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Tue, 15 Dec 2009 12:49:31 -0600
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The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World. Edited by WALTER 
SCHEIDEL, IAN MORRIS, and RICHARD SALLER. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge 
University Press, 2007. Pp. xv + 942. Cloth, $225.00. ISBN 

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Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 

CJ Online 2009.12.01

This book is a landmark. Despite the explosion of research in the economic 
history of ancient times, there is nothing comparable. Articles and 
monographs have poured out—to give just a few recent titles in the latter 
category, all also published by Cambridge, which appears to be the major 
player here: Peter Bang, The Roman Bazaar (2008); Sitta von Reden, Money in 
Ptolemaic Egypt (2007); Neville Morley, Trade in Classical Antiquity 
(2007). There have also been general or thematic collections, gathering up 
papers quite various in approach, e.g., Walter Scheidel and Sitta von 
Reden, The Ancient Economy (Routledge, 2002) and Margaret Atkins and Robin 
Osborne, Poverty in the Roman World (Cambridge University Press, 2006). But 
no single volume has attempted to take stock, consolidate findings, and 
suggest where research should go next, as this one does.

The starting point for much of this recent work, whether acknowledged or 
not, was Moses Finley’s The Ancient Economy (Berkeley, 1973, based on his 
Sather Lectures of the previous year), whose thesis it may be helpful to 
summarize here. Finley, beginning his analysis with Xenophon’s 
Oeconomicus, provocatively argued that economics was not just a modern 
discipline but a modern concept, and that to invoke its terms in exploring 
ancient society was to falsify. Not even numbers were to be allowed: the 
ancients did not have economic statistics, nor should we pretend to be able 
to generate them. Instead, literary sources were to be examined for what 
they reveal on such topics as “orders and status” or “masters and 
slaves.” Finley found similar values expressed in Greek and Latin texts, 
and these values were inimical to economic thinking. It was unnecessary, 
therefore, to look at archeological evidence for agricultural estates to 
discuss investment strategies: Pliny’s letters show that there never 
could be any of note. What emerged from Finley’s book was a general model 
of a society driven by concerns of status, a model that attempted to 
account for the main phases of Greek and Roman history for over a 

It took a while for Finley’s work to have its full impact, for ancient 
historians, compared to historians of the modern world, came to economic 
topics late (although understandably so, given the state of the evidence). 
But as this began to happen, dissatisfaction was voiced, in particular by 
scholars looking at Roman society, with Finley’s view that the 
performance of ancient economies could not, and need not, be measured. 
Perhaps in fact it could—by looking at “proxy” data such as the 
number of shipwrecks found in Mediterranean waters, for instance. And as 
such data was scrutinized, the methods and language of modern economics 
suddenly seemed relevant. Thus, for instance, after looking at 
archeological evidence for olive production in Roman North Africa, Robert 
Bruce Hitchner argued that “significant growth was achieved in the olive 
production sector of the Roman economy,” and this in turn raised the 
possibility of long-term growth in the economy as a whole. [[1]]

But what would actually count as “significant” growth? Does it have to 
be growth per capita, or is aggregate growth sufficient? Such problems, at 
the center of scholarly debate today, are prominently showcased in this new 
Cambridge economic history. Taking inspiration from Nobel laureate Douglas 
North and the so-called New Institutional Economics, the editors asked 
their contributors to examine both the structure and the performance of 
ancient economies. Structure, defined by North (in words quoted by the 
editors, p. 1) as the “characteristics of society that are basic 
determinants of performance,” includes not just such Finley-ite concerns 
as political institutions and ideology, but also demography and technology. 
Performance, in turn, entails answering questions such as: How much is 
produced? What are the costs of distribution? What is the standard of 
living? This final question haunts this volume, and humanizes it. As Morris 
points out, in a particularly rousing chapter on “Early Iron Age 
Greece”, “It is the economy’s ability to make people’s lives better 
that gives economic history its point” (p. 220).

This focus on structure and performance structures the contents of the 
volume’s 28 chapters. After the Introduction, a preliminary part looks in 
general terms at “Determinants of Economic Performance,” with chapters 
on ecology, demography, household and gender, law and economic 
institutions, and technology. One might have expected more on questions of 
morality and ideology, and on the state’s role in issuing money, but the 
six chapters themselves make for very worthwhile reading. They are packed 
with information, yet take provocative stances, raising countless important 
theoretical concerns (e.g., the problem of transaction costs, expounded 
marvelously in the chapter by Bruce Frier and Dennis Kehoe, “Law and 
Economic Institutions,” pp. 113–43). At least part of the satisfaction 
these chapters provide may lie in the fact that research on “structure” 
(as opposed to “performance”) is further along, or rests on more 
tractable evidence.
The volume’s subsequent sections look at performance, as well as 
structure, across time and space. Here the evidence is variable—many 
chapters open with an acknowledgment of the lack of data (e.g., pp. 333, 
487, 673)—and this has determined the structure of the sections. For 
“Classical Greece” (Part III), there are separate chapters on 
production, distribution and consumption; and “The Early Roman Empire” 
(Part VI) employs the same categories, while adding a chapter on the state. 
The other parts (“Early Mediterranean Economies and the Near East,” 
“The Hellenistic States,” “Early Italy and the Roman Republic” and 
“Regional Development in the Roman Empire”) focus on some or all of the 
same categories for a particular era or region (e.g., the Aegean Bronze 
Age, or Roman Egypt), while a final chapter, “The Transition to Late 
Antiquity,” focuses on the 3rd century AD.

A chapter on the Phoenicians and Carthaginians in particular would have 
been welcome. One might also feel reservations about the division of the 
Roman chapters along the traditional lines of Republic/Empire. A topic such 
as distribution might better be examined by looking at continuities and 
disruptions across the longer course of Rome’s imperial activity. 
Harris’ marvelous chapter on “The Late Republic” (pp. 511–39) is 
crammed with information and insight, but because it stops in 31 BC, a 
potentially major episode in economic history is largely neglected. The 
civil war confiscations and annexations of new provincial territories that 
filled the coffers of the dynasts allowed a major unexpected wave of 
capitalization, above all in the creation of dozens of new colonies to 
settle veterans, crucial for the subsequent development of the west.

While it is impossible to summarize each chapter, something can be said 
about what emerges from the volume as a whole. The main challenge in 
looking at economic performance in ancient times (as many contributors 
note) is the lack of good evidence. Archaeology is brought in repeatedly 
for its proxy data, and should earn an even greater role in years to come. 
There are the much beloved shipwrecks (see, e.g., pp. 202–3, 267–70, 
572–3) and the by now familiar techniques of landscape archaeology (see, 
e.g., p. 493). But the contributors hope that more will be learned from the 
study of skeletons (e.g., pp. 222–5, 607–9), from chemical analysis of 
the provenance of ceramics and metals (e.g., pp. 159–60, 179, 202, 
264–5), or even from examination of the Greenland ice cores for traces of 
atmospheric pollution (e.g., pp. 547–8, 621). One desideratum with this 
sort of data is to find ways to test it in a more controlled fashion (the 
fascinating graphs tabulating “mammal bones per century” of Italy and 
the Roman provinces, pp. 613–14, for instance, could be tested against 
numbers of excavations or, ideally, total population, slave and free).

Other solutions to the evidence conundrum include the use of comparative 
materials and theory (especially compelling in demographic matters, since 
the findings of biology often transcend historical time and place) and also 
of modeling, with the help of social sciences: if one can determine, say, 
the logical relationship between population growth and economic change, 
then with some ideas about one variable, a prediction can be made about the 
other and tested. Willem Jongman, for instance, in his remarkable and 
beautifully written “The Early Roman Empire: Consumption” (pp. 
592–618) ingeniously develops a model that uses the relationship of 
slave-prices to the cost of free labor to predict how prosperous individual 
citizens might have been (pp. 601–2).

For all the progress on display in this volume, however, one still might 
wonder just how precisely the performance of ancient economies will ever be 
measured. Already in the The Ancient Economy, Finley warned about incipient 
“number fetishism” among ancient historians. But in fact, by the 
standards of economics, there are if anything fewer numbers in many parts 
of this volume than one might expect. [[2]] To focus only on the Roman 
sections: contributors, to their credit, admit major areas of ignorance, 
e.g., “It is still hard to assess the overall scale of the Roman 
economy” (p. 546) and “It is exceptionally difficult to estimate the 
size of the urban population at any date” (p. 578). But there are also 
vague statements, e.g., “In Gaul, during the first century AD, villas 
inspired by Italian models dotted the landscape” (p. 556) or “The 
industry [eastern Roman ceramics] appears to have experienced a “big 
boom” in Augustan times” (p. 682). Two more: “Investment in 
irrigation could also raise productivity substantially” (p. 553) and 
“Archaeological evidence indicates that mining was conducted on a 
widespread basis in many regions of the Roman empire, and mining generated 
significant revenues for the state and for private individuals” (p. 566).

Yet if the results of this exercise are occasionally depressing or dull, 
the fervent hope is that this volume will itself soon have to be rewritten. 
And for now, it will be the indispensable starting point for all new 
research. A consensus emerges in it that scholars must be thinking about 
ancient economies, rather than about the ancient economy, with periods of 
expansion and contraction, and within different areas, which had different 
structures—and all of this not necessarily tied to grand political 
narrative (the Antonine Plague, for instance, is repeatedly invoked by 
contributors, pp. 37, 616, 700, etc.). Overall, in the Greco-Roman world as 
a whole, there was obviously extensive growth for about a millennium, 
beginning in 800 BC, with the real possibility of very slowly rising, but 
rising nonetheless per capita consumption. That growth, both extensive and 
intensive, urge the editors in their introduction, must be taken seriously.

But the even bigger question, still unresolved, is why there was never the 
far more dramatic breakthrough of modern times. Is the divergence to be 
connected to the history of ideas? Finley tried to approach the problem 
that way, but he might have been looking at symptoms of the problem rather 
than at its causes. It could, after all, turn out that demographic factors 
were more in play: if population-size does not increase significantly, it 
may be hard to create the surplus that supports innovation in non-agrarian 
sectors of the economy. This is not a purely academic question. In a world 
in which hundreds of millions still live in poverty, in which much economic 
growth may be jeopardizing the planet, and in which still other growth has 
proved to be built on quicksand, tackling the questions of economic history 
matters more than ever. The past can never provide simple solutions for 
present problems, for—as historians know best—the world is always 
changing, and in ways contemporary actors are often blind to. Furthermore, 
the historian’s primary job is to recover the past and to explain it. But 
this volume also shows that ancient historians have a part to play in the 
debates of other disciplines, such as economics, by identifying what 
variables were and were not relevant to growth in the Greco-Roman world.
And so this new history is at the cutting edge of classical studies for 
another, paradoxical reason: it moves resolutely beyond postmodernism with 
its musings on the impossibility of recovering the past, and looks back to 
the idea of philosophic history—that history may prove a source of 
principles applicable to many times and places. Those who wish to write 
such history, as rigorously as possible, will have to master now not only 
the ancient evidence but also the theory of social scientists. It is a 
great challenge.

Georgetown University

[[1]] Hitchner’s paper, “Olive Production and the Roman Economy: the 
Case for Intensive Growth in the Roman Empire,” is easily found in 
Scheidel and von Reden, eds., The Ancient Economy, pp. 71–83 (quotation 
from p. 79).

[[2]] The Ancient Economy, p. 25.

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