As followers of my Twitter feed will know, I’ve spent the last two weekends away from home, giving papers and attending conferences at St Andrews (post-classical libraries) and Regensburg (migration, mobility and innovation in pre-modern cities). The cats are still barely speaking to me for abandoning them, I’m not sure my wife is a lot happier, and I feel thoroughly exhausted, but both were great experiences – if nothing else, it’s wonderful to spend some time thinking about things other than university admin, and to realise that I can actually still have ideas if given a bit of space in which to have them.
Of course, that then leads to the problem of not having any time to do anything with those ideas. Just in the course of Saturday morning, I came up with a plan for an article on the idea of exile as a pre-requisite for social critique (a paper on Dante’s exile sparking thoughts on the interpretative tradition in relation to Thucydides) and more or less an entire extended blog post on different approaches to presenting competing accounts of the past through narrative (bringing together Lawrence Durrell, Monika Maron and Thucydides). It’s conceivable that I’ll be able to get round to writing up the latter some time within the next month, given a following wind, but since I’m already two months behind with producing a revised version of a conference paper from last year, and the Regensburg people want their revised version by March, and I’m supposed to be writing a book on Marx and Antiquity, the former is unlikely to get anywhere for at least a year. I know, first world problems and all that, and it’s difficult to talk about such things without starting to sound like the hilariously self-absorbed Nicholas Craig on acting (“Unemployment isn’t so bad for a bricklayer or an accountant, as they can always build a wall or audit some accounts on their own time, but an actor must act…”) – but it is deeply frustrating to be so absurdly busy in work and yet have no time at all for what I always thought was a major part of the job.
Thinking about the limits of things like energy and patience combines, in an entirely incoherent way, with ideas about the limits of economic growth and development in classical antiquity – and in the modern world. My Regensburg paper started as a general discussion of urbanisation in late antiquity – it did get re-engineered in mid-air, when I worked out how to engage more directly with the core themes of the conference – a theme which is generally figured in terms of crisis or decline, and certainly there’s copious evidence of shrinkage in the concentration of people and resources in the West in ‘urban’ centres. Normally this decline is explained in terms of external factors – declining tax revenues, impoverished aristocrats, barbarians, plague etc., but I was struck by the suggestion of Simon Esmonde Cleary that we might see the second century as a high point in urbanisation, from which decline might seem more or less inevitable, rather than as a ‘normal’ situation so that any change requires explanation. Further, if we see elite investment in the urban environment as above all a means to establish and maintain their power, then clearly this was no longer working so well; it’s not just that Roman society reached the limits of its ability to support a non-agricultural population and infrastructure, but also that the benefits from this investment were reaching the point of diminishing marginal returns, and/or that the benefits from urbanisation accrued above all to the relatively early adopters.
This idea is drawn at least partly from something I read recently – and I can’t for the moment remember where – about the prospects for global economic growth today: the suggestion that all the big gains in productivity have already been realised, and that developing countries in Africa are never actually going to be able to catch up. Ancient Rome had much lower limits to the possible: the spread of new habits of consumption and the establishment of a more integrated political, legal, cultural and economic system created new demands for goods that promoted increased trade – but only until the production techniques for fine ware pottery, wine, olive oil and the like spread to the provinces and largely replaced imports. Per capita incomes remained low, the profits of trade remained largely in the hands of a limited elite, inequality remained terrifyingly high, and so there was not only no take-off into a more advanced economy, there was no serious possibility of it.
All this needs a lot more thought, to connect it to questions of ecological limits and to a more developed sense of ancient inequality and the returns on capital (I also have plans for a workshop on applying Thomas Piketty’s ideas to antiquity). If it wasn’t for the risk that it would push me even further towards the limits of my own capacity to draw benefit rather than frustration from having ideas, I’d say that I need at least one more two-day conference, preferably on another subject that I know next to nothing about, to work it all through…