BMCR 2018.01.22

Antike Wirtschaft und ihre kulturelle Prägung = The cultural shaping of the ancient economy. Philippika, 98

, , , Antike Wirtschaft und ihre kulturelle Prägung = The cultural shaping of the ancient economy. Philippika, 98. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2016. xvi, 320. ISBN 9783447106740. €69,00.

Table of Contents
[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This collection of essays on ancient economic history results from a two-day conference that took place in February 2014 at the Marburg Center for the Ancient World. It consists of a general introduction by the editors followed by sixteen main chapters, nine in German, seven in English, all with brief English syntheses. The volume covers some two and a half millennia (c.2000 BCE – c.CE 500), drawing inspiration predominantly from “New Institutional Economics” (NIE), the body of theory that is increasingly guiding the field. The “kulturelle Prägung,” or “cultural shaping,” in the book’s title here largely means the “humanly devised constraints that shape human interaction,” to borrow a phrase from Douglass North.1 As the editorial introduction informs us (p. xii), the conference was divided into three sections: “(A) Methodische Einführung,” “(B) Normen” and “(C) Wirtschaft und Kulturkontakt.” Section (A) is maintained in the book, which contains two introductory essays on methodology. The other contributions are said to be chronologically organized, but a quick glance at the Table of Contents suggests otherwise. The logic behind their sequence remained unclear to me, but I will treat them here as they were apparently intended to be read: in chronological order.

Two opening chapters emphasize the value of NIE for ancient economic history, clarifying the theoretical direction of the volume and justifying its choice of topic. The first by Evelyn Korn discusses the importance of institutions for the study of economics. The second by Kai Ruffing places the use of Neo-Institutionalism by ancient historians in a historiographical context, explaining how it offered scholars a way out of the constraining formalist/substantivist debate. The widespread application of modern economics, including NIE, in ancient economic history de facto means that the discipline has taken a collective modernist turn, leading Ruffing to proclaim: “Der altehrwürdige Gegensatz zwischen Primitivisten und Modernisten … darf somit als überwunden gelten” (p. 15). It would seem so, yes. However, I could not help but think of the caution that Friedrich Nietzsche displayed, having declared God dead: “(es) wird … vielleicht noch Jahrtausende lang Höhlen geben, in denen man seinen Schatten zeigt.”2

The Hittite economy of the second millennium BCE provides the subject matter for the next two contributions. The one by Giulia Torri discusses the influence on the agricultural economy of the Hittite king and his family, together with a ruling elite of noblemen and priests. Collectively their power was such that “free farmers … did not have the right to dispose of the land that they were cultivating and where they were living” (p. 38). The theme of Hittite private landownership is also explored by Korn and Jürgen Lorenz. They attribute the phenomenon of its decline and eventual disappearance to two exogenous shocks: political upheaval, which shrank the Hittite realm, and the demographic effects of a devastating disease. After pressure on the Hittite kingdom eased a freer property-rights regime did not return, a puzzle Korn and Lorenz aim to solve by drawing a comparison with medieval Eastern Europe after the Black Death. In both cases, they argue, the existing social structures prevented the bargaining position of agricultural workers from improving, despite an increased scarcity of labor. In so doing they place Hittite socioeconomic developments in the framework of what has become known as the “Brenner debate,” although they do not invoke it.3 Neither the contribution by Torri nor the one by Korn and Lorenz cites the work of North, but in my view his concept of the “natural state” might have provided a useful theoretical foundation for both.4

The narrative makes a chronological leap with a chapter by Laetitia Graslin-Thomé, who analyzes sixth-century BCE Babylonian long-distance trade, visible in contracts written on clay tablets. She turns to NIE to explain market constraints, focusing on high transaction costs and the bounded rationality of agents. More rigorous editing of this English-language contribution would have enhanced the clarity of its argument. Chronologically next come two chapters on classical Athens. It is a testament to how profoundly NIE has influenced ancient scholarship that one of those, written by Sabine Föllinger, attempts to apply it to the abstract philosophical concepts of Plato. I am frankly a bit mystified by this endeavor, and wonder what North would have made of it. I have always taken his view that it is “the task of economic history to explain the structure and performance of economies through time” to refer solely to the real world.5 Plato makes an encore in Sven Günther’s contribution. Based on the writings of Plato, Aristotle and Xenophon, and following the ideas of Erving Goffman, Günther argues that the Piraeus can be seen as a Special Economic Zone (SEZ). That is not an unreasonable suggestion, but I doubt that many scholars today still think of the Piraeus as a pre-market “Port of Trade” in the sense of Karl Polanyi, the model that Günther seeks to refute with his SEZ alternative.

We move into the Hellenistic era with the contribution by Stefan Schorn. He gives a long, detailed analysis of the “ideal” Ptolemaic official, comparing the “bottom-up” commendations found in honorary inscriptions and petitions to the “top-down” instructions on proper behavior given administrators by their higher-ups. The first, he argues, contain moral elements from Greek “ideal ruler” philosophy, while the latter are more practical, concerned with officials performing their tasks adequately. As far as I can judge it is a competent analysis, but personally I would like to have heard more about what all this meant for the historical reality of Ptolemaic rule. Vincent Gabrielsen offers a second chapter on the Hellenistic world. He argues that in the fourth century BCE and beyond, “private organizations, standing as luminous beacons of trustworthiness,” (p. 103) offered economic security to traders, largely independent of state institutions. In particular, he points to religion as a social activity fostering strong in-group bonds, which helped create the preconditions not only for private-order enforcement but also a climate of generalized trust. I agree with Gabrielsen’s analysis, although I am less ambivalent than he is about the value of comparisons between the ancient and the medieval world.

We enter the Roman imperial period with the chapter by Kerstin Droß-Krüpe, who in part treats the same theme of trust as Gabrielsen. Based on the epigraphic and papyrological evidence she presents a number of case-studies on principal-agent relations, showing how they grew in complexity with increasing levels of professionalism. The examples range from nuclear-family agency in Roman Egypt to dependent-labor agency in trade between Campania and the Red Sea to ethnicity-based agency in professional Mediterranean trade networks. The topic of agency is picked up also by Wim Broekaert, who builds on work by Arthur Denzau and North on Shared Mental Models (SMMs). He argues that the concept of the Roman family, which included not only blood relatives but also slaves and freedmen, as an SMM formed “the single most important economic unit in the ancient economy” (p. 167). Slaves and freedmen were undoubtedly used as agents, as Droß-Krüpe also shows, and Broekaert has some valid points to make about the language of family ties as a metaphor in Roman business. However, I am skeptical that kinship, symbolic or real, as an SMM provided a solution to the principal-agent problem, as Broekaert claims. It would seem to me that in larger operations a non-kinship-based collective- action mechanism was still required to keep slave and freedman agents honest vis-à-vis their principals. The multifaceted analysis by Droß-Krüpe, who shows awareness of the fact that different scales of economic activity required different forms of agency, seems to me to provide a preferable framework.

The terrain of commercial networks and agency is also covered by Eivind Seland. He gives a brief but reliably expert overview of how Palmyrene merchants conducted business between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, operating in a trade diaspora centered on ethnic identity. The chapter has a helpful table listing the known inscriptions related to Palmyrene long-distance commerce, enhancing its usefulness. It seems a missed opportunity that the editors did not put the chapters by Gabrielsen, Droß-Krüpe, Broekaert and Seland in dialogue. Trade networks, agency relations and personal trust are discussed by all, and it would seem to me that their partial overlap might have produced a fruitful, cross-chapter discussion.

A contribution by Jesper Carlsen, purportedly based on the work of the obscure philosopher Musonius Rufus but in reality on that of Columella and Pliny the Younger, aims to investigate Roman rural labor from an NIE angle. It is followed by a contribution by Nicolas Monteix on a painted frieze in the Pompeian Casa dei Vettii depicting Cupids and Psyches involved in industrial pursuits, including metalworking and perfume-making. This art-historical contribution is a welcome complement, but I confess that its conclusion about a “shared technical culture amongst elites” (p. 218) remained nebulous to me.

Oliver Stoll discusses the influence of the Roman military on the cultural and economic development of the empire’s boundary zones. Turning to evidence on local exchange, overseas imports and agricultural advancements, he shows the ways in which those zones were “transkulturelle Wirtschaftsräume.” He concludes that the process of transcultural interaction was Neo-Institutional in nature: “Das Militär hat in vielfältiger Weise in den Limeszonen … die Existenz der ‘Institutionen’ … befördert und es setzt sie auch voraus” (p. 250). Unfortunately he spends only a few words on the NIE part of his argument. The gate closer in the volume is a long but informative discussion on the use of spolia in late-antique buildings, written by Ute Verstegen. The question she addresses is “inwieweit auch bei einem zunächst pragmatisch-rationell wirkenden Vorgang wie ‘Recycling’ eine kulturelle Prägung der Akteure angenommen werden kann” (p. 271). Of course that question is not easy to answer, as Verstegen roundly admits, but she does give several persuasive examples where the reuse of older Roman building material in both churches and mosques was done for symbolic and religious-ideological reasons.

In conclusion, the editors present an interesting if not entirely coherent collection of essays. A number of contributions in particular provide valuable theoretical discussions, offering ideas with a broader applicability. Along with the two opening chapters, the ones by Broekaert and Gabrielsen are standouts in this respect. Overall, the production of the volume is of high quality, although there are some minor slips in the typesetting, e.g. p. 39: institutio-ns; p. 88-9: mechanis-ms. There are also a number of notable linguistic mistakes and infelicities in the English syntheses that should have been caught by the editors, e.g. p. 57-8: tenants (meant is: those who subscribe to certain theoretical tenets); p. 127: literal sources (i.e. literary sources); p. 294: motifs (i.e. motives).

Authors and Titles

Kerstin Droß-Krüpe, Sabine Föllinger and Kai Ruffing: Introduction
Evelyn Korn: (Neue) Institutionenökonomik und ihre Anwendung auf die Alte Welt
Kai Ruffing: Neue Institutionenökonomik (NIÖ) und Antike Wirtschaft
Evelyn Korn and Jürgen Lorenz: Eigentumsrechte als ordnendes Element der hethitischen Wirtschaft
Giulia Torri: Landowners and Renters at Ḫattuša
Laetitia Graslin-Thomé: New Institutional Economics and Ancient Camel Drivers: in which way modern economical concepts can help to understand the changes in long distance trade in the first millennium BC in Mesopotamia
Kerstin Droß-Krüpe: Prinzipale und Agenten im römischen Handel. Fallstudien zum antiken Handel im Spiegel der Neuen Institutionenökonomik
Sabine Föllinger: Vorstellungen wirtschaftlicher Normierung bei Platon
Vincent Gabrielsen: Be Faithful and Prosper: Associations, trust and the economy of security
Sven Günther: Sonderwirtschaftszonen. Antike Konzeptionen und Konstruktionen am Beispiel des athenischen Piräus
Stefan Schorn: Das Idealbild des Beamten in den Papyri der ptolemäischen Zeit
Wim Broekaert: The Economics of Culture. Shared mental models and exchange in the Roman business world
Jesper Carlsen: Musonius Rufus and the Cultural Impact of Land and Rural Labour in Roman Italy
Nicolas Monteix: Perceptions of Technical Culture among Pompeian Élites, considering the Cupids Frieze of the Casa dei Vettii
Eivind Seland: Ancient Trading Networks and New Institutional Economics: The case of Palmyra
Oliver Stoll: Melonen, Mähmaschinen und Manager. Limeszonen als transkulturelle (Wirtschafts-)Räume
Ute Verstegen: Recycling, Triumph oder Aneignung? Zum Phänomen der ‘Spolierung’ und dessen kultureller Prägung in Spätantike und Frühislam


1. D.C. North, Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance. (Cambridge 1990), p. 3.

2. F. Nietzsche, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (Chemnitz 1882), p. 137.

3. See T.H. Aston‎ and C.H.E. Philpin (eds.), The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-industrial Europe (Cambridge 1985).

4. See D.C. North, J.J. Wallis and B.R. Weingast, Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (Cambridge 2009).

5. D.C. North, Structure and Change in Economic History (New York 1981), p. 3.