BMCR 2023.03.21

Handbook of ancient Afro-Eurasian economies. Volume 2: local, regional, and imperial economies

, Handbook of ancient Afro-Eurasian economies. Volume 2: local, regional, and imperial economies. Berlin: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2021. Pp. xv, 843. ISBN 9783110604528

Open Access

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


The Handbook of Ancient Afro-Eurasian Economies Volume 2: Local, Regional, and Imperial Economies is the second volume in a three-part series that analyses the economies that made up what is known as the Silk Road. This series of volumes discusses evidence from the Hellenistic Kingdoms, the Roman Empire, the Arsakid Empire, the Greek Kingdoms of Central Asia, the early historical South Asian period, and the early imperial Chinese period 300 BCE to 300 CE.

The first volume of this series focused on the historical, evidential, and historiographical contexts of these regions to provide a foundation for the discussions in the following volumes regarding trans-imperial connectivity.[1] This volume aims to survey the economic structures and developments in the ancient Afro-Eurasian world. To achieve this the authors use several different frameworks such as globalisation and network theory to develop models of economic connectivity throughout the region.

This volume comprises three main parts (Part 1: Actors, Part 2: Tools, and Part 3: Processes) along with two “prelude” chapters and an “excursus.” It takes a straightforward approach to the topic and is for the most part effective in conveying the complexities of each of these unique ancient economies.

The Prelude begins with two chapters discussing the application of globalisation theory to the ancient world and definitions of the local, regional, and imperial economies. Milinda Hoo’s chapter quickly summarises the main concepts of globalisation (and its later iteration, glocalisation), the various arguments surrounding the applicability of modern anthropological and business concepts to ancient economies, and the positive and negative aspects that need to be considered. This discussion is useful for any reader who is delving into globalisation studies for the first time and serves as a very effective introduction to the topic.

The second chapter of the prelude by Sitta von Reden uses Palmyra to illustrate how ancient cities could operate on varying economic scales and how globalisation theory can be applied to the ancient economy. She analyses the imperial economy and market development by establishing how cities participated in the local, regional, and imperial economies in the Afro-Eurasian region and looking at economic growth and global activity. This chapter previews many of the themes that are discussed in the rest of the volume.

“Part 1: Actors” breaks down the different contributors to ancient economies: suppliers, those responsible for the transportation of goods, merchants, elite, monarchs, and even non-human actors such as religion, laws, and networks. “Part 2: Tools” switches its focus to the methods through which the economy was facilitated, such as fiscal regimes, various forms of monetisation (barter exchange, bullion, coined money, and credit), infrastructure (both physical and legal), standardisation (of weights, language, and consumption patterns), and the use of technology. “Part 3: Processes” brings the discussion in the two preceding parts together to demonstrate how the economies of each of the regions developed between 300 BCE and 300 CE. While some of the content in these closing chapters repeats material that was discussed in great detail in Parts 1 and 2, it primarily discusses how the actors and the tools used in these regions came together and transformed economic processes over time.

A theme that becomes apparent throughout this volume is the influence of the Hellenistic period and the innovations it brought to the wider Afro-Eurasian region. Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire and the division of his Empire among his successors allowed for the widespread exchange of information, culture, and technology.[2] This brought with it a greater degree of urbanisation and monetisation which came with the increasing necessity for trade both locally and inter-regionally both for essentials (food, textiles, etc.) and for elite luxuries (spices, exotic animals, premium textiles, etc.). These developments led to higher levels of mobility across the Afro-Eurasian area. The authors associate two primary developments with this period’s increased level of connectivity: first, the emergence of a middling class of consumer in the ancient world facilitated a large amount of inconspicuous but vital exchange and directed popular consumption trends (often incorporating foreign luxuries popularised by the local elite); secondly, the shift to coinage for the payment of taxation forced the populace to interact with a centralised market to fulfil this state demand. Many of the economies detailed in this volume either display similar weight standards for coinage (e.g., the Attic standard) or make use of a common language to better facilitate trade, thus reducing overall transaction costs and making inter-regional commerce more accessible.[3] The authors of this volume are careful not to claim that such economic developments are standardised across the Afro-Eurasian space but rather show that many places demonstrate deviations from the Graeco-Roman model to better suit the locality.[4]

The authors exhaustively discuss their topics in light of current scholarship . However, the reader is left wanting more cohesion between chapters. The introduction states that globalisation and network theory will be used to develop models of economic connectivity and economic trends at a global, Afro-Eurasian, scale. Very little of this inter-regional connectivity is actually discussed. While some essays, such as Mamta Dwivedi’s discussion of early historic South Asia and Kathrin Leese-Messing’s of early imperial China make frequent reference to direct contact or influence between their respective cultures and the Graeco-Roman world or how these economies were expressly different, many of the chapters are very much focused on their specific regions and often leave it up to the reader to make these connections themselves. Without such discussion, much of the volume only provides summaries of how ancient economies functioned and developed during the chronological limits of the volume. It appears that the subject of connectivity will be the primary subject of the third volume of this series, which will focus on the inter-imperial frontier zones in Afro-Eurasia.[5]

The Excursus, ‘Constituting Local and Imperial Landscapes’, demonstrates  the value of looking at physical geographies and environments from a global perspective. Humans were not the only  actors who shaped the economies of the ancient world, but rather, these landscapes should be seen as economic actors in their own right. For example, the Red Sea coastline provided several opportunities for fishing and port activity to all of its communities, but it also hindered agriculture with its scorching sun and hilly terrain.[6] Places such as the ‘Hexi’ corridor in China and the piedmonts of Central Asia facilitated long-distance trade and communication of ideas and technology. At the same time, the ‘Hexi’ corridor provided a barrier to north-south communication and the harsh landscapes of the piedmonts of Central Asia meant that transit and trade focused on certain locations, such as the ‘Iron Gates’ pass between northern Bactria and Sogdiana.

The Excursus further shows that there was an interplay between these landscapes and those that existed within them: a single landscape could represent different opportunities or challenges to different economic actors. To long-distance travellers, the forests of South Asia might represent an obstacle to transit and therefore the hardest part of their journey. In contrast, to local communities forests were their agricultural fields, providing valuable economic opportunities for resource extraction such as medicinal plants. Forest dwellers saw the forest as a producer of elephant companions while state actors used these elephants as valuable gifts to the king or as war machines. The ‘Iron Gates’ pass provided both a convenient transit space amongst the mountainous landscape for long-distance actors, and also an easily defended and controlled military frontier for imperial agents. The authors of this chapter argue that landscapes should not be seen as static physical spaces but rather as subjective experiences which differed depending on those who interacted with them.

The authors should be applauded for their efforts in assembling this volume. It is certainly a unique publication in regard to its scope and it provides a very informative starting point for other such discussions in our field. It is an essential reference for how the economies of the ancient Afro-Eurasian world functioned and these inter-regional studies open up significant space for novel ideas to emerge which hopefully will be fully addressed in the forthcoming final volume of this series regarding inter-imperial frontier zones.


Authors and Titles

“Introduction to the Second Volume”, Sitta von Reden

1 “Globalisation beyond the Silk Road: Writing Global History of Ancient Economies”, Milinda Hoo
2 “Local, Regional, and Imperial Economies”, Sitta von Reden

Part 1: Actors
“Introduction”, Lara Fabian
3.A “Economic Actors in the Hellenistic and Roman Empires: The Mediterranean and Southwest Asia”, Lara Fabian and Eli J. S. Weaverdyck
3.B “Economic Actors in the Arsakid Actors”, Razieh Taasob
4 “Economic Actors under the Greek Kingdoms of Central Asia to the Kushan Empire”, Lauren Morris
5 “Territorial and Transterritorial Economic Actors in Early Historic South Asia”, Mamta Dwivedi
6 “Economic Actors in Early Imperial China”, Kathrin Leese-Messing
7 “Constituting Local and Imperial Landscapes”, Eli J. S. Weaverdyck, Lara Fabian, Lauren Morris, Mamta Dwivedi, and Kathrin Leese-Messing

Part 2: Tools
“Introduction”, Eli J. S. Weaverdyck
8.A “Tools of Economic Activity in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds: Empires and Coordination”, Eli. J. S. Weaverdyck and Lara Fabian
8.B “Tools of Economic Activity in the Arsakid Empire”, Razieh Taasob with contribution from Sitta von Reden
9 “Tools of Economic Activity from the Greek Kingdoms of Central Asia to the Kushan Empire”, Lauren Morris
10 “Tools of Economic Connectivity in Early Historic South Asia”, Mamta Dwivedi
11 “Tools of Economic Activity in Early Imperial China”, Kathrin Leese-Messing

Part 3: Processes
“Introduction”, Lara Fabian
12.A “Economic Dynamics in the Hellenistic Empires”, Sitta von Reden
12.B “Economic Dynamics in the Arsakid Empire”, Lara Fabian
12.C “Institutions and Economic Relations in the Roman Empire: Consumption, Supply, and Coordination”, Eli J. S. Weaverdyck
13 “Economic Development under the Greek Kingdoms of Central Asia to the Kushan Empire: Empire, Migration, and Monasteries”, Lauren Morris
14 “Political, Corporate, and Ritual Economic Processes of Early Historic South Asia”, Mamta Dwivedi
15 “Structures and Dynamics of the Early Imperial Chinese Economy”, Kathrin Leese-Messing



[1] S. von Reden (ed.) (2019), Handbook of Ancient Afro-Eurasian Economies, Volume 1: Contexts (Berlin: De Gruyter).

[2] See p. 356 in this volume which compares the interregional royal coinages of the Hellenistic period to the limited and uneven coinage of the Achaemenid Empire. This concept is discussed in Lauren Morris’ chapter on economic development under the Greek kingdoms of Central Asia to the Kushan empire. Morris argues that it is the use of a similar lingua franca, such as Greek and later Latin, and similar weights and measures meant that people could negotiate common ground and lower transaction costs, giving the local population easy access to a much larger economic market.

[3] Several examples of coinage struck at standards specifically for inter-regional or Empire-wide trade are cited. For example, the Indo-Greek coinages were minted at an exchangeable standard to be used in both Bactria and Gandhara (ch. 9, II, 3). The authors suggest that these coins were not only used by imperial agents for taxation and royal expenditure, but also by regional and local actors who participated in wider commercial spheres in both the Hellenistic and Indic worlds. Further, the coinage of Seleukos I had denominations minted at an Attic standard for wider Hellenistic exchange and another at a Persian standard for local use (ch. 8B, III).

[4] See chapter 15 for the lack of private trade associations during the Former Han Period, rather opting to let this be operated by in-house organisation that acted in service of the state. These trade networks were based on relatively fixed groups based on kinship and neighbourhoods.

[5] As stated in Sitta von Reden’s introduction to the second volume on page 3.

[6] The Egyptians contrasted this dangerous ‘Red Land’ with their own comfortable ‘Black Land’ along the Nile valley. The Greeks and Romans described the Red Sea region as a land inhabited by strange people who were barely human. For more see Reger, G. (2017), ‘Romans in the Egyptian desert: From desert space to Roman place’ in P. Derron and S. von Reden (eds.) Économie et ínégalité: Resources, échanges et pouvoir dans l’antiquité Classique (Vandoeuvres: Fondation Hardt): 115-144.