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Economies beyond Agriculture in the Classical World

Author(s):Mattingly, David J.
Salmon, John
Reviewer(s):Engen, Darel

Published by EH.NET (February 2003)


David J. Mattingly and John Salmon, editors, Economies beyond Agriculture in the Classical World. London and New York: Routledge, 2001. xii + 324 pp. $90 (cloth), ISBN: 0-415-21253-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Darel Engen, Department of History, California State University, San Marcos.

The economy of the ancient Greco-Roman world is an enigma. Despite over a century of debate, it has eluded all attempts at general characterization. The collection of articles edited by David Mattingly (University of Leicester) and John Salmon (University of Nottingham) entitled, Economies beyond Agriculture in the Classical World, may not resolve the debate, but it will help to propel it into new and fertile territory that at the very least will enhance our understanding of the ancient economy.

In the last quarter century a view most persuasively set out by the influential ancient historian, Moses Finley, has come to be the focal point around which the debate about the nature of the ancient economy has swirled.(1) Finley’s basic thesis is that the ancient economy was not only quantitatively small in scale, with low levels of capital investment, technological development, long-distance trade in non-luxury goods, and industrial specialization, but also qualitatively “primitive,” with social and political factors dominating “economic rationality” in motivating and organizing economic relationships and cities existing primarily as places of consumption, exploiting production carried out largely through agriculture in the countryside. Many recent studies, however, have argued at least for modifications of Finley’s view and Economies contains an excellent collection of several solid examples of this new scholarship.(2)

In particular, the collected articles in Economies examine the significance of the non-agrarian sector in the economies of ancient Greece and Rome and are the result of the Nottingham-Leicester Ancient History Seminar series from 1995 to 1997, entitled, “The Productive Past: Economies beyond Agriculture in the Ancient World.” The articles are grouped into sections concerning a variety of productive activity outside of agriculture and argue both against and in support of the Finley model and from both theoretical and empirical perspectives.

After a concise introduction by the editors that sets out the context of the collection within current scholarship on the ancient economy, the section entitled, “Modelling the ancient economy,” presents articles that discuss the key issue of economic growth. Paul Millet’s article critiques Keith Hopkins’ twenty-year-old arguments for growth in the Roman economy by offering alternative explanations to growth from the evidence cited by Hopkins.(3) Millet’s conclusion is that significant economic growth is likely to have occurred only during the early Roman Empire and was the product of exceptional circumstances, thus making it an aberration from the usual rule of little to no economic growth in the ancient world. On the other hand, the articles of Greg Woolf and David Mattingly et al. both attempt to test theoretical models against archaeological evidence from two specific places in the Roman Empire, Gaul and the city of Leptiminus in North Africa respectively, and conclude that the evidence of productive growth requires at least a modification of the Finley model of the “consumer city.” However, consistent with Millet’s article is the possibility that such a modification is specific to the era of the Roman Empire and is the result of political conditions created by the Empire, rather than free market economics. Jean-Jacques Aubert contributes an article on the management of non-agrarian production, but can conclude only that the indirect nature of the evidence (e.g. we know that management must have existed from the evidence of non-agrarian productive activity) is inadequate to study the economic ramifications of such management.

The section entitled, “Extraction,” concerns such non-agrarian pursuits as mining and quarrying. T.E. Rihll’s examination of the mining and processing of silver in Athens shows that the scale, complexity, and specialization of such activity must be said to constitute an industry. It should be noted, however, that the scale of Athenian mining operations was unique in the Greek world. Although the two articles by Valerie Maxfield and Colin Adams show that Roman stone quarrying in eastern Egypt was conducted on a tremendous scale, it would not and could not have been conducted by anything other than the Roman Imperial government, which alone had the power to conduct such an immense undertaking and did so primarily for political reasons (e.g. to build huge temples and arenas) that flew in the face of any economic rationalism.

Although much of the economic activity surrounding building in ancient Greece also defied economic rationalism, the section entitled, “Construction,” contains articles by John Salmon and J.K. Davies that take a closer look at the significance of building in the Greek economy. Davies’ article examines the epigraphic records containing the accounts for building temples at the sanctuary of Delphi. The records provide evidence for the development of administration, manufacturing skills, infrastructure, contracting, and regional interaction in economic partnerships and transportation of goods. It is especially refreshing that Davies examines the epigraphic evidence, which, in addition to archaeological evidence, may provide a path for us to explore beyond the limits of the old debate about the ancient economy, so bound as it was by theory and literary evidence. Salmon argues for a new method to detect economic growth through a comparison of labor costs for building projects in the Greek world over time. His approach requires some assumptions based on estimates to develop multipliers extrapolated from better to less well documented building projects. Such a method has its weaknesses (see the divergent figures obtained for estimates of the Athenian grain trade), but in the absence of more explicit evidence and given that the statistical sample of Greek public buildings is fairly complete, his method might at least give us a reasonable indication of the economic impact of the Greek building industry.(4) An article by Janet Delaine also attempts to quantify labor requirements for buildings, but this time in the Roman world. She wisely cautions that her methods require assumptions and estimates that really cannot provide us with figures for absolute costs, but argues that such an attempt at quantification can allow for useful comparisons of relative costs. Her study shows that building with concrete was much less labor intensive than doing so with dressed stone and that political factors often took precedent over cost effectiveness in the choice of materials for the monumental buildings of Rome.

The final section on “Textile production” includes articles by Andrew Wilson and J.F. Drinkwater that come to different conclusions for the significance of this activity in the Roman economy. The former argues on the basis of archaeological evidence that textile production in North Africa took place largely outside of its traditional locus in the private household and instead in numerous small workshops that existed together with well-organized cloth markets. Wilson thus suggests that the Finley model of the “consumer city” overgeneralizes what may be a more complex array of “city types,” some being net-consumers, others net-producers, others market centers, and so on. Drinkwater, however, downplays the existence of locally prominent wool manufacturers in northwestern Gaul by comparing them to their much more economically significant counterparts in the medieval era. His conclusion is that what Finley referred to as a “common psychological framework” of primitive economic thinking kept the people and government of Rome from exploiting the economic potential of wool manufacture, minimizing its growth and impact on the economy.

Overall, Economies is a useful collection of scholarship on the subject. It will appeal mostly to specialists in the history of the ancient Greek and Roman economies, but will also be valuable to any economic historians who have some knowledge of the historical context of the Greco-Roman world and the debate about its economy. The collection fits snugly into the growing body of scholarship that has attempted to move beyond the restricting confines of the old debate. The combination of theory and solid evidence, particularly archaeological, but also some epigraphic, is most welcome and several of the contributors are to be commended for their innovative approaches to the subject. It is also refreshing that the articles draw a clear distinction between the economies of the Greek and Roman worlds, something Finley failed to do when he lumped together an area stretching from Spain to Mesopotamia over the course of a millennium into one “ancient economy.” At the same time, however, this leads to one major shortcoming of Economies: those who wish to gain more knowledge of the Greek economy will have to look elsewhere, for the collection is heavily weighted toward analyses of the Roman economy, with only three of the twelve articles being devoted to Greece.

But despite being mostly about the Roman economy, the articles in Economies do reveal some important themes, the most significant of which in the opinion of this reviewer is that we must move beyond the parameters of debate about the nature of the ancient economy as it has been shaped over the last century. With the number of exceptions to the models of both Finley and his detractors growing with each new detailed study of specific aspects of the economy, it is clear that the economy was far too complex and dynamic to be characterized by such broad models. There is now ample evidence that can be drawn on to support either side in the debate. The choice of which side to support depends largely on which sector of the economy one wishes to examine, at what time period, and in what area. Agriculture, manufacturing, trade, and extraction were each unique in scale, organization, and potential for growth and cannot be easily lumped together into one simple picture of the economy overall. Moreover, the economies of Greece and Rome were as different as they were similar. The articles in Economies reveal time and again that early Imperial Rome created the kind of stability over a large area that was conducive to economic growth, but that this was unique in the ancient world. In Greece very different conditions prevailed and even within Greece, it is impossible to generalize about such divergent city-states as Athens, Sparta, Thebes, and Corinth.

Finley was right about one thing: the ancient economy was in many ways more different from ours than it was similar. But the increasing number of exceptions to his model, such as those put forth by several studies in Economies, show that Finley’s model, though useful in its general conception, grossly oversimplifies the complexity and dynamism of the economies of ancient Greece and Rome. Thus, with each new study of specific sectors of the Greek and Roman economies we will eventually obtain a much more nuanced and accurate picture. David Mattingly, John Salmon, and the authors of the articles in Economies beyond Agriculture in the Classical World have made a useful and important contribution to this effort.


1. Finley 1985.

2. Scheidel and Von Reden 2002 collect several key articles written over the last twenty years on the subject. See also Engen 2001, Parkins and Smith 1998, Morris 1994, Harris 1993, Cohen 1992, and Burke 1992.

3. Hopkins 1978 and 1980.

4. See Garnsey 1985 and 1988 and Whitby 1998 for two very different estimates for Athens’ grain production.

Works Cited:

Burke, Edmund M. 1992. “The Economy of Athens in the Classical Era: Some Adjustments to the Primitivist Model.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 122: 199-226.

Cohen, Edward E. 1992. Athenian Economy and Society: A Banking Perspective. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Engen, Darel T. 2001. “Trade, Traders, and the Economy of Athens in the Fourth Century B.C.E.” In Prehistory and History: Ethnicity, Class, and Political Economy, ed. by David W. Tandy, 179-202. Montreal: Black Rose.

Finley, Moses I. 1985. The Ancient Economy. Second edition. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California. (Now available in an “Updated Edition” with a foreword by Ian Morris. Berkeley and Los Angeles 1999).

Garnsey, Peter. 1985. “Grain for Athens.” In Crux: Essays in Greek History Presented to G.E.M. de Ste. Croix on His 75th Birthday, ed. by Paul Cartledge and F.D. Harvey, 62-75. Exeter: Imprint Academic.

Garnsey, Peter. 1988. Famine and Food Supply in the Greco-Roman World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harris, W.V., ed. 1993. The Inscribed Economy. Ann Arbor: Journal of Roman Archaeology, Supplementary Series 6.

Hopkins, Keith. 1978. “Economic Growth and Towns in Classical Antiquity.” In Towns in Societies: Essays in Economic History and Historical Sociology, ed. by P. Abrams and E.A. Wrigley, 35-77. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hopkins, Keith. 1980. “Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire, 200 BC-AD 400.” Journal of Roman Studies 70: 101-125.

Morris, Ian. 1994. “The Ancient Economy Twenty Years after The Ancient Economy. Classical Philology 89: 351-366.

Parkins, Helen and Smith, Christopher. 1998. Trade, Traders, and the Ancient City. London and New York: Routledge.

Scheidel, Walter and Von Reden, Sitta. 2002. The Ancient Economy: Recent Approaches . London and New York: Routledge.

Whitby, Michael. 1998. “The Grain Trade of Athens in the Fourth Century.” In Trade, Traders, and the Ancient City, ed. by Helen Parkins and Christopher Smith, 102-128. London and New York: Routledge.

Darel Engen is an Assistant Professor at California State University, San Marcos. He has published articles on the ancient Greek economy, including “Trade, Traders, and the Economy of Athens in the Fourth Century B.C.E.,” in D.W. Tandy, ed., Prehistory and History: Ethnicity, Class, and Political Economy (Montreal 2001) 179-202 and “Ancient Greenbacks: Athenian Owls, the Law of Nikophon, and the Greek Economy” in J.R. Fears and E. Zarrow, eds., Coinage, Politics, and Ideology in the Ancient World (forthcoming). He is currently working on a book, tentatively entitled, Honor and Profit: Athenian Trade Policy and the Economy and Society of Greece, 415-307 B.C.E.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Ancient