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Trade in Classical Antiquity

Author(s):Morley, Neville
Reviewer(s):Temin, Peter

Published by EH.NET (June 2008)

Neville Morley, Trade in Classical Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xiv + 118 pp. $30 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-521-63416-8.

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

This book is one of Cambridge University Press’s series of Key Themes in Ancient History. These brief books are designed to introduce various topics of ancient history to graduate students and interested laypeople alike. They presuppose little professional knowledge of the topic and provide an overview of the state of knowledge. The books have single authors, and they express the opinions of the authors more than a typical text.

Morley is a distinguished ancient historian, and this book fits the general pattern. It provides a summary view of trade in the ancient world, but the average economic historian needs a reader’s guide to extract this information. The problem is that Morley feels obliged to introduce his book with two chapters on methodology that easily will put off the non-ancient historian. In his words, “The aim of this book is not to offer a chronological history of the development of trade and commerce or to draw up lists of the goods that were traded between regions, but to identify the different structures ? physical, social, ideological ? that shaped the distribution of goods and the practices of exchange across the ancient world” (p. 15).

My advice to readers of this review is to skip the first two chapters and start reading at Chapter 3. The rest of the book will repay a careful read. Morley argues in Chapter 3 that the distinction between luxuries and necessities is culturally determined. You cannot decide which is which without knowing the culture of the trading people. Since ancient peoples of whom we know lived above biological subsistence, part of their consumption was devoted to culturally-determined goods, that is, goods that established their place in the local hierarchy. Chapter 4 is devoted to the institutions of trade, revealing the impact that Doug North has had on ancient history. This material is covered also in Kessler and Temin (2007), which apparently was not visible to Morley.

Morley confronts the morality of traders in Chapter 5. He argues that most ancient traders and office holders were law abiding in the modern sense. Just as today most contracts are honored without the intervention of a court, so Morley says ancient people dealt with each other on a trusting basis. Since law enforcement is expensive, this is a very important point, and Morley raises but does not answer the question of where this morality comes from. Perhaps that should be the topic of another book in this series. In the sixth and final chapter, Morley assesses the extent of what he calls “ancient globalization.”

One problem for the modern economic historian is Morley’s practice of hopping back and forth between Classical Greece and Republican Rome. These two venues were separated by time and ? more importantly ? scale. In modern terms, Athens was a small open economy, while Rome was the largest economy in the ancient world. Small and large countries differ even today, and we might infer that there were differences then too. This question does not appear to have occurred to Morley.

Another problem is Morley’s ambivalent attitude toward globalization. On the one hand, he says, “Farmers were never wholly isolated from society or wholly divorced from the market” (p. 45). On the other hand, he argues in Chapter 6 that globalization was severely limited by poor technology in transportation and information transmission. Morley does not appear to have a way to resolve this issue. Fortunately, two recent papers help to resolve this puzzle. Both papers were the outcomes of Harvard senior theses in economics.

Geraghty (2007) argues that the extension of Roman trade across the Mediterranean led Roman farmers to shift out of wheat into wine and truck farming for the neighboring city of Rome. This paper complements and extends Morley’s analysis of Roman farming in his 1996 book. Kessler and Temin (2008) show that Roman trade was so extensive that there was a single monetary system and a single wheat market across the whole Mediterranean Sea. Wheat prices were highest in the center of consumption, the city of Rome, and fell with the distance from Rome. While Morley’s new book is a worthy addition to the Key Themes series, I recommend that readers of this review start with the articles I have mentioned here and continue on to Morley if they want more evidence.


Geraghty, Ryan M., “The Impact of Globalization in the Roman Empire, 200 BC – AD 100,” Journal of Economic History 67 (December 2007): 1036-61.

Kessler, David, and Peter Temin, “The Organization of the Grain Trade in the Early Roman Empire,” Economic History Review 60 (May 2007): 313-32.

Kessler, David, and Peter Temin, “Money and Prices in the Early Roman Empire” in William V. Harris, editor, The Monetary Systems of the Greeks and Romans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008): 137-59.

Morley, Neville, Metropolis and Hinterland: The City of Rome and the Italian Economy, 200 BC – AD 200 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Recent articles by Peter Temin include “The Economy of the Early Roman Empire,” Journal of Economic Perspectives (2006); “Interest Rate Restrictions in a Natural Experiment: Loan Allocation and the Change in the Usury Laws in 1714″ (with Joachim Voth), Economic Journal, forthcoming; and “The German Crisis of 1931: Evidence and Tradition,” Cliometrica, forthcoming.

Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Middle East
Time Period(s):Ancient