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.
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. The empire did extract taxes from villa operators to protect both Rome's interior and its sphere of influence, creating a Pax Romana in which the economy could develop in relative peace and with fairly stable legal property rights. As such, the economy was more prosperous than that of its neighbors, predominently german tribes, which were attracted to the border regions, eventually becoming a mortal threat and leading to Rome's downfall. None of these ideas come through clearly in this book, but comes from histories I have read elsewhere.
It astonishes me that this is hailed as a classic. This is the product of an academic pedant, thick with obscure sources to quote and a very poor underpinning in economic theory - he quotes Marx and Max Weber often, but never refers to Keyes or any other modern economist. I cannot recommend this.
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.