In this book, Peter Fibiger Bang has taken on the challenge of formulating a completely new model for Roman economy. Using comparative material from the Mughal Empire and concepts developed in anthropology he postulates new principles by which the economy of the Ancient Roman Empire should be understood. Bang advocates a step further beyond the positions adopted by the primitivist and the modernist traditions, and aims to sidestep the whole dualism of Roman economy studies by adopting a completely new set of organizing principles and analytical concepts. He succeeds in this remarkably well. The book is not really aimed for a layman, but readers already somewhat versed in the ongoing discussions on the Roman economy will find Bang’s work a seminal contribution to the field.
In the short prolegomena, serving as an introduction to the study, Bang presents the reasons for his chosen approach, and emphasizes the importance of conceptualizations in historical studies, especially concerning times and subjects where sources are scarce and interpretative difficulties abound. He rightly emphasizes the importance of interpretation in the historian’s job, but the criticism on page 3 ,”the discipline has neglected the development of interpretative tools”, is hardly relevant for a large part of the history profession today and is only partly relevant concerning classical studies in general, but may be more to the point within economic history. Bang then describes the particular problems of studying premodern tributary empires, among which he includes Rome. They are seen as our own forefathers, so in the beginning they were studied through similarities. A slightly more modern approach has been the borrowing of concepts and models from anthropology, which, however, tend to work well for relatively isolated communities. Economics, as a third choice (even so-called development economics) has little to offer, as today’s third world is hardly comparative to the ancient civilizations; today’s third world people know perfectly well that they are the poor and undeveloped ones, whereas the Romans were in every way at the top of their world. All this has motivated Bang’s search for better concepts and models, which he then has discovered mainly in the works of Clifford Geertz on the bazaar economy and generally the research on the Indian Mughal empire.
After the introduction, the book is divided in two parts, the first of which Bang explains new approaches and why and how to think differently. In the second part Bang then applies this new thinking to the actual ‘matter at hand’, economic institutions in the Roman world.
Bang begins the first chapter by showing, where the economic history of the Roman world went astray, or perhaps better put, where it failed to take off and get rid of the first impressions and reactions — the primitivist-modernist dispute. He starts with an analytical history of the field, all the way from Bücher and Meyer. Refreshingly though, Bang contextualizes these early practitioners in their own time, so the reader has a better understanding of the origins and the motivations of their bitter arguments. Bang follows closely two lines of development in the discussions, first the slow rise of the primitivist views, culminating in the work of M. I. Finley, and then the modernizing reactions to these views. Although Bang does not deny the effect new archaeological and epigraphical data has had on the primitivist views, he still heavily criticizes modernizing approaches. Especially important is his analysis of the reasons why the early modern Europe actually does not provide good comparative material for Roman economy. Bang allies himself with the primitivists in concluding, that the Roman economy was qualitatively different from later European-based economic systems; the differences are to be found in the position of the merchants in the society and the strength of the state. In order to escape from this trap, where neither of the old approaches is feasible, Bang looks for comparative material in other tributary empires similar to Rome, like China, the Ottoman Empire or the Mughal Empire. In addition to the succinct description of the history of Roman economy studies, the analysis of the non-compatibility of early modern Europe is very illuminating, and demonstrates, how easily uncritical assumption of apparently innocent concepts predefines the research by limiting what can be studied and how.
In the second chapter, Bang investigates the position of trade in the Roman (and Mughal) world. He begins by questioning our use of the concept of trade as a marker for modernity in itself. We should see, that trade can operate also in different conditions. Roman interregional trade, for example, had relatively little to do with regional specialization of production, which is behind most modern international trade. On the contrary, confronted with the imports, local production started to imitate them, and this is a habit behind which Bang sees what he calls “a peasant mentality in production”, where first comes subsistence, then self-sufficiency and in the end, some surplus, if needed. Behind trade, in general, Bang does not see the profit-oriented actions of the merchants, but the revenue processing needs of the state. Because of this, economy is not the cause but the effect of tribute extraction by the state. By developing a model for the GDP — a sine qua non for the economic historian of classical times, it seems — and estimating the composition of the population, and combining this with an analysis of the governing practices of the bureaucratically weak state that had to rely on the elites for cooperation, Bang shows that the state actually had a major share in the movement of resources. However, the close cooperation between the state and the local and imperial elites led to a concentration of resources and the exclusion of merchants’ interests. In this conclusion, Bang furthers his argument from the previous chapter, that we should not automatically assume anything about the social position of merchants: that they are important today, and were important in 17th century, does not mean, that they were important in Rome.
The third chapter, beginning the second part of the book, sees the argument move to the institutions of trade. Bang investigates the integration of trade in the Empire — and the lack of it. The natural place to start is the costliness of transport, but Bang does not let this detain him from moving further. He presents evidence documenting the volatility of the markets and analyzes Egyptian market price series in search of support for integrated markets, and finds very little. He then proposes that there was a very low level of institutional integration over the Empire, and sees two main reasons for this: integration was not an interest for the local elites, who were more interested in maintaining their own local dominance; and the state had no economic policy that would have tried to integrate the institutions. In the end, Bang notes, how well these features fit together with Geertz’s definition of the bazaar as a market type. The analysis is convincing, and Bang’s low-integration model seems very credible. One can always question the importance of the whole concept, as it is an application of modern theory to past times, but Bang at least tries to make a model that fits the past instead of trying to fit the past into a model.
The fourth chapter concentrates more on the “predatory” practices of the state and the elites towards trade. Customs taxes and other sorts of costs of protection were ubiquitous, and Bang sees these as expressions of the state attitude to trade as something to be (fiscally) profited from. The protective policies of the state were mostly limited to curbing the excesses of the predatory policies of officials so as not to let the disincentives to trade grow too strong. Bang’s analysis of the customs laws and the Egyptian practices is illuminating, and has implications also outside purely economic significances. Bang’s model of the Roman state, especially as presented in this chapter, is an important reformulation of the state’s relation to its “subjects”, and the positions of different social strata in the society, with a special emphasis on the strong position of the towns in the reciprocity of taxes and protection.
After this harsh exposition of the general loneliness of the traders, Bang in the fifth chapter turns to strategies of survival, which in general were based on communities of different kind. The professional traders’ associations provided the members with the social networking necessary for operation in volatile economic environments, where trust was important for building up a business relationship. In addition to networking, these associations formed the basis for social life for the members, and also the primary places of arbitration in cases of conflict between members. Bang’s view of the Roman courts as powerful, inventive and highly risky sources of justice supports the strong importance of these associations, and the practices Bang connects to these groups explain well for example the famous Piazzale delle Corporazioni in Ostia. In addition to the associations, which provided the professional environment for operations, the household was important as a source of resources. Whereas the associations provided the contacts — and the competitors —, the household was the source of capital and the family the source of cooperation. Both these institutions are important in Bang’s model and strongly contribute to what he calls the “compartmentalized networks of trade”, where “the markets” were formed by parallel and overlapping but completely separate networks. The emphasis Bang gives to the social communities of the merchants is commendable, and is a very natural explanation fitting well with what has already been said about the nature of Roman associations and family relations, although rarely in the context of economic actors.
In the Epilegomena at the end of the book, Bang does more than just summarize the chapters of the book. Here, at the end of the book, he finally introduces the concept of consumption to the reader. It is perhaps no surprise to the reader, that also here, a different mentality is found behind consumer practices. Bang claims — as the shortness of the chapter does not allow for a further analysis — that consumption was inherently luxury oriented, and aimed toward the individual and special, a certain “Art of Consumption”, where elites could show their social standing through consumption. In the end, Bang concludes with an overarching long durée from the Roman times to the Mughal Empire, which he sees as the last manifestation of the same model that first appeared in Imperial Rome.
After reading the Epilegomena, the reader might easily be disappointed. After all this writing, no real conclusion? On the one hand, one might say that the book concluded itself in the beginning. Bang’s point is clear from the start, and he manages to write a convincing argument in its support, so the reader — providing he accepts Bang’s interpretations — should agree already. On the other hand, Bang’s quest is long and winding, and his aim never was to answer questions like “Is there?” or “Is there not?”, but to understand a complex phenomenon — the reader either gets it or he doesn’t, but anything Bang could have said in the end probably could not change it.
Bang’s style is clear and although some of the original analyses and model constructions are slightly difficult to follow, the argumentative line of the book is clear. The book is a very well written contribution to our understanding of the ancient Roman economic history. Bang is very knowledgeable, and demonstrates in many cases a good analytic ability by dissecting the earlier interpretations for their weaknesses and presenting his own instead. I’m sure, this book will be hotly debated, and many will object to at least some of Bang’s arguments. I cannot call the book as a must-to-read in the sense, that you would know new facts you didn’t before, but this is definitively a book that should be read, because it just might change the way you think about what you knew. For better or worse, that is for the coming generations to judge.