This book contains the papers presented at the conference “Mercanti e politica nel mondo antico,” which took place at the University of Rome, “La Sapienza,” in March 2000. The book is likely to become an important reference point for everyone interested in the study of trade and economic structures in the Ancient Mediterranean world. The contributions are written by some of the most important scholars in their respective fields, and they strike a welcome balance between introducing the reader to the current state of scholarship and presenting their own research.
The nature of trade and its place within the economic structure of Ancient Mediterranean societies are of paramount importance in a wide variety of debates. Did ancient societies know real economic markets (or rather, real market economies)? Were merchants part of individual (or household-based) economic entities, or were they simply agents of collective owners (e.g., the state)? What role did markets play in the early articulation of social structures? These and similar questions pertain to the core of the social and economic history of the Ancient Mediterranean.1 Thus, this volume should cater to two readerships: scholars in the individual areas covered by these contributions, and general historians of ancient economy eager to know the current trends in other fields within the same encompassing discipline. Of the thirteen contributions, six are in Italian, six in English, and one in French.
Renger (“Trade and market in the Ancient Near East: Theoretical and factual implications”) offers an overview of the evolution of trade models throughout Mesopotamian history and shows how the economic system shapes such models.2 The majority of Mesopotamian records for most of the 3rd millennium seem to point to a model of oikos economy, i.e., to different levels of patrimonial state, as in the case of Early Dynastic Lagash, “in which the the [sic] oikoi of the different temples headed by members of the ruling family were united under the supreme authority of the ruler who was himself the head of the oikos of the city-god Ningirsu” (p. 18).3 This fits well the picture drawn by the archaic and Early Dynastic texts, which point to a collective control of the arable land.4 For matters of trade, Renger chooses to start with the Ur III period (the very end of the 3rd millennium) and go all the way to the middle of the 1st millennium b.c.e. This neglects to address the question of trade in earlier texts. Nevertheless, individuals identified as merchants, or rather “institutional trade agents” (Sumerian dam-gar3), do appear in third-millennium documents from Early Dynastic Fara and Lagash as well as Sargonic texts.5
Archi (“Commercio e politica: Deduzioni dagli archivi di Ebla [c.a [sic] 2400-2350 a.C.”) studies the trading activities of Ebla (modern Tell Mardikh, in northern Syria) with other cities such as Mari, Nagar (modern Tell Brak), etc. He sheds particular light on the three terms used for “trader” in the famous treaty between Ebla and Abarsal:6 ga-ra$ and ga’e$; lu2-kar; and dam-gar3. By comparing diverse occurrences of these words in Ebla texts, Archi concludes that the lu2-kar (lit. “the man/men of the quay”) were involved in small commercial activities, which may have been partly private even if somehow under palace supervision. Thus, the dam-gar3 and the ga-ra$ would be the merchants engaged in large-scale trade. In Ebla, the word dam-gar3 (the common Sumerian term in Mesopotamia, equivalent to Akkadian tamkarum) is less commonly attested than ga-ra$ or ga’e$. The terms ga’e$ (written GA.KASKAL or KASKAL.GA) and ga-ra$ correspond to Akkadian ka’i$u or kae$$u (traveling merchant) and, at least in the said treaty, seem to refer to river trade. The term ga’e$ occurs also in literary texts from Ebla, as Archi reminds us, in which it seems to indicate long-distance or foreign trade as well.7
Biga (“Feste e fiere a Ebla”) studies the problematic word for “market” in Ebla. Until recently, this word was read i$11-ki or i$11-qi2 and regarded as a preposition meaning “in favor of, for the sake of.” However, doubts were cast on this reading and analysis early on. Eventually, Conti proposed reading this sequence as LAM7:KI = KI.LAM7, which would be the equivalent of the later form KI.LAM = ganba (market price, market). The same reading had been adopted by D’Agostino in some instances8 Now Biga presents further evidence, both from published and from unpublished Ebla texts, in favor of Conti’s proposal and argues that this sequence never indicates a preposition but a noun meaning “market, fair.” In spite of her very compelling internal arguments and cultural parallels, there are still contexts in which one should probably read a preposition i$11-ki or i$11-qi2 meaning “to, towards”.9
In the longest contribution in the volume (“Trade and politics in Ancient Assur: Balancing of public, colonial and entrepreneurial interests”), Veenhof draws a detailed picture of the Old Assyrian trade policy, especially with regard to the Anatolian city of Kanish (modern Kül Tepe). In recent years, the Old Assyrian corpus — which consists of at least 20,000 commercial letters and documents, as well as legal records — has been the object of renewed interest.10 Veenhof himself was probably responsible for triggering and leading this renaissance of Old Assyrian studies.11 The relation between the metropolis, Assur, and its key economic emporium or trading spot in Anatolia, karum Kanish, is illustrative of the relation between trade and politics. (Sumerian kar and Akkadian karum mean “quay, port, commercial district,” both in the topographical and in the institutional sense.) The commercial activities of the Assyrian traders in Anatolia (the tamkaru) were facilitated by the treaties (in fact, sworn oaths) between the envoy of Assur and the local karum Kanish. These treaties were aimed at profiting both the local Anatolian rulers and the Assyrian traders. Nonetheless, the traders themselves were not commercial agents of the Assyrian state. They were private entrepreneurs acting, for the most part, as representatives of the interests of family firms located in the capital, Assur. Thus, the state acted to give coverage and protection to the private firms of Assur in international trading. It is worth noticing that, although not a planned economy, this was a highly protectionist system. Assur, which had trade relations with Babylonians and Elamites, seemed not to have had a commercial quarter (a karum) itself. In fact, the Assyrian state entered monopolistic agreements with the local rulers in order to ban Babylonian caravans from Anatolia. Likewise, the metropolis promoted its own textile production (especially wool) by limiting or banning the trade in local Anatolian textiles. The nature of these four-millennia-old provisions would sound rather familiar to modern E.U. and U.S.A. bureaucratic regulators; for instance, as Veenhof states, they “contained stipulations on the tariffs of import tax and preemption, but not on prices, equivalencies or quantities of the goods traded” (p. 117).
In his chapter (“The influence of political institutions on trade in the Ancient Near East [Late Bronze to Early Iron Age ]”), Liverani contrasts the Late Bronze, when the lion’s share of trade was controlled by the palace, with the Iron Age, whose commerce was dominated by specific groups (merchants, “camel-breeding tribes,” and “oligarchies on the Mediterranean coast”). The role played by nomadic groups throughout the history of Ancient Near Eastern economy is an oft-neglected matter, since it tends to overlap with problems of ethnicity and ethnic identification.12 The model of Liverani’s “oligarchies on the Mediterranean coast” would be the Phoenician expansion. In Late Bronze Syria-Palestine (with Ugarit, modern Ras Shamra, in Syria, as the main source), commercial policy would have been dictated by the palace in search of material not available in the homeland. However, the Early Iron Age witnessed a shift to a system in which “the merchants’ oligarchy” would have determined the trade policy that had to be executed by the city-state, with profits as the main or sole aim. Nevertheless, Late Bronze Ugarit probably presented a far less uniform and palace-controlled economic system than the picture presented by Liverani.13
Bresson (“Merchants and politics in Ancient Greece: Social and economic aspects”) argues against the two antagonistic approaches to Greek traders: they are customarily regarded either as part of a “merchant aristocracy” or as “poor outcasts, carefully kept by the cities at good distance” (p. 162). The latter — the dominant model since Hasebroek’s work — would place the Greek merchants outside the realm of politics.14 This idea is mostly based on anecdotal evidence, such as the occasional involvement of peasants in trade (as in Hesiod, Op. 663-695), which, in actuality, points neither to the poverty of traders nor to the existence of trade independently from the polis.15 As Bresson points out, merchants and their activities were an integral part of the polis, whether in the agora for internal trade, or in the emporion for foreign trade.
In his contribution (“Aspects of the role of merchants in the political life of the Hellenistic world”), Reger sketches an overview of some essential issues of Hellenistic trade: the volatility of prices; the structure of trade; financing; citizens vs. foreigners; and cities in which merchants had an important role in government. By focusing on these points and drawing from different regions of the Hellenistic oikoumene, he offers a representative approach to a vast body of evidence. The volatility of prices (to be distinguished from inflation), as registered in the price data included as marginalia in the Babylonian Astronomical Diaries, was statistically analyzed by Slotsky.16 As Reger points out, she did not find any correlation between price and month, so apparently barley prices would not have depended on the harvest season. However, Slotsky’s analysis has been called into question by several reviewers, who have shown that a substantial month-to-month volatility in prices can be observed.17
Musti (“Città ellenistiche e commercio degli schiavi”) focuses on several passages from Polybius and Strabo, in order to reconstruct Hellenistic attitudes and policies regarding the slave trade in the Mediterranean. In fact, the contribution is mostly about the enslavement of free individuals on the part of pirates. It gravitates around the sense in which a key term is used:
Andreau (“Les commerçants, l’élite et la politique romaine à la fin de la république”) argues that, towards the end of the Republican period, the ties between Roman senators and traders were not as tight as is usually assumed. The lex Claudia (218 b.c.e.), which banned the senators and their children from possessing ships of seafaring capacity (under 300 amphorae), was probably the turning point in this dissociation of interests between mercatores and senators. One may argue that the textual records for the period seem much richer and more explicit in matters of agriculture and silver than in the case of trade. However, as Andreau points out, the evidence of circulation of amphorae, pottery, oil lamps, bricks, and tiles is clear evidence of a healthy trade, even if divorced from the senatorial milieu. In his contribution (“Le implicazioni socio-politiche della produzione e della distribuzione nell’Italia repubblicana: Per un repertorio prosoprografico), Nonnis builds on his doctoral dissertation, in which he studied about 1,750 names of individuals involved in production and trade, which occur in texts and inscriptions of diverse nature from the Republican period (including those on instrumenta, ca. 1,500 names). The study traces the social and political ascent that came hand-in-hand with the enrichment of many local families, thus showing an interesting level of social mobility.
Harris (“Roman governments and commerce, 300 B.C.-A.D. 300”) follows the history of the involvement of Roman governments in the regulation of commercial activities. He explicitly addresses the divide between two approaches to the role of the state: the state as an autonomous entity vs. the state as “a straightforward expression of the will of a dominant class” (p. 276). Furthermore, he challenges the general assumptions — especially explicit in the works of Andreau and Carrié — that, from the Hellenistic period to Late Antiquity, trade constituted a private realm in which the state did not intervene, and that, when the state intervened, it was only in order to maintain the rule of law or to benefit a specific group. Harris places the apparent lack of aristocratic interest in regulating commerce during the Republic within the ideological discourse of grandeur and achievement, as expressed in the Res gestae. However, this changed with the Augustan regime, which implied the creation of a “super-fortune nominally in the hands of one man” (p. 290). Thus, the state did end up shaping trade through commercial law and the creation of infrastructures, of which the military tapestry of the empire itself was frequently an integral element. Nonetheless, most instances of actual intervention did not concern the central government in Rome, but the local authorities: the collegia controlled some aspects of trade and the local governments of colonies and municipia accepted certain responsibilities for feeding the population. Probably as a result of the local nature of this intervention, by 300 c.e., the maximization of trade had become a very minor preoccupation in Roman government affairs.
Cascio (“Mercato libero e ‘commercio amministrato’ in età tardoantica”) addresses the issue of the alleged control of economy and trade on the part of the state in Late Antiquity. He presents a picture that is clearly at odds with the Polanyian framework, popularized among Classicists by Finley.18 Rather than a redistributive system, Cascio identifies (especially in the period from the Severan emperors to the fourth century) instances of state intervention, not to control the market, but rather to somehow benefit from it. For instance, a number of provisions concerning pricing in the Codex Theodosianus (such as the forum rerum venalium and the pretium Romani fori) pertain to contributive matters and to the free distribution of rations during a limited period of the year; one of the goals was probably to prevent speculation on the part of the suarii as well as the officiales. This is a particularly refreshing contribution, as it hints at the inherently anachronistic (“modernizzante”) nature of our attempts at interpreting the complexity of ancient economies.
In the final contribution (“‘Del commercio dei romani’: Politica e storia antica nelle riflessioni del settecento”), Roberto dwells on the historiography on Ancient Trade generated during the reign of Louis XIV. Colbert commissioned a Histoire du commerce et de la navigation des anciens and chose Pierre-Daniel Huet (bishop of Avranches) to write it. The book was published in 1716, and was translated into Italian (1737). In fact, the impact of Huet’s book goes beyond what Roberto indicates in his erudite article. An English translation was published by B. Lintot and W. Mears in London only one year after the original was printed in Paris by A.-U. Coustelies, and other translations followed (German in 1763, Spanish in 1793). Both the French original and the early translations were reprinted several times. As Roberto points out, in the Esprit des lois (1748), Montesquieu reacted against Huet’s exaltation of trade as an engine of civilization, a role he thought was performed by laws and institutions instead. This debate triggered an interest in the history of ancient economy, which was followed by works such as Francesco Mengotti’s on Roman trade (1787). All this constitutes an illuminating example of the study of economic history shaping social and economic theory, a symbiotic relationship that reached its peak in the works of Marx and Engels.
With regard to desiderata, one misses individual chapters devoted to two of the most fertile and important areas of Ancient Near Eastern economy: the Ur III period (late 3rd millennium), which has yielded staggering numbers of economic documents and a vast bibliography of scholarly work;19 and the Neo-Babylonian period, which covers both the end of the Babylonian empire (from Nabopolassar to Nabonidus, i.e., ca. 626-539 b.c.e) and the Achaemenid rule over Babylon (ca. 539-484 b.c.e.), and for which we have archives of private family firms, such as the Egibi in Babylon and the Murashu in Nippur.20 Likewise, Ptolemaic and Roman Egyptian commerce deserved some specific attention, especially from the Egyptological point of view. In terms of the theoretical implications of these studies, neglecting Ramesside Egypt seems particularly unfortunate. Throughout the entire book and with few exceptions (Bresson, Cascio), there is an elephant in the room: Polanyi’s theory on the qualitatively different nature, or simply nonexistence, of a market governed by internal rules — i.e., independent from other realms of society — in pre-modern times. In essence, Polanyi embodied an approach opposite to that of Rostovtzeff and, before him, Meyer, who argued that, at least by the Hellenistic period, ancient economies were only quantitatively (but not qualitatively) different from modern ones. Since Ancient Egyptian economy may seem to be the ideal example of Polanyi’s model, a chapter about it would have been quite pertinent to the general topic of the book.21
A final word needs to be said about a more chrematistic matter. The price of this volume is obscene. Although it is printed on good paper and properly bound, this pocket-sized volume contains only two humbly-reproduced, black-and-white illustrations (pp. 247 and 269). Books like this one are marketed at these outrageous prices only because many libraries and some scholars are willing to pay them. It may be time for all of us to consider more sensible venues for a scholarly publication such as this, which has a wide appeal and is considerably important, but whose readership will be seriously limited. Greed may be the trademark of some well-known academic publishers, but a trifle of common sense should be a shibboleth among scholarly editors. To add insult to injury, the book lacks indexes of any sort, but it does have its share of typos.
1. For the Mesopotamian case, see the recent contributions by J.N. Postgate, “Learning the lessons of the future: Trade in prehistory through a historian’s lens,” Bibliotheca Orientalis 60 (2003): 5-25; and G. Algaze, “Trade and the origins of Mesopotamian civilization,” Bibliotheca Orientalis 61 (2004): 5-19. In recent years, a couple of collective volumes have dwelt on issues similar to those addressed in the volume under review: J.G. Dercksen (ed.), Trade and finance in Ancient Mesopotamia (Leiden, 1999); and A.C.V.M. Bongenaar (ed.), Interdependency of institutions and private entrepreneurs (Leiden, 2000).
2. See also Renger, “On economic structures in Ancient Mesopotamia,” Orientalia 63 (1994): 157-208. A particularly appealing overview of the relation between economic and political models can be found in N. Yoffee, “Political economy in early Mesopotamian states,” Annual Review of Anthropology 24 (1995): 281-311.
3. The use of the oikos model for the basic economic system of early Mesopotamia became widespread after I.J. Gelb, “Household and family in Early Mesopotamia,” in State and temple economy in the Ancient Near East (ed. E. Lipinski. Leuven, 1979), vol. 1, pp. 1-97. On the evolution of the legal, economic, and socio-political aspects of tenure and property in Mesopotamia, see G.J. Selz, “Wirtschaftskrise, Legitimationskrise, Staatskrise: Zur Genese mesopotamischer Rechtsvorstellungen zwischen Planwirtschaft und Eigentumsverfassung,” Archiv für Orientforschung 46/47 (1999/2000): 1-44.
4. See Renger, “Institutional, communal, and individual ownership or possession of arable land in Ancient Mesopotamia from the end of the fourth to the end of the first millennium B.C.,” Chicago-Kent Law Review 71 (1995): 269-319.
5. See, for instance, M.G. Biga, “Attività commerciali e i commercianti nella citta di Shuruppak (Fara),” Oriens Antiquus 17 (1978): 95-105; G. Visicato, Indices of Early Dynastic administrative tablets from Shuruppak (Naples, 1997), p. 110; S.G. Beld, The queen of Lagash: Ritual economy in a Sumerian state (Ph.D. diss. University of Michigan, 2002), p. 204; G. Selz, Untersuchungen zur Götterwelt des altsumerischen Stadtstaates von Laga$ (Philadelphia, 1995), p. 82; B.R. Foster, “Commercial activity in Sargonic Mesopotamia,” Iraq 39 (1977): 31-43; id., “International trade in Sargonic Sumer,” Altorientalische Forschungen 20 (1993): 59-68.
6. For a definitive edition of this text, see now P. Fronzaroli, Testi di cancelleria: I rapporti con le città (Archivi reali di Ebla, Testi, XIII. Rome, 2003), pp. 43-76.
7. The word ga-ra$ is translated as “Fernhandelskaufman” by H. Waetzoldt in Wirtschafts- und Verwaltungstexte aus Ebla (Materiali Epigrafici di Ebla, 12. Rome, 2001), pp. 181-82, 185. For references, see Fronzaroli, op.cit., p. 66.
8. F. D’Agostino, Testi amministrativi di Ebla: Archivio L. 2769 (Materiali Epigrafici di Ebla, 7. Rome, 1996), pp. 70, 367; G. Conti, in Miscellanea Eblaitica, 4 (Florence, 1997), pp. 59-60 n. 139.
9. See J.J. Glassner, “i$11-qi/ ou LAM7:KI à Ebla,” Nouvelles Assyriologiques Brèves et Utilitaires 2002: note 14, pp. 12-14; id., “Peut-on parler de monnaie en Mésopotamie au IIIe millénaire avant notre ère?” in Aux origines de la monnaie (ed. A. Testart. Paris, 2002), pp. 67-71.
10. Among the works that have appeared after Veenhof’s contribution went to press, it is worth mentioning C. Michel, Old Assyrian bibliography (Leiden, 2003); K.R. Veenhof, “Archives of Old Assyrian traders,” in Ancient archives and archival traditions (ed. M. Brosius. Cambridge, 2003), pp. 78-123; J.G. Dercksen, Old Assyrian institutions (Leiden, 2004); and G. Kryszat, Zur Chronologie der Kaufmannsarchive aus der Schicht 2 des Karum Kanes (Leiden, 2004). To Veenhof’s own discussion of the limmu or year eponyms, one can now add Veenhof, The Old Assyrian list of year eponyms from karum Kanish and its chronological implications (Ankara, 2003).
11. Over three decades ago, Veenhof published a study of trade terminology, which stands today as a classic of Assyriological philology: Aspects of Old Assyrian trade and its terminology (Leiden, 1972).
12. G. van Driel, “The role of nomadism in a model of Ancient Mesopotamian society and economy,” Jaarbericht “Ex Oriente Lux” 35-36 (1997-2000): 85-101.
13. For a Weberian approach to Ugaritic economy, see J.D. Schloen, The house of the father as fact and symbol: Patrimonialism in Ugarit and the Ancient Near East (Winona Lake, Ind., 2001).
14. J. Hasebroek, Staat und Handel im alten Grichenland (Tübingen, 1922)
15. See also V.D. Hanson, The other Greeks: The family farm and the agrarian roots of Western Civilization (2nd ed. Berkeley, 1999), pp. 180-81.
16. A.L. Slotsky, The bourse of Babylon: Market quotations in the Astronomical Diaries (Bethesda, Md., 1997), pp. 67-70.
17. To the criticisms listed by Reger on p. 173 n. 22, add now R.J. van der Spek and C.A. Mandemakers, “Sense and nonsense in the statistical approach of Babylonian prices,” Bibliotheca Orientalis 60 (2003): 521-534.
18. See especially I. Morris’s foreword to the updated edition of I.M. Finley’s classic, The ancient economy (Berkeley, 1999).
19. On Ur III trade, see, for instance, D.C. Snell, Ledgers and prices: Early Mesopotamian merchant accounts (New Haven, 1982); M. van de Mieroop, “Turam-ili: An Ur III merchant,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 38 (1986): 1-80; H. Neumann, Handwerk in Mesopotamien: Eine Untersuchungen zu einer Organisation in der Zeit der III. Dynastie von Ur (Berlin, 1987); id., “Zu den Geschäften des Kaufmanns Ur-Dumuzida aus Umma,” Altorientalische Forschungen 20 (1993): 69-86; id., “Zum privaten Werkvertrag im Rahmen der neusumerischen handwerklichen Produktion,” Altorientalische Forschungen 23 (1996): 254-264; id., “Ur-Dumuzida and Ur-Dun,” in Trade and finance in Ancient Mesopotamia (ed. J.G. Dercksen. Leiden, 1999), pp. 43-53; id., “Staatliche Verwaltung und privates Handwerk in der Ur III-Zeit: Die Auftragstätigkeit der Schmiede von Girsu,” in Interdependency of institutions and private entrepreneurs (Leiden, 2000), pp. 119-133; S.J. Garfinkel, Private enterprise in Babylonia at the end of the third millennium b.c.e. (Ph.D. diss. Columbia University, 2000); id., “SI.A-a and his family: The archive of a 21st century (BC) entrepreneur,” Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 93 (2003): 161-198; G. van Driel, Elusive silver: In search of a role for a market in an agrarian environment (Leiden, 2002), pp. 3-30.
20. On the Egibi archive, see C. Wunsch, Das Egibi-Archiv, I: Die Felder und Gärten, I-II (Groningen, 2000); K. Abraham, Business and politics under the Persian Empire: The financial dealings of Marduk-nasir-apli of the House of Egibi (Bethesda, Md., 2004). On the Murashu archive, see M.W. Stolper, Entrepreneurs and empire: The Murashu archive, the Murashu firm, and the Persian rule in Babylonia (Leiden, 1985); V. Donbaz and M.W. Stolper, Istanbul Murashu texts (Leiden, 1997).
21. See J.J. Janssen, Commodity prices from the Ramessid period: An economic study of the village of Necropolis workmen at Thebes (Leiden, 1975).