BMCR 2009.04.74

The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World

, , , The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xiv, 942. ISBN 9780521780537 $225.00.

Table of Contents


This is certainly an extraordinary book on the Ancient Mediterranean economies that ought to be read and quoted by all historians who work in the field of pre-industrial economics. This excellent project was brought to completion by its 3 editors and 27 contributors over the span of a decade. Although this is a Cambridge volume, we should also give ample credit to Stanford University, in which the editors work. According to the editors the goals of this volume are two-fold: 1) to summarize the existing scholarship on the Greco-Roman economy and 2) to shape future research. (p. 1) The chronological and geographical span of time and space extend far beyond what traditionally has been considered the Greco-Roman world. Apart from the Classical, Hellenistic and Roman worlds, it includes prehistoric societies in the Mediterranean and part of the Near Eastern civilizations. This expansion could allow for comparisons between different economic systems across the Mediterranean and, in some cases, may also clarify concepts that were otherwise obscure. In this review, I intend to assess the achievements of this collaboration and the fulfilment of the initial targets.

During the last three decades ancient historians focused on the debate between modernists on one side (with Rostovtzeff as the main representative of this school) and substantivists on the other (with Finley as the undisputed leader). In fact, whenever an ancient historian writes a book or an article on the ancient economy, s/he is expected to place herself/himself within the spectrum ranging from modernism to substantivism. During the seventies and the eighties, the polarization between the two schools of thought was complete and the debate was fierce. For the past two decades, though, researchers have been trying to establish a middle ground or attempted to break away from the stifling atmosphere. The editors of the CEH belong to the new generation of ancient economic historians who lead the way in the writing of ancient economic histories. Their initial intention was to focus on growth and some of the main parameters that affected it, such as institutions, demography, ecology, gender and technology. Most contributors attempted to analyse these economic factors and managed to construct new perspectives of the ancient economies.Especially in the first part, the chapters, which describe the economic determinants in the ancient world, set the tone for the rest of the book. However, in some cases the authors of this volume follow closely the editors’ structure which focuses predominately on the production, distribution and eventual consumption of the products across the Mediterranean. These are fundamental parts of the economy and, hence, seem to have been studied in conjunction with the law, governmental regulations and political processes, possibly because of the limitation of other types of evidence. However, such a choice eventually limits somewhat the scope of the editors, since at least a few authors concentrate on the political economy of antiquity. Indeed, the study of political factors is essential for the analysis of any economic system and Political economics encompasses several alternatives to Neoclassical economics. However, the systematic exclusion or undervaluation of the study of market forces could lead scholars to the de facto acceptance that substantivism may be the only way to interpret the ancient economies. Despite the shortcomings, most authors explore the production, distribution and consumption of some ancient societies not as independent factors but in conjunction with the demography, technology, political structures of those societies and above all, the growth of the economy. Without emphasizing the limitations of the ancient economies, they describe the continuity and change of the Mediterranean economic systems. In accordance, probably, with the vision of the editors, in some aspects of the ancient economy, several authors attempt to move away from Political as well as Neoclassical economics into the sphere of Institutional economics.

The editors also hoped that they would develop “general theoretical models of ancient economic behavior” and they will put them “in a global, comparative context”. (p. 12) The first part of the volume, on the determinants of economic performance, is one of the best scholarly examples of the study of the ancient Mediterranean in comparative perspective. Sallares, Scheidel, Saller, Frier and Schneider compare the regions surrounding the Mediterranean to each other, while they try to assess the economic conditions diachronically, from antiquity to modern times. Braudel’s The Mediterranean in the Ancient World (English translation 2001) and the recent publications of Horden and Purcell1 and the contrasting views of Harris,2 renewed the interest in the study of the Mediterranean Sea as unifying entity and dealt with new aspects of the topic. Similarly, in this volume the editors managed to bring together varied views on the function of the Mediterranean economy. The main factors that affect ancient economies, according to the editors, seem to be 1) the ecology, 2) demography, 3) household and gender, 4) law and economic institutions and last but not least 5) technology. Sallares explores the effect of mostly non-human related conditions on the economy and focuses on the impact of geography, climatic conditions and the natural environment on the development of agriculture. He supports the idea that, although over the centuries a few regions remained unaltered, others changed radically. Although agriculture is connected to environmental issues and certainly had a substantial impact on the subsistence economy, Sallares does not expand on other, equally important matters, such as the environmental changes caused by the expansion of urban centres, industrial pollution (especially from the mines), or the technological developments in the agricultural sector.

Scheidel, using mortality and fertility rates from the epigraphic material and papyri (?), estimates the size of the population in specific regions and in the entire Mediterranean. Once he forms a rough idea of the numbers of people in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds, he explores the impact of increases or decreases on population sizes, living standards, subsistence rates, and growth of the ancient economies by comparison to Medieval and Early Modern societies. He eventually comes to the conclusion that demographic conditions changed radically in certain areas, e.g. the western provinces of the Roman world, once the empire was firmly established. However, the overall growth of the population across the Mediterranean, even though it continued until the Middle Ages, was slow. The ancient economies seem to have been locked in “a low equilibrium trap”, in which “limited increases in output will raise surpluses less than population size and the latter will eventually offset intermittent productivity gains” (p. 55). Saller compares and contrasts two different models of management of the household’s assets in Classical Athens and in the Roman Empire. His results give us new insights on the contribution of women and children in the production of the household, two social groups that are usually ignored in economic studies. Although in his conclusions, he splendidly attempts to integrate the households into the wider economies of Athens and Rome, he fails to take into consideration the size of these political entities. On the one hand, Athens was a hegemonic power with several colonies in the Mediteranean and away from the Greek mainland, while Rome created an empire that dominated the Mediterranean. The scale of the two economies was such that it would have certainly affected the impact of the household production and consumption.

Frier and Kehoe focus on the economy of the Roman world and evaluate the application of modern economic theories in explaining ancient economic phenomena. Early on, they reject Neoclassical Economic doctrines, since these theories may be applied only to free market economies, such as modern capitalism. As an alternative, they favour the application of New Institutional economics, since the ancient markets were closely regulated by the imperial and the civic authorities. In order to prove their case, they emphasize “agency” as an economic institution. According to the authors, a principal delegates some rights to an agent, “who is bound by a (formal or informal) contract to represent the principal’s interests in return for payments of some kind”.3 Whether these agents were freedmen, slaves or husbands, they facilitated transactions, they cut the costs and they overcame the problem of asymmetrical information. Unlike the previous authors, Schneider restricts himself to the description of specific Roman innovations — such as the grain mill, oil and wine presses, the production of ceramics and glass, building techniques, transportation over land and sea, and the use of water-lifting equipment — and seems to be dangerously close to the original ideas that Finley presented in 1965.4 If we take the articles of the first part as a whole, the readers may be able to build a new theoretical model that is based on the comparative development of the ancient economies across time in the Mediterranean and clearly moves beyond the substantivist/modernist model.

In the second part of the book five authors — Bennet, Morris, Dietler, Osborne and Bedford — explore the Early Mediterranean Economies and the Near East. The first four describe a Mediterranean economy that was based on strong palatial control during the Mycenaean period. However, this control was eroded with the decline of the economy and in its place we find the emergence of aristocratic families that become major economic forces in new urban centres. By the end of the Iron Age, the focus shifted towards trading activities across the Mediterranean Sea. These activities were promoted through colonization, a process that did not polarize indigenous and intruding populations but, instead, created multiple, interconnected spheres of economic activities. New economic factors, such as the invention of money, improved communications, the advancing knowledge of economic laws and new political institutions changed the economic foundations of Mediterranean societies, which now focused on the promotion of trade. Unfortunately the authors, apart from Morris, do not provide adequate evidence on the change of living standards, a fact that inhibits us from detecting changes on the daily lives of the inhabitants. The last article by Bedford on the economy of the Near East differs, while he puts special emphasis on the similarities of the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian economies. He creates a substantivist model in order to explain the limited urbanization processes, the restricted growth and the strict political control of the economy. This stale environment, though, may be explained if we assume that the Near East was not an integral part of the Mediterranean.

The next part includes three chapters on production, distribution and consumption in Classical Greece, written by Davies, Möller and von Reden respectively. The impression that these chapters give is of an underdeveloped (though not primitive) economy, with minimal growth and market exchange, in a true Finleyan sense.5 Davies rightly speaks of the fragmentation of the Greek world in smaller regions or city-states that develop according to different rhythms. However, he does not take this flexibility as a force of economic growth (even at the expense of the less developed regions). Instead, he thinks that agricultural production was stagnant, labour structures were defined by issues of morality and status, while the role of capital (given the lack of evidence) was restricted to the building of large projects of infrastructure (water supplies, harbours, bridges etc); thus, it was controlled by the state. This overwhelming focus on the role of the city-state is evident also in Möller’s work. With the exception of the knowledgeable merchant, who had basic accounting skills and invested borrowed capital to buy goods, Möller takes a pessimistic view of the practical issues of trade. Although she acknowledges that the volume of traded goods probably increased, she justifies it by emphasizing the impact of civic institutions, which redistributed goods for the glory of the city and the comfort of its citizens. Along the same lines, von Reden prefers to explore the symbolic character of consumption and comes to the conclusion that the city-states and religious organizations stimulated public and private consumption, through payments, public works, benefits, sacrifices, festivals, handouts. In the end, though, surprisingly faithful to the doctrines of Adam Smith, she admits that democracy encouraged also a turn to a free market (open exchange) oriented commodity consumption.

In the fourth part of this volume Van der Spek, Manning and Reger explore the economies of the Hellenistic Near East, Egypt, Greece and Asia Minor respectively. The division of the chapters point towards the existence of separate regional economies in the Eastern Mediterranean, in accordance to the ideas presented by John Davies and others in the edited volume on the Hellenistic Economies.6 In this part we observe that the authors describe different levels of economic centralisation, with Egypt being the most centralized and Greece and Asia Minor the least. Even if the Ptolemies in Egypt administered the largest part of the economy, we start observing for the first time interplay of the fiscal aims of the state with private incentives. At the same time, the kings brought innovations to the fiscal system and promoted the use of money (the economy seemed to be monetized also in the rural countryside). Even if these changes were not radical, we may acknowledge the systematic organization of the economy and a tendency towards decentralization. Despite the dominance of the State on the Ptolemaic economy, Manning resists describing Egypt as an underdeveloped system as Van der Spek and Reger do. Especially Van der Spek undervalues consistently the significance of the monetary economy, which could have been the motor of commerce in the Seleucid empire. Despite the carefully controlled weight standards, the influx of cash during the reign of Alexander the Great, the wide circulation of silver coins, their use as units of account, the increasing use of bronze (small change) in the markets and the popularity of coins as fiduciary money or even bank notes, he insists that the use of silver decreased and that the monetary system burdened the empire with transaction costs for millennia to come! Reger, on the other hand, may notice the “underdeveloped” nature of the economy in Greece and Asia Minor but he measures his evidence more carefully. He rightly notices that the economy at the time was in fiscal crisis and this may have affected the overall growth. In my view, though, the system was not as centralised as in other areas of the eastern Mediterranean; hence, the private economy may have played a more important role in driving growth. Specifically agricultural innovations and the increase in long-distance trade probably contributed to growth, despite the persistent stagnation of population levels.

In the next part, Morel and Harris in two chapters attempt to reconstruct the economic history of Early Rome and the Late Roman Republic respectively. Morel describes the Roman economy from the eighth until the second century BC. Probably because of the large chronological span, he does not manage to provide separate economic models for each period or region. Instead, he asserts the previous held theories that agriculture remained the most important aspect of the economy, with minor variations. Harris, on the other hand, starts with the assumption that the economy of Rome at that time received positive benefits from its direct contact with Carthage and the Hellenistic kingdoms of the east, especially in advancing its financial system. The era is characterized by a substantial increase of the population of Rome, the more efficient regulation of commerce, the expanding use of credit, organized villas and large estates becoming part of the rural landscape, the increased consumption of olive oil and wine that probably promoted monoculture and trade, and improvement in communications, all of which promoted growth, even if this growth does not come close to the one we encounter in capitalist societies.

The next two parts deal with the economy of the Roman empire: Part 6 focuses on the economy of Italy and other regions during the Early Empire, while the chapters of Part 7 are divided geographically and cover the Roman Principate until the third century. In Part 6 the contributors — Kehoe, Morley, Jongman and Lo Cascio — divided their pieces according to production, distribution, consumption with the addition of one chapter on the State economy respectively, which indicates a turn towards Institutional economics. And yet, almost all authors move beyond the constraints imposed by the structure and explore the theme of growth. In the next two chapters on the production and distribution of goods in the Roman Empire Kehoe and Morley do not confirm the expectations of Harris that growth would have increased after the death of Caesar. Instead, Kehoe describes an agriculturally based economic system, in which only ‘middle class’ Romans made substantial profits from trade. On the other hand, the upper classes, although they were indirectly involved in commercial activities, focused their efforts mainly on the increase of agricultural production. Despite the economy’s shortcomings, Kehoe acknowledges that the urban centres promoted the production of ceramics, building materials and textiles, while parts of agriculture were commercialized. Similarly, Morley blames the limited integration of the Roman empire on the domination of the distribution by the State and the elite. However, he also admits that this intervention may actually have promoted growth, while no part of the empire remained a self-sufficient cell. These two authors seem to have moved slightly away from their previous ideas on the function of the Roman economy, which can be explained if we take into consideration the general shift in historiography from a substantivist viewpoint towards a more balanced economic model. In the next article, Jongman claims that the population increased during the empire, while the per capita income was higher. At the same time the living conditions and the diet of the inhabitants became better. In fact, for the first time in history we notice unprecedented levels of prosperity. In this case, Jongman does not disagree radically with the previous two authors. The only difference is that he compares the Roman Empire with other pre-industrial economies, while Kehoe and Morley seem to compare it with early Industrial systems. Last but not least, Lo Cascio assesses the intervention of central institutions in the development of the economy. Using Hopkins’ model of “taxes and trade,” he comes to the conclusion that, while the economy of Italy reached its highest limit and then stagnated, the provincial economies flourished through the export of their products. This piece is in clear contrast to the view expressed by Morley who believes in the existence of a strong centre, Rome, and a large number of self-sufficient peripheries.

In Part 7 the editors divided the Empire geographically into four zones: the East, the West, Egypt and frontiers. The economic models the authors present range according to the individual characteristics of the region and/or according to their own beliefs on how the ancient world operated. The most conservative approach comes from Cherry who attempts to reconstruct the economies of the northern European, eastern and north African frontier zones. His article focuses almost exclusively on the influence of the army on the local economy (especially on local markets), following closely Michael Crawford’s theories on the subject. Leveau, on the other hand, adopts the well-known core-periphery economic model in order to explain the relationship between Rome and its western provinces. In effect, this model insinuates the dependence of these regions on Rome and their comparatively inferior economic status; an inferiority that is accentuated, when compared with the eastern provinces. According to Leveau, even if the Romans (in their attempt to Romanize the area) organized the countryside around villas and vici, the role of these predominately agricultural units was to serve the developing “consumer cities”. The weaknesses of the economies in the western provinces (as he suggests), may shift the opinions of scholars who used to believe that growth there remained strong, while in the eastern provinces it was limited. Similarly, according to Alcock, indicators such as population increases, the expansion of rural settlements, denser trade networks, higher per capita income that increased demand and consumption, and improved living standards, all point towards accelerated growth in the east. The annexation of the eastern provinces to the Empire undoubtedly changed the parameters and probably facilitated the expansion of regional economies. Evidence of maritime trade presented by Alcock confirms wide patterns of regional and interregional distribution. However, the extent of these developments and their impact on the economy cannot be projected with any accuracy. And in my view, even if growth was less than estimated, this happened because the East was already in an advantageous position by comparison with the west.

The article that breaks with current scholarship is the one written by Rathbone, who places Egypt firmly within the Roman economic system and, at the same time, moves away from a state-centric economic model. Although he admits that the state stimulated both consumption and production, while it regulated the economy, he emphasizes the inflow of wealth from trade with the east. In this case also, the unifying Mediterranean market and the urban demands in other provinces became the main forces of growth. A boom in urbanization during the second century probably allowed the urban population to create more wealth by exports to Alexandria or sales to the villages. Simultaneously, the privatisation of land, labour mobility and the monetization of transactions were attributes of a free-market economy that stimulated growth even further. And of course, as in all economies, we observe periods of affluence and poverty (before and after the Antonine plague).

As is appropriate the volume finishes with a chapter by Giardina on “The Transition to Late Antiquity.” Here the author assumes that free trade is the obvious characteristic of modernization and that it is lacking from late antique society. Instead, we observe that the state’s grip on the economy probably increased from the reign of Diocletian onward. This change was the result of conditions in the third-century: a decrease in population, a decrease in cultivated lands, monetary, political and military crises. Also, the initial co-existence of unfree labour systems — the colonus and slavery — seems to have been replaced by the regression of the slave mode of production (at least in the Italian peninsula). Existing evidence cannot prove whether or not this situation led to an overall economic growth. It is interesting, though, to note that Giardina’s chapter reflects the thought of editors and the majority of the contributors; emphasizing, in a true Neoclassical fashion, the importance of free trade for the realization of growth and the modernization of the economy. According to this economic school, imperial regulation could only impede ‘free’ economic activities that otherwise would have lead to the prosperity of the population. Bearing in mind, though, the current global economic crisis, which was triggered by the excessive deregulation of the private economy, the reader would allow me to remain skeptical.

Table of Contents

1. Ian Morris, Richard P. Saller, W. Scheidel, “Introduction” 1

3. Walter Scheidel, “Demography” 38
4. Richard P. Saller, “Household and Gender” 87
5. Bruce W. Frier, Dennis P. Kehoe, “Law and Economic Institutions” 113
6. Helmuth Schneider, “Technology” 144

8. Ian Morris, “Early Iron Age” 211
9. Michael Dietler, “The Iron Age in the Western Mediterranean” 242
10. Robin Osborne, “Archaic Greece” 277
11. Peter R. Bedford, “The Persian Near East” 302

PART III: CLASSICAL GREECE 12. John K. Davies, “Classical Greece: Production” 333
13. Astrid Möller, “Classical Greece: Distribution” 362
14. Sitta von Reden, “Classical Greece: Consumption” 385

PART IV: THE HELLENISTIC STATES 15. Robartus J. van der Spek, “The Hellenistic Near East” 409
16. Joseph G. Manning, “Hellenistic Egypt” 434
17. Gary Reger, “Hellenistic Greece and western Asia Minor” 460

PART V: EARLY ITALY AND THE ROMAN REPUBLIC 18. Jean Paul Morel, “Early Rome and Italy” 487
19. William V. Harris, “The Late Republic” 511

PART VI: THE EARLY ROMAN EMPIRE 20. Dennis P. Kehoe, “The Early Roman Empire: Production” 543
21. Neville Morley, “The Early Roman Empire: Distribution” 570
22. Willem M. Jongman, “The Early Roman Empire: Consumption” 592
23. Elio Lo Cascio, “The Early Roman Empire: The State and the Economy” 619

PART VII: REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE 24. Philippe Leveau, “The Western Provinces” 651
25. Susan E. Alcock, “The Eastern Mediterranean” 671
26. Dominic W. Rathbone, “Roman Egypt” 698
27. David Cherry, “The Frontier Zones” 720

PART VIII: EPILOGUE 28. Andrea Giardina, “The Transition to Late Antiquity” 743


1. Horden, P. and Purcell, N., The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History, London: Blackwell 2000.

2. Harris, W. (ed.), Rethinking the Mediterranean, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2005. In the book pay particular attention to Harris’s introduction “The Mediterranean and ancient history”.

3. Eggertsson, T., “The role of transaction costs and property rights in economic analysis”, European Economic Review 24.2 (1990), pp. 40-41.

4. Finley, M. I., “Technical innovation and economic progress in the ancient world”, The Economic History Review 18.1 (1965), pp. 29-45. For a revision of this article see Greene, K., “Technological innovation and economic progress in the ancient world: M.I. Finley reconsidered”, The Economic History Review 53.1 (2003), pp. 29-59.

5. Finley, M.I., The Ancient Economy, London 1972.

6. Archibald, Z., Davies, J., Gabrielsen, V. and Oliver, G.J. (edd.), Hellenistic Economies, London: Routledge 2001.