Review of Antik ekonomi: Tematiska studier av den antika ekonomins karaktär och utvecklingsmöjligheter (1991)


Bertil Andersson (editor).

Read in 2024.

A student reader in the economic history and historiography of antiquity.

This is dry even by the standards of textbooks in economic history. In 1991, the shadow of Moses Finley’s status-centric The Ancient Economy loomed large over the discipline. Reading Antik ekonomi in 2024, I found some of the material to be outdated by later advances, mainly in archaeology, including marine archaeology and geophysical aids, which has added more direct evidence for economic activity with non-Finleyan economic motives.

In one of the book’s Finleyan examples of embarrassing early failures in archaeology, “in 1904, G.E. Fox argued that a suite of rooms in the Roman villa at Chedworth in Gloucestershire had served as a fullonica, an establishment for the fulling of cloth. The references to the British textile industry in documentary sources such as Diocletian’s Price Edict and the Notitia Dignitatum provided a natural incentive for this interpretation; but it was also based on the analogy of actual fulling-installations such as that found at Pompeii, and especially on representations in wall-paintings of fulling operations. Because the establishment was manifestly too large for the needs of one villa and therefore argued a commercial purpose, Fox’s observations were widely taken up in general accounts of the rural economy of Roman Britain. It was not until two generations later that I.A. Richmond re-examined this part of the site at Chedworth. By close study of the stratigraphy he was able to show that the supposedly complementary parts of the fullonica had not after all been contemporary with each other in construction and use, while his great knowledge of bath-installations in other Romano-British buildings helped him to perceive the true explanation, that these rooms belonged to successive rearrangements of the villa’s bath-suite.” This is quoted from Anthony Snodgrass’s chapter 3 of Michael Crawford’s Sources for Ancient History (1983).

What a devastating correction! Much of the book similarly touches upon the scarcity and poverty of the evidence, in one way or another. It’s a strange pleasure to see the various scholars navigate such treacherous waters while also pursuing their personal agendas, approaching truth, and finding beauty. Snodgrass quotes the coda of Auden’s “Archaeology” (1973); earlier in that poem, Auden writes “Knowledge may have its purposes, // but guessing is always // more fun than knowing.” Snodgrass himself is more gentle: “Interpretation, vital in any study of the past, is the life-blood of ancient history.” That’s really true of this volume, and accounts for much of its charm.

The chapter on slavery is perhaps the most informative, including quotes from Socrates and the Old Oligarch, glimpses of the Antebellum South for comparison, and a quantitative analysis by Bo Gustafsson. Economic angles on the Western Roman Empire and its decline get less space, but are nonetheless intriguing, especially the discussion of the Cura Annonae as a public-private partnership that quickly became so vital to the early Empire that Tiberius warned his senators that its neglect would cause “the utter ruin of the state”. That cura is informative for anybody interested in surprising economic arrangements for fantasy narratives.

text non-fiction