Tuesday, April 21, 2015


Donald W. Jones, Economic Theory and the Ancient Mediterranean. Malden, MA; Oxford; Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2014. Pp. xvii, 584. ISBN 9781118627877. $200.00.

Reviewed by Paul Erdkamp, Free University Brussels (perdkamp@vub.ac.be)

Version at BMCR home site


This is a very extraordinary book. As the title says, it is about economic theory and about the ancient Mediterranean. To what extent the book is about the interaction between the one and the other will be the main issue of this review. The combination of the two topics is personified in the author, who, according to the back cover, is both an economic consultant and an adjunct Professor of Classics at the University of Tennessee. He is author of a study on Early Iron Age Crete and co-editor of The Full Costs and Benefits of Transportation: Contributions to Theory, Method and Measurement (Springer, 1997).

The author explains the goal of this massive book – 560 double-columned pages – as providing the student of the history of the early Mediterranean and Aegean region with both basic and relatively advanced economic concepts for understanding the societies, and in particular the economic lives of the peoples in this region in antiquity. The latter term is taken widely, as it encompasses Egyptian and Assyrian society as much as the Classical Antiquity of Greece and Rome. "The present volume provides pure theory, but with an emphasis on the practical applications of the models" (p. xiii). The book is devised in two parts: the first five chapters present the core of economic theory and "serve as textbook as much as handbook", while the next nine chapters (about three quarters of the book) apply the basic principles of the first chapters to various issues, such as labor, capital, cities and economic growth. In short, the book is meant as a rapid course in economic theory for the ancient historian and archaeologist. Since I am not an economist, but very much a member of the target group of this book (i.e. an ancient historian interested in applying economic theory to the ancient world), I cannot judge its qualities as a textbook or handbook on economic theory. My review must by necessity focus on my experience of the book in achieving its goal.

Archaeologists and ancient historians are all applying concepts and tools from economics and the social sciences when analyzing the ancient economy (or should do so), and the book therefore has an important contribution to make. Even if the sources do not allow us to achieve the statistical exactness of modern-day economics, we should be aware of the economic theory of the interconnectedness of the various elements within the ancient economy. Any study of any pre- industrial or industrial society may inspire students of antiquity in their understanding of the economic functioning of the ancient world and this book also offers many bits and pieces that will undoubtedly induce readers to make a note of a certain concept, perspective or simply an idea that they an use in their own research.

The author explains economic theory using mathematical equations and diagrams. If you fail to grasp the meaning of these often quite complex equations, much of the book is lost to you. Even a basic concept like demand elasticity is difficult to grasp at a purely abstract level, so starting at a more concrete level would in my opinion have worked better. Moreover, economic theory is examined in great detail, much of it related to the modern world, and hypotheses and issues are discussed that have little or no relevance to pre-industrial societies, as the author occasionally points out himself. More than half of the book discusses economic theory in abstract terms. In fact, the theory is so detailed that one starts wondering what use a historian or archaeologist could ever make of all the sophisticated models and critiques presented here. The author is aware of the possibility of such a response (e.g. p. 154), and he is right in stressing that theory can be relevant even if one lacks the quantitative data to substantiate it regarding ancient societies, but this does not answer possible objections fully. Even if there is no apparent relevance to ancient societies, the author states several times, the detailed outline of modern theory might still fulfil a function. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, he says.

Well, I must admit that I found much of the pudding quite tasteless. After all the pomp and circumstance of economic theory, there was preciously little in terms of application. Take for example the chapter on land and location, which discusses spatial aspects of land use, production and consumption, using such models as Von Thünen's (here dubbed the "Thünen model") and central place theory. After more than 20 double-columned pages of theory, there finally is something resembling application to antiquity in a very brief paragraph on "periodic markets". De Ligt's study from 1993 is undoubtedly the main publication on this topic regarding the Roman world. I quote Jones: "De Ligt (1993) has brought an array of these periodic markets from the Roman Late Republic Period to the Early Imperial Period to the attention of ancient historians, as one aspect of the urbanization of Italy during those periods" (p. 462). That's it. After all the abstract theory I want to know how the theory relates to the periodic markets discussed by De Ligt. Which elements of the theory do we see confirmed in the real Roman world? What does the theory add to what we already know? It must add something; otherwise, why did I read the preceding pages?

Although this is an extreme example, it is by no means exceptional. Page after page discusses abstract theory concerning, say, "risk", "the grain market", or "banking", and then there is a brief section mentioning one or two modern publications on the topic in ancient Egypt, Greece or Rome, each getting one or two abstract-like sentences on what the publication is about. Discussions are very rare and short, such as a few paragraphs on the production and distribution of Minoan and Mycenaean pottery. The author hardly ever engages in any debate concerning the ancient economy. In view of the wealth of modern studies—and the lively debates therein—on almost every economic sector of ancient Mediterranean societies, this is very disappointing.

Here and there the author offers suggestions of how the modern archaeologist and historian can apply the theory in his own field of study but the gulf between theory and its applicability often remains wide. Sure, ancient historians want to study the career choices of younger brothers in ancient Mediterranean societies, but it is by no means easy to find sources that allow one to do this. Archaeologists are sometimes puzzled, the author notes (p. 82), by the fact that people imported goods that were locally available. The answer lies in the 'variety concept': consumers like variety! (One supposes that most archaeologists figured out something like this, even if they did not call it a "concept".) Some chapters end with a paragraph "Suggestions for using the material of this chapter". On p. 345, for example, we are told that comparing prices at different dates requires price-level adjustments and that we should take into account the expected inflation rate when comparing interest rates. The advice is sound, but in view of the missing data difficult to apply.

In isolating ancient Mediterranean societies from the rest of economic history, the author has missed the opportunity to bring to it lessons learned from the study of other periods. Economic theory is not applicable exclusively to the ancient Mediterranean, but also to medieval and early-modern society in Europe and Asia. In fact, it has been applied to numerous pre-industrial societies that operated very much like those of the ancient Mediterranean but that offer much better data to the historian. Why not discuss the application of economic theory by eminent economists and economic historians to, say, medieval France or nineteenth-century China, in a book that intends to show the applicability of modern economic theory to the ancient world?

In short, Economic Theory and the Ancient Mediterranean is a time-consuming, but not always rewarding read.

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