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The Open Sea: The Economic Life of the Ancient Mediterranean World from the Iron Age to the Rise of Rome

Author(s):Manning, J.G.
Reviewer(s):Harper, Kyle

Published by EH.Net (October 2018)

J.G. Manning, The Open Sea: The Economic Life of the Ancient Mediterranean World from the Iron Age to the Rise of Rome. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018. xxvii + 414 pp. $28 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-691-15174-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Kyle Harper, Department of Classics and Letters, University of Oklahoma.

We could easily imagine the equivalent of 1066 and All That for ancient economic history. First, following the technological advances and entrepreneurial audacity of the Phoenicians, the Greeks set sail and became traders and colonizers across the Mediterranean; they flourished until Alexander brought an end to the age of creativity and experiment. Then the Romans strode onto the scene. With a combination of military power and legal expertise, they not only came to rule the Mediterranean but unified it into a common economic zone. That lasted for a while too, before the rot set in and another Dark Age arrived. This caricature probably has more purchase than we would care to admit. J. G. Manning’s The Open Sea is in every way the opposite of such a potted view of classical economic history, one that asks us to consider everything before and in between the traditional highlights. It is a geographically, chronologically, and thematically expansive treatment of economic history in the millennium or so between the Bronze Age collapse and the ascent of Rome.

Manning’s expertise is in Ptolemaic Egypt, and he asks us to consider the economic history of Egypt, Asia Minor, and the Near East on their own, not simply as sources (e.g. of coinage or the alphabet) or precursors to the glory of Greece and the grandeur of Rome. Although the treatment is still strongly tilted toward the eastern Mediterranean (there is little here on the Celts or Etruscans), the lens is wider than usual. Of course, it is not simply prejudice or notions of “the classical heritage” that cause historians to focus on Athens and Rome. That is where much of the evidence is. Manning is often forced to work from limited sources, but he ably makes the most of the exiguous record, particularly calling upon the papyrological remains from Hellenistic Egypt. He convincingly argues that many of the institutional and technological developments that facilitated economic progress happened outside the classical zones or perhaps along the margins, in the exchange between various cultures around the sea. Change was gradual and evolutionary, and often happened in response to stress — in the interplay between growth and instability.

The Open Sea is thematically organized. There is no overarching narrative, and the reader is presented a series of essays reflecting on various interconnected themes. The first part of the book, “History and Theory,” might be of more interest to scholars of antiquity than economists; the lengthy debate (by all accounts put to bed more than a generation ago as overly “Manichean,” Manning’s own term on pages 5 and 269) between “primitivists” and “modernists” is recounted — competently but at some length. Economists might want to start with the end, by reading Chapter 8, “Growth, Innovation, Markets, and Trade.” Manning argues that there were periods of genuine, intensive growth — what Goldstone called “efflorescences” — but these were not sustained in the long run. Growth was due to technical innovation (e.g. better ships and irrigation devices or even plant stock) or institutional advances (e.g. better legal frameworks or monetary systems or credit markets). The New Institutional Economics is an important influence throughout. Growth was interrupted or reversed by Malthusian stagnation, interstate violence, or environmental shocks. Was there real growth overall in the period covered by The Open Sea? Here the book is equivocal — or restrained. There were more people, and better technologies, in 200 BC than there had been in 1000 BC, and Roman advances would build directly on the platform created by the late Hellenistic states, but whether per capita incomes had changed overall remains a challenging and perhaps intractable question. What we cannot doubt is that even though incomes may have remained close to subsistence on a per capita basis, this was a period of dynamism and development. Societies were larger, more complex, and more interconnected at the beginning than at the end.

The truly new ground explored in The Open Sea lies at the intersection of environmental and economic history. The Open Sea fits in with other recent work that underscores the importance of exogenous shocks in cycles of development and disruption. Manning provides a thoughtful overview of the challenges and prospects we face in integrating the paleoclimate into the study of ancient economies. He reviews the kinds of evidence now at our disposal in the form of paleoclimate proxies, surveying their strengths and limitations. The focus is heavily on volcanism, one of the most important mechanisms of short-term forcing in Holocene climate variability and change. Volcanic eruptions could trigger sudden, sharp cooling as well as disturbance in the Nile inundation, and Manning carefully teases out the causal pathways through which this particular kind of environmental shock could reverberate throughout economic and socio-political systems. Of course, The Open Sea also shows how much work remains to be done, particularly in trying to measure the impact of climate change on agricultural productivity (which must have been significant not only in the Nile Valley but elsewhere) and therefore economic performance. Readers can hope this study prepares the way for testing bold hypotheses about the direction and magnitude of relationships between the environment and the economy.

In a synthesis this broad, any reader is likely to find a theme that could have received a deeper engagement. Given the book’s exciting openness to environmental history and the natural sciences, more attention might have been given to the role of biological change, and infectious diseases in particular, as a source of instability. This possibility is repeatedly recognized but never pursued, yet given the fundamental importance of demography and demographic movements in premodern economic systems, and the role of mortality shocks in demographic movements, a clearer provisional map of what we know and don’t know about the first millennium BC remains a major desideratum. There is a passing reference to the Plague of Thucydides (overconfidently diagnosed as typhus or smallpox) and “a series of plagues” from the 420s to 360s BC (p. 179). It could be pointed out that these “plagues” are probably not bubonic plague, but rather pestilences with unidentified pathogenic agents. Similarly, the Justinianic Plague is called “the first recorded pandemic,” and while it was the first recorded pandemic of bubonic plague, it was not the first major pandemic, considering the scope of the Antonine Plague (from 165 AD) and the Plague of Cyprian (from ~249 AD). The evidence for infectious disease in the first millennium BC is not as good as for the Roman Empire and early Middle Ages, so this will be a challenging research frontier, but we need fresh hypotheses about how to conceptualize the first millennium in the broader history of health and mortality.

The Open Sea is an expert and bracing survey of what we can know from traditional, current, and cutting-edge approaches to ancient economies, particularly in times and places that fall outside the canonical “Golden Ages” of the classical past.

Kyle Harper is Professor of Classics and Letters — and Senior Vice President and Provost — at the University of Oklahoma. His research focuses on the social and economic history of the period spanning the Roman Empire and the early middle ages. He is the author of Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425 (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire (Princeton University Press, 2017).

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