Wednesday 31 March 2021

The Ancient Economy

One of the things about modern life with added internet is that you can certainly buy books much faster than you can read them or, in my case, write about them. For reading, I do recommend speed reading courses, as long as they are not pop-psychology US-based extract money from credulous people by making them read books in reduced light (no, really) so their pupils open wider so they can see more of the page at a time (no, really). Mind you, I do teach a bit of speed reading from time to time, so I might be biased, although I do not charge a knight’s fee for the privilege.

Anyway, I have a bit of a book pile to write my way through before I forget about the contents, so here goes with the first one. As I am already a month or two ahead with the weekly blog posts, I shall do a few extras along the way, which no-one in their right mind will read but I shall feel better about having committed my thoughts about them to paper / word processor / blog.

The first book to write about is the eponymous one in the title:

Finley, M. I. (1979). The Ancient Economy. London: Book Club Associates.

I confess, for all my denial above, this one was not actually purchased off the internet. I was having a chat with a colleague (who happens to be a classical Greek archaeologist by training) and mentioned that I was reading this object, and had got to volume two:

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

My colleague fixed me with a beady eye and inquired if I had read Finley. I had to confess that I had not, whereupon she rose and, having just had a major operation on her ankle, rolled herself off on a neat trolley thing to the other room, rolled back, and presented me with the said tome. ‘You can keep it,’ she said. ‘I’m trying to reduce the number of books I’ve got and I don’t need it.’

Hence Professor Finley came into my life. I confess (again) that he sat on my shelf for a while, rather neglected, but, as is the way of things, when I was looking for something a bit more ancients related to read, I took him down and proceeded.

Now, I am not a classicist scholar, I just have an interest in ancients things, often related to wargaming. I do recognise, however, that there is a lot more to life than fighting battles, it is just that accessing said things, such as the life of a peasant, can be a bit difficult. The other thing, as I realised as I read on, is that the ancients had a very different view of the world than we do.

The book covers, roughly, ancient Greece, particularly Athens, as you would expect, and the Roman Empire. The sources are those you would expect, with the very occasional reference to economic matters mined from the standard sources, and the few bits which refer to something economic or productive given a bit more space.

The fact is that there was very little concept of ‘the economy’ in the ancient world. People grew stuff to survive, and if they had any left over, sold it to buy other stuff from local people who were, roughly speaking, doing the same thing. Governments taxed people and took what they could. Landowners obtained rent which they used to buy more land, or to live in happy excess (or miserable excess; as the modern Western world shows, more is not necessarily better) or, if they really had an awful lot, to buy political favours. This was often done by offering large loans. If the candidate then did not do what you wanted, you could call it in and bankrupt them.

A few, of course, rose to the top. Noted Greek politicians, despite democracy, were, on the whole, loaded, and could usually garner the required votes unless they really upset the people and were ostracised. The Romans, of course, played for keeps. Caesar, Pompey and Crassus were all seriously wealthy people, but they had to keep going or someone, possibly one of the others, would stick a sword into them. Once they had a loyal army at their backs, conquest was required: the veterans needed land and there was not enough in Italy to satisfy the retirees who had given them so much political clout. Hence the expansion of Rome in the first century BC.

Things only marginally improved under the Empire. There was no idea about the investment of capital to improve returns, or of investment in industry and commerce to make things easier and/or more profitable. The slave economy, whereby if you need something you made someone else do it for you no matter how slowly or ineptly they managed it, rather stifled the requirement to innovate. There was not a lot of new technology and innovation around – the odd water mill and glass blowing excepted, the world was pretty well the way it was in the fourth century BC as in the fourth century AD.

You could argue that the Roman roads had an impact, and you would be right, but the roads were military installations, going where the army wanted them. Towns relied on their own hinterland for food and the quantity of inter-town, let alone provincial trade was very limited, except for the large cities like Athens and Rome which needed to import grain.

The footnotes in the book are rather (academically) hilarious, possibly indicating the origins of the book in lectures. Finley swipes other authors, often swingingly: ‘unpersuasive special pleading’ is just one example chosen at random.

Finally, of course, it all fell apart. The Roman Empire, at least in the west, did fall apart. The wargaming interest in this, I suppose, is the reason Finley puts forward: the Romans simply ran out of manpower and of money to pay an army of the size they needed to defend the frontiers. Perhaps that is an economist’s viewpoint; there might have been a few other factors around, but I suspect that it is, at heart, an unavoidable truth.


  1. Similar points have been made about cheap labour and lack of innovation/productivity improvements in the UK economy since the crash of 2008.

    I read a Finley book about 25 years ago when I was as having a periodic resurgence of interest in the ancients. The World of Odysseus. Can’t really remember much about it, other than he was suggesting Homer was writing about times much more contemporaneous to himself, than the 12th C BC.

    1. The world is always falling apart, and the old times were always better....
      I think Homer is a bit like some books of the Bible - the best we can do is say 'sometime around then, sort of, maybe, possibly, perhaps...' Add more caveats to taste.

  2. I always enjoying reading your posts- even if they aren't about my preferred era- and I don't always comment.

    I was intreguied by the speed reading- can you point to a reputable course please? MTIA.



    1. At the risk of crossing my professional and private spheres, try this: