Tuesday, January 21, 2014


Walter Scheidel (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Economy. Cambridge companions to the ancient world. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. xii, 443. ISBN 9780521726887. $39.99 (pb).

Reviewed by Cristina Rosillo López, University Pablo de Olavide (mcroslop@upo.es)

Version at BMCR home site


This volume is not a history of the Roman economy (for which see the Cambridge Economic History of the Graeco-Roman World, 2007, reviewed in BMCR 2009.04.74).1 Instead, it takes a thematic rather than chronological approach, in fifteen chapters, categorised in five parts: theory, labour, production, distribution, and outcomes. This approach eschews chronological concerns to provide a sweeping view of the Roman Economy as a whole, as an economic system.2

Almost all of the participants share a number of concerns. First is the fragmentary state of the evidence; a related concern focuses on the relative merits of quantitative and qualitative data. Most authors have chosen not to present these as a dichotomy, but consider both as necessary to arrive at the best results. After decades of relying on qualitative sources, much recent work has pursued quantitative questions, helped by the development of adequate software and data collection systems.3 Secondly, many of the papers take explicit positions as regards the overall condition of the Roman economy in comparison with other empires and historical periods. Several candidates for comparison are proposed, including early modern Amsterdam, eighteenth-century London, the Ottoman Empire, and Mughal India. Even so, several chapters observe the risks of comparative economic history.

Scheidel, "Approaching the Roman Economy", calls for the necessity of comparison with similar empires, within longer periods of history, or focusing on specific institutions. Stepping over former debates on primitivist vs. modernist characterisation of ancient economies, Scheidel stresses the new approaches divided on whether market relations or power relations are privileged. Mention is made of the relevance of ecological factors (absent from this volume, since they were covered in the aforementioned Cambridge Economic History of the Graeco-Roman World).

Vicenza, "Roman economic thought", states that Romans left no theoretical treatises on economy. She draws general theories from the study of their practices, especially from literary and legal texts. The understanding that Romans had of certain economic factors, such as long-term inflation, is debatable.

Temin, "The contribution of economics", describes and discusses in a remarkably clear manner concepts such as market, supply, demand, comparative advantage, economic growth, and catastrophes (money and prices are available as supplementary materials on the webpage). He follows the tenets of New Institutional Economics, regarding Rome as a market economy.

Saller, "Human capital and economic growth", surveys the levels of education and training of the Roman labour force. Human capital could be augmented by intergenerational transfer of skills, contractual apprenticeships, and formal education. By pre-modern standards, Rome displayed a high investment in human capital.

Scheidel, "Slavery", describes Rome as a slave society and economy. He estimates the quantity of slaves and reviews how these numbers were sustained over time. Comparison with New World slavery systems reveals some useful points of study. Scheidel argues that alternatives were insufficient or inadequate, while the Roman system also allowed for flexibility in the management of slaves.

Kehoe, "Contract labour", suggests that the size of the population is key for determining the welfare of workers. Because of Malthusian constraints, loss of population implied an increase in wages and prices, whereas growth entailed increasing competition for jobs. The situation of the workers could be described as "bare-bones subsistence."

Wilson, "Raw materials and energy", asserts that the Roman government considered the long-distance trade of raw materials as a state interest, controlling in some cases both extraction and supply. He reviews location, evidence, and uses of metals, minerals, gems and precious stones, clay, stone and building sand, timber, and glass. Both materials and energy shared the constraints of an organic non-industrial economy.

Kron, "Food production", presents a positive viewpoint, arguing that Roman food production was based on market-oriented intensive mixed farming, comparable to that of England and the Low Countries by mid-19th century. He proposes a similar comparison in regard to intensive production and the amount of livestock kept by farmers. This situation was dependent on urban mass markets and elaborate infrastructures of transport.

Hawkins, "Manufacturing", draws on theoretical studies on transaction costs and integration, and on parallelisms with Early Modern periods, to discern why businesses were not more integrated in the Roman Empire. Part of Roman manufacturing was organised in subcontracting networks, which catered to wealthy clients through bespoke production. Vertical integration was vitiated by market conditions, the existence of collegia, seasonality, and the periodic exchanges in elite fashion.

Bang opts for the perspective of "Predation" rather than "Imperialism" and so describes the Roman Empire as a ruling coalition of rent-seeking elites, following the viewpoint of New Institutional Economics. He argues that predation or predatory imperialism worked, and did not depress economic activity. Booty and taxation provoked an economic impact through redistribution of wealth, the resettlement of people through land allotments, slavery, and urbanisation.

Adams, "Transport", dismantles the orthodoxy that land transport was inefficient and costly. Maritime routes did not close completely during winter. Rivers were used in connection with roads. In fact, all systems of transport were integrated.

Erdkamp, "Urbanism", is concerned with the economic bases of urbanisation. Urban economies were sustained by textile industries, the building sector, and the domestic service. He argues that the division between town and countryside did not absolutely overlap the division between agricultural and non-agricultural sectors.

Von Reden, "Money and finance", states that financial intermediation and money supply were ample and did not constitute an obstacle or a brake on growth. Monetisation and monetary expansion were stimulated by military expansion, provincial exploitation, taxes, exchanges in the ownership of the land, and urbanisation. She argues that, even though the denarius became the prevailing currency at global scale, old coinages were incorporated and continued to be used. Nevertheless, this picture did not imply that market prices and production were also integrated.

"A forum on trade" provides challenging viewpoints on this matter, offered by Wilson, Silver, Bang, Erdkamp, and Morley. Wilson surveys long-distance trade, even beyond the frontiers of the Roman Empire. Silver emphasises the high index of marketisation. Bang stresses the weaknesses of the "free market school". Erdkamp addresses the grain trade, the largest item of commercial exchange, pointing out the limitations of its integration. Morley remarks on the unprecedented expansion of the distribution of goods.

Scheidel, "Physical well-being", address the question of biological evidence for standards of living. Malthusian scenarios were the rule: body height decreased when population pressure increased; thus, people were taller before and after the Roman period. The imperial economy did not enhance biological living standards. Economic growth could raise inequality but also boosted investment in infrastructures that could alleviate health problems.

Loseby, "Post-Roman economies", analyses the situation of the Mediterranean after the 5th century CE, tracing economic transformation through the study of pottery remains. While the eastern Mediterranean boomed, western economies slowly faded, especially after the end of state-sponsored transport (the shipping of the annona). Nevertheless, commercial networks survived. Regional production and distribution persisted, and political crises did not have a great impact on economic life. In the Roman East, rural prosperity escalated, and production and settlements intensified. This changed by the 7th century CE, when civil wars, the war against Persia, and the loss of territories to the Arabs started an economic decline. By the 8th century CE, the halt of commercial exchanges in both sides of the Mediterranean was almost complete.

Despite the nuances introduced by some of the contributors, the non-chronological approach of the book offers an analysis of the economy of the Roman Empire in a fixed point in time. This choice could prove controversial, but it is an adequate complement to the Cambridge Economic History of the Graeco-Roman World. The thematic perspective offers a much-needed analysis of the Roman economic system as a whole, and opens up new possibilities for further research into the subject. This review of the main points of every chapter does not justice to the depth of the book, including the forty-nine pages bibliography, or the very useful further guide to further reading.


1.   Useful review (including concerns about the use of New Institutional Economics for ancient Rome) in F. Hurlet, "Croissance et Empire. À propos d'une nouvelle analyse de l'économie romaine de la fin de la République. Compte rendu du chapitre de W. Harris, The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World, Cambridge, 2007, Table ronde, Nanterre, 13 février 2010", in Topoi 17/1, 2011, 100-108.
2.   Some supplementary materials are available on the web. Especially of interest is the long version (47 pages) of Kron's chapter.
3.   Quantification started early, with the valuable T. Frank (ed.), An Economic Survey of Ancient Rome (5 vols, 1933-1940). More recent works include R. Duncan-Jones, The Economy of the Roman Empire: Quantitative Studies, 2nd ed. 1982, and A. Bowman, A. Wilson (eds.), Quantifying the Roman Economy: Problems and Methods, 2009.

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