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The Ancient Economy

Author(s):Scheidel, Walter
Von Reden, Sitta
Reviewer(s):Silver, Morris

Published by EH.NET (January 2003)


Walter Scheidel and Sitta von Reden, editors, The Ancient Economy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002. xxi + 282 pp. ?16.99 (paperback), ISBN: 0-7486-1321-8; ?45 (hardback), ISBN: 0-7486-1322-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Morris Silver, Professor Emeritus, Department of Economics, City College of the City University of New York.

In 1973, the classical scholar Moses Finley (1973, 1985, 1999) unveiled a view of the economic underpinnings of ancient economies in which markets and economic motivations played little if any role. Status and civic ideology governed the allocation of scarce resources. Hence, the application of economic theory to the ancient economy was at best a futile exercise and at worst a source of grave misunderstandings. By “ancient economy” Finley had in mind only the economy of classical civilization — i.e., of the Graeco-Roman area beginning roughly in the earlier first millennium BC. However, Finley’s perspective found completion and generalization in the works of the economic historian Karl Polanyi (1981).1 Polanyi argued forcefully that the ancient Near East did not know markets and, like Finley, he was implacably opposed to the application of economic theory to ancient economic life. Thus was formed a new orthodoxy. Suggestions in the literature of ancient market behavior or economic motivation might simply be ignored or dismissed in a condescending manner as mere “anachronism.” The latter criticism was found devastating by Greek and Roman scholars.

The world of scholarship is rarely completely static, however. Scholars came forward with new evidence and new interpretations pointing to a significant role for markets. In their “Introduction” Scheidel and von Reden* explain that “Critics question the real-life impact of elite mentality and identify apparent tensions between the historical record and the model that was meant to make sense of it. They tend to emphasize the considerable scale of economic activities (above all trade) and, make a case for significant economic growth in the Roman imperial period when political and fiscal unification boosted market exchanges.” (p. 3)

This, it may be added, represents only the tip of the critical iceberg. Thus, the study of the ancient economy became an “academic battleground.”2 As a result of this battle the influence of the Finley/Polanyi orthodoxy has unquestionably waned.3 At present the study of the ancient economy might be compared to a minefield, full of perils for the unsuspecting scholar.

Thus it is most encouraging to learn from the publisher’s website that the Greek and Roman scholars involved in the publication of The Ancient Economy aim to move the debate beyond “partisan controversies.”4 Scheidel and von Reden seem to second the call for studies moving the debate beyond the Finley/Polanyi agenda and benefiting from “the conceptual and analytical repertoire of modern economics” (pp. 3-4). Obviously, a new synthesis is badly needed even if, to begin with, it is confined to the Greek and Roman periods.

Concerning the realities of the volume, it is certainly not reassuring that in the lead article (originally published in 1998), Greek specialist Paul Cartledge (p. 15) takes as a given Finley’s view that “the categories of neoclassical economic analysis” have “no useful application to ‘the ancient economy’.” Cartledge goes on to consider how we should “set about formulating usable and useful models.”5 We search his contribution vainly for the citation of even one example in which the predictions of economic theory are falsified by economic events in the Graeco-Roman economy. No synthesis, no new evidence and no usable new model can be detected here!

Turning to the closing (previously unpublished) article, as is my wont in collections of this kind, Roman specialist Richard Saller (p. 253) agrees with Finley that modern economic theory is inappropriate for antiquity because of an “incomparability in economic organization.”5 The problem, Saller suggests, is the absence in antiquity of integrated markets: * Had the markets been fully integrated, there should not have been desperate grain shortages in individual cities, at the same time as other cities were well supplied. * In such cases hungry urban dwellers did not depend solely on higher market prices to draw larger supplies from elsewhere in the [Roman] Empire. but resorted to imperial intervention. * In an integrated market, this sort of supervision would have been superfluous because pricing would have drawn grain to areas in need (p. 254 with n. 2).

Understandably, not being imbued with the trained suspicions of the modern economist, it does not occur to Saller that imperial “supervision” and not the absence of “fully integrated markets” kept the grain away from hungry cities! The classic example is provided by a serious famine at Antioch in AD 362/3. Despite the enlightened protests of Libanius and others, Emperor Julian had responded to rising grain prices caused by a severe and prolonged drought with an edict of maximum prices and the sale of imported grain at prices below the market-clearing level. These well-meant but counterproductive measures served mainly to misallocate the available stock of grain (see Downey 1951: 315-19; de Jonge 1948). They also operated to discourage large landowners (and other speculators) from storing grain.7 The problem here was not transport costs/fragmented markets but a much more significant problem: failure to understand the economic facts of life.8

The remainder of Saller’s contribution includes some cautionary observations on the scale of Roman economic growth. The ancients did of course accumulate material and human capital and they introduced important technical innovations. Clearly, the industrial era’s increased reliance on scientific knowledge and its increased range and variety of fixed capital goods have steeply accelerated the rate of technical progress and material growth. It must not be overlooked, however, that dramatic improvements in living standards are attainable through improvements in economic organization. The evidence demonstrates that ancient civilizations experienced lengthy periods of market activity and prosperity, including even affluence, interspersed with periods of pervasive economic regulation by the state and, ultimately, economic retrogression. There can be no doubt, for example, that something very important happened to Roman living standards between Romulus and Remus and Diocletian!

Perhaps there is more evidence of a move beyond partisan controversy towards a new synthesis in some of the contributions positioned between Cartledge and Saller. I proceed selectively and begin with a useful, previously published article by historian Reger because of its possible bearing on the question of integrated markets raised by Saller. Reger compares time-series of prices for a number of imported commodities (oil, perfume, papyrus, pitch). The price data are taken from priestly inscriptions on the island of Delos dating to the Hellenistic period in the third and second centuries BC. The prices of the various commodities display markedly different patterns. This finding is understood by Scheidel and von Reden (pp. 133-34) to undermine the view that the Hellenistic market was integrated (Reger 145). The assumption underlying this conclusion seems to be that economic integration requires prices to be determined by “general economic trends” and/or “broader interregional developments” meaning, apparently, that all prices must change in the same direction. Have Scheidel and von Reden identified price inflation/deflation with economic integration? Obviously, integration across spatially distant markets is quite consistent with an unchanged general level of prices combined with pronounced changes in relative prices — i.e., perfume rises in price, oil prices decline. Indeed, such changes are commonplace in the contemporary economy and in no way indicate an absence of integrated markets.

The beginning of a trend toward synthesis can indeed be seen in the (previously published) contribution by the French historian Andreau. I especially appreciated his suggestion that “To contrast, term by term, everything pre-industrial with everything modern, and endlessly to scour antiquity for all possible and imaginable signs of archaism, results in a very reductionist view of history. Besides, whether deliberate or not, such an approach has the effect of providing present-day institutions and situations with an intellectual justification which they do not always merit, and of strengthening our reassuring (but illusory) impression that they are eternal, or at least immortal, since we have now entered modernity.” (p. 35)9

While there is room for disagreement, Andreau’s article merits close and respectful attention.

A (previously published) article by archaeologist Halstead also is helpful. He sees “famine-brokering” as a partial answer to “what is arguably the most important problem in the ancient economy ‘how did rich Greeks and Romans in classical antiquity acquire their wealth?'” (p. 68) Selling stored grain on the market in periods of exceptionally high prices “may well hold the key to the original emergence of a rich minority, given that current ancient historical orthodoxy seems…to have ruled out all the obvious alternatives” (p. 69) (emphasis added). Of course, the “obvious alternatives” for becoming wealthy would be reinstated in any new synthesis! Thus, archaeologist Hitchner (p. 76) in his discussion of growth in the olive oil industry in the Roman provinces of North Africa observes “the proliferation of small farms with one or two presses often in close proximity to oileries, and frequently on agricultural marginal lands…. That is, the decision to construct a large stone lever press… particularly when much more modest means of extracting oil for subsistence needs were available, implies that surplus oil production was the ultimate objective of the small farm occupants. Although the capital for these presses is likely, in many instances, to have come from the owners of the nearby oilieries interested in the oleocultural development of marginal lands in or around their estates, we may also see in these arrangements an effort by the farms’ occupants, whether independent small-holders, free tenants or even slaves, to better their lot.” (emphasis added)

Let it be noted that Hitchner published these words in 1993 when proponents of the idea that members of the ancient public might become rich by means of productive activity were still likely to risk being derided as “anachronistic.”10 With respect to the sources of Athenian wealth in the fourth century BC Osborne (pp. 128-30) tentatively raises the possibilities, “against firmly held modern convictions,” that manufacture was of some importance and that agriculture was actually profitable.

The Ancient Economy, much to my surprise, actually does include a number of contributions (Andreau, Halstead, Hitchner plus the “Introduction”) that move the discussion beyond partisan controversy toward a new synthesis. The volume has the additional merit of bringing together in one place valuable previously published articles by Hopkins, Panella/Tchernia, and Rathbone. On the other hand, the articles by Saller and, especially, Cartledge cling to the Finley/Polanyi orthodoxy. Their strategic placement in the book, first and last chapters, betrays a serious tension in the conception of the editors. To conclude, this is a collection that scholars of the ancient world should be pleased to have in their libraries.

I do have one strong complaint. The editors (p. 4) note that “It goes without saying that it is impossible for a collection of this kind to cover all the bases.” Agreed, but why in a volume devoted to economic history do we find classicists, historians, archaeologists and even a philosopher but not a single contribution by a professional economist? The omission is glaring and revealing.


*About the Editors: Walter Scheidel, formerly Moses and Mary Finley Research Fellow of Darwin College, Cambridge, currently teaches Ancient History at the University of Chicago; Sitta von Reden is Senior Lecturer in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Bristol.

1. I have relied upon Polanyi’s posthumously published manuscript entitled The Livelihood of Man (1981). The editor of this volume, Harry W. Pearson, has included material on Polanyi’s life and has contributed a useful introduction citing Polanyi’s major publications and placing his thought in perspective.

2. The “Suggestions for further Reading” include recent contributions on both sides of the controversy.

3. Interestingly, as their empirical base deteriorated some scholars loyal to this “primitivist/substantivist” school began to denigrate the use of empirical evidence and, more and more, to stress the importance of “erudite models” (see note 6 below). Indeed, even Finley (1985: 182) in “Further Thoughts,” appealed to historical and anthropological/sociological “models” as opposed to “the continual evocation of individual ‘facts’.”


5. In modern economic models are conceptual structures capable of being manipulated to make predictions, which may be tested against empirical evidence. For Finley/Polanyi scholars, however, a model is “a heuristic device for organizing data into an intelligible whole” (Stager 2001: 625) As Finley (1985: 182) explained in “Further Thoughts,” “models” are “valuable in obscuring incidental detail and in allowing fundamental aspects of reality to appear.” “Model” serves as an objective-sounding name for a priori positions that are employed to sift, shape, interpret or avoid the evidence.

6. With two exceptions the articles included in The Ancient Economy were originally published elsewhere. The editors contribute an introduction and chapter commentaries. With one exception the contributions are authored by classicists, historians and archaeologists. The exception is a reprinted contribution by philosopher Scott Meikle who, while critical of modern economic theory, is quite adept at manipulating the Marxist categories of “use value” and “exchange value.”

7. Halstead (p. 69) notes that the Roman writer Varro advised landowners to store grain in order to take advantage of high market prices in times of famine.

8.Readers interested in market integration in the Roman world might consult Temin (2001).

9. One might consider in the light of Andreau’s remarks Douglass North’s (1991: 98) pursuit of the “Holy Grail” of a once-and-for-all incremental evolution of efficient institutions.

10. Hitchner (pp. 80-81) was well aware of the professional risk he was taking in citing empirical evidence for significant growth in the Roman economy.


Downey, Glanville (1951). “The Economic Crisis at Antioch under Julian the Apostate.” In P.R. Coleman-Norton (editor), Studies in Roman Economic and Social History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 312- 21.

Finley, Moses (1973, 1985, 1999). The Ancient Economy. Berkeley: University of California Press.

de Jonge, P. (1948). “Scarcity of Corn and Corn Prices in Ammianus Marcellinus.” Mnemosyne, 1, 238-45.

North, Douglass C. (1991). “Institutions.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 5, 97-112.

Polanyi, Karl (1981). The Livelihood of Man. Harry W. Pearson (editor). New York: Academic.

Stager. Lawrence E. (2001). “Port Power in the Early and the Middle Bronze Age: The Organization of Maritime Trade and Hinterland Production.” In Samuel R. Wolff (editor), Studies in the Archaeology of Israel and Neighboring Lands. Chicago: Oriental Institute, 625-38.

Temin, Peter (2001), “A Market Economy in the Early Roman Empire.” Journal of Roman Studies, 91, 169-81.

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Bleiberg, Edward (1995). “The Economy of Ancient Egypt.” In Jack M. Sasson, John Baines, Gary Beckman, and Karen S. Rubinson (editors), Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Vol. III. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1373-85.

Cartledge, Paul, Edward E. Cohen, and Lin Foxhall (editors) (2002). Money, Labour and Land: Approaches to the Economies of Ancient Greece. London: Routledge.

Castle, Edward W (1992). “Shipping and Trade in Ramesside Egypt.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 35, 239-77.

Cohen, Edward E. (1992). Athenian Economy and Society: A Banking Perspective. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Dercksen, Jan Gerrit (editor) (1999). Trade and Finance in Ancient Mesopotamia. Leiden: Nederlands Historisch-Archaeologisch Instituut te Instanbul.

Donlan, Walter (forthcoming). “Homer and Hesiod on Commerce and Trade”. In Rollinger and Ulf (editors), Commerce and Monetary Systems in the Ancient World.

Engels, Donald (1990). Roman Corinth: An Alternative Model for the Classical City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Figueira, Thomas J. (1984). “Karl Polanyi and Ancient Greek Trade: The Port of Trade.” Ancient World, 10, 15-30.

Greene, Kevin (2000). “Technological Innovation and Economic Progress in the Ancient World: M.I. Finley Re-considered.” Economic History Review, 53, 29-59.

Hudson, Michael and Baruch A. Levine (editors) (1999). Urbanization and Land Ownership in the Ancient Near East. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

Hudson, Michael and Marc Van De Mieroop (editors) (2002). Debt and Economic Renewal in the Ancient Near East. Bethesda, Maryland: CDL Press.

Mattingly, David .J. (1988). “Oil for Export? A Comparison of Libyan, Spanish, and Tunisian Olive Oil Production in the Roman Empire.” Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1, 33-56.

Mattingly, David J., David Stone, Lea Sterling and Nejib Ben Lazreg (2001). “Leptimus (Tunisia): A ‘Producer’ City?.” In David J. Mattingly and John Salmon (editors), Economies Beyond Agriculture in the Classical World. London: Routledge, 66-89.

Menu, Bernadette (2001a). “Economy: Overview.” In Redford (editor), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Vol. 1, 422-6.

Menu, Bernadette (2001b). “Economy: Private Sector”. In Redford (editor), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Vol. 1, 430-3.

Millett, Paul (1991). Lending and Borrowing in Ancient Athens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Olivier, Jean-Pierre (1987). “Des Extraits De Contrats De Vente D’Esclaves Dans Les Tablettes De Knossos.” In John T. Killen, Jos? L. Melena, and Jean-Pierre Olivier (editors), Studies in Mycenaean and Classical Greek. Salamanca: Universidad de Salamanca, 479-98.

Purcell, Nicholas (1990). “Mobility and the Polis.” In Oswyn Murray and Simon Price (editors), The Greek City from Homer to Alexander. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 29-58.

Redford, Donald B. (editor) (2001). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. 3 volumes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rollinger, Robert and Christoph Ulf (editors) (forthcoming). Commerce and Monetary Systems in the Ancient World (5th International MELAMMU Conference, Innsbruck Oct. 3rd-8th 2002).

Silver, Morris (1995). Economic Structures of Antiquity. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Silver, Morris (forthcoming). “Modern Ancients”. In Rollinger and Ulf (editors), Commerce and Monetary Systems in the Ancient World.

Morris Silver is Professor Emeritus of Economics in the City College of the City University of New York. His most recent publications about ancient economies are Taking Ancient Mythology Economically (Leiden: Brill, 1992) and Economic Structures of Antiquity (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1995). “Modern Ancients” is forthcoming in Rollinger and Ulf (editors), Commerce and Monetary Systems in the Ancient World , Fifth Annual Melammu Conference 2002. Professor Silver maintains a website on “Ancient Economies” at

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