BMCR 2023.01.29

Pliny’s Roman economy: natural history, innovation, and growth

, Pliny's Roman economy: natural history, innovation, and growth. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022. Pp. viii, 198. ISBN 9780691229546.



In Pliny’s Roman Economy. Natural History, Innovation and Growth, Saller addresses the debated question of the degree of economic rationality of ancient worlds by examining the economic elements present in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. Through a comparison with the modern political economists of the 17th and 18th centuries and the early British encyclopedists, Saller shows that Pliny’s work contains the lineaments of an economic reflection which, if it anticipates at times certain developments of modern economic thought, does not however go beyond the stage of a “limited rationality” and does not form any systematic theory. The purpose of this comparison is not to disqualify Pliny’s thought, but to understand the causes of a long-term economic development such as the one observed from the 17th century onwards in Europe, which is contemporary with a scientific theorization of economic phenomena. Conversely, while historians often see an economic boom from the first century BCE until the Antonine plague in 165, none of the many empirically based methods allows us to conclude, according to Saller, that this 1st-2nd century economic boom was actually sustainable (Chapter 1). By choosing a literary source such as Pliny’s Natural History, Saller proposes to corroborate this idea by showing that the economic thinking of this period does not contain any of the elements conducive to long-term economic growth: no culture of technical innovation and growth, no organization and dissemination of knowledge to promote the spirit of discovery and invention, no scientific foundation of knowledge.

Pliny’s Natural History is a monumental book: the Roman civil servant and military officer proposes to compile no less than 20,000 things “worth knowing”, drawing on some 2,000 sources. Among the difficulties that such a work raises, that of its organization in 37 books is not the least: despite a very general thematic organization and an initial summary (Summarium), it is difficult to find one’s way through it, all the more so as certain topics, such as the remedies against rabies for example, are dispersed in several books. This point is all the more problematic since Pliny, according to Saller, wanted to do a useful rather than a pleasant work, addressing himself to farmers and craftsmen. The contradictions, therefore, quickly appear: besides the fact that it is difficult to see how such a monumental work could be materially accessible to such a readership, nothing would allow them either to orient themselves and find what is useful, nor, above all, to explain the phenomena presented (Chapter 2).

In addition to these formal elements, it is also through its content that Pliny’s book shows its limits in terms of economic thought (Chapters 3 to 5). Saller first presents Pliny’s vision of Nature as divine, which is of Stoic inspiration. Nature is thought of as the provider of the benefits that human beings can enjoy, and not as a resource to be exploited. If the Pax Romana made it possible to improve the life of the empire’s inhabitants by increasing the volume of exchanges and diversifying their nature, Pliny is nevertheless critical of the development of luxury that such exchanges made possible. In his eyes, it represents a violation of Nature not only because many products were sought that obliged the exploitation of resources beyond what was necessary, especially those of the subsoil, but also because luxury broke with the simplicity of past Rome by leading to excesses and strong inequalities (Chapter 3). This divine nature thus limits the spirit of innovation by being thought of as the real cause, along with chance, of the discoveries made by human beings, who are thus relegated to the rank of passive beneficiaries. This has two main implications: on the one hand, Pliny tends to level out the facts he presents, without discerning those that represent a decisive contribution to the history of humanity, and those that are purely anecdotal. On the other hand, no culture of the great recent inventors could find its place in such a work, contrary to what one will observe in modern encyclopedias, Newton, for example, appearing from the early 18th century in the works of the British encyclopedists. Thus, among the inventions that Pliny mentions in Book 7, none is due to a Roman, and most of them belong to a very distant period. All these features testify to a lack of culture of innovation and knowledge as a cause of enrichment, an enrichment that Pliny attributes instead to human greed alone (Chapter 4). The economic subjects that Pliny discusses are agriculture―the main subject in this field―as well as mining, crafts, trade and money.

To the scholarly common dichotomy between rationality and absence of rationality, Saller prefers the conception of “limited rationality”: Pliny’s reflection articulates, on the one hand, common sense and moral recommendations, for example in agriculture concerning the importance of the master’s presence (“the master’s eye”) so that his slaves are productive, with, on the other hand, the awareness that certain phenomena like prices obey regular variables, such as the length of transport or the scarcity of some commodity. Despite the awareness that investments, as in Smith’s work, are necessary to increase productivity in the agricultural sector, and that competition, as in the Hellenistic kingdoms, motivates innovations, the absence of numerical data and the predominant moral framework of Natural History, which stigmatizes luxury and greed, do not allow Pliny to go beyond the stage of an embryonic reflection on economic matters (Chapter 5). The reception of Pliny’s work in later periods is reflected in the selective uses that, from late antiquity to the Middle Ages, were made of it on certain subjects, for example in geography and medicine, and then by the questioning of its scientific value at the end of the Renaissance. The very beginning of the 18th century marked a definitive epistemological and economic break: in the wake of Francis Bacon’s scientific empiricism, John Harris’s Lexicon Technicum, whose first volume appeared in 1704, and Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopaedia (1728), both organized alphabetically rather than thematically, were not content to compile past knowledge, but sought to make it possible to assimilate this knowledge in order to promote future discoveries, by conceiving nature as a set of resources to be used and controlled. With the help of European learned societies, they thus promoted a culture of technical innovation, totally non-existent at the time of Pliny, and resulting in what has been called the “Great enrichment” (Chapter 6).

Saller’s book is truly interesting in many ways. Not only does it do justice to the existence of a reflection on economy in Western antiquity and to its few points of convergence with modern economic thought, but also, by turning to an ancient author, Saller’s book raises a question that goes beyond antiquity: that of the conditions that make long-term economic growth and development possible, with a particular interest in cultural causes. With great clarity and a concise presentation of the debates raised by specific issues in Pliny’s work, Saller offers a book of economic anthropology and not only of history of thought. The last paragraph also opens philosophical questions, reminding us that Pliny’s concern for nature and economic simplicity, as opposed to the unbridled pursuit of wealth, makes him an interlocutor for our time, despite all that separates us from him in terms of scientific knowledge.