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Published by EH.NET (July 2004)

Evan W. Haley, Baetica Felix: People and Prosperity in Southern Spain from Caesar to Septimius Severus. Austin: University of Texas Press. 2003. xviii + 277 pp. $45 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-292-73464-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by George Grantham, Department of Economics, McGill University.

Classical economic history is currently experiencing a revolutionary paradigm shift stimulated by archaeological findings culled from numerous emergency excavations that are a continuing by-product of Europe’s post-war construction boom. Its proponents represent a new generation of classical scholars possessing passing acquaintance with conventional economic theory, and aided by an increasingly digitized corpus of literary texts and inscriptions. Although still embryonic, the new classical economic history marks the first major shift in the economic historiography of Antiquity since the 1930s, when the founders of the Annales School displaced the birth of western civilization from its traditional place in Greece and Rome to the Middle Ages. The revaluing of medieval society — which focused on the economic achievement of the eleventh through thirteenth century — had its counterpart in the devaluing of antiquity, henceforth stylized as an economic failure explained by cultural and sociological factors inimical to innovation, enterprise, and investment. The new archaeological evidence and reinterpretation of the available textual material refute this pessimistic vision. Taken together with recent evidence showing the persistence of Roman political, administrative and legal structures, and the continuity of commercial contacts between the different parts of the old economy through the early medieval period, it is becoming increasingly clear that a new chronology of the “rise of the West” is in order. That new chronology must shift the starting point of European economic growth from the so-called “barbarian centuries” following the fall of Rome to the Late Iron Age, when the economic links between the different parts of western Europe were originally forged..

The present contribution to this literature is a survey of the rural economy of Southwest Spain from the accession of Augustus in 27 BC to the middle of the third century AD. The province of Baetica was one of the most prosperous parts of the Roman Empire, richly endowed with lead and silver mines, possessing fertile soils, and drained by a river system navigable to the Mediterranean coast whence grain, wine, olive oil, and fish sauce were exported to points on the Mediterranean littoral. A lightly settled hinterland of Phoenician and Carthaginian trading posts punctuated here and there by Iberian oppida, Baetica appears to have “taken off” during the long peace ushered in by the Augustan era. Archaeological data suggest an acceleration of rural settlement and foreign trade lasting through the first century AD. The magnitude of that growth is impossible to assess, but in the first two centuries AD, the annual export of Baetican oil to Rome probably approached seven million liters. The province’s advanced farming was described in first century AD by the agronomist Columella, whose father operated an estate there. The wealth it generated was the foundation of several senatorial fortunes and many lesser ones. At the top of the social scale Trajan’s Spanish ancestors are known to have participated in the oil trade, and his successor Hadrian (whose mother hailed from Cadiz) is thought to have possessed an estate there. One of the book’s central questions concerns the extent to which families lower on the social ladder benefited from the province’s exceptional agricultural and commercial opportunities. Precisely what caused the surge in agricultural production and export cannot be inferred from archeological evidence alone, which tells us only about the facilities for production and the pattern of trade insofar as they have left physical remains. Like other classicists, Haley privileges the role of government demand to explain Baetica’s participation in the Roman economy. The chief textual evidence for this hypothesis consists of documents showing that the importing of staples to Rome was under the administrative control of the annona, the bureau which licensed traders charged with importing the capital’s food supply. While the importance of that function is evident from imperial decrees exempting shippers from jury duty and other onerous municipal offices, regulations requiring merchants importing foodstuffs to Rome to keep half their capital in the provisioning trade by no means imply that the provisioning trade was “non-commercial.” The regulations attempted to prevent merchants from avoiding the financial burden of municipal service by nominal participation in it. None of this makes the state the engine of growth. A more likely scenario for the expansion of Baetica’s export economy is that growing prosperity in the western and central Mediterranean widened trading opportunities, thereby facilitating a division of labor based on regional comparative advantage. Haley proposes that the export of foodstuffs to Rome was originally cross-subsidized by shipments of precious metals, but it is likely that civil peace, stable government, a system of law suited to the needs of trade, and lengthy history of long-distance commerce in metals and fish sauce provided a sufficient foundation for trade in the bulkier agricultural staples.

The bulk of the book is devoted to describing the evidence for economic growth in the early Roman era. Chronologically arranged chapters open with a brief review of the political and administrative history followed by a survey of the archaeological findings on the pace of settlement, production, and export of the main agricultural staples. Haley adopts a cautious stance with respect to generalizing from this evidence. The general impression is that agricultural expansion began under Augustus and flagged somewhat during the troubled period following his death. A long period of vigorous growth marked by the construction of villas, farmsteads and facilities for pressing and bottling wine and olive oil began around AD 50 and lasted into the early second century. The province seems to have remained reasonably prosperous into the fourth century. As befits a specialist work, much of the discussion is given over to detailed criticism of particular findings, which makes for tedious reading by non-specialists. It contains an excellent discussion of stamps and painted inscriptions on amphorae that recorded the weight, contents, shipper, and other relevant commercial information, all of which testify to the sophistication of Roman trading technique. It is hard to credit the hypothesis that the Roman economy was in any way primitive.

Economic historians in a hurry will turn to the final chapter on the province’s income distribution. On the questionable assumption that population growth was roughly constant between 25 BC and 170 AD, Haley concludes that per capita income rose substantially. It is hard to know what to make of this argument, which would seem to be ignotium per ignotius, but it is not implausible. The estimate of the level of per capita has scattered documentary support suggesting that small farmers and skilled workers may have earned incomes exceeding by nine-fold the cost of bare subsistence as calculated by the cost of an annual ration of wheat. Comparing this ballpark estimate of family income with the minimum property qualification for jurors recorded on the recently discovered tablets of the Lex Irnitana, Haley conjectures that possibly half of the province’s population met the qualification for membership in the Roman “middle class.” We know little of this class of farmers and small businessmen, although some had small funerary inscriptions inscribed to record their accomplishments. That they may have constituted a significant proportion of the population suggests that the stylized picture of a society divided between a wealthy minority monopolizing wealth and political authority and a majority of plebs scratching out subsistence from tiny plots of poorly cultivated land is mistaken. Commercialization in the first two Roman centuries was not a reflection of luxury consumption by the super-rich, but the response to demand from hundreds of thousands of families whose incomes compared favorably with those that supported the expansion of trade in early modern and early industrial Europe.

That the economy of classical antiquity was organized by markets from at least the middle of the first millennium BC seems irrefutable. There is enough evidence to prove that the Roman economy extended beyond the limes into the “barbarian” territories of central and northern Europe and Africa. Yet to know that fact is ultimately to know little about the processes that caused that economy to expand and to contract. What part of economic change belongs to demographic events? What part to technological change? What part to path-dependent processes driven by increasing return? What part to fiscal and monetary events? And behind these economic causes, what part of change can be attributed to the evolution of political, administrative and social structures? What part to long-term changes in the distribution of wealth and power? Recent events remind us that one cannot take the stability of background conditions for granted, and that high-stakes politics is not simply white noise relative to the groundswell of an economy’s fundamental data. The classical economy was at once similar to and different from the economies of the later pre-industrial era. Defining and analyzing those similarities and differences is the central task of classical economic history.