object lesson in the styles of reading required by ancient representations and the kinds of history it is possible to do based on texts” (p. 88). But not one word of Finley or of his issues or of his approaches.

Importantly, the central positioning of Finley’s interests and influence is largely negated both by contributors’ overall skepticism about the continuing viability of Finley’s orientation and conclusions, and by the editors’ recurrent caveats (“Finley’s questions … can take us only so far” [p. 3], “the title of our volume should not be construed as an uncritical endorsement of Finley’s belief in the structural unity of a single ‘ancient’ economy” [p. 5] etc.). In fact, von Reden has elsewhere explicitly recognized that “most, if not all, aspects of Finley’s model have been called into question” (Klio 84 [2002]: 142).

Paradoxically, then, the fundamental problem with this work — its “retrospective” orientation — is also perhaps its greatest asset. By largely avoiding the publication of new material specially prepared for this volume, the editors have avoided the unevenness of many such collections, but have perforce produced a book permeated by the atmosphere of yesteryear. Because this earlier time was a period dominated by Finley, in shadow and in detail, this Ancient Economy necessarily reflects the concerns of Finley’s original Ancient Economy.

The editors justify the “retrospective” nature of the collection as an “uneasy compromise with the overall objective” of the Edinburgh series which generated this Routledge publication, but they nowhere fully explain Edinburgh’s comprehensive aim. Clues abound. Elementary maps (of such units as the Roman Empire) are provided; all foreign words, except those explained in a three page “Glossary,”, are translated into English; the glossary defines such elementary terms as “per capita” and “numismatics.” “With an eye to the intended audience of this series,” The Guide to Further Reading avoids all abbreviations, and omits all articles and books not published in English. Yet the dozen essays selected for publication here are in virtually every case highly sophisticated pieces requiring enormous background knowledge for full comprehension. Typical of the somewhat schizoid nature of this volume, and of the commendably adroit editing that seeks to deal with this bifurcation, Scheidel and von Reden have written excellent introductory exegises to each of the articles. Even the outdated bibliographical references resulting from the republication of earlier material has been ameliorated by the editors’ Intellectual Chronology (which even lists a work not anticipated to appear until 2005) and by occasional editorial updating of bibliographical references in the original articles. As a result, readers untutored in ancient history or classics will be grateful for the thoughtful aids diligently provided by Scheidel and von Reden. Sophisticated readers with substantial expertise in the ancient economy — and classicists in general — will be grateful for the easy availability of important work otherwise scattered in sometimes recondite publications.


1. A. Kuhrt in Trade,Traders and the Ancient City 1998: 29.

2. See, for example, the ongoing French series of Économie antique, edited by J. Andreau, P. Briant and R. Descat; the Italian proceedings at Capri dealing with l’economia antica, edited by E. Lo Cascio (most recently October 2003); the multitude of fresh Anglo-American conference publications, such as Economies beyond Agriculture in the Classical World, edited by D. Mattingly and J. Salmon (2001), Hellenistic Economies, edited by Z. Archibald et al. (2001), Money Labour and Land: Approaches to the Economies of Ancient Greece, edited by P. Cartledge, E. Cohen and L. Foxhall (2002), and Money and its Uses in the Ancient Greek World, edited by A. Meadows and K. Shipton (2001). Forthcoming: J. Manning and I. Morris (eds.), The Ancient Economy: Evidence and Models; M. Mari et al. (eds.), Riflessioni sull’economia nella Grecia antica.