The Ancient Economy Hardcover – 18 Oct 1973
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"A splendid contribution to the economic history of classical antiquity. It compels the reader to recognize the depth of the transformation from the ancient consumer economy based on slave and serf labor to the modern capitalist, investment, production, profit economy."--Floyd Sewer Lear, "Business History Review --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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""The Ancient Economy" holds pride of place among the handful of genuinely influential works of ancient history. This is Finley at the height of his remarkable powers and in his finest role as historical iconoclast and intellectual provocateur. It should be required reading for every student of pre-modern modes of production, exchange, and consumption."Josiah Ober, author of "Political Dissent in Democratic Athens"" --This text refers to the Paperback edition.See all Product Description
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Not only does the author kind of circle his subject, but he never sums anything up with clear ideas or even conclusions. Instead, he argues (I think) that most economic models fit the ancient world imperfectly, and then concludes that due to lack of information little can be known. Though I am not a number-crunch lover, I was appalled that there were virtually no attempts at economic calculation, but instead purely literary sourcing and very little archaeological evidence considered. Thus, he essentially says NOTHING.
What we can know of the ancient economy - from 5C bc to 5C ad - is that it was essentially static. First, war was seen as a way to score booty, gold, and slaves. Second, while there was credit to support lavish political ostentation and farming or extraction enterprises or trade, there was very very little productive investment in industries. Third, there were few organizations (guilds, industry associations, etc.) beyond the family, which limited the productive organization of the economy. Fourth, trade was limited by the crudity and expense of land transport, and so interior regions remained close to subsistence and supply lines were unreliable. Fifth, the economy was essentially based on farming, which were controlled increasingly by large landowners and was the most advanced technologically in the ancient world.Read more ›
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Finley first examines status and statistics. What constituted status in the ancient world? For one thing, class and status were independent. A person could be of low class, but very high status. Pallas and Narcissus, the freedmen that served the emperor Claudius, come to mind here. Both were extremely high placed in society. They were rich beyond the dreams of avarice, but their class was lower than that of a senator. Finley's examination of statistics in ancient Rome is telling. In our world, it is inconceivable that the economy could be discussed without using stats. In Rome, this was not the case. Certainly, there were receipts of expenditures and interest rates on loans, but numbers just didn't hold the allure in Rome that they do today. The absence of guilds and interdependent markets, according to Finley, certainly has something to do with this. Most merchandise was locally made and consumed locally, or shipped directly to Rome. There was no need for corporations or massive transportation of goods (except grain shipments to Rome) between regions.
Finley's discussions on slavery are certainly enlightening. Finley believes slavery was necessary to the Roman world because it reinforced status. The highest strata of society disdained work, so having a dependent class of workers was essential to watch over estates and manage businesses. One of the surprising insights Finley provides is in exploding the myth that slavery is inefficient. Finley shows that the large landowners had money to burn due to the labor of slaves, as did the plantation owners in the American South. I'm not so sure I agree with this argument. To the extent that slaves were profitable in Rome, it would seem that this had much to do with the Roman system of slavery. The Romans had a process called "Peculium" in which slaves were given seed money by their masters to start businesses. Slaves could keep some of the profits from this system and eventually buy their freedom, as well as learn a trade. This is an excellent incentive to work hard, thereby increasing profits to their owners. I don't think slaves in the Americas had the same incentives.
Although the book is much more complex than the poor description I've given above, this review should provide ample initiative to read Finley. Even a beginner to Roman history could get much out of this book. Finley, despite some early hiccups, has a smooth writing style that is sympathetic to the newbie. Many a professional scholar has received inspiration from Finley. Highly Recommended.
Sixteen years before Cameron & Neal's work M.I. Finley offered some insight into that. The very notion of modern economics did not exist to the Romans and the Greeks. According to Finley, the structure of the ancient society was one with rich landowners at the top who controlled the one generally accepted wealth creating production input - land. The land was used for extraction of minerals (silver, gold, iron, etc.), extraction of clay and the raising of crops.
The ancients lived in a zero-sum world, where only by taking land and labor from other states could you create growth. While the idea of "profit" was important the ancients, the idea of "growth" was non-existent. Like growth any other modern economic ideas are absent. The ancient world was one where the status of the wealthy citizens was that of comfort. From their land the wealthy were able to live in comfort from poverty by directing the labor of the lower classes (whether slave, serf, free or some mixture).
Some amateur economists have challenged Finley because he doesn't take into account very simple mechanisms such as money supply and velocity of money in the ancient economy. Yet, he does answer these critics. In an economy based solely on silver coin such an analysis would be an anachronism. The money supply could only be the amount of silver available.
While I would have liked to see more investigation into possible export led production - such as Archaic Korinthos - the work was an incite into the ancient economy. Based on the data (almost none) and literature (scanty) Finley has developed a reasoned argument. Land was the source of wealth for the upper classes. The lower classes (whether slave or free) made goods largely for local production. Governments never developed an "economic system" for growth of their economy. And, any trade was basically for exchange of needed goods and luxuries not for growth of the economy. This is definitely not a must read and really only fits in a niche readership, but it was good.
Here is a simple example. He refers to a famous coin maker named Euainetos, who lived in Syracuse. To tell the truth, I checked his coins, they are a true piece of art! But in this book, the author just says something like "coins were not that special, and just because Euainetos made them it did not make them any more valuable". OK, but as a reader, I had no idea about that coin let alone Euainetos. It would have been nice to say something like "Syracuse, the most powerful Greek colony in the west, saw the best coins made by a certain artist named Euianetos." etc etc. The author just doesn't care about the reader, which makes me think, to whom was he addressing this book, after all?
I learned a few good things from this book, but I had to work for it. It was not an easy read. And that's a shame, because you can tell the author knows his stuff. Maybe he did not care about the reader.
However, Finlay's as author is not as satisfying.
The foreword to Finlay's book is good. It puts Finlay's contribution into a larger context and, in particular, pointing out Max Weber's influence on Finlay.
Max Weber noticed that most people are mainly interested in social prestige, not the means thereto, and, more specifically, that the modern means to prestige is not the traditional (ie., ancient) means thereto.
As a result of the foreward, I immediately ordered Weber's ostensible masterwork "Die Protestantische Ethik und der 'Geist des Kapitalismus'" (written 1904 with revision 1920).
Finlay himself does not explicity appear to recognise his debt to Weber. He refers to Weber's contemporaries (Rostovtzeff & co.).
As the author points out, very little was probably ever written in ancient times - and much less has been delivered down to us through the passage of time - regarding "economic" matters, the writing and reading public being consituted essentially by well-born persons with private incomes, who were generally interested in the (for them) more appropriate topics of poetry, rhetoric, religion, philosophy and heroic military exploits.
Hence research on this subject is difficult.
Also, the book is rather tedious and the amount of repitition and ampflication on essentially obvious points gets a bit monotonous.
Having said that, the whole subject matter was interesting, and the pointers to other authors useful.
The economic model which is developed is typical social sciences stuff: simplest ideas expressed cryptically as pseudo-mathematical charts. One can overlook this.
At the end of the day, the most worthwhile knowledge which I gained from Finlay's work was the knowledge that there was a Roman writer called Vitruvius who wrote a work on Architecture at around the time of Christ which remained the standard work on that subject for at least 1,500 years.
In the meantime I have read Vitruvius and found him to be both useful and entertaining.
Now I'll read Max Weber.