Saturday, 21 March 2020

The Hellenistic Economy and Society

I have been pondering posting about this book for a while, because most people will presume that it has nothing to do with wargaming, and when a post on a blog about wargaming appears to have nothing to do with wargaming, then the readership drops. Not, I hasten to add, that I mind particularly, but it does depress my Monday mornings a bit to see seven or eight reads. Celebrity in wargaming blogs is a rare commodity, anyhow.

Still, I have read, and will write about here, this book:

Rostovtzeff, M., Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World (Oxford: Clarendon, 1941).

This is, in fact, a three-volume work which I picked up reasonably cheaply, just out of interest, you know how it is. It turned out to be really interesting, not least because the author must have led a more interesting life than you expect a classical scholar to have. He was Professor of Latin at St Petersburg between 1898 and 1918, and Professor of Ancient History at Yale between 1925 and 1944. As he was born in 1870 and died in 1952 I presume he retired from Yale, rather than got caught up in any Cold War purges.

The first thing a wargamer often says, when confronted with something that is not a military history, is ‘why should I care?’ Well, it is a sort of reasonable question, but if we are historical wargamers, we are partially committed to history as a whole, not just those parts of it that go ‘Bang’ or ‘Twang’. States cannot, after all, put armies in the field unless they can pay for them, and so the economy of the state matters a great deal in military history. Furthermore, if we accept that an army is a reflection of the society it comes from, then knowing something about the society might help us in determining what the army looked like.

There are a few cases in point in this book. For example (I am not going to quote page numbers, because the chances of me finding the references are small, the first two volumes contain around 1300 pages of text) the Ptolemaic Egyptian army changed during the Hellenistic period from one based around Greeks and Macedonians to one based around Egyptians. The reasons for this were both internal and external. The Ptolemies tried to keep Egypt isolated from the rest of the Hellenistic world politically and economically. Of course, they could not do this totally, but when they lost control of the Aegean they lost a lot of trading possibilities with the rest of the Mediterranean world. Hence they turned even more inwards and started to give cleruchs to people of Egyptian stock, albeit Hellenised ones.

The distinction between Egyptian and Greek or Macedonian hence became blurred. In order to get on in life, the Egyptian needed to learn Greek, which was the language of government and politics. It also became the language of the law for those who adopted Greek customs. Hence, eventually, the Ptolemaic army became manned by Hellenised Egyptians.

For another example, the Romans appeared in the Eastern Mediterranean around the time of the end of the Punic Wars, as any wargamer will know. The gradual takeover of the Eastern World was largely engineered by money lenders and merchants; the Romans wanted Greek goods and products. The Romans grew so powerful, however, that they could make and break states. Delos was, for a while, the key clearinghouse for goods going from east to west. Rhodes, too, was influential until the Romans fell out with it. Similarly, the destinations of caravans from the East could be determined by politics and warfare in Syria and Asia Minor. Ports could rise and fall on the outcome of a battle.

Finally, you might have wondered where the idea for the Sarmatian verses Dacian bash a few weeks ago came from.  It was, in fact, from this book where, the author notes, the Roman governor of Macedonia had constant problems in defending the province from marauding tribes from the north in the First Century BC. I happen to know that this was also the case in the First Century AD. Both Julius Caesar and Trajan planned expeditions into Dacia, the latter, of course succeeding. The problem was then, of course, that Dacia had to be defended from those tribes beyond its frontier, and so the Imperial game went on.

There are also other interesting snippets. I mean, wouldn’t you be interested to know that blown glass first appeared in the First Century BC, probably having been invented in Syria. This has, admittedly, limited wargaming interest, but it is something more widely interesting than most wargame speak, and might suggest to non-wargaming friends and family that we are not totally weird and can hold a normal conversation from time to time.

I am not sufficiently well up in the demise of the Hellenistic world to know whether Rostovtzeff’s claim that the Eastern Empires went down after almost constant wars in the second and first centuries. The lands (and most of the economy relied upon agriculture) were devastated and exhausted. Some parts of Greece were depopulated and the peasantry everywhere was demoralised. The last fights against Roman hegemony destroyed any vestiges of independent states or democratically run cities. Writing presumably in the 1930s, having experienced the First World War and its aftermath, the linkage between economic devastation, loss of democracy in any form, and warfare must have been very clear.

The plus side of the Pax Romana, of course, is that an imposed peace is better than no peace at all. The economy can recover if people are willing to put some work in, and that they can be reasonably assured that such work will be rewarded. Whether such circumstances really prevailed in the Roman world is a whole different subject. Rostovtzeff did, in fact, write an economic and social history of the Roman World (in but two volumes) but I have not read it. Perhaps when I retire.


  1. Just been doing some Hellenistic / early Roman DBA, so interesting to read about some of the wider context.

    1. Glad to hear it - context is always interesting, I find. For example, if we didn't know what was going on in Rome, we might take Caesar's account of the Conquest of Gaul at face value...

  2. I like the phrase "Bang and twang". I enjoy the variety of your posts, so thank you for the time you put into your blog.

    1. Thank you - as long as I enjoy writing them I'll keep going. It is hard to run out of material with historical wargaming, after all.