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The Ancient Economy (Sather Classical Lectures) Paperback – 1 Jul 1992

3.5 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 262 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; 2nd edition edition (1 July 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520054520
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520054523
  • Product Dimensions: 22.8 x 15.3 x 1.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,810,093 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product description


"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 an alternate Paperback edition.

From the Inside Flap

"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 an alternate Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

3.5 out of 5 stars
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Complex, challenging, and drawing on Max Weber's Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilisations, this is still the definitive work on ancient socio-economic structure. The book does not apply modern economic models to the ancient world, but rather argues that the ancient economy can only be fully understood by examining the social and political structures it was enmeshed within.
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Format: Paperback
To say that I was disappointed in this book is an understatement. I read it carefully and yet can barely remember anything in it worth learning. I say this not as an antiquity buff, which I am, but as an economics writer with a great interest in business history.

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.
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Format: Paperback
Whilst this is a core book for anyone studying the subject standby for a heavy going journey through the subject. This chap was an excellent scholar and his theory has stood the test of time. Unfortunately it is not easy to read if you do not have a strong background in classical history. That said, if you do make the effort and read it all then you will undoubtedly have a greater understanding of the subject. I have given this book three stars as it was so hard to read and not because the content was found wanting. It should definitely be on your bookshelf if you study archaeology or history.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) (May include reviews from Early Reviewer Rewards Program) 2.9 out of 5 stars 10 reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent if controversial book laying out the "Finley thesis 24 Mar. 2017
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format: Paperback
Excellent if controversial book laying out the "Finley thesis," namely that the ancients had no economic thought nor conception of an economy, and so therefore modern scholarly attempts to analyze the ancient economy with the tools (intellectual and otherwise) of modern economics will always fall short. The Greco Roman economy was deeply embedded in society, and profit was never the primary goal of those who operated within it. Revolutionized the field. Has been seriously challenged by the work of scholars like Peter Temin.
4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars yet the way he describes it to the reader is very poor. The feeling I had reading this short book ... 26 Mar. 2015
By S. Liiceanu - Published on
Format: Paperback
This is one strange book. I read it carefully, without jumping from page to page, although I was really tempted to do so at times. My feeling is that the author, very famous in this field, is truly knowledgeable about his subject, yet the way he describes it to the reader is very poor. The feeling I had reading this short book was akin to opening a dictionary about ancient Rome and reading randomly. No clear ideas, just information (but ironically, good information), in endless circles, you are left, as a humble reader, with the idea "what on Earth does he want to say, after all"? I think this is a pity, since the author is famous and he knows his stuff. Yet, when in comes to explaining all this interesting material to keen readers, the job is very poorly done. Reading the book I got the feeling it was written by the author FOR the author, without any care about the reader.
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.
39 of 43 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Roman Economics 15 Mar. 2002
By Jeffrey Leach - Published on
Format: Hardcover
The author of this book, M.I. Finley, is a giant in the field of ancient history. The introduction paints a pretty impressive picture of the man. He graduated from college with an M.A. at the age of 17, an amazing feat for us wannabe intellectuals. His M.A. was in public law, not exactly the usual prerequisite for an amazing career in history. Finley's positions on the ancient world were based on the works of Max Weber; the sociologist who posited that status played a big role in society. In this book, Finley tries to prove that the ancient economy was largely a byproduct of status. In other words, economic systems were not interdependent; they were embedded in status positions.
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.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ancient Economy - did it exist? 20 Mar. 2009
By J. D Morrow - Published on
Format: Paperback
In their work, "A Concise Economic History of the World," Rondo Cameron and Larry Neal devote 400 pages to the economic history "From Paleolithic Times to the Present." That said, the Paleolithic to Fall of Rome garner a grand total of 23 pages. We are left to question, why have they dedicated so little to such a huge time period? Why do we know so little about the economics of the classical period?

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.
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Classical Economies Did Not Exhibit Modern Economic Behavior 27 Oct. 2001
By Joseph D. Siegel - Published on
Format: Paperback
Finley in "The Ancient Economy," presents an informed argument against the notion that ancient civilizations exhibited "modern" market behavior in the style described by Erich Roll as "an enormous conglomeration of interdependent markets." M. Rostovtzeff's notion that trade of manufactured goods was active and important in classical economies is successfully challenged, and the reader is given an interesting peek into the process by which free, landed peoples gradually replaced slave labor in the hinterlands laying the foundation for medieval serfdom. This is an excellent (and concise!!!) introduction to the economic structure of the classical world both describing the various class structures and how each class in general viewed the economic notions of land, capital, trade, and accumulation. I definitely recommend this book to any student of economic history.
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