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Agrarian Change in Late Antiquity: Gold, Labour and Aristocratic Dominance

Author(s):Banaji, Jairus
Reviewer(s):Grantham, George

Published by EH.NET (May 2004)

Jairus Banaji, Agrarian Change in Late Antiquity: Gold, Labour and Aristocratic Dominance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. xvii + 286 pp. $85 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-19-924440-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by George Grantham, Department of Economics, McGill University.

Of the many unresolved issues in Europe’s pre-industrial economic history, few have proved more recalcitrant to scholarly investigation than the economic evolution of the Later Roman Empire. The biggest impediment is the loss of almost all documents concerned with the distribution of land, its productivity, the details of fiscal and monetary institutions that affected aggregate economic performance, and prices. Papyri preserved in the arid climate of Egypt and Syria provide some numerical evidence from the eastern half of the Empire, but the only information bearing on daily economic life in the Western Empire comes from the legal texts and a few dozen fragments of commercial correspondence preserved on wooden writing tablets. As a result, the picture of the late Roman economy has had to be pieced together from histories often composed a century after the facts they relate, contemporary religious polemics, and the two great digests of Roman Law compiled in the late 430s and the 560s. This is the stuff of which myths are made. The central myth of the later Roman economy is that it imploded into rural autarchy based on privatized local government by landlords who ruled over a large class of agricultural dependents in a kind of latent feudalism. These views are best known to modern economic historians through the works of Moses Finley.

Professor Banaji’s book is one of a growing number of recent publications to challenge this myth, whose roots go back to the narratives constructed by Italian Renaissance humanists, and more recently to Max Weber. A firm supporter of the ‘stages’ theory to economic and social evolution as expressed in the writings of B?cher, Weber argued on a priori grounds that the classical economy could not have been capitalist — by which he meant a society peopled by profit-maximizing agents coordinated by market prices — because western capitalism arose in the unique historical circumstances of the central Middle Ages. The classical economy was a household economy writ large through the agency of agricultural slavery. Weber conceded the existence of the market, but he argued that it was a hothouse plant rooted in the easily depleted soil of slavery, and withered when that institution decayed into a kind of latent feudalism for lack of new supplies of slaves. In the first and arguably best chapter of this book, Banaji draws on an extensive body of inscriptions, classical sources and archaeological reports to show that the market economy flourished in rural areas through the fourth and fifth centuries. The evidence mainly concerns North Africa and the Levant, but there is no reason to suppose it is unrepresentative of other parts of the Empire. While the documentary material is anecdotal, the overall demonstration seems solid, and accords with archaeological findings. One of the questions that evidence raises is why historians dismissed it for so long. In a useful review of the historiography, Banaji observes that Weber seems deliberately to have ignored a seminal study of Egyptian papyri by one of Mommsen’s students, which demonstrated the continuity of monetized exchange from era of the Ptolemies to the fifth century AD.[1] The general conclusion, then, is one that a growing number of classical scholars are prepared to accept — that the Roman Economy was a ‘market economy.’

Solving the taxonomical problem, however, is no more than a preliminary step to resolving questions about the path of the late classical economy. McCormick’s recent analysis of the digitized source material indicates that market connections between Western Europe and the Levant survived the fall of the Roman Empire in the West and the loss of North Africa and most of the Middle East to the Arabs in the seventh century.[2] His work also supports the generally accepted view that in the aggregate the Roman economy was probably shrinking from the third through the seventh century, which is not inconsistent with evidence showing the persistence of markets and of regional prosperity. In the absence of information that might make it possible to weight the likely experience of different parts of the Empire over this long period, one must withhold judgment. Nevertheless, Banaji’s suggestion that the fourth century and much of the fifth were fairly prosperous is plausible. We now know that the ‘invasions’ were less disruptive than over-romanticized accounts made them seem.

These questions, however, are secondary to the main purpose of the book, which is to argue that the gold standard instituted by Diocletian and his successor Constantine set the foundation for late classical prosperity. The solidus established at Trier by Constantine in 310 held its value in gold to the end of the Empire. The same cannot be said of the copper and silver coins that constituted the bulk of the circulating media. Following the arguments advanced by the Swedish historian Gunnar Mickwitz, Banaji argues that the new gold coinage revolutionized the late Roman economy by securing a stable money, and by providing a means by which financially astute bureaucrats could accumulate fortunes that they subsequently invested in land. The argument thus reverses the old historiography by asserting that the new currency system assisted the revival and indeed an expansion of a monetized economy. The logic is nevertheless confusing. It seems to go like this.

In the troubled middle decades of the third century, the old Roman fiscal system collapsed under the combined weight of repeated wars among competitors for the Imperial throne and invasions by barbarians taking advantage of a temporary power vacuum along the frontier. To meet pressing needs the Imperial state began to collect taxes in kind, which were paid directly to troops stationed in the districts where the taxes were being raised. In the conventional historiography the appearance of an in-kind fiscal system went hand in hand with the reversion to a ‘natural economy.’ According to Mickwitz and Banaji, taxes in kind went to the troops; the bureaucrats continued to be paid in cash, and so had an interest in a stable currency. The gold standard is thus explained by interest group politics. Banaji seems to accept the view that in the third century the economy was becoming less monetized, and that this trend reversed itself after the establishment of the solidus. The logic of this argument is very obscure. The value of the solidus relative to the price of ordinary commodities and labor (a semi-skilled worker earned three solidi per year) was so high that it can hardly have been used except as a store of wealth or in banking and wholesale commerce. Evidence of its being used in ordinary transactions most likely refers to its use as a unit of account. The value of other coins relative to the solidus varied systematically over time. One should be able to make some sense of the pattern, as the copper coinage was the principal medium of exchange. Unfortunately Banaji is not a trained economist. His monetary analysis is hopelessly contaminated by the attempt to explain the variations in the relative value of the copper, silver and gold coinage by a political sociology. The monetary history of the later Roman Empire deserves better.

The remainder of the book analyzes the evolution of landholding in Egypt from fifth to the seventh century. The main argument is that a class of large owners whose original fortunes came from high office gradually displaced the local gentry. Banaji argues that the former accumulated their fortunes in specie. Much of the discussion is given over to the commercial activities carried out on these estates. The material, which comes from a considerable body of extant papyri, is suggestive but the line of argument is lost in details that seem to be directed at several distinct issues. In view of that evidence the notion that landholding became more concentrated after the fourth century seems plausible. One is nevertheless hesitant to extend the generalization to other parts of the Empire. Egypt was always a special case.

I looked forward to reviewing this book, and have been greatly disappointed by it. Its learning is undirected and confusingly set out. It does not state hypotheses in a way that might permit the reader to judge whether they are supported or disconfirmed by the facts. This is partly the fault of the facts, which are scattered and hard to aggregate into an empirical argument. Yet one comes away with the sense that there are enough facts to support a well-argued hypothesis. The strong point of the book is its document of pervasive market activity. It ought to be possible to reason from this demonstration to develop some conjectures bearing on the supply and especially the demand for money after 300 AD. Banaji’s book suggests that there are sufficient facts around to attempt this. What is needed is a bit more formal reasoning to provide some structure around which the facts can be organized. As has become all too common in academic publishing, the copy editing is shoddy; some sentences are incomplete, and others so poorly constructed that getting through them is a labor of Sysyphus. The book stands as an object lesson in why economic history should be done by people who understand economics. The monetary and fiscal history of the Later Roman Empire remains an enigma.


1. Ulrich Wilcken, Griechische Ostraka aus Aegypten und Nubien (1899).

2. Michael McCormick, Origins of the European Economy (2001).

George Grantham has been working for an intolerably long time on a book on the long-run economic history of pre-industrial agricultural productivity in Europe. Recent publications and working papers include “Rationality Revised: A Brief History of the Concept of Rationality in Economics” in The Social Sciences and Rationality: Promise, Limits and Problems, edited by Axel van den Berg and Hudson Meadwell (Transaction Press, forthcoming, 2004); “Contra Ricardo: On the Macro-economics of Europe’s Agrarian Age,” European Review of Economic History (1999); “The Early Medieval Transition: On the Origins of the Manor and Feudal Government” (September 2003); and “Economic Integration in the First Millennium BC: The Alphabetic Revolution” (July 2003).

Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):Middle East
Time Period(s):Ancient