Tuesday, February 21, 2012


W. V. Harris, Rome's Imperial Economy: Twelve Essays. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xiv, 370. ISBN 9780199595167. $150.00.

Reviewed by Miko Flohr, University of Oxford (miko.flohr@classics.ox.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site

This book compiles the key publications W.V. Harris has produced on the Roman economy in the last three decades. It includes chapters on a wide variety of topics, together covering almost the entire spectrum of Roman economic history, chronologically, geographically and conceptually. The book is to be welcomed as it brings together work that has not only played a key role in shaping current academic discourse on the Roman economy but also in many senses is still relevant: even though debates on particular issues may have moved on, the broad approach of most chapters, and Harris' continuous emphasis on the terms of the debate, guarantee that many readers will find something of interest here. The potential audience of the book is wide, and includes (beginning) specialists on Roman economic history, who might want to read the entire book front to back, and students focusing on specific subsets of questions, who might want to read individual chapters – not all of which are easily accessible.

The book starts with an introduction in which Harris explains the rationale behind the chapters and their ordering, and points to some larger issues related to the study of the Roman economy and, particularly, its agenda for the foreseeable future. Though short, this is in fact an interesting and provocative piece, to which scholars may want to return for inspiration in the coming years. The twelve subsequent chapters have been thematically arranged under six headings: 'structures', 'slavery', 'production', 'trade', 'money', and 'overviews'.

The first part ('structures') deals more with social inequality than with social or economic structures in general. Its two chapters focus on 'class' and on 'poverty' respectively. Chapter one on class dates back to 1988, but still provides a rather useful outline of the different ways in which one can and cannot use the modern concept of 'class' to discuss Roman social division. Chapter two on poverty is completely new and ties neatly into the debates about poverty, destitution and the Malthusian ceiling that have gained some prominence in the last decade.

The second part ('slavery') focuses not on slavery as such but more on the way in which Romans got their slaves and maintained their slave population. It consists of two articles published at an interval of almost two decades – one in 1980 and the other in 1999. The first and oldest deals with the evidence for the Roman slave trade, and the second one, more broadly, with the sources of slaves – including, particularly the issue of slave fertility and self- replacement. The article was part of a debate between Harris and Walter Scheidel that continued after its publication and is, albeit very briefly, summarized in the addenda (p.108-109), where Harris responds to some of Scheidel's critique.1 While the topics discussed in these chapters have received considerable attention in the last decades, both chapters are still worth reading. Yet the reader will not find what Harris actually thinks about the impact of slavery on Rome's imperial economy despite the title 'slavery'.

The third part of the book ('production') basically consists of Harris' well-known and seminal article on Roman terracotta lamps in the Journal of Roman Studies, complemented by a (brief) piece on the instrumentum domesticum that concluded his edited volume on The Inscribed Economy (1993). The Terracotta Lamps chapter stands out in this book, both in style and content, as it is the only chapter in which Harris consistently focuses on a predefined dataset rather than on a historical problem. This makes the chapter perhaps less attractive for a general audience. One might also quibble that the inclusion of a specialist bibliography (which has not been updated since 1980) does not fit easily in this place in the book. Despite criticism by, e.g. Pavolini, the chapter's lasting relevance is undeniable – it is still frequently referred to by scholars.2 The inclusion of the instrumentum domesticum chapter, however, is less easy to understand: this is a conclusion to an edited volume and, as such, it continuously refers back to the papers of that volume. Outside of this context, it becomes difficult for the reader to understand what Harris actually was trying to say. In its present form, it adds very little to the volume. Also, the issues raised by Harris in this piece do not really have much to do with the theme of 'production'. It better fits with the subsequent section.

The following three chapters focus on 'trade'. Chapter seven focuses on trade in the high empire and is a reprint of chapter 24 in the Cambridge Ancient History 11, published in 2000 (but written in 1990). It basically is a long discussion of all kinds of trade and their contexts. While it is fit for a handbook, it is not really an essay. Chapter 8 focuses on trade around the river Po. The article dates to 1989 and though Harris states in the introduction that he does not completely agree with the chapter's main argument any more, it is still an interesting chapter, if only because it emphasizes once more that this part of Italy deserves a more central place in many debates about the Roman world, including that about the Roman economy. Chapter 9 is an interesting and still relevant piece on the impact of governments on the Roman economy between 300 BC and AD 300, and it may reach a wider audience than it did through its original (Italian) publication.

The next part of the book focuses on 'money' and consists of one chapter only, which is a reprint of a 2006 article from the Journal of Roman Studies. It is a discussion challenging some of the conventional, pessimistic notions about Roman financial practice, arguing for a practice that was more flexible and more advanced than scholars traditionally allowed.

The last part of the book is simply called 'overviews' and consists of Harris' history of the Roman economy in the Late Republic from the Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World (2007) and of his introduction to the The Inscribed Economy, which deals with the position of the economy of the high empire between 'archaic' and 'modern'. Both chapters contain a lot of material and a lot of ideas, most of which are still highly relevant. As was the case with chapter 7, however, they are not really essays.

The present reviewer disagrees with Harris on one major issue. Harris states (p. 6) that the whole Roman empire needs to be our subject, and sometimes a still wider area. This is also reflected in the book: with the exception of chapter 8 on the Po area, all chapters claim to deal with the Roman world in its entirety. While one may easily maintain that the Roman economy was one gigantic interconnected organism and that we should try to understand it in its entirety, we may be limiting ourselves by using empire-wide approaches alone: with the increasing chronological and geographical scale, one inevitably looses analytical depth, and one will unduly privilege the average over the exceptional. Less sometimes is more, and if there is one thing really lacking from Harris' collected work here it is this small-scale, context-specific perspective which does not generate a historical overview but often may lead to detailed and interesting historical scenarios that enrich our historical spectrum. Typically, of the one chapter that focuses on one relatively limited region – chapter 8 on the Po area – Harris now feels that he should have used a more wide-ranging approach.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that this book is an extremely valuable collection of scholarship of the highest quality that has already proven its academic relevance. The book covers a wide range of issues related to the Roman economy and deserves to reach a wide audience: this typically is a book one would expect to find in the academic libraries of more modest size as well. What this book shows more than the individual articles do is that one of the great strengths of Harris lies in his style of writing: Harris consistently frames his discussion within the wider academic debate: he is not one of those scholars who will hide himself behind an authoritative air of objectivity, but continuously refers to his own personal role in the construction of his ideas. This is a form of intellectual honesty (and modesty) that greatly enhances the accessibility of Harris' texts, and that could serve as an example for many. Further, though the notes added by Harris at the end of each article are sometimes a bit short, they provide useful updates and at points interesting academic debate. Though some might be disappointed that Harris has not taken the time to more substantially rework and update the articles, Rome's Imperial Economy is a valuable book the appearance of which is much to be welcomed.


1.   Scheidel, W. (2005) 'Human Mobility in Roman Italy, II: The Slave Population'. JRS 95. 64-79.
2.   Pavolini, C. (1987) 'Le lucerne romane fra il III sec. a.C. e il III sec.d.C.' in P. Lévêque and J-P Morel (eds.), Céramiques hellénistiques et romaine 2 (Paris), 139-165.

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