Someone over on Crooked Timber asked if I could outline the debates about the nature of the ancient economy and its historiography, in the context of discussions about the contribution of Ellen Meiksins Wood; I was thinking of posting my response here anyway, just to keep the blog ticking over and to avoid these thoughts languishing at the bottom of a thread that no one’s following any more, but it’s taken me so long to get round to writing this that the thread has closed to comments, and this is the only outlet I have. Of course, if you’ve read much of my academic work these ideas will be pretty familiar, but for everyone else…
What Are We Talking About When We Talk About The Ancient Economy?
(1) Ideas of Modernity: from late C18, there’s a growing sense of the gap between past and present, in economic and technological terms and increasingly in political, social, cultural etc. terms. Generally this leads to a smug sense of modern European superiority over primitive cultures (two-way relationship with contemporary colonialism here), but classical antiquity can seem more problematic to many commentators, because of its accumulated cultural authority and heroised achievements – can it then really have been so primitive? Marx reflects on incompatibility of heroic epic and modern technology (“Is Achilles possible with powder and lead?”), Nietzsche concludes that modernity has no proper culture and so we need primitivism, mythology and slavery – any number of C19 thinkers on modernity and its discontents get into this argument.
(2) Politics of Modernity: hence, classical antiquity becomes a test case for different theories and attitudes towards the present, and different narratives of historical development that may be offered. Sometimes it’s seen as proto-modern, almost achieving lift-off, so the key question is why sophisticated classical civilisation didn’t manage to make the leap to modernity – implicitly confirming the idea that there’s a single line of development, reflecting innate human tendencies, that societies either follow or get stuck in a primitive state. Sometimes, however, it’s seen as completely different – so, capitalism is by implication not eternal, hasn’t always existed and so may not always exist in future, and sophisticated societies can be organised on completely different lines.
(3) Theories and Methods: this is all driven at least in part by the birth of social and economic sciences in C19, ever more powerful ways of understanding the world. Insofar as these ideas are assumed to be universal and transhistorical, can help us understand world of Greece and Rome better than Greeks and Romans did – but that’s a disputed claim. Insofar as these ideas are primarily or entirely geared to understanding modern capitalist society, then their applicability to classical antiquity depends on how far it’s taken to be modern and capitalist, or at least proto-modern and -capitalist. And, making use of such ideas can be criticised as unwarranted assumption and/or rhetorical trick to make antiquity appear as modern in order to present modernity as eternal (see 2). There’s a strong tradition of seeking to understand antiquity “in its own terms”, drawing on Weber and Polanyi, but always in conflict with tradition (not always very theoretical) of seeing it as similar to us hence susceptible to conventional analysis. Also worth keeping in mind that the social sciences offer a range of different ways of understanding the world, each insisting on its primacy, with different assumptions about historical difference.
(4) Evidence: obviously all historical accounts rest on the interpretation of evidence, and all evidence is always open to multiple interpretations – but this is particularly obvious when the evidential base is limited and ambiguous. Especially for ancient economic history, the number of basic things that we don’t actually know is quite ridiculous. Hence, enormous scope for differing interpretations – optimistic or pessimistic, modernising or contextualising – frequently if not invariably driven by wider assumptions and conceptions. Hence, many of these debates are not susceptible to falsification, so they can go round and round eternally, with people talking at cross purposes, until enough of them get bored and decide to talk about something else.
(5) Greece and Rome: classical antiquity can be treated as more or less homogeneous, especially if you’re emphasising its limited level of development in comparison to the modern world (see e.g. Finley’s classic The Ancient Economy). But most ancient historians specialise in either Greece or Rome (most noticeable when dealing with the overlap period, Hellenistic versus Roman Republican history), and so different traditions have developed. In material terms, the Roman period produced vastly more Stuff, so it’s easier to imagine as dynamic, modern, industrial etc.; Roman historians thus more likely to quote New Institutional Economics, produce graphs of growth in atmospheric lead pollution and the like, simply assuming that Romans were (at least in terms of economic behaviour) basically like us. Greek historians have less Stuff to analyse and so spend more time discussing literary texts, cultural ideas etc – which is more likely to produce a conception of the Greeks as Not Very Like Us. Put another way: Roman economy mostly understood in economic terms, and economic development often assumed to explain wider Roman society; Greek economy mostly understood in socio-cultural terms (“embedded”, in Polanyi’s terms) and economic development seen to be subordinate to other factors in developing of Greek society.
(6) Historicism: worth stressing that much of this is below the surface – most ancient historians are not particularly conscious of these wider contexts, or at any rate see them as incidental or ancillary. Focus is on reconstructing The Real Past as end in itself, and debates about use of theory still tend to imagine that one could have a theory-free account. Even the more theory-conscious accounts tend to focus on some but not all dimensions: so, Josh Ober’s new book takes it for granted that modern pol sci can apply to ancient Greeks, implying assumptions about ‘human nature’, but would certainly reject claim that he’s deliberately modernising them as part of a project to naturalise capitalism. And the results – Greeks as Silicon Valley entrepreneurs in the political and social spheres, as Richard Seaford observes – are then taken to be objective findings, rather than baked into the recipe.
I’ve done my best to present this in fairly neutral terms – and part of my interest here is theoretical and historiographical, thinking about the nature(s) of the debate rather than seeking to intervene in it on specific issues. But only part…