BMCR 2018.11.40

Money, Culture, and Well-Being in Rome’s Economic Development, 0-275 CE. Mnemosyne Supplements, 412

, Money, Culture, and Well-Being in Rome's Economic Development, 0-275 CE. Mnemosyne Supplements, 412. Leiden: Brill, 2018. xiii, 215. ISBN 9789004358270 $114.00.

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Daniel Hoyer’s, Money, Culture, and Well-Being in Rome’s Economic Development, 0-275 CE offers an even-handed appraisal of current debates in Roman economic history as well as novel interpretations derived from numismatic and epigraphic sources. In both content and style, the book is optimistic, but with a twist: Rome’s ‘highly-developed, ‘sophisticated’, ‘robust’ economy was in significant part a product of a unique culture in which elites ‘were constrained by very powerful, institutionalized and deeply-internalized cultural traits that compelled prosocial activity, including spending on public goods’ (p. 103). The success of the Roman economy was, therefore, due in significant part to elites’ voluntary engagement in benevolent, cooperative social behaviour in order to obtain prestige and status.

The book’s methodology is situational. Arguments about the status and position of benefactors and recipients of public goods tend to be drawn from quantitative analysis of epigraphic evidence. Deductive claims are qualitatively ‘tested’ by limited bodies of evidence—such as in the book’s final chapter, where a generalized description of third-century A.D. ‘turmoil’ (p. 142) is illustrated by selected references to the numismatic and epigraphic record. Hoyer often gives helpful signals about which approach he is using and why it fits his argument. The justification for combining such a variety of methodological lenses is that the book’s ‘Big Picture outlook’ (p. 12), which synthesizes the Roman economy’s social, cultural and economic elements, necessarily demands such a complex approach.

Hoyer’s argument rests upon a set of epigraphic texts from the western half of the Roman Empire that relate to endowments and public buildings. The core of Hoyer’s work on these texts is found in the book’s third and fourth chapters, where the epigraphic material is analyzed on multiple bases (by region, by category of benefactor, by category of recipient, by principal type, etc.) in order to reveal patterns and trends. Readers learn that public buildings in North Africa, for example, were often funded principally through ‘private’ money and that the vast majority of individual benefactors were deeply entrenched in the local or imperial political system. One of the strengths of these chapters is the way in which they show just how conflated notions of ‘private’ and ‘public’ were in the minds of those who funded, constructed and used community goods in the Roman world. Endowments and buildings were far more than economic products—they were entrenched in a cultural framework that cannot be ignored by modern historians.

Money and coinage also feature prominently in this book. In the book’s second chapter, Hoyer departs from what he calls a ‘statist’ view of Roman money (p. 64), in which coinage was produced primarily to meet the needs of the military and without much care to wider circulation and use. Indeed, numismatic evidence over the past fifty years or so—and enough cannot be said about the contributions of thoughtfully-designed programs such as England’s Portable Antiquities Scheme in harnessing the stray coin finds of metal detectorists and other amateur archaeologists—suggests that money was far more prevalent in the Roman world, including the countryside, than once thought. Hoyer believes that money, whether in the form of cash or credit, was easily obtainable in the Roman world (pp. 67-8). His case rests partly upon the evidence that he surveys but also to no small degree upon implication and expectation: ‘…all of the evidence, taken together, supports only a system whereby benefaction requires tapping into market systems and utilizing money to purchase many of the goods and services required by the benefaction’ (p. 76, emphasis added). The ubiquity of money is a pre-requisite to his larger thesis, but also in some places a product of it.

The evidence that Hoyer discusses is meant to illuminate an unseen economic reality, as an abundance of ready money, advanced credit markets and accessible financial institutions were needed in order to produce the activity studied in the book. Hoyer regularly insists that this evidence proves that ‘there must have been active credit markets and avenues for productive investment in operation throughout the Roman world’ (p. 51). Furthermore, if there was such a credit market, then Roman economic historians may need to rethink existing views on ‘urban growth, industrial productivity, and trade’ (p. 51). Hoyer, therefore, shows us how culture-based impulses may create and incentivize market institutions. The Roman economy harnessed a positive feedback loop in which capital, construction, urbanization and employment worked together to reduce transaction costs and hence increase the influence and permeation of markets (p. 96). Some scholars may object to these arguments. The ‘capital’ used to create public goods could just as easily be re-cast as unproductive ‘consumption’ of wealth generated by an agricultural surplus. Construction may have generated employment, but it also sucked up surplus labor, including slave labor, which might have been used more productively. Urbanization seems to be linked with market exchange, to be sure, but it is also linked with redistribution; when cities reduced or stopped providing handouts of staples altogether, population levels fell dramatically. Still, the provision of public goods brought returns that must also be considered. Hoyer argues that non-elite inhabitants of the ancient world—despite low wages, high prices and income inequality—benefitted through expanded access to public goods such as access to water, information, entertainment as well as communal spaces for legal, commercial and religious activities (pp. 129-30). There were, nevertheless, gaps in coverage. The urban poor, for example, must have fared better than rural poor.

In the book’s fifth chapter, Hoyer argues that prosocial behaviour elevated ‘well-being’, a term that social scientists are still working to define. Well-being in the Roman Empire, according to Hoyer, is connected to access to public goods (p. 110), distribution of wealth (p. 112), public health and longevity (p. 124). Hoyer offers a stern and sensible warning against the use of aggregates like GDP/GNP to measure economic activity, whether in antiquity or modernity. His dissection of the ongoing debate over growth in the Roman Empire is intelligent, incisive, fair-minded and informative—any student who wishes to understand the present state of the discussion should read Hoyer’s comments.

Curiously, the evidence for prosocial elite activity ‘falls off the cliff’ around the mid third century AD (p. 143), an issue that is examined in the sixth and final chapter. Honorific inscriptions in the west decrease in number, although not everywhere in the empire. Economic instability, Hoyer argues, was nevertheless prevalent enough to undermine the prosocial culture of local elites. Currency debasements were especially important because they changed the value of money. Endowments and construction projects became intrinsically riskier.

On the whole, this book manages to tell a cohesive and compelling story through an intensive study of a limited body of evidence and a flexible although occasionally frustrating methodological framework. Hoyer’s book shows how competitive elements in Roman culture were dispersed into a multi-cultural empire, permeating the prosocial practices of local elites. While wealthy elites were able to use Rome’s institutions to enrich themselves and gain systematic power advantages, they secured these advantages partly through prosocial behaviour, ensuring that the economic and social capital accumulated at the top of Roman society necessarily trickled down to benefit a much wider swathe of the population (p. 136). The book’s approach and claims will no doubt generate controversy, which Hoyer anticipates and attempts to pre-empt with regular disclaimers and appropriate caution. Hoyer admits from the beginning that some of his conclusions arise from loose correlations, experimentation and even some speculation (p. 3). His book ultimately presents a credible picture that deserves attention; any scrutiny which follows will undoubtedly add to our knowledge about the structure, scale and nature of the Roman economy.