BMCR 2021.01.22

Capital, investment, and innovation in the Roman world

, , , Capital, investment, and innovation in the Roman world. Oxford studies on the Roman economy. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. xx, 487. ISBN 9780198841845 $130.00.

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

The volume under review is the latest in the series of Oxford studies on the Roman economy. The volume brings together 15 predominantly historical contributions from as many authors. However, it is regrettable that with Ronin, Marzano and Lewit there are only three women among them. Most of the authors are leading experts in their respective fields, who in most cases take up topics on which they have already published extensively. Not all contributions are correspondingly abundant with new research results but are rather systematizations tailored to the overriding topics of the volume, which gives the book the character of a handbook. The volume is divided into three parts: Investment and Innovation, Capital and Investment in the Rural Economy, and Human Capital, Financial Capital, and Credit Markets. This structure shows instantly that substantial areas of the economy remain underexposed, such as mining, the extraction of raw materials in general, or the construction industry.

The substantial introduction, jointly written by the three editors Erdkamp, Verboven, and Zuiderhoek, outlines a programmatic overview of the book and its topics. The editors situate themselves and the book squarely in the New Institutional Economics. In addition, they defend the analytical use of the modern economic concepts of capital, investment, and innovation. How and under what conditions the production and allocation of goods took place is highlighted as one of the fundamental questions of the book. Furthermore, the primary or secondary factors influencing these processes are a focus of the volume.

The major theoretical and methodological questions already addressed in the introduction are further reflected by Erdkamp in the first chapter. He shows that the debate on the relationship between demographics, technology and (per capita) economic growth is very much alive and far from resolved. He points to fault lines between archaeology and ancient history and problematizes especially the optimistic attitude in archaeology, which is based on the suggestive abundance of the material found. This is followed by an intensive discussion of Malthusian theory, with the focus on the relationship between rising wages, living standards, consumer behavior and demographic growth. He concludes that not technological innovations alone, but their widespread implementation, led to a lasting shift in the relationship between production factors, an argument that can also be found in other articles in the volume. Erdkamp emphasizes the significance of structural changes in the ratio of labor in agricultural and non-agricultural sectors and its decisive contribution to economic growth. This cannot be translated into a general increase of the income of all parts of the society, but it rather leads to “a proportionate shift between segments of society” (p. 60). Viglietti takes a diachronic look at the early Roman period and emphasizes the importance of changes in the institutional framework (the introduction of the census) or public investments (the construction of public monuments) on the economy. He accentuates the ability of the Roman economic system to absorb innovations from outside as a particularly positive structural feature. Broekaert and Zuiderhoek shed light on the importance of capital goods in the Roman economy using examples from agriculture, shipping, and urban workshops, with a particular focus on the social and institutional context. While the part on agriculture has little new to offer, in particular their reflections on shipping and most importantly the considerations on the costs and the ratio of ships of different tonnages to one another, set a new standard and will serve as the basis for future research on Roman shipping and trade. In his contribution on water-power, Wilson offers an overview of the current state of research on water-mills, which is of great benefit, since this field of research has developed particularly dynamically over the past few decades. Water-mills were much more widespread and more common than previously assumed. In addition to mills found in situ, he discusses decontextualized millstones, and together with agriculture, the use of hydropower at ore-stamps, tanning mills and saw-mills. Monteix examines various variables that influence the capital requirements of urban craft production. This includes the floor area, tools, the procurement of raw materials, human capital and also the seasonal availability of organic raw materials. The latter point in particular is significant and needs further study. Innovations or change in general cannot always be explained from a simple cost perspective, as Monteix stresses, but it is rather the social context that plays a decisive role.

The next four contributions discuss different aspects of the rural economy. With irrigation, Ronin addresses a topic that has not yet received the attention it deserves. She differentiates between different individual or collective ways of organizing irrigation. Hydraulic infrastructures represent a substantial investment, but also promise considerable profit, either through the export of cash crops or through pastio villatica in the suburbia of Roman cities. In future research, however, one could focus on systematically investigating what is actually considered a normal and what an above-average investment in order to create a corresponding horizon of expectations. One could also take a closer look at the relationship between marginal land and investments in hydraulic infrastructures. In his chapter, Stringer attempts to use the language of agronomists to reconstruct the mindset or rather the underlying guiding principles on which decisions for or against certain investments are based. The diachronic perspective of development he adopts and the associative connection between a favorable and a less favorable economic climate during the late republic as opposed to the early empire is not without its problems. Marzano focuses on fishing and fish-salting operations. She emphasizes the profitability of fish, which was in part the main source of income for some cities. Collegia, societatesor associations were set up to exploit rich fishing grounds to pool resources and defend their rights. Lewit’s chapter deals with innovations of wine and olive presses. The design of the presses shows a pronounced regional variability, which is due to the social context, the availability of certain building materials and local economic structures. In addition, Lewit dispels several myths about the screw press on which research had focused for too long. Like Monteix, she emphasizes that innovations should not only be understood from the perspective of efficiency (p. 343).

The third part begins with Underwood’s analysis of the problem of labor allocation in the early church between 360-540 AD. During this period, the emperors often intervened to regulate the labor market, which is why many social groups were denied access to the ranks of the church. Literacy was crucial for an ecclesiastical career. A particularly large number of clergymen were previously active in corresponding professions, such as physicians, lawyers, professors, etc. The acceptance of these professions as well as lower civil servants into the apparatus of the church led to institutional innovations and eventually to the development of a corresponding bureaucracy. Thus, it represents a decisive step both in institutionalization and in the formation process of the institutional structure of the church. In his contribution, Verboven comes to a differentiated judgment when it comes to assessing the sophistication and effectiveness of Roman capital markets. Deposit bankers and middlemen are those who offer financial services and thus connect those with money to those in need. The capacity of the credit market is assessed using two indicators: the level of the interest rates and the depth of the credit market. Eventually it was quite easy for everyone to get money for commercial ventures. All in all, impersonal financial markets were more of a marginal system and complementary to social networks, nonetheless sophisticated and sufficient for the needs of the Roman economy. Andreau concentrates on the Campanian tablets. He differentiates between two categories of investment, indirect (if only money is lent) and direct (if there is direct involvement in the economic enterprise). Haklai investigates the credit market in Egypt, a particularly interesting case, as there were various legal systems, namely the native Egyptian, the Greek, and the Roman one. The interplay between these legal systems led to unintended interferences and thus to gradual change. As a central example, Haklai discusses how de facto interest-bearing deposits came about. The volume is completed with Gregoratti’s contribution on the organization and financing of Palmyrene trade. He asks where the capital for the Palmyra trading system, which is organized through a socially highly volatile merchant oligarchy, originated. Based on the epigraphic record he assumes a close connection between leading trading families and the temples. This in turn suggests that temples may have played some institutional role in the organization of long-distance trade and the deposition of capital, though not a primary one.

Overall, the volume is carefully produced. However, in some cases it would have been beneficial to give the authors some general guidelines. An example of this is Marzano’s contribution and the inconsistent use of textual sources, which in some cases, such as the inscription I. Parion 5 (p. 287-288) or the epigraphic dossier from Histria (298-300), were only reproduced in the modern translation, but not in the original language. The questions raised in the introduction are taken up in most of the articles and answered from different perspectives, giving a kaleidoscopic impression. There are some recurring topics, like the question of specialization as opposed to diversification (are specialists necessary and if so, at which threshold value) as well as organizational structures, social history and how capital could be pooled. An explicit and direct discussion of the New Institutional Economics is missing, though, which leaves the reviewer puzzled and raises the question what real added value the more suggestive reference to this theoretical superstructure has and whether the results of the individual contributions and the “contextualization” of the economic perspective could not also have been achieved in a traditional context-sensitive historiography? Furthermore, the book has a certain spatial and temporal bias. The East of the Roman Empire is underrepresented and most of the articles focus on the late Republic or the Imperial Era. Only the contribution by Viglietti illuminates the early Roman period and only Underwood ventures into Late Antiquity. Summa summarum, this book is a stimulating contribution to the debate on the economic history of antiquity, casting diverse perspectives on the issues of investment, capital, and innovation and on their interdependence. It should not be missing in any library on the economic history of antiquity and will certainly stimulate a myriad of further theoretical and empirical studies on the many questions raised.

Authors and titles

1: Introduction, Paul Erdkamp, Koenraad Verboven, and Arjan Zuiderhoek, 1
I. Investment and Innovation
2: Population, Technology, and Economic Growth in the Roman World, Paul Erdkamp, 39
3: Innovations and Uses of Wealth in Archaic Rome and Latium (Late Eighth to Early Fourth Century BC), Cristiano Viglietti, 67
4: Capital Goods in the Roman Economy, Wim Broekaert and Arjan Zuiderhoek, 99
5: Roman Water-Power: Chronological Trends and Geographical Spread, Andrew Wilson, 147
6: The Archaeological Perception of Capital and its Transformations in Urban Occupations, Nicolas Monteix, 195

II. Capital and Investment in the Rural Economy
7: Funding Irrigation: Between Individual and Collective Investments, Marguerite Ronin, 225
8: Impensae, operae, and the pastio uillatica: The Evaluation of New Venture Investments in the Roman Agricultural Treatises, Mick Stringer, 253
9: A Story of Land and Water: Control, Capital, and Investment in Large-Scale Fishing and Fish-Salting Operations, Annalisa Marzano, 275
10: Invention, Tinkering, or Transfer? Innovation in Oil and Wine Presses in the Roman Empire, Tamara Lewit, 307

III. Human Capital, Financial Capital, and Credit Markets
11: Labouring for God: The Clergy and Human Capital in the Later Roman Empire, Norman Underwood, 357
12: Capital Markets and Financial Entrepreneurs in the Roman World, Koenraad Verboven, 381
13: Capital and Investment in the Campanian Tablets, Jean Andreau, 417
14: Credit and Financial Capital in Roman Egypt, Merav Haklai, 437
15: Temples and Traders in Palmyra, Leonardo Gregoratti, 461