BMCR 2008.01.06

Ancient Economies, Modern Methodologies: Archaeology, Comparative History, Models and Institutions

, , , Ancient economies, modern methodologies : archaeology, comparative history, models and institutions. Pragmateiai ; 12. Bari: Edipuglia, 2006. 278 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9788872284889 €40.00.

[List of authors and titles at the end of the review.]

This volume is the product of an international conference of economic historians and archaeologists held in 2002 at the University of Cambridge. The editors invited participants “to check the pulse of ancient economic history” (8). The metaphor immediately suggests two things: that ancient economic history can be compared to a single body, and that it might be ailing. To judge from the volume’s interesting and wide-ranging contributions, neither is the case. If the spate of recent edited volumes on the subject is any indication, ancient economic history is thriving, though somewhat prone to self-examination. As a consequence, its boundaries are in flux, both in terms of geographic and temporal parameters and in terms of disciplinary interaction and hierarchy. The tensions of this flux are apparent in this volume, despite the editors’ attempts to massage them away in their introduction. Perhaps paradoxically, these unresolved tensions make the volume a rather informative snapshot of the state of the field. In what follows, I shall review the essays somewhat selectively, highlighting the ones I found either interesting on their own terms or in terms of the tensions they reveal.

The first paper, Neville Morley’s “Narrative Economy,” is a call to ancient economic historians to become sensitive to the rhetoric they inevitably employ. Taking a page from Hayden White, Morley reminds us that there is no such thing as a neutral narrative that depicts reality; all narratives result from choices the historian makes before beginning to write, which ultimately have little or no connection with the subject at hand. Though this point is not new, it is an important one to make to economic historians, who tend to privilege certain kinds of approaches as getting closer to the “hard surfaces” of reality. With a nod to the economist Deirdre McCloskey’s critique of the central place accorded to mathematical argument by economists, Morley suggests that economic models have no inherently greater claim to reality than the prose descriptions of more traditional, narrative economic histories. Morley’s point is not that historians should change their style but that they should be receptive to each other’s approaches, despite their differences in style and rhetoric. The next two essays can be read together as an illustration of the challenges involved in putting this call into scholarly practice.

The next contribution, Peter Bang’s “Imperial Bazaar,” seems to me both new and potentially quite fruitful. Bang argues that the term “market” is oppressively fraught with assumptions and presuppositions. Thus, when historians ask if the Roman Empire was a “market economy,” they begin by asking whether prices were set by supply and demand, and if the movement of commodities reflected the movement of prices, chasing high prices and fleeing low prices. The problem with such a concept of the market, as Bang sees it, is that it does not capture the full range of ancient economic behavior. Sometimes prices and commodities might behave as if following a market logic (as some 4th century CE Egyptian archives suggest). But at other times, when information deficiencies or political and social pressures were pronounced (as in the case of the Antioch famine of 362-3), they might not. Rather than seeking to accommodate the concept of the market with the range of ancient economic phenomena, Bang suggests that a better analytic concept can be found in the “bazaar” of the pre-industrial Middle East and India. The bazaar was characterized by a combination of “primitive” non-market and “modern” market features, such as local and long-distance trade; small-time retailers peddling their domestic surplus and big-time wholesalers; pure profit-motives as well as social and political aggrandizement. Different cultures and classes intermingled in bazaars. Accordingly, they were governed (if that is the word) by a diversity of legal codes and expectations.

Bang’s seems to me a particularly promising idea. Many ancient economic historians have embraced the neo-institutional economic model associated with Douglass North as potentially more fruitful than the classical economic model. Neo-Institutional analysis quantifies the play of institutions (broadly conceived) as costs and thus renders tangible what a classical analysis, more concerned with the theoretical free play of the perfect market, might overlook. It thus potentially opens the door to economic culture. In contrast to the concept of the market, Bang sees the concept of the bazaar as a relatively neutral one, and consequently as more useful for bringing to bear neo-institutional perspectives on the ancient economy. This seems a potentially fruitful suggestion, but I am skeptical whether ancient economic historians will be willing to exchange the alluring and familiar idea of the (western) market for the perhaps more accurate but foreign vision of the (eastern) bazaar.

While Bang’s contribution very much moves across boundaries and disciplines, the next essay, Jrgen Christian Meyer’s “Trade in Bronze Age and Iron Age Empires,” works to reaffirm disciplinary paradigms. Meyer suggests that despite differences in sources and scholarly competences, the main reason why few scholars have compared the economies of the Bronze Age societies of the Near East and the Iron Age societies of the Mediterranean, is actually due to the fact that they are incomparable. As I read him, Meyer seems to suggest that because bronze is rarer than iron, the cultures that are based on it tended to be larger and more complex, but also more fragile. Iron cultures on the other hand, being based on a more abundant source of power and prestige, tended to be more fragmented and more violent, as access to iron weapon technology was also more diffuse. On the other hand, precisely because they did not have to be complex, iron cultures were more stable than bronze cultures.

It is jarring to read this paper after Bang’s. The juxtaposition, to my mind, lays bare the challenge confronting Morley’s call in the first paper for an inclusive and interdisciplinary ancient economic history. Could an awareness of rhetorical practice reconcile the widely divergent world-views of historians like Bang and Meyer? It is difficult to see how.

The next two papers turn to Roman archaeology. Kevin Greene’s “Archaeological Data and Economic Interpretation” glances over the last three decades of archaeological theory and laments that too often archaeologists have followed the lead of cultural theory or social science, which are based primarily on documents. Archaeological publications, at the same time, tend to be over-specialized (by necessity) and also somewhat forbidding to the outsider. In Greene’s view, these two factors have led to the marginalization of archaeological contributions to broader debates on the ancient economy. He calls for theoretical equality for archaeology, arguing that archaeology needs a firmly “grounded” sense of itself if it is to be an equal partner in a truly pluralistic scholarly enterprise. To that end, he provides an illustration of what a thoroughly archaeological socio-economic theoretical contribution might look like by discussing Antonine military cooking-vessels ( mortaria) from Britain under the light of notions like consumption and resistance.

Greene insists on the importance of not subordinating archaeological theory to the concerns of economic historians, calling for disciplinary plurality rather than hierarchy. By contrast, Ikeguchi’s concern in “A Method for Interpreting and Comparing Field Survey Data” is to argue that more archaeological standardization could aid the writing of economic history. He illustrates this claim by standardizing and graphing the field-survey data from six regions of central Italy and using the findings to test and refine scholarly accounts of the socio-economic crises of the Late Republic.

Once standardized in Timothy Potter’s terms of villa/farm/hut, the independently published surveys, Ikeguchi argues, support more reliable interpretations about concentrations of wealth and changes in production over time because they are based on inter-regional “apples-to-apples” comparisons. Overall, the evidence suggests that the proportion of villas to individual farms increased from the Republican to the Early Imperial Period, followed by declines in both types in the Middle and Late periods. The declines registered, however, were more marked in the case of the farms than in the case of villas. This means that as wealth became concentrated in fewer hands, the wealthy became more able to weather crises and become wealthier. No surprise there. What is surprising is the regional variation between the different sites. Not all were marked by the same proportional changes between house-forms, or by the same rates of increase and decrease in overall numbers. For instance, the farms in Southern Etruria did not decrease as villas increased in the Early Imperial Period. Other factors might have played a role, such as the chief mode of production, the kinds of products involved, and the trade networks available. Archaeologists might find fault with some of Ikeguchi’s assumptions and his extrapolations from the evidence. For instance, he glosses over the rather paltry number of remains by graphing each category as a percentage of the whole, rather than in absolute terms — this tends to make even a very small sample significant. Nonetheless, his paper is an exemplary display of how archaeological evidence can be used to refine the somewhat broad generalizations that one might be tempted to draw from documentary evidence alone. On the other hand, archaeologists might also find fault with Ikeguchi’s subordination of archaeology to history. After all, Ikeguchi has taken as his start-point a question of traditional economic history. If Greene’s preceding paper has raised the specter of disciplinary tensions, Ikeguchi’s does little to exorcise it.

This would not be a collection of papers on the ancient economy if it did not also deal with the question of the primitivism or modernism of the ancient economy. The next two contributions, by two leading scholars of Roman economic history, can profitably be read side by side as a study of why exactly it has proved so difficult for economic historians to move away from the primitivist/modernist controversy. Writing from different perspectives, the authors, Andreau and Lo Cascio, both acknowledge that the true picture of the Roman economy is to be found somewhere between Finleyan and Rostovtzeffian extremes. But these putative extremes can be used in any number of ways in order to find a middle ground wherever one happens to be standing. As a result, Andreau and Lo Cascio end up on different middle grounds.

Andreau returns to ground that he covered in his Vie financière. He discusses a Murecine tablet ( TPSulp 48) involving a rather complicated funding arrangement alongside the account in Hippolytus of the banking activities of the future Pope Callistus ( Ref. omn. haer. 9.12.1-12). He suggests that cases such as these cannot be called “modern” in the sense that they were not designed to maximize profit. But neither can they be called “primitive” because they were sophisticated arrangements designed to accommodate status obligations with the obligations to manage risk and make a profit. Andreau suggests that we should see a mixture of primitive and modern features in these exceptional cases. This appears a perfectly satisfactory conclusion, on its own terms, but it appears less satisfactory when considered alongside Lo Cascio’s conclusion.

Lo Cascio, for his part, also rehearses the debate, and unsurprisingly, dismisses both extremes, insisting on an approach that would do justice to the complexity of the evidence. Unlike Andreau, who focuses on specific cases, Lo Cascio discusses the economy in more theoretical terms. He focuses on the question of state influence in the market economy, and argues that the emperor should be seen essentially as a market actor, though a distinctly powerful one. Drawing on work on the role of agents in the grain supply and on the fact that legal texts value some taxes in kind with reference to an independent price, he argues that the emperor was constrained by market forces, which he could try to influence, but could not hope to command.

Though both papers seek to tread a middle ground they find themselves miles apart. Neither is willing to engage with the issue which is common to them, as well as to Finley: the role of status in the economy. Recent work has moved the discussion of the ancient economy towards questions of growth and performance, but as Andreau’s and Lo Cascio’s papers show, status is still the elephant in the room. According to Andreau, members of the elite and business professionals alike were constrained socially (if not fundamentally) by notions of status propriety. According to Lo Cascio, even the emperor was a market actor. Any middle ground between these two positions will remain elusive as long as the central issue remains submerged, which is not primitivism or modernism but the relation of status to economic rationality and action.

In all, this is an interesting and revealing collection of essays on the ancient economy, representing a dialogue between old approaches and new ideas. Specialists will find much of interest in the individual contributions (including the ones I did not discuss), and newcomers will find in the volume a candid snapshot of the state of the field.


Neville Morley, “Narrative economy”;

Peter Fibiger Bang, “Imperial Bazaar: towards a comparative understanding of markets in the Roman Empire”;

Jorgen Christian Meyer, “Trade in Bronze Age and Iron Age Empires, a comparison”;

Kevin Greene, “Archaeological data and economic interpretation”;

Mamoru Ikeguchi, “A method for interpreting and comparing field survey data”;

Sitta von Reden, “The Ancient Economy and Ptolemaic Egypt”;

Viviane Baesens, “Royal taxation and religious tribute in Hellenistic Palestine”;

Jean Andreau, “Roman law in relation to banking and business: a few cases”;

Elio Lo Cascio, “The role of the state in the Roman economy: making use of the new institutional economics”;

Willem Jongman, “The rise and fall of the Roman economy: population, rents, and entitlement”;

Hartmut G. Ziche, “Integrating late Roman cities, countryside and trade”.