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Ancient Economies in Comparative Perspective

  • Accademia dei Lincei and Fondazione Roma Sapienza University of Rome
Frontiers in Economic History
Economies in
Material Life, Institutions and Economic
Frontiers in Economic History
Series Editors
Claude Diebolt, Faculty of Economics, BETA, CNRS, University of Strasbourg,
Strasbourg, France
Michael Haupert, University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, La Crosse, WI, USA
Economic historians have contributed to the development of economics in a variety
of ways, combining theory with quantitative methods, constructing new databases,
promoting interdisciplinary approaches to historical topics, and using history as a
lens to examine the long-term development of the economy. Frontiers in Economic
History publishes manuscripts that push the frontiers of research in economic history
in order to better explain past economic experiences and to understand how, why
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a unified approach in the social sciences.
Marcella Frangipane · Monika Poettinger ·
Bertram Schefold
Ancient Economies
in Comparative Perspective
Material Life, Institutions and Economic
Marcella Frangipane
Department of Sciences of Antiquity
Sapienza University of Rome
Rome, Italy
Bertram Schefold
Department of Economics
Goethe University Frankfurt
Frankfurt, Hessen, Germany
Monika Poettinger
Florence, Italy
ISSN 2662-9771 ISSN 2662-978X (electronic)
Frontiers in Economic History
ISBN 978-3-031-08762-2 ISBN 978-3-031-08763-9 (eBook)
© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2022
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Introduction ...................................................... 1
Marcella Frangipane, Monika Poettinger, and Bertram Schefold
Methodology for the Economic History and the History of
Economic Thought of Antiquity
Ancient Economies: The Challenge of Mapping Complexity ........... 11
John K. Davies
The Significance of Economic Knowledge for Welfare
and Economic Growth in History ................................... 25
Bertram Schefold
For a Comparative History of Economic Thought .................... 55
Marco Bianchini
Economics as a Comparative Science from the Historical School
to Otto Neurath ................................................... 69
Monika Poettinger
Development Models
Archaeological Evidence of the Political Economy in Pre-State
and Early State Societies in the Near East. Mesopotamia
and Anatolia, Some Remarks and Comparisons ...................... 91
Marcella Frangipane
Clash of the Titans: The Economics of Early Bronze Age
Mesopotamia Between Empirical Evidence and Theoretical Models .... 111
Giacomo Benati
Modelling Modes of Production: European 3rd and 2nd
Millennium BC Economies ......................................... 131
Kristian Kristiansen and Timothy Earle
vi Contents
Political/Ideological Display or Economic Need? The Problematical
Picture of the Hydraulic Networks in Seventh Century BC Assyria ..... 165
Frederick Mario Fales
The ‘Many Faces’ of the Roman Economy: Modern Preconceptions
and Some Considerations on Capital, Technology, and Labour ......... 187
Annalisa Marzano
Trade, Specialisation and Growth
Weight-Based Trade and the Formation of a Global Network:
Material Correlates of Market Exchange in Pre-literate Bronze
Age Europe (c. 2300–800 BC) ....................................... 207
Nicola Ialongo
Specialisation, Exchanges and Socio-Economic Strategies of Italian
Bronze Age Elites: The Case of Aegean-Type Pottery ................. 233
Marco Bettelli
The Economic and Productive Processes in the Hellenistic
‘Globalization’: From the Archaeological Documentation
to the Historical Reconstruction .................................... 257
Enzo Lippolis
New Institutional Economics and the Rhodian Economy: Some
Preliminary Considerations ........................................ 267
Marco Maiuro
Debts, Slaves and Finance
The Edicts of Debt Remission: A Political Tool of Economic
Intervention ...................................................... 283
Cristina Simonetti
Some Observations on the Development of a Sacred Economy
from the Archaic Age up to Hellenism ............................... 295
Rita Sassu
Debt and Usury: Economic and Financial Questions in the Roman
Republic (Fifth–First Century B.C.) ................................. 325
Chantal Gabrielli
The Two-Way Relationship Between Freedman and Business
in the Roman World ............................................... 343
Egidio Incelli
Slaves Sales in the Roman Empire and Perspectives of Comparison .... 361
Francesca Reduzzi Merola
Marcella Frangipane, Monika Poettinger, and Bertram Schefold
This volume hosts the results of the encounter of several different academic disci-
plines at the 25th conference of the Italian Association for the History of Economic
Thought (AISPE) held in Rome in December 2017. The conference explored the
possibility and hermeneutical value of comparisons, across time and space, of
economic facts and ideas. On this occasion the editors of this volume felt that the time
had come for renewing the collaboration between economists and historians of antiq-
uity, a collaboration that had rarefied, at least in Italian academic intercourse, since
the 1990s. Many colleagues from different countries, universities and departments
readily answered the call and participated in the conference. The ensuing discussions
exposed the necessity to recreate a common language and a set of shared concepts
that would render research results and methodological approaches understandable
and fruitfully comparable. To this end, in the years following the conference, the
work of participants followed two different paths.
Firstly, economic historians and historians of economic thought were called upon
to outline, on the one side, the changes that the new archaeological findings and the
increased amount of data available made necessary in studying ancient economies;
on the other side, to describe the interpretative theoretical schemes that past and
present economic thought made available to understand and classify the new research
findings. Specific attention was dedicated to methodologies that allowed comparisons
across time and space. The results are collected in the first section of this volume.
M. Frangipane (B)
Department of Sciences of Antiquity, Sapienza University of Rome, Rome, Italy
M. Poettinger
Polimoda, Florence, Italy
B. Schefold
Department of Economics, Goethe University Frankfurt, Frankfurt, Germany
© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2022
M. Frangipane et al. (eds.), Ancient Economies in Comparative Perspective,
Frontiers in Economic History,
2 M. Frangipane et al.
J. K. Davies, in the first essay of this collection, describes with detail how the
traditional approach to analysing economic processes in antiquity, based on political
entities, has proven less and less convincing. Even language constraints—typical of
a research based on literary sources and epigraphs—should be overcome, particu-
larly when examining economic phenomena like long distance trade, the formation of
prices, demand patterns, etc. The same holds for obsolete geographical sub-divisions
and artificial temporal limits. For the economic history of antiquity—defined as
the study of complex systems into which humans continuously adapt their tech-
nologies, their institutions and their needs and wants—to become a ‘big history’,
though, the use of the conventional methods of economics and other social sciences
appears inadequate. Davies thusly proposes to include in the models the influence of
seven variables—excluded by economic modelling so far—that he deems essential
in understanding ancient economies: the exceptional individual; the population as a
collective agent; the natural environment; ideas of the supernatural; the availability
of convertible resources; memory, imagination and the sense of identity and male
aggressiveness and violence. Bertram Schefold, instead, underlines yet another major
flaw in the study of the performance of past and present economies: failing to account
for economic knowledge as a relevant pre-condition of growth. While theorists in
the past have considered technological advancements, human capital and even moral
beliefs as factors of growth, the development of a specific semantic, the spreading of
dedicated knowledge and the creation of institutions related to economics have never
been included among them. While the ancient sources of Western modern economic
thinking can so be traced back to classical thought, a thorough study of the implicit
and explicit economic thinking in ancient economies has not been systematically
pursued, leaving a major gap in the understanding of the origins of the corresponding
economic institutions, policies and actions. Marco Bianchini, then, in his own essay,
specifically addresses this last point, by describing some conceptual and methodolog-
ical tools for the historian of the economic thought of antiquity. Notwithstanding the
fact that there was no systematic economic theorising at the time, Bianchini identifies
in the collective nature of the economy and in the eternal and ubiquitous scarcity of
resources the two facts that justify the existence, even in antiquity, of some form of
economic thought, represented in social norms, institutions, policies, etc. He further
defines the centres of regulation that preceded the emergence of the market: the
village, the war lords, the temple, the palace and the agorà. All of these performed
economic functions and took economic decisions. To allow comparisons between the
corresponding economies, Bianchini affirms that a clear identification of the bound-
aries of their power and influence and a thorough study of the way they defined debt
practices would be needed. In the last essay of this section, Monika Poettinger finally
recollects the origin and consequences of the famed Meyer- Bücher debate that took
place in late nineteenth-century Germany. Otto Neurath, having completed his disser-
tation under Eduard Meyer, tried to solve the debate by devising a new economic
science that not only allowed comparisons across time and space but depended on
them to offer valid alternative models to the democratic process of choice. Neurath
held a specific sympathy for ancient economies characterised by in-kind exchanges,
Introduction 3
the absence of monetary transactions and an extensive state control over produc-
tion. There was nothing primitive in them. The happiness of people, in his view,
had nothing to do with monetary values, but was better represented by indicators
as the suicidal rate, the availability of goods and cultural recreation and the amount
of energy and resources at disposition to an economy. These quantities are easily
summarised in an index that could be calculated for ancient and modern economies,
allowing extensive comparisons.
While economic historians and historians of economic thought suggested avail-
able options to make ancient economies understandable and comparable, historians
of antiquity, archaeologists and epigraphists, specialising on different epochs and
on different civilisations, shared their findings according to a few generic economic
themes that were discussed diachronically. These extensive studies are collected in
Part II to IV of this volume. The second section addresses the question of develop-
ment models. By development models are here to be understood the unique inter-
action of men with a complex and given environment and the resulting technolog-
ical structure of production, the extension of social and economic interchange, the
institutional framework and the stratification of society as determinants of the redis-
tribution of resources and income, and lastly the patterns of consumption. These
complex economic systems—as underlined in many of the contributions—could be
controlled or heavily influenced by political structures—political economies—but
could also be privately managed in a communal or individualistic way subject only
to social norms or complex legislations. The diachronic study on the emergence, the
growth and decay of these economic systems allowed for fertile discussion, leading
to the identification of several economic and non-economic factors that impacted on
them positively or negatively. Many of them corresponded to the desiderata of the
research program launched by J. K. Davies, others retrieved and elaborated concepts
related to the Marxian definition of modes of production or to the new institutionalist
economic history.
Marcella Frangipane, in the first essay of the second section, analyses findings
relating to 5th and 4th millennium BCE Mesopotamia. By describing the ‘political
economy’—an economic rationality applied mainly to political ends—of the time,
she identifies two completely different development models. One, based on a rela-
tive equality in the starting points, would maintain a communitarian management
of the economy if not for external induced changes. The other, instead, based on an
unequal distribution of resources to begin with, would develop an aristocratic form
of government both on the political and the economic side. In all cases, though,
wealth—best described as the supply of foodstuff for the population in general—
acquired meaning and significance only in relation to power. The 3rd millennium
saw these political entities develop into states defined by precise geographical bound-
aries more than by spheres of influence. The exercise of power over the economy
became, then, more complex, including trading and manufacturing activities and the
management of taxing systems, while the private element in the economies acquired,
for the first time, some relevance. Giacomo Benati proposes, instead, to apply the
method and concepts of the New Institutionalist Economic History to the history of
4 M. Frangipane et al.
the ancient Near East. As a first step in this direction he calls for a more system-
atic quantification of all economic data available, according to a social scientific
approach. The aim of this data collection should then be to analyse the structure
and performance of the ancient economies to underline the processes of change and
growth over time. But other datasets, aside from those pertaining to economic and
institutional variables, should also be included for this kind of reconstruction to be
conclusive. Among them, Benati cites paleoclimatology, human skeletal records—to
shed a light on human diseases and population dynamics—and violence and rent-
seeking activities. Such studies, although taken singularly could appear reductionist,
would contribute to better understand the complexity of ancient economies. Kristian
Kristiansen and Timothy Earle, in their essay, reconstruct the main characters of the
European bronze age economies of the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC. To do so they
redefine the Marxian concept of mode of production as a unity of economic, social
and political processes that represent dynamic human systems. In fact, Kristiansen
and Earle not only postulate the coexistence of more than one mode of production at
the same time and in the same space—albeit only one could be dominant at any given
time—but that modes are systems constantly changing and creating novel relation-
ships of power and inequality. Thanks to this hermeneutic concept they can explain the
dynamic that in bronze age Europe existed between population growth, subsistence
shifts, new property relationships, expanding warfare and emerging trading networks,
all of which underlying large-scale migrations and population replacements. Fred-
erick Mario Fales, then, by discussing the hydraulic networks of seventh-century BC
Assyria, gives an example of the useful interaction of modern technological tools,
as remote sensing technology, general models of landscape archaeology and more
traditional textual analysis in explaining the aims and instruments of the economic
and political control of Assyrian rulers, usually depicted by historiography as solely
dedicated to warfare. He demonstrates, in fact, the existence of precise economic
policies of the Assyrian Empire devoted to the management of resources, specif-
ically water, coupled with the political-ideological ambition to leave a ‘perpetual’
imprint of imperial power in a liminal region in the north of the country. Annalisa
Marzano, in the final essay of this s ection, describes the functioning and spread
of technologies in the Roman economy with an approach that instead of looking
for proof of prejudicial theoretical conclusions, analyses data to, then, draw some
conclusions on the innovative capacity of the economy, even in presence of abun-
dant slave labour force. This is the case of water mills, widely diffused in various
estates scattered across the Roman empire at a time, around the second- century BC,
when slaves were abundant. The complex organisation of fish salting, instead, proves
how the Roman empire created the conditions for highly specialised production and
organisational ventures, unsurpassed until the industrial revolution. The absence of
law enforcement in the economic sphere, though, obliged merchants and investors
to rely on personal ties and kinship networks, limiting the scope of operations.
The third section collects research specifically dedicated to understanding, in
different epochs, the influence that the extension of trade had on economic systems.
Trade, and the related necessity for some means of exchange, invariably emerged,
from these studies, as factors that changed and determined development models and
Introduction 5
growth performances. This happened in production, due to the induced specialisation
processes, and in demand, standardising consumption preferences, diffusing new
products, changing the perception of luxury. Trade also triggered merchant migration,
and followingly diffused payment practices and currencies, and artisanal migrations,
causing the spread of certain technologies and the sprouting of production centres
along trade routes. Trade was obviously dependent on political stability but also,
in many cases, from the politicised demand of local elites. The interdisciplinary
approach of the discussions that led to the present volume also underlined more
than once that specifically the analyses dedicated to trade called for a renewal in
the time and geographical boundaries that the historiography of ancient economies
has construed over time. Long-term trade cannot be understood by limiting studies
to institutional entities, like states and empires and by accepting a periodisation
dictated by their growth and decay. Language can also constitute a barrier in the
research for relevant sources. Archaeological findings have been, in this sense, often
more helpful, as will be seen in the individual contributions, than many epigraphic
or literary source.
In the first essay of the third section, Nicola Ialongo analyses how market exchange
in pre-literate Bronze Age Europe (c. 2300–800 BC) was based on relative weights
in respect to copper. Through statistical tests, he proves the existence in Europe of a
weight based long distance trade network that was as efficient as its counterparts in
the Near East. A trading network that, even in absence of a currency and of monetary
values, was conducive to extensive market exchanges. The corresponding weighing
technology is firstly documented in southern Italy around c. 2000 BC, then spread
between Italy and central Europe in c. 1400 BC and reached the Atlantic coast around
c. 1200 BC. At this date the technology and the corresponding set of relative prices
were widely adopted everywhere in Europe, and a payment system, based on fractions
and multiples, had become customary. The convergence over time of local payment
systems on this one based on weights, proves that merchants travelled with their
own weighing equipment, negotiated with other agents from elsewhere in Europe
and established stable relationships that proved fruitful in the long term. According
to Ialongo such systems proved stable through time. Interestingly, the creation and
diffusion of this payment system happened in absence of state institutions. While
Near Eastern states actively regulated weight systems, and by their disproportionate
presence in the economy influenced the equilibrium of the system and the values on
which the equilibrium was based, the European case was, for Ialongo, comparable
to an ideal model of free market. In his essay, Marco Bettelli, instead, testifies how
participating in trade activities engineered the diversification of local productions
in protohistoric Italy. He makes his case by analysing the evidence of the diffusion
and provenance of Mycenaean pottery. This kind of pottery implied the use of the
wheel, a technology that was up to then, unknown in Italy. At first this pottery was
imported by Italian communities through long distance trade, later local productions
sprouted, proving the existence of artisans’ migration flows sparked by the increased
demand generated by trade. Potters’ wheels so diffused from the South to the North
of Italy. Foreign artisans, in turn, passed their knowledge to native craftsmen who
then produced pottery according to Mycenean technology but with distinctive local
6 M. Frangipane et al.
decoration styles and even new uses. The fact that the technology vanished in the
North of Italy, while remained in use in the South hints to the complex interaction
of luxury productions with a specific elitist demand that depended on social strati-
fications, gift exchanges and other non-economic variables. While trade operated in
favour of the diffusion of technologies, artisanal migrations and the creation of local
production, demand was, instead, still deeply embedded in cultural values. Enzo
Lippolis, in his essay, analyses the Hellenistic globalisation between the fourth-and
the first-century BC and its effects on Mediterranean economies. In his view, the
increase in trade caused not only the integration and specialisation of production, but
also a cultural homogenisation that ultimately led to the feasibility of a holistic polit-
ical rule. The effects of the creation of a Mediterranean wide system of trade were
far from univocal, given that consumer preferences changed overtime. Some wares
lost in time their value as luxury and were substituted by others. Their production,
from being technologically refined and disseminated across many production centres,
became centralised, low quality and dedicated to mass consumption. Demand, then,
was often ancillary to political requirements, as in army provisions, or to prestige, as
in the case of the wine from Rhodes. Lippolis so argues in favour of a more attentive
and global study of the interrelations that the growth in trade brought to Hellenistic
economies, and for a reassessment of the long-term economic trends of this histor-
ical period. Present studies suffer by being dedicated to a very limited amount of
goods, so much so that they derive a negative judgement on the performance of
an economy by the problems affecting only one specific production, influenced by
the international specialisation process or by a change in consumption patterns,
without looking at the general picture. Lippolis affirms that even a reassessment of
the temporal boundaries might be necessary, dating the birth of this complex trading
system back to the Archaic Age and to the Greek colonisation process. Marco Maiuro,
in the final essay of this section, also tackles the controversial period of Hellenism.
The Hellenistic world is—he admits—less conducive to structural analysis, given
the plurality of actors and the fact that many economic variables have not yet been
quantified with any grade of accuracy. Maiuro even argues that the Hellenistic period
doesn’t have a precise direction, in terms of growth or decline, as other historical
phases. Nonetheless Maiuro, by the example of Rhodes, tries out the usefulness of a
neo-institutionalist approach to understanding the functioning of the local economy.
In fact, he claims that the specialisation of the island lays not so much in any specific
production process but in the capacity of its ruling class to take economic advantage
of the conflicting nature of the relationships among all the other actors, offering a
global service, in terms of protection from piracy and diplomatic intermediation, that
lowered transaction costs in the whole Mediterranean trading network.
The last section of this volume is dedicated to debts, slaves and finance. As stressed
by Marco Bianchini, the definition, perception and regulation of debts was a main
feature of ancient economies and its diversity marked the difference between devel-
opment models. Debts were also, in many cases, directly linked to enslavement,
since the debtor who could not repay his debt could be sold as a slave, forced to work
for the creditor for a period, or constrained to sell his belongings to the creditor.
Many of these elements recurred in various ancient economies in similar form. At
Introduction 7
times, they led to permanently altering the distribution of wealth, specifically the
possession of land, polarising a society. Given the importance of the question, gener-
ally law regulated debts. Different economic systems applied different protection
levels either to the debtor or to the creditor. The other side of the medal, credit, held
a similar importance in defining development models and economic performance.
Loaning money or extending credit in form of supplies could be a prerogative of reli-
gious institutions, states, private citizens, private banks or slaves. Interest payments
could be admitted, restricted or prohibited. Debts could have an expiration date or
could be remitted. The monetisation and financialisation of an economy would then
invariably bring changes into the regulations of debt and credit practices. Another
paramount feature of different economic systems is the regulation of slavery. Being
overtheorised, the question of slave labour and of its effects on development models
needs a reassessment, as argued by many authors of this volume. In this case also, a
long-term diachronic analysis might prove helpful.
The fourth section is introduced by an essay dedicated by Cristina Simonetti to
the edicts of debt remission in Babylonia in the first half of the 2nd millennium
BC. Simonetti admits the complexity of the economy and the society that this kind
of laws addressed, but at the same time questions the efficacity of these measures.
The edicts seem to her a futile attempt to stop a process of change that would in
the end prevail. Mononuclear families would fail to sustain themselves on increas-
ingly smaller patches of land and would so be constrained to go into debt. Major
landlords would then buy their land for a small amount of money or otherwise their
creditors would enslave them. The edicts tried to stop this process of feudalisa-
tion, freeing debtors from their debt, nullifying forced sales contracts and rendering
freedom to enslaved debtors. While reflecting the changing distribution of wealth
in society, the edicts proved inefficient, at least according to the retrieved evidence.
In the subsequent essay, Rita Sassu analyses the administration of public finances
done by major temples in pre-Hellenistic Greece from the seventh- until the fifth-
century BC. Sassu argues that during this period, hoarding processes, centred in
sacred spaces, were part of the complex administration of the public funds of the
polis. She so traces an evolutionary trajectory which, identifies, in the first phase,
the sacred space as the seat where public funds were hoarded. A later stage, char-
acterised by the increased use of coinage, was marked by a definite financial policy,
with an increased distinction between public finances and sacred reserves. All the
while temples siphoned resources in forms of donations, but also levies, war booties
and tithes, often transforming coins into artefacts, de facto limiting the amount of
currency in circulation. These resources could then be used to finance the construc-
tion of temples or the many sacred festivities but could also be called upon by the
polis for financing war campaigns. Until the diffusion of private banks, the Greek
sanctuaries acted also as credit institutions. They so represented important actors in
the process of economic growth, in a context deprived of an analogous secular institu-
tion for the management of public finances. Chantal Gabrielli, in her essay, describes,
according to all available literary sources, the problem of private and public debt and
the corresponding phenomenon of usury under the Roman republic. The Roman
economy evolved continuously from non-monetary exchange to a financialisation
8 M. Frangipane et al.
during the relatively short period of time under consideration, while it expanded
throughout Italy. The question of debts evolved accordingly, as shown by the corre-
sponding legal prescriptions. While at the beginning of this process, the origins and
the available solutions to private debt were quite comparable to Babylonian times,
very quickly the question of debts connected to military service became socially
relevant, while the institution of nexum vanished. In the last period of the Republic,
the problem of default at state level repeatedly presented itself, all the while specu-
lators spread their activities. Noticeably, financial activities remained all the time in
private hands, while the state intervened only through legislative regulations. Egidio
Incelli, instead, dedicates his research to the analysis of the relationship between
freed slaves and entrepreneurship in the Roman world. After reviewing the existing
historiography, he confronts the widespread perception, or preconception, that the
lack of social recognition for entrepreneurial ventures hampered the development
of the Roman economy towards industrialisation. Going through many examples he
concludes that even in the most striking cases, the aim of entrepreneurs was still
that to sell their ventures and transfer their patrimony into aristocratically accept-
able investments. The resilience of the socio-political model of the empire, based on
landed aristocracy, proved to be unchallenged even by the spread of entrepreneurial
capacities among freed slaves. The same theme is discussed by Francesca Reduzzi
Merola. She examines the diffusion of Roman law over all citizens of the empire in
the third century, and specifically the homogeneity from then on, across all provinces,
of contracts regarding slave sales. By retrieving the information about the acquiring
of a slave on part of another slave, without the buyer acting in representation of a
master or of the state, Reduzzi aims to demonstrate that, at this point, slaves enjoyed
freedom of action in economic matters, rendering the Marxian hypothesis of a slave
mode of production untenable.
We hope that the extensive interdisciplinary research presented in this volume will
demonstrate that the interaction between economists and historians is still useful,
specifically to define some themes in which ‘big history’ might be practiced, in
terms of long diachronic analyses. If the present attempt has any merit, we have to
thank all colleagues who participated in the AISPE congress and in the subsequent
painstaking process that led to the publication of this volume. In this context we also
wish to thank all anonymous referees who helped to transform a quite amorphous
material into worthwhile writing. Our gratitude goes also to all translators and editors
of the individual essays and of all the volume. The publisher shall be thanked in the
person of Johannes Glaeser, who continued to believe in this venture in difficult
times, through COVID restrictions and impediments of every kind. AISPE must be
thanked in the person of the organiser of the Rome Congress, Antonio Magliulo, and
its actual President, Manuela Mosca. We wish to furthermore dedicate this volume to
two archaeologists whose extensive knowledge and love for teaching we cannot but
miss: Enzo Lippolis, whose enthusiasm for hazardous comparisons and economic
theorising has been decisive in the success of the congress in Rome; and Karl Schefold
for the teaching that history might be scientifically practiced on poetical objects, but
history might also be in itself a form of poetry.
Methodology for the Economic History
and the History of Economic Thought
of Antiquity
Ancient Economies: The Challenge
of Mapping Complexity
John K. Davies
The Present-Day Challenge1
The ‘challenge’ identified in my title can be simply stated. Those of us whose profes-
sional training and research work have focused on the Greco-Roman Mediterranean
now have a substantial body of information about the economic activities of the
entire pre-Islamic Old World. That information comes from a huge range of literary,
epigraphical, papyrological, and archaeological sources in a variety of ancient and
modern languages. It is continually being enlarged and updated, and has been used
by an international range of scholars for over a century, indeed with ever-increasing
intensity and sophistication since the 1950s. Its potential, whether as a database or
as a display case, of economic activity within societies is limitless,2 and three recent
developments make this a good moment to review where we are.
The first is a recognition of the complexity presented by those data. It has become
clear from a host of publications that thematically simple portrayals of the economies
of that Old World, such as Finley’s influential sketch (Finley 1973) or the more recent
preoccupation with detecting aggregate or per capita ‘growth’ (real though it was),3
1 It is a privilege to have been invited to participate in this Congress, and I thank the organisers
for the compliment and for the platform that they have thereby given me. I do so because this
Congress provides a valuable opportunity for those of us who are economic historians of antiquity
to take stock of where we are, of where we hope to be going, and of how well equipped we are to get
there. I thank Zosia Archibald (Liverpool) and David Lewis (Edinburgh) most warmly for encour-
agement and for specific improvements to the text, and Walter Scheidel (Stanford) for information
about reviews of Scheidel et al. (2007). I also thank two anonymous referees for their very helpful
comments and suggestions, which I have incorporated as much as space allowed.
2 Though the entry by S.L. Engerman for ‘Economic history’ in Kuper and Kuper (2004, 271–274),
shows no awareness of that potential.
3 Imprimis Morris (2004), with Bresson (2016, 203–206).
J. K. Davies (B)
Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology, University of Liverpool, Liverpool, UK
© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2022
M. Frangipane et al. (eds.), Ancient Economies in Comparative Perspective,
Frontiers in Economic History,
12 J. K. Davies
cannot serve as more than single components of a far more complex portrayal of the
economic activities of the world that we study. It was symptomatic that the manifesto
for a major conference in 2015 which focused on the Roman economy saw it as a
‘complex adaptive system, consisting of independent agents that interact {with} each
other by constantly adapting themselves’.4 Such terminology reflects the world of
mathematicised applications which the study of complexity has acquired in relation
to chaos theory and many-body systems (e.g. in Lewin 1993 or Auyang 1998,or
in the work of the Santa Institute), but the challenge remains of linking such
applications meaningfully to the data that we have for antiquity.
The second development was the publication of the Cambridge Economic History
of the Greco-Roman World (Scheidel et al. 2007). A contributor to that volume such
as myself should offer comment only with great circumspection and with full and
deserved respect for editors and fellow contributors, but the importance of the volume
is such that some observations must be made, and enough time has elapsed since
its planning and publication for distance to permit some objectivity. One begins
inescapably by comparing it with its predecessors in the writing of ancient economic
history as a large-range art form, from Rostovtzeff’s two great pioneering compila-
tions (Rostovtzeff 1926, 1941) through Heichelheim (1938) to Vittinghoff (1990).
Such comparisons reveal the scale of change, whether in the use of non-written
evidence, in the use of intellectual templates derived from economics, or in the
degree of emancipation from politically defined spatio-temporal frameworks. True,
some critical remarks will follow later in this essay, for the volume remained hybrid,
part antiquarian and part social-scientific, but it and its more substantial reviews
(especially Bang 2009; Étienne et al. 2011) have provided scholars of the specialism
with an invaluable point of reference, both as a systematic assemblage of material
and as a shop-window of newer approaches. One awaits with great interest the publi-
cation of its competitor, the Oxford Handbook (Bresson et al. forthcoming), which
on the evidence of Bresson (2016) is likely to take the transformation further. Indeed,
it is already being taken further for the Roman world in the various detailed thematic
volumes that are now appearing (13 so far) in the ambitious series Oxford Studies in
the Roman economy, for which Bowman and Wilson (2009) provides a programmatic
Moreover, the Cambridge Economic History is now over ten years old. That
is not normally a long interval within the discipline of Classical Studies, but in
this particular area of scholarship life has moved on with disconcerting speed to
generate a third, more radical development. This is the disposition to reach out from
economics on its own in order to embrace the analytical terminologies that have
been developed by the other social sciences and to employ as many of them as can be
used to good effect. The main multi-purpose tool here is now ‘Model’, the adoption
of which within the specialism may derive from its use by the geographers5 and
was already explicit in the title of a conference held at Stanford in 1998, the papers
delivered at which were published as Manning and Morris (2005). ‘Model’ has
4 Cf. Poblome and Verboven (n.d.).
5 Finley (1985, 182–183), citing Chorley and Haggett (1967): add Gregory et al. (2009) s.v. model.
Ancient Economies: The Challenge of Mapping Complexity 13
been followed by ‘Agency’, ‘Connectivity’, ‘Game Theory’, ‘Identity’, ‘Mobility’,
‘Network’, ‘Rationality’, and the hybrid Actor-Network Theory’. The most recent
addition to the toolbox has been ‘Behaviour’ (cf. Lewis 2018), appropriately so
in the light of the recent award of a Nobel Prize in Economics to the High Priest
of behavioural economics, Richard Thaler, and of his entertaining exposition of
the specialism (Thaler 2015). There remains, inevitably, the last-ditch expedient
that is used perforce by all pre-modern economic historians, ‘Proxy Data’, which I
have discussed briefly elsewhere (Davies 2018a, 570–571). In the near-total absence
from classical antiquity of diachronic datasets that were systematically compiled for
communal purposes,6 the term reflects the laborious compilation, from the casual
survival of physical and written evidence of every kind, of lists of economically
pertinent phenomena (sites, objects, commodities, occupations, prices, wages, and
so on), their purpose being to shed an indirect but helpful light on an economy, to
begin to quantify its activities (detailed initial survey in Bowman and Wilson 2009),
and even to detect growth and to calculate a GDP. The evidence of silver production
through the centuries as reflected by lead isotope levels from Greenland ice cores7
is the classic example of such indirect light: as such evidence expands and profiles
of activity become firmer, the sense of building on sand is receding:
All these tools were employed in one or other of the papers that were presented
in 2016 (now published as Canevaro et al. 2018) at an Edinburgh conference on the
theme ‘Ancient Greek History and Contemporary Social Science’, to which I had
the dangerous honour of giving the final address. On that occasion they gave me
food for urgent thought, which is set out in Davies (2018a), and they do so again
now, because it seems to me that we—the miniscule and under-equipped band of
economic historians of the pre-Islamic Old World—now need to make some major
decisions with long-term implications. I have space here to sketch only three areas
of decision, each exemplifying the complexity that my title reflects.8
Area of Decision I: Boundaries in Time and Space
The first is the question of boundaries: how do we define the tracts of time and
space within which the activities that are the business of an economic historian of
the pre-Islamic Old World take place? The question is real, because at least two
distinct answers have been presented, and they reflect an intrinsic tension. When
after the First World War historians of Antiquity began to address the challenge of
6 The surviving census figures of the Roman Republic (Brunt 1971) come closest. The price-lists of
six commodities (barley, dates, mustard, cress, sesame, and wool) that were compiled for Babylonia
(with many gaps) from 652 to 60 BCE (Sachs & Hunger 1988), were not used to our knowledge
for communal purposes, and the extensive data known from mid-Hellenistic Delos are the fruit of
modern compilation (Reger 1994).
7 Up-to-date report in McConnell et al. (2019).
8 Since this paper is written by a specialist in the economic history of ancient Greece, its citations
reflect that bias, but its argument is intended to apply across the pre-Islamic Old World.
14 J. K. Davies
economic history as a specific sub-genre, their understandable prime instinct was
to follow the pattern set by economists from Smith to Weber and to write in terms
of Nationalökonomie, i.e. as the study of the ways in which the economic activities
of a given polity formed a system that was (or might be) influenced for better or
worse by public or royal policy and by public or private institutions. Though that
instinct has generated a very wide range of studies, whether of an individual polity,9
of a closely linked group of polities,10 or of sprawling empires, they have shared an
underlying assumption that it was legitimate to transmit to the reader an impression
of at least a superficial homogeneity—a claim that was strengthened by the degree
of complete or prominent overlap that was visible between the circumscriptions and
control systems of the polities concerned and the languages in which the dominant
genres of primary source material were written. Significantly, though the Cambridge
Economic History of the Greco-Roman World did its best to distance itself from such
polity-based presentations, its very title reflected a conception that was ultimately
based on language, and some of the omissions which one of its reviewers in Topoi
noted (Zurbach 2011)—Tyre and the Phoenician diaspora, the Black Sea, temperate
Europe, and Mesopotamia—may also have reflected a subconscious language-based
sense of otherness: as a contributor I acknowledge my own complicity.
A s econd, very different answer took longer to emerge. In essence it looked behind
the procedures and pressures that were characteristic of a Nationalökonomie towards
what was economically and humanly primary, namely the patterns of detectable
demand and supply, and therefore also of the activities and movements that they
generated. True, such activities might be local or regional, and might therefore be
more or less compatible with the descriptive framework that was appropriate for
Nationalökonomie. However, other activities generated by the processes of satis-
fying demand might involve triangular trade, or managed exchanges, or the use
of force, or—and especially—long-distance transits that crossed linguistic, political,
and cultural boundaries.11 In such cases, the historian would be observing or detecting
movements (of persons, goods, or services) that ranged far beyond the reach or control
of any Nationalökonomie and were therefore spatially unbounded and independent
of political or fiscal constraints. They might also very well be conducted in whole or
in part in languages and within cultures that are not normally accessible to historians
whose approach to antiquity lay through Latin and Greek,12 but they would still
9 E.g. of Corinth (Salmon 1984) or Ephesos (Davies 2011).
10 E.g. of Israel-Judah (Silver 1983), of Delos and the Cyclades Islands (Rauh 1993;Reger
Constantakopoulou 2007; Chankowski, 2008; Constantakopoulou 2017), or of Greek city-states in
general (most recently Migeotte 2014 and Bresson 2016).
11 The five studies of ‘Trade beyond the frontiers’ now published in Wilson and Bowman (2018),
443–624 are welcome illustrations, though they unfortunately lack a complementary study of trade
across the Rhine-Danube frontier.
12 For example, I am very conscious that my study of the flows of myrrh and frankincense from
Yemen to the Aegean (Davies 2016a) lacked direct access to Aramaic or to the South Arabian
Ancient Economies: The Challenge of Mapping Complexity 15
comprise elements of a single complex but very loose web of interaction that might
extend 1000 km or more beyond ‘the Greco-Roman world’.13
Such traffics require a wholly different genre of description and analysis. They
are not adequately reflected by tracing the flows of a single commodity from the
place(s) of extraction or production or capture,14 since their role in that complex
web cannot then be fully evaluated. Nor will analysis in terms of institutions be
sufficient, for reasons that are spelled out more fully below. Indeed, it is increasingly
apparent that the challenge requires the creation of a genre that is capacious enough
to encompass the entire range of activities described in the previous paragraph. It
has taken several generations to crystallise, for though Rostovtzeff’s study of the
Hellenistic world deserves our unqualified respect as a pioneering enterprise, even
he found it impossible fully to emancipate his survey from Nationalökonomie.15
Indeed, it is only in the present century that examples of what is now called ‘big
history’—heavy-weight volumes which cover large-scale themes in full scholarly
detail—have shown what can be done. The books of Michael Jursa and his colleagues
(Jursa et al. 2010) and of Anthony (2007), Broodbank (2013), and Cunliffe (2015)
make an unassailable case for annihilating the language-based academic boundaries
between ‘Archaeology’, ‘Classical Antiquity’, and the ‘Ancient Near East’ (the latter
boundary being still exemplified, alas, in the structure of the conference reflected by
the present volume), and instead for seeing such flows of goods and services and
the institutions which they generate as the basic formative ingredients of a far larger
zone of interaction. They thus incorporate but transcend the boundaries of the debate
about ‘Mediterraneanism’ that has been rebooted post-Braudel to such effect in the
last twenty years by Horden and Purcell (2000), Harris (2005), and Abulafia (2011).
They also transcend the sense of familiarity that can be provided by the language
of written sources: it cannot be a chance that the books of Anthony, Broodbank,
and Cunliffe were written not by historians but by archaeologists who were less
constrained by the loom of language.
How large is that zone of interaction? For brevity’s sake I have to state my own
view, not argue it: namely, that if it is to embrace the long-distance movement of
materials and peoples and technologies that came to transform that world into a
single loosely interlocking system, it has geographically to embrace a huge tract of
AfroEurAsia, a region bounded effectively by the Arctic and the Atlantic to West and
North, less effectively to the South by the Sahara and less effectively still to the East
by the Russian steppes and the deserts of Iran: and chronologically it has to extend
at a minimum from the Phoenician-Greek expansion of the Early Iron Age to the
13 An extreme exemplar, from a recently excavated grave of the C2-C3 CE, is on display in the
Museo Nazionale of Palestrina, in the form of a woman’s diadem with sapphires that may have
come from Cambodia or Thailand.
14 Imprimis the distribution-patterns of this or that genre of ceramic products.
15 My own experience of close engagement with his text a generation ago (Davies 1984), in
attempting to characterise the economic behaviour of a multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-polity
but heavily interactive Hellenistic world, opened my eyes to the importance of the task but also to
its extreme procedural intractability.
16 J. K. Davies
partial caesura after the Islamic Conquest.16 That is a formidable prospect. We are all
accustomed to thinking locally or regionally, in terms of the ‘Athenian economy’ (e.g.
French 1964), the ‘Seleukid royal economy’ (e.g. Aperghis 2004), or the ‘economy
of Roman Britain’ (Fulford 1989), and of course practicality will dictate that much
work on ancient economies will continue to be carried on in similar local or regional
terms. All that it is proper to advocate is that such work bears in mind the continual
movements of human beings, animals, materials, ideas, and technologies that can be
traced across the entire zone, movements that transgressed all political and physical
boundaries and could be controlled by polities only to a very limited degree. That has
implications for terminology, since that macro-region of AfroEurAsia never became
a single fiscal regime even in the palmy days of the Roman Empire. Even in terms
of Nationalökonomie, therefore, the use of the plural ‘economies’ is mandatory—a
use that also offers the opportunity to envisage a far more realistic and complex
map of shared, geographically overlapping, and weakly interacting fiscal and real
economies in continuous slow evolution. It was therefore a pleasure to note the title
of Bonn University’s Research Training Group 1878: Archaeology of Pre-modern
economies’, and to see it reflected in the theme ‘Archaeology and Economy in the
ancient World’ that was enjoined for the XIX Congress of Classical Archaeology in
Köln-Bonn in May 2018.
Area of Decision II: Our Relationship with the Social
The second area of decision concerns our relationship with the social sciences, espe-
cially but by no means only with economics. The complexity of that relationship
is best sketched by recognising the range of descriptive-analytical modes that are
already in use among the economic historians of antiquity, varying not so much by
subject-matter as by the level of abstraction. Our normal and predominant mode, for
example, is the creation of an array of studies that describe specific areas or aspects of
the economic activities of a region, small or large, or focus on a specific institution or
aspect of supply. We may call this a ‘first-level’ analysis, because the primary aim of
such studies is to collect and organise information while also incorporating a theoret-
ical baseline. Such baselines are, for example, the distribution of a commodity from
its origin to its end users, such as salt (e.g. Carusi 2016) or aromatics (e.g. Davies
2016a): or the sources of supply to a single major entrepot, such as the slave trade in
the Aegean (Lewis 2016) or the many studies of the grain supply to Athens (Gernet
1909; Moreno 2007;Oliver 2007) or Rome (Rickman 1971, 1980; Garnsey 1988): or
a specific corridor and its traffics, such as D’Ercole’s study of the Adriatic (D’Ercole
2002) or Laetitia Graslin-Thomé’s book on the trade-routes across Northern Syria
16 I do not enter here into the post-Pirenne debate, but that too has now generated two exemplary
works of ‘big history’, namely McCormick (2001) and Wickham (2005).
Ancient Economies: The Challenge of Mapping Complexity 17
(Graslin-Thomé 2009), not to mention Silk Road studies17 :or
the edition of a relevant
text or group of documents, such as Simon Swain’s edition of Bryson’s treatise on
the household (Swain 2013), or the work of Clarysse and Thompson (2006)onthe
salt-tax records in the Ptolemaic Fayum: or persons with economic roles, such as
bankers or business managers18 : and of course the economies of specific places,19
specific polities,20 or specific regions,21 and so on.22
This ‘normal and predominant’ mode has two limitations. The first is fragmen-
tation, insofar as a focus on one commodity or one institution diverts effort from
comprehending the ensemble of interaction. The second is that of specificity itself.
That is because, in the absence of widely accepted criteria of assessment, the mode
does not lend itself easily to the making of comparisons—a challenge the dimen-
sions of which are well illustrated by the two extended attempts of recent years to
compare city-state systems (Griffeth and Thomas 1981; Hansen 2000 with Hansen
2002). There is therefore a case for adopting a second mode, that of engaging not
merely with Economics but rather with the Social Sciences in general.
It is not a step to be taken lightly. For most historians of antiquity the narrative-
descriptive mode is their comfort zone, not the world of models and Gini coefficients
and strategic interactions, still less the world of hypotheses that are stated in order to
be verified or falsified in the light of specific categories of data in the way exemplified
by Ober (2015). To step outside that zone is to run the extreme risk of making false
moves in an unfamiliar environment. My own excursions into social science territory
have betrayed amateurishness, and it took me forty years of intermittent engagement
with economic history before I had the confidence to use an indifference curve in a
published paper (Davies 2016b). Other perils also confront us: that of resorting to
a single explanation or interpretative idea—a danger to which I think those wedded
to neo-institutionalism have succumbed; that of being infected by the normative
language which is endemic in political studies and in some economics; and that of
underestimating the degree to which the powers inherent in the predominant form
of polity throughout antiquity, a monarchic regime, could cut across conventional
economic logic: a theme explored in Paterson (2004). It is sufficient to identify (1) the
need to secure legitimacy through magnificence (which might not be an economically
productive form of investment), and (2) the shocks to the productive system and to
the use of capital that would be created by the selective assassination of economically
powerful rivals or by massive confiscation of goods and territory.
17 E.g. inter multos alios, Haussig (1988) and Frankopan (2015).
18 E.g. (Cohen 1992; Aubert 1994), or D. Jones (2006).
19 E.g. Fraser (1972) or Clavel-Lévéque (1974).
20 E.g. Aperghis (2004).
21 E.g. Archibald (2013), Migeotte (2014), and Bresson (2016). The same approach is taken
throughout by the editors and contributors to Vittinghoff (1990), and very largely also in the
Cambridge Economic History.
22 This list could be extended, e.g. by citing studies of specific technologies, of institutions such as
banks and markets and temples and cults, of physical installations such as stoai and harbours, or of
18 J. K. Davies
And yet there are strong counter-arguments. The more we accept that the cultures
that we study were complex structures, displaying every kind of familiar and unfa-
miliar human behaviour, the more urgently we need to have at our disposal every
descriptive and interpretative tool that we can lay our hands on and learn how to use.
Ideas and models taken from economics alone, however broadly based we envisage
that discipline as being, cannot easily account for much ritual behaviour, for example,
let alone for artistic endeavour. A pertinent example is the economic analysis offered
by Ekelund et al. (1996) of the practices developed by the medieval Roman Catholic
Church in order to market ‘salvation’ as a ‘credence good’. By treating the Church
as a ‘firm’ and applying theories of the firm to it, they offer a most illuminating
model which lends itself for adoption and application to an ancient Greek context.23
Moreover, it is only by using a wide range of such tools, and their associated vocabu-
lary, confidently and correctly that we can offer our colleagues in the social sciences
professionally reliable access to the masses of data that we have assembled, and
thereby generate the possibility of deploying that common language and of making
firmly based comparisons, across the spectrum of ancient, medieval, early modern,
and modern societies.
However, to endorse such counter-arguments is