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The Ancient Economy: Evidence and Models

Author(s):Manning, Joseph G.
Morris, Ian
Reviewer(s):Moeller, Astrid

Published by EH.NET (December 2007)

Joseph G. Manning and Ian Morris, editors, The Ancient Economy: Evidence and Models. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005. xiii + 285 pp. $60 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8047-4805-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Astrid Moeller, Seminar fuer Alte Geschichte, Freiburg University.

For more than one hundred years the economic history of ancient Greece and Rome has been a battlefield of passionate disagreement. First, there was the Buecher-Meyer controversy; then it was Moses I. Finley in the 1970s and 1980s whose analysis of the ancient economy remained highly controversial. This book under review belongs to the still ongoing debate concerning the question about the most adequate approach to the study of ancient economic history. The book has a high aim in being published with the intention to change the field by building a generalizing and comparative ancient economic history, connected both to discussions in the social sciences as well as those in the humanities. On the other hand, the editors’ self-assessment of what the book really achieves is much more modest. It is neither a systematic review of ancient Mediterranean economies nor a fully developed model, but a deliberate attempt to open up further dialogue. The book is a valuable stocktaking of the discussions in the fields into which the history of the ancient Mediterranean is traditionally divided and which constitute separate parts of the book: the Near East, the Aegean, Egypt and the Roman Mediterranean. It is, nevertheless, not yet an economic history of the ancient Mediterranean. Its most valuable aspect for readers of EH.Net consists in the fact that it does offer up-to-date insights for non-specialists in each field treated: The history of research is spread out by a number of examples illustrating different theoretical approaches and model-building. The kinds of evidence that vary in each field such as literary texts in Greek economic history, supplemented by inscriptions in the case of Roman economy, non-literary papyri in Egypt and a wide variety of texts from palaces and temples in the Near East are discussed in a lucid manner and open questions are identified. All this gives a good impression of the current discussion among scholars in the various areas of the Mediterranean.

Finley’s mark on the field has not yet disappeared. Most of the contributions take his views on the ancient economy as a starting point. Even the whole book owes its title to two of Finley’s most important works: The Ancient Economy (1973) and Ancient History: Evidence and Models (1985). Since Finley wrote on the ancient economy, perspectives have changed and there is a desire among scholars to break free from his overpowering influence. Nearly all contributors acknowledge how much they owe to Finley, but insist that it is high time to develop the field of ancient economy in new directions.

Ian Morris’ and Joe Manning’s introduction not only defines the framework, but here the most programmatic statements of the book are given. Their methodological credo holds that theory, method and data are inseparable and that it is not enough to classify and analyze primary sources without building models and relating them to the empirical material. They analyze the current state of ancient economic history as economic history without economics, holding on to a divided-Mediterranean model due to the separation of scholarly fields by language and types of evidence. This is well within the framework of Finley, who had once maintained that the Greco-Roman economy was entirely different from those of the Ancient Near East and Egypt. The impression from recent research in these fields indicates that the reality was more complex than Finley’s model suggested.

The editors’ other major concern lies in establishing a more explicitly social science history that will provide the precision needed for the comparative study of ancient Mediterranean economies. The greater accuracy should be achieved by definition of key terms and clarification of underlying assumptions, extra explicitness about processes of model building, the presentation of clear propositions with testable implications, clear statements of methods and standards of falsification, indication of causal relationships, quantification whenever possible, and formulation of descriptions and explanations in ways that can be generalized to allow comparisons between different regions and periods. One may wonder why the statement of such methodological guidelines is at all necessary. The editors analyze the current state of ancient Mediterranean studies as based on the humanistic methodology of understanding, instead of the explanation of the social scientist. These approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Since Max Weber, however, there have been attempts to bring both approaches together. Nevertheless, the editors’ quest for explanation, falsification and quantification is a necessary methodological step towards a new economic history of the ancient Mediterranean.

Mario Liverani’s overview of the Near Eastern Bronze Age concentrates on the history of interpretations in this field, a genus, according to Liverani, not yet established. The lines of tradition do not seem to be in the minds of the scholars, since the traditional philological approach considers the latest reading the best and previous ones obsolete. For the study of economic history, he demands the consideration of cultural forms in economic behavior: Economic activities depend on social and cultural conditions, not only on economic laws.

Peter Bedford treats the economy of the Near East in the first millennium BC. He discusses the influence of Weber, Polanyi, Finley and Marxist approaches on the scholarship in this field. Finley’s divided-Mediterranean model is criticized in that the conditions in the Near East were not as fundamentally different from the Greco-Roman world as Finley assumed. Bedford’s discussion of the evidence gives a very good impression of the material available for model building to every non-Near-Eastern scholar. He points out that regions and periods are different and that the Syro-Palestinian coast has to be considered in any modeling.

Both Liverani and Bedford are commented on by Mark Granovetter who points to the fact that the discussions in ancient economic history are framed, on the one hand, by the ideas of Weber, Polanyi and Finley and, on the other, by the rational actor – optimal outcome argument. He emphasizes the one-sidedness of both Polanyi and rational-choice interpretations. According to him, to play off politics dominating a society against rational economic action or vice versa is unproductive. One better asks how political, economic, and social activities and institutions fit together and how they produce the great variability of outcomes we see in history. Models to cover this wealth of possibilities certainly need to be complex.

Ian Morris’ contribution on archaeology, standards of living and Greek economic history deals with the limitations and perils of the archaeological material. Unlike most of the other papers that are rather pieces of secondary scholarship, he works from empirical evidence. His proposal for doing economic history after Finley is to concentrate on economic growth. Finley and the substantivists paid little attention on economic growth assuming that this did not much occur earlier than 1800 AD. Nor did Finley pay attention to standards of living, which are, however, a central issue in doing economic history according to Morris. In identifying an increase in household sizes in Greece by five to six between 800 and 300 BC, Morris identifies sustained improvement in standards of living, albeit across a rather long period of time together with a roughly ten-fold increase in population. To link this increase in the standard of living to quantified changes in economic output per capita does prove difficult. Morris is convinced that we deal with a surprisingly high level of economic growth that calls for new models and constitutes a challenge to the current orthodoxy that agrarian economies were essentially static before 1750 AD.

John Davies gives the third paper of his triad on ways of modeling ancient economies visually. He points to several instances that need to be incorporated into a realistic model of ancient economy in contrast to the standard discourse of economic analysis: A significant portion of production and consumption took place within family farms and never reached markets. Elements of ostentation, largesse, or euergetism played a major role that leaves the problem of tracing the intended return, but to ignore social returns means to ignore a major component of ancient economic interaction. Neither the homo oeconomicus with his psychological profile nor assumptions of effective price mechanisms can be applied across the spectrum of ancient societies. No ancient economy can be defined, or was dominated, by one particular mode without change. In creating his highly complex model diagram, Davies concentrates on the tracing of flows. The result drives the complexity of a two-dimensional diagram too far; it is difficult to distinguish the important features from the less important ones. He seems to feel the limits of such an endeavor and suggests, among other things, exploring the possibilities of mathematizing the language of description.

This point is called into question by Takeshi Amemiya who comments on Davies. He is less optimistic about mathematically sophisticated models, since they tend to distract from the important details of historical reality. The mathematically inexperienced person has less chance to see its weaknesses. According to him, most econometricians are content with estimating reduced-form statistical models, which might be useful for analyzing the Athenian economy, if there were enough data. Amemiya expresses sympathy with Davies’ quest for models that show a high degree of intricacy, complexity, instability, and disarticulatedness; he suggests that every economist should strive for that.

Joe Manning explores the relationship of evidence to models in the Ptolemaic economy. He believes that one can write an economic history of Ptolemaic Egypt, but he is less confident about proposing a dynamic, testable model. To him, the nature of the ancient economy renders it more descriptive than analytic. His main question is: How does the type of evidence shape the way of model building? The well-known evidence from Egypt is papyri whose study remains the domain of specialists; Greek and Demotic are generally treated as two different fields without much communication. The Ptolemaic economy once neither received much treatment in the context of broader issues of economic history, nor in an Egyptological context, since for Egyptologists this was part of the less interesting Late Period. Over the last two decades, however, a renewed general interest was driven by Sa?d’s Orientalism (1978) and papyrological studies made the evidence more accessible. Moreover, there was a revival of reading Demotic texts. In contrast to Finley’s approach to the ancient economy, the study of the Ptolemaic economy has been driven by the study of documents. It was Michail Rostovtzeff who created the influential model of the state-centralized economy which can no longer be sustained; Finley did not consider any change from the old system in Egypt by the new foreign rulers. A new model is emerging through a regional approach (Fayyum looks rather more special than the Nile valley) that shows local power alongside state power and considers institutional change.

Roger Bagnall treats evidence and models for the economy of Roman Egypt. Starting with criticism of Finley for his tendency to consider Egypt unique on the assumption that papyri had no relevance to other parts of the Mediterranean, Bagnall considers the uniqueness argument obsolete: Egyptian-style documentation has been found in other places and Egyptian papyri can be used for major issues of Roman economy. Not yet presenting a new model, Bagnall describes areas where real progress has been made: the models of colonate and feudalism, the use of tenancy in agriculture and the operation of large estates have been under close scrutiny. We now know that Oxyrhynchos had more textile industry than Finley thought. The producer/consumer dichotomy in the urban economy, transportation and social status has recently received study. The Romans did not leave the Ptolemaic system untouched: They set out to dismantle the remains of the Ptolemaic state; professional bureaucracy was largely replaced by liturgical service; land was turned over large scale to private ownership, in particular the old Ptolemaic military allotments. The aim should be a working model of the economy of Roman Egypt, of a particular Roman province, with both its universal and its particular dimension. This task should be possible as there is enough evidence.

R. Bruce Hitchner makes a case for economic growth in the Roman Empire. He describes the empire as the most stable, resource-rich, culturally integrated, and economically developed state of antiquity. Thus, the conditions for real economic growth between the later first century BC and the early third century AD were favorable. Economic growth refers to a rise in the average real income per head and a corresponding rise in population, but it is not so easy to determine whether growth occurred in historical societies where statistical information on income and population is lacking. Hitchner does not seek refuge in the creation of proxy statistics, but in the application of what is called the “cliometric methods of debate.” He supports his case for economic growth by analyzing environmental conditions, infrastructure, the rule of law and secure institutions, technological advancement without spectacular innovations, the development of a non-agricultural production sector, and increased trade. Surely, economic growth was not universal in the Roman Empire, but Hitchner’s set of indications is impressive and calls for models of the pre-modern economy that are able to incorporate such growth. Yet again, the Finley orthodoxy is called into question.

Richard Saller contributes to the debate on economic growth in the Roman Empire, but is far less optimistic than Hitchner. He starts by asking why the thought of Rostovtzeff and Finley, who had much more in common than is generally believed, has been distorted. According to him it was the polemical tone that characterized the reaction to Finley’s Ancient Economy that encouraged polarization. The lack of data to find a satisfying conclusion and the debate over the value of new archaeological finds does not help either to find a more objective view of what the representatives of both directions in ancient economic history actually said. Saller looks at five points that are commonly identified as causes for growth in per capita production by modern economists and applies those to the Roman Empire: Development of trade compared to the importance of the agricultural sector remained restricted; capital investment was restricted by the rentier mentality; technological improvement was not remarkable; improved living standards in the urban sector, education and training remained a reserve of the elite without much benefit to increased productivity; while the institutional framework might be a test case for Douglass North’s neo-institutional theory. However, he concludes that in Italy there was a less consistent growth than one would expect. The little growth that we detect between 100 BC and 200 AD was significant from the perspective of the period of Roman annexation of the Mediterranean. From the perspective of the industrial age the growth was, however, imperceptible.

Finally, Avner Greif comments on Hitchner and Saller and suggests that we should look at Rome’s positive contributions. To him, the Roman waterwheel constitutes a conceptual breakthrough, and the legal tradition as well as the language left a long-term and significant mark on the European culture. He proposes to ask how the Roman Empire shaped the process through which modern economic growth has developed.

The volume is witness to the lively debates currently held on ancient economic history. All the authors are resolved to go beyond the orthodoxies established by Finley; they actually do incorporate questions and methods from economic history and theory of other periods without exposing themselves to the accusation of formalism or modernism. The papers bring together specialists of different periods and regions, thus serving the development of shared methods. The book sets out core issues in each area that will need to be addressed before a proper comparative history can develop. This book is an important step towards an economic history of the ancient Mediterranean.

Astrid Moeller is Associate Professor for Ancient History at Freiburg University (Germany). Her research interests include the economic history of the ancient Mediterranean. She contributed to The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World.

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