Wednesday, April 25, 2018


Reinhard Pirngruber, The Economy of Late Achaemenid and Seleucid Babylonia. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Pp. xiii, 249. ISBN 9781107106062. $99.99.

Reviewed by Laurie E. Pearce, University of California, Berkeley (

Version at BMCR home site


The term "Seleucid" in this book's title may pique the attention of Classicists, but the volume is an important read for any researcher concerned with the economic history of antiquity. This clearly written, well-organized volume, a revision of the author's 2012 VU Amsterdam dissertation, establishes Reinhard Pirngruber as a historian of ancient economies who has responded to the call to think "about how to build models or how to relate models to the empirical facts."1 Pirngruber's work integrates econometrics and historical investigation, and produces "a piece of genuine 'economic history with economy.'"2

The book is divided into three main parts: Introduction (pp. 1-22); Structure (pp. 23-90), and Performance (pp. 91-209); the latter two reflect the title of Douglass C. North's 1978 essay,3 and underscore Pirngruber's embrace of New Institutional Economics (NIE). The front matter comprises Figures, Tables, Preface, and Abbreviations. An Appendix (consisting of regression sheets for Barley, Dates and Wool); a Glossary (with welcome lay definitions of statistical terms used in the book), Bibliography, and Index follow the main chapters.

In "Introduction / Chapter 1: The Economy of Late Achaemenid and Seleucid Babylonia: State of the Problem, Methodology and Sources", Pirngruber notes methodological approaches scholars have applied to studies of economies of the ancient Near East and promotes NIE for its focus on social forces that model and influence the economic functioning of institutions. Although the inventories of sources in most histories of the Seleucid economy mention the Astronomical Diaries (ADs), 4 a specific subset of more than 20,000 cuneiform records of the Neo-Babylonian period,5 Pirngruber is the first to publish in-depth outcomes of their rigorous statistical analysis and to consider their relationships to market forces and the historical record. Produced in the Late Achaemenid, Early Hellenistic, and Early-Late Seleucid periods (~484 - ~140 BC), ADs record lunar positions on the ecliptic, historical data, and more than 2,000 notations of silver equivalents of six commodities (barley, sesame, dates, gardens, wool, sheep, slaves), and comprise "one of the largest economic datasets for any pre-industrial society in world history."6 Pirngruber also integrates less abundant price data preserved in omen apodoses, commodity price lists,7 and Babylonian Chronicles. He considers the AD data as potential evidence of exogenous shocks (e.g., large-scale warfare and local disasters) and factors of production: land, labor, capital. Pirngruber's study inverts traditional approaches to economic history, first computing regression analyses with dummy variables (assigning numerical values to parameterize the presence or absence of historical events), and then considering whether shocks impact market shifts.

Part II: Structure In "Chapter 2: Some Key Developments in First-Millennium Babylonia", Pirngruber summarizes political and environmental events that led to the combination of extensive urbanization, population growth, and transformed irrigation system that produced a regionally interdependent enterprise during the Neo-Babylonian period.8 Economic conditions throughout the 'long sixth century'9 endure, with change, in the period under consideration in four areas of economic activity: agricultural intensification, commercialization, monetization, and market integration. Pirngruber draws attention to current Assyriological understanding of monetization evident already in the 6th century, adding perspective to recent discussions of the Hellenistic economy that assign the start of monetization to the period of the Seleucid rulers, if not the early Hellenistic kings.10 Pirngruber ably conveys that economic activity in Babylonia was neither monolithic nor static after the cessation of urban archival documentation following the revolts of 484 BC (Xerxes 2nd year), and plumbs the rich Late Achaemenid cuneiform evidence to explore the structural framework in which various market forces operate and to establish the period as a jumping-off point for assessments of the Seleucid economy.

In Chapter 3, Pirngruber considers the impact of "Land, Labour and Capital: The Factors of Production" on economic structures. His computational analysis of the rich evidence for the study of land tenure preserved in the Late Achaemenid Murašû archive,11 reveals significant trends that confirm economic structures and social institutions, rather than external factors alone, are responsible for price volatility in post-Xerxes Babylonia.12 Pirngruber's review of the Murašû's land-holding activities in the context of the discourse on private versus crown ownership of land underscores them as evidence of the nexus between entrepreneurs and royal and temple institutions and the fact that private property was held more widely than generally thought. Discussion of the well-documented entrepreneurial nature of Murašû economic activity as reflecting the emerging capitalism and monetization among the urban population leads in to Pirngruber's consideration of private versus crown ownership of land in the Seleucid economy in his treatment of the now-fully published Lehmann text,13 which will undoubtedly be incorporated into future studies of this important topic.

"Chapter 4: Price Volatility and Storage" discusses price volatility in connection with market integration.14 Pirngruber notes structures that served as risk-aversion strategies that militated against price volatility: spatial market integration (i.e., inter-regional trade), storage, inter-annual storage (or carry-over). In acknowledging the role of non-historical events in price change, Pirngruber balances the historiography of the Babylonian economy, which has tended to consider exogenous shocks as primary causes of that volatility, with due consideration of the internal workings of the markets themselves. Pirngruber's carefully tabulated analysis of prices of "old" and "new" barley and dates in the ADs (pp. 84-90) gives wider audience to known features of the cuneiform data not preserved in contemporaneous non-Assyriological sources for the period.15

Part III: Performance

"Chapter 5: A Price History of Babylonia, c. 400 – c. 140" discusses the nature of the AD price data and focuses on "the statistics of the sample, such as the mean price and deviations thereof ... as well as on the general trends ...".16 Adhering to delineations clarified by historical junctures, Pirngruber separates the three centuries into four sub-periods of stable political and social nature.17 Using the limited AD data for the Late Achaemenid era, Pirngruber shows that the downward trend of prices in that sub-period can be correlated with a political events, but that no causal relationship exists between the latter and the former. Discussion of the Early Hellenistic period must, of necessity, depend on historical information preserved in the relevant Babylonian Chronicles (e.g., notably the Diadochi Chronicle) and the extensive documentation of the period in the classical sources; he supplements it with the precious few bits of data preserved in cuneiform administrative sources, integrating the full scope of the documentation into his analysis.

Members of the intended audience of this journal may be particularly interested in Pirngruber's discussion of the issue of monetary supply in the early Hellenistic period (pp. 107-120), which indicates the vagaries the data reveal in matters of pricing, inventory, and control. He points out when price data is an "an artificial outcome of the mathematics rather than historical reality,"18 offering a caveat against putting full faith and credit in statistical analysis. Pirngruber deserves much credit for his considerable achievement in integrating the statistical data into a readable narrative. Regardless of the degree of interest the reader has in details of statistical analyses, s/he is rewarded with a comprehensive expression of the economic trends, the possible influence and reconstruction of historical events, and a coherent picture of the movement of economic indicators throughout the period.

"Chapter 6: Historical Events in a Quantitative Analysis": this chapter is the product of Pirngruber's methodological innovation. His advocacy for "a change of method"19 is not a call to ignore traditional text-based approaches to economic historiography, but rather a charge to consider the outcomes of historical investigation of those sources against computed results, such as those that can be produced with the price data preserved in the uniquely Babylonian sources, the ADs. He articulates the goal of this method clearly: "The aim of a regression is to demonstrate whether there exists a relationship between two or more variables, and if so, to make a statement about the strength of that relationship."20 He points out weaknesses of invoking impressionistic associations to account with the historical record, and demonstrates the potential error in relying solely on statistical accounting. His well-chosen example, the impact of a locust invasion on the barley price data, might argue exclusively for a data-driven explanation of price increases; yet, Pirngruber's previous research on "Plagues and Prices" 21 acknowledges the possibility that the relevant AD data may be impacted by the literary contexts of the annotations, i.e., the relevance of the ADs for divinatory purposes.

In Pirngruber's conclusions, he returns to the keywords of North's essay title, but in reverse order: Performance and Structure. He reminds the reader that his analysis is grounded in evidence from the rich cuneiform record. While the Greek historians, Babylonian chroniclers, and numismatics provide much information, without the ADs, the assessment of the performance of the Late Achaemenid/Seleucid Babylonian economy would remain incomplete. Pirngruber builds on foundational research into the structures and organization of the Babylonian economy,22 and brings the reader, regardless of his or her familiarity with the Assyriological literature, to a greater understanding of the complex interplay of market factors and exogenous shocks which shaped the Late Achaemenid/Seleucid Babylonian economy. Pirngruber's work is a model for the writing of economic history, and will serve as a benchmark for future research.


1.   Joseph Manning and Ian Morris, eds. 2005. The Ancient Economy: Evidence and Models. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2.
2.   Reinhard Pirngruber. 2017. The Economy of Late Achaemenid and Seleucid Babylonia. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 7.
3.   Douglass C. North. 1978. "Structure and Performance: The Task of Economic History." Journal of Economic Literature 16.3: 963–78.
4.   Published in Abraham J. Sachs and Hermann Hunger. 1988-2014. Astronomical Diaries and Related Texts from Babylonia. Denkschriften Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften. Philosophisch-Historische Klasse, vols. 195, 210, 247, 299, 346, 466. Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.
5.   A comprehensive analysis of these foundational sources appears in Michael Jursa, ed., 2010. Aspects of the Economic History of Babylonia in the First Millennium BC: Economic Geography, Economic Mentalities, Agriculture, the Use of Money and the Problem of Economic Growth. AOAT 377. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag. Pirngruber's long-standing association with the Vienna Assyriological community includes his tenure as a post-doctoral researcher in the Vienna-based National Research Network "Imperium and Officium — Comparative Studies in Ancient Bureaucracy and Officialdom"; the Austrian Centre for Digital Humanities of the Austrian Academy of Sciences will support his recently announced, forthcoming digital editions of the Astronomical Diaries.
6.   Reinhard Pirngruber, 4.
7.   Alice Slotsky and Ronald Wallenfels. 2009. Tallies and Trends : The Late Babylonian Commodity Price Lists. Bethesda: CDL Press.
8.   Reinhard Pirngruber, 26.
9.   Michael Jursa (2010: v) coined this term, which has gained widespread usage in the Assyriological literature, to describe the continuity evident in the documentation of the economic activity of years 626-484 BC — politically the Neo-Babylonian and early Achaemenid periods.
10.   For an overview of the degree of monetization in the 6th century, see Michael Jursa, ed. 2010: 775-783.
11.   The most comprehensive publication remains Matthew Stolper. 1985. Entrepreneurs and Empire: The Murašû Archive, the Murašû Firm, and Persian Rule in Babylonia. Leiden: Nederlands Historisch-Archaeologisch Instituut te Istanbul.
12.   Reinhard Pirngruber, 47.
13.   Text 148A & B in Robertus J. van der Spek and Ronald Wallenfels. 2014. Pages 213-227 in The Ebabbar Temple Archive and Other Texts from the Fourth to the First Millennium B.C. CTMMA 4. Ira Spar and Michael Jursa, eds. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
14.   Reinhard Pirngruber, 71.
15.   Reinhard Pirngruber, 74 n. 11 notes the attention "old" and "new" grain receive in documents of the economic history of medieval England.
16.   Reinhard Pirngruber , 93.
17.   Reinhard Pirngruber, 93.
18.   Reinhard Pirngruber, 111.
19.   Reinhard Pirngruber, 170ff.
20.   Reinhard Pirngruber, 195.
21.   Reinhard Pirngruber. 2014. "Plagues and Prices." In Documentary Sources in Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman Economic History: Methodology and Practice. Heather D. Baker and Michael Jursa, eds. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 166.
22.   Michael Jursa, ed. 2010.

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