BMCR 2023.09.30

Debt in the ancient Mediterranean and Near East: credit, money, and social obligation

, Debt in the ancient Mediterranean and Near East: credit, money, and social obligation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2022. Pp. 296. ISBN 9780197647172


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


This book collects a series of contributions that originated in a workshop on ideas regarding antiquity that the late anthropologist David Graeber (1961-2020) presented in his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years,[1] held in Tübingen in 2016. As with the original workshop, the volume edited by John Weisweiler aims at discussing the value of some of Graeber’s ideas on credit, money and social obligation during the Axial Age for the study of the ancient and medieval Mediterranean. As stated in Chapter 1, the volume has two main objectives, namely, to test the accuracy of the narrative of the rise and fall of the “currency-slavery-warfare complex” and to offer a history of the ancient systems of credit that addresses “the dual nature of debt as both a quantifiable economic reality and an immeasurable social obligation” (p. 2). Each topic is discussed through a wide selection of sources, including philosophical, legal, and literary texts, public speeches, and documentary papyri. The contributions are based on a solid knowledge of the literature on each subject and feature detailed notes.

Chapter 1 introduces some of the common topics addressed by the contributors, all related to the social and cultural consequences of the application of market-based rationality to other fields of human experience. Departing from some of the perspectives of new institutional economics, John Weisweiler explains how Graeber’s theoretical framework may help rethink some of the key questions of ancient economy. The next few chapters (2-8) deal with different cases concerning what Graeber called, borrowing Karl Jaspers’ concept, the “Axial Age” (which Graeber extends from 700 BCE to 700 CE), when the “currency-slavery-warfare complex” reshaped social relations and gave birth to new, more “materialist” philosophies across Eurasia.[2] This concept, based on sociologist Geoffrey Ingham’s “military-coinage complex,”[3] refers to the close ties, in ancient Mediterranean societies, between state expansion, warfare, the capture of slaves, and the emergence of coinage; a connection summarized by Graeber as “money was needed to pay armies to capture slaves to mine gold to produce money.”[4] In chapter 2, Reinhard Pirngruber examines, through literary texts and business documents, the ideological impact of the introduction of cash payments and market exchange in first-millenium BCE Babylonia. In chapter 3, Richard Seaford compares the nature of cosmic debt (a topic that had already interested Graeber) in Axial Age Greek thought to its Indian counterpart, where the introduction of metal currency seems to have originated a notion of the cosmos as an eternal cycle of monetized obligation from which individuals could escape by means of different procedures. In chapter 4, Moritz Hinsch deals with the idea that “one must pay one’s debts” (a notion that inspired Graeber to further delve into the moral confusion that surrounds both ancient and modern conceptions of debt) in fifth- and fourth-century BCE Greek thought and with the exceptionality of great-scale debt crises in classical Greece, despite the pervasiveness of indebtedness during the period. Lisa Eberle writes as well on the moral confusion about debt in chapter 5, specifically concerning how second- and first-century BCE Roman elites were confused about it and how this confusion affected relations between elite men and the practices of gift-exchange that accompanied it (thus connecting her argument with the history of Roman patronage). In chapter 6, Neville Morley delves further into Roman economic thought by looking at Varro’s reflections, in his De re rustica, about traditional and new practices in Roman agriculture and on the best ways of managing a state and obtaining profit from it, showing how “non-economic rationalities” also guided business decisions and how Varro’s oeuvre aimed at changing the moral discourse about marketization.

In chapter 7, John Weisweiler explores the possibilities offered by Graeber’s ideas on the link between marketization and state formation to explain the coexistence, during the fourth and fifth centuries CE, of an expanding Roman state and the rise of inter-regional trade activities and levels of monetization through the introduction of the solidus, analysing as well the unequal effects of this combination on different sections of the population. In chapter 8, Richard Payne examines the interdependence of religion and empire-building in the case of Zoroastrianism, whose cosmology allowed rulers to legitimize a highly hierarchical social order largely sustained by debt. Payne also explores examples of resistance, such as the Mazdakite revolt in the sixth century, and wonders if we can understand some of early Islam’s traits (such as the condemnation of usury) as a conscious opposition to the Zoroastrian legitimization of inequalities.

In chapters 9 to 11, we turn to the early Middle Ages. Chapters 9 and 10 deal specifically with the early Islamic economy, one of Graeber’s main interests due to its global importance. In chapter 9, Michael Bonner concerns himself with different issues related to debt in Islam, highlighting the continuity between pre-Islamic forms of reciprocity and the Islamic ethos of social obligation and the limits it set to the commodification of people. Through the seventh- and eighth-century Egyptian and Palestinian papyrological evidence, Arietta Papaconstantinou shows how the imperial economic rationalities and exploitative relations established during the Axial Age continued to operate at least until the early Fatimid period. By examining different examples of the web of familiar and patronage obligations, Papaconstantinou offers a complex view from below of how debt was handled in practice in small-scale communities and through relations of interpersonal trust, and she suggests that these local communities could prove as coercive and exploitative as highly centralized empires and featured as much structural violence. Along similar lines, in chapter 11, Alice Rio turns to early medieval Europe, where monetization and marketization decreased and highly centralized polities disappeared. Rio argues, however, that this shift does not necessarily translate into a decline of structural violence and exploitation: the exchange of humans and material goods and the trade of certain categories of people were perfectly acceptable in some regions during the period up to, at least, the Carolingian period, despite the disappearance of the institutional backing of certain mechanisms of coercion, now turned into coercive instruments in the hands of local elites. The afterword (chapter 12) by Keith Hart recaps the various approaches opened by the book and examines how late capitalism, still deeply embedded in networks of debt, shares certain traits with the agrarian civilizations discussed in it.

The contributions collected in this outstanding volume demonstrate a deep knowledge of Graeber’s theory of debt and playfully engage with its proposals and provocations, acknowledging its value for scholars of social and economic history while at the same time aiming to polish some of its inaccuracies concerning ancient and early medieval history; after all, Graeber was not a historian but an anthropologist. For example, Papaconstantinou rightly notes (pp. 148-149) that his assessment of the late antique economic transformations would have been more complete and up-to-date had he read Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages and other titles of recent scholarship. This is hinted at as well by Weisweiler when he shows how recent scholarship has seriously questioned the decline of the Roman economy in the fourth and fifth centuries CE (pp. 104-106). Despite these inaccuracies, the authors recognise the validity and acumen of Graeber’s core ideas, such as the “currency-slavery-warfare complex”, the intimate link between the processes of marketization, state-formation, and monetization, and the complex interplay between indebtedness, expectations of equality, social values, and hierarchy structures. These are some of the lines along which the arguments of the book are built. The authors make compelling use of Graeber’s theory and, at the same time, they nuance some of its observations, such as the general disappearance of the structural violence ascribed to the highly centralized ancient agricultural empires at the end of the Axial Age (as pointed out by Papaconstantinou and Rio) and his conception of the Middle Ages as a period of communities based on the “human economy” (pp. 159-161); but they also deal with sources that vindicate some of Graeber’s points (for example, Pirngruber’s analysis of literary texts, such as the Book of Proverbs and the Murašû archive, pp. 26-31).

The contributions also deal with the political nature of Graeber’s project, conceived during the 2008 financial crisis, and with his activism, as well as with the links between his object of study and contemporary issues. Drawing on Miranda Joseph’s work and her review of Debt, Papaconstantinou addresses Graeber’s narrative of history as “a pendulum” moving between opposites, a notion that would explain the radical break he establishes between the Axial Age and the Middle Ages (pp. 149-150). The volume values and supports Graeber’s challenge to the narrative of economic history as an unstoppable progress towards more efficient modes of exchange, showing (in a similar vein to his posthumous work with the archaeologist David Wengrow)[5] that economic and social regimes have been continuously reassessed throughout history. Eberle exemplifies this feature with the moral reassessment of debt entailed by the introduction of cessio bonorum into Roman law during the late Republic (pp. 79-82); we could also interpret the Mazdakite revolt and the early Islamic caution against usury, assessed by Payne, along similar lines.

The book claims a place in ongoing debates on the nature of the ancient economies, dating back at least to the works of Karl Polanyi and Moses Finley, and it will surely inspire new research. It also connects to recent works that introduce new approaches, such as Capital in Classical Antiquity, which considers the possibilities offered by Thomas Piketty’s model for the study of the ancient economy, or Walter Scheidel’s Escape from Rome.[6] Graeber’s theory is a powerful analytical tool by which Weisweiler can counter outdated views of the late Roman economy as “declining” during the fourth and fifth centuries CE, a period during which, he argues, a combination of factors produced a parallel expansion of the market and state power (pp. 110-112); this process both encountered resistance and generated winners and losers. In sum, Debt in the Ancient Mediterranean and Near East offers a compelling discussion of modern assumptions of the universality of notions of value and economic behaviour (for example, in Morley’s chapter on Varro’s discussion of human motivations and his defence of the rational pursuit of profit as the desirable and virtuous activity for Roman elite men, esp. pp. 89-95); it also discusses how violence, debt obligation, and varied forms of abuse based on networks of dependence may linger even when centralized polities are replaced by local elites in the process of resource extraction, as seen in the contributions by Pirngruber, Papaconstantinou, and Rio. Above all, the book shows the value of Graeber’s work as an “explanation framework,” as framed by Weisweiler, for the study of the roles of debt and money in the shaping of human relationships and for rethinking ancient and early medieval economic thought. The book is nicely dedicated to David Graeber’s memory in a posthumous recognition of the importance of his work.


Authors and titles

  1. The Currency-Slavery-Warfare Complex: David Graeber and the History of Value in Antiquity (John Weisweiler)
  2. Beyond Debt: Markets and Morality in First-Millenium BCE Babylonia (Reinhard Pirngruber)
  3. Cosmic Debt in Greece and India (Richard Seaford)
  4. Private Debts in Classical Greece: Bond of Friendship, Curse of Hatred? (Moritz Hinsch)
  5. Debt, Death and Destruction in Ancient Rome (Lisa Eberle)
  6. The Poetics and Politics of Exchange in Roman Agronomy (Neville Morley)
  7. Monetization, Marketization, and State Formation: The Later Roman Empire as an Axial-Age Economy (John Weisweiler)
  8. Zoroastrian Materialism: Religion, Empire and Their Critics in Graeber’s Late Axial Age (Richard Payne)
  9. Debt, Debt Bondage, and the Early Islamic Economy (Michael Bonner)
  10. Debt’s Fourth Millenium Seen from Below: How Papyri Modify the Picture (Arietta Papaconstantinou)
  11. After the Axial Age: Debt and Obligation in the European Middle Ages (Alice Rio)
  12. Afterword (Keith Hart)



[1] D. Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House, 2011).

[2] Graeber 2011, 243-250.

[3] Graeber 2011, 229.

[4] Graeber 2011, 239.

[5] D. Graeber and D. Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything. A New History of Humanity (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021).

[6] M. Koedijk and N. Morley (eds.), Capital in Classical Antiquity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022); W. Scheidel, Escape from Rome (Princeton, 2019).