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The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World

Author(s):Scheidel, Walter
Morris, Ian
Saller, Richard P.
Reviewer(s):Temin, Peter

Published by EH.NET (May 2009)

Walter Scheidel, Ian Morris and Richard P. Saller, editors, The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. xiv + 942 pp. $225 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-521-78053-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Peter Temin, Department of Economics, MIT.

This fine book extends the Cambridge Economic History of Europe back to the ancient world. It is written by many distinguished scholars of ancient history, and it should be the standard reference to find an overview of economic conditions and progress in ancient Greece and Rome. The fifty-page bibliography itself is an invaluable source for any economic historian looking into this period. In the words of the first editor, the book demonstrates that ?the demographic and economic developments of the Greco-Roman period were part of a wider upward trajectory of undulating growth and contraction that extended into the medieval and early modern periods of European history? (p. 86).

At close to one thousand pages, only the most interested of economic historians will read through this book. Part I of the book, however, gives a 150 page introduction to the subject that can be read profitably by all economic historians. The essays cover ecology (by Sallares), demography (Scheidel), households and gender (Saller), law and economic institutions (Frier and Kehoe), and technology (Schneider). They reveal that Douglass North has replaced Moses Finley as the agenda setter for ancient historians. The essays therefore frequently cite the New Institutional Economics (NIE) and are far more accessible to modern economic historians than previous efforts to summarize ancient economic history.

If the interested reader of this review wants more information about the Early Roman Empire, the period of peak ancient prosperity, I recommend the essays on consumption by Jongman, on the state by LoCascio, and on Egypt by Rathbone. Jongman marshals the scarce evidence that Roman prosperity extended down to ordinary people in an essay more typical of a monograph than a Cambridge economic history. LoCascio summarizes what we know about economic aspects of the early imperial state, from maintaining the currency to financing the army. Rathbone presents Roman Egypt as a fully monetized economy based on private property and extensive credit. Rathbone?s conclusion (p, 719) summarizes the themes of the volume as a whole: ?The main stimulus to economic development in Roman Egypt came from the Roman creation of a peaceful and open Mediterranean market, and the boom in demand caused by empire-wide urbanization.? He echoes Jongman?s conclusion that mass demand, ?not just elite profligacy,? drove the wheat trade and economic expansion.

Morley, discussing distribution in the early Roman Empire, reproduces (p. 577) an ancient quote about products flowing into the city of Rome: ?… merchandise of gold, and silver, and precious stone, and pearls, and fine linen, and purple, and silk, and scarlet … and wine and oil, and fine flour, and wheat, and cattle, and sheep; and merchandise of horses and chariots and slaves; and souls of men.? This echoes Keynes? famous quote (John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (London: Macmillan, 1919), 11) about London before the Great War, although the ancient source talked of a small elite, while Keynes described a growing middle class: ?The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantities as he might see fit.? Morley (p, 582) refers to ?fierce competition among merchants,? confirming the prevailing view in these essays of market activity in the early Roman Empire.

Part II of the book traces the themes of the volume in the Iron Age. It is like squeezing blood from a stone; we are limited by the sparse information that comes down to us before the classical period began. Part III treats Classical Greece, and Part VI describes the Early Roman Empire. There is enough information about these topics that the editors could impose a tri-partite strategy on them. There are chapters on production, distribution and consumption. The Roman part contains an added chapter on the government. Each of these chapters summarizes the existing literature and often takes a strong position on the resulting picture.

The remaining parts deal with Hellenistic states, the Roman Republic and regional development in the Roman Empire. The organization here is either chronological or geographical. There is not enough information to generate separate chapters on the triad of production, distribution and consumption, but each chapter tends to follow that organization. A final chapter makes the transition to late antiquity, echoing the editor?s comment quoted above by noting that recent scholarship largely has replaced the fall of the Roman Empire in favor of a transition to the economies described in other volumes of the Cambridge Economic History of Europe. The final essay however focuses on a perceived crisis of the third century, which does not make a full transition to medieval times. Giardina describes the introduction of a new institution, colonatus, in the fourth century containing coloni, who were not slaves, but tied to the land. The ?deterministic vision? that this legal innovation laid the ground for serfdom, however, is rejected.

Peter Temin is the author of ?A Market Economy in the Early Roman Empire,? Journal of Roman Studies (2001); ?Money and Prices in the Early Roman Empire? (with David Kessler), in William V. Harris, editor, The Monetary Systems of the Greeks and Romans (2008); and ?Financial intermediation in 1st-century AD Rome and 18th-century England? (with Dominic Rathbone), in Koen Verboven, editor, Banks, Loans and Financial Archives in the Ancient World (forthcoming).

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Middle East
Time Period(s):Ancient