I’ve spent the last couple of days in a fourteenth-century castle just outside Hildesheim, now the Kulturcampus of the university, at a colloquium organised by Roland Oetjen of Kiel to bring together ancient economic historians and economists with an interest in the ancient world. I originally proposed to give a paper on ‘The time of the ancient economy’, squashing together Braudelian conceptions of the speeds of historical change, patterns of intra- and inter-annual change in the environment, and Kondratieff economic cycles to see what would happen – but, predictably enough, ran out of time to do any actual work on this. Instead I offered a variant on an existing draft piece on Varro, frugality and Roman economic thought that I really, really am close to writing up for publication, honest (just in case any of the editors is reading this); which in various respects probably fitted the occasion better, but does deprive me of the opportunity to construct the opening of this post around the notion of repetitive cycles in ancient economic historiography…
I’ve discussed before the peculiar dynamics of the field of ancient economic history, which resemble nothing so much as Chapter 3 of Winnie-the-Pooh, as what looks like an ever-developing debate – “Look! A new contribution that will transform our understanding!” – turns out to be Pooh and Piglet walking in circles. Two different sets of issues – what the ancient world was like, and what theoretical tools and concepts are appropriate for studying it – constantly overlap, intersect and get confused with one another – and in the light of Oetjen’s paper on Friday on Hellenistic euergetism, I’m now inclined to isolate a third strand of rhetoric, how one should talk about the ancient economy, as he sought to deploy a rational choice model without most of the scary terminology that tends to put many historians’ backs up – but which also makes it clear what the argument is. Yet another possibility for people to end up talking at cross purposes and not recognising the actual basis of their disagreement.
Adding economists to the mix risks multiplying the opportunities for misunderstanding. As implied by Ian Morris’ ‘Hard Surfaces’ article of 2001, which remains an essential touchstone for understanding the whole enterprise, the difference between the disciplines consists not only in their means (employing economic theory or not) but also their ends, and arguably their sensibilities. To offer a couple of ideal types, which various papers at the colloquium quite neatly illustrated: even a more soc-sci-orientated historian takes up rational choice theory or New Institutional Economics or the like as a tool that may prove useful but which has to be handled carefully for fear of making a complete mess and injuring oneself and others – something like a chainsaw; for the economist, they’re more like a pair of spectacles, that most of the time you don’t notice, or need to notice, that you’re wearing.
Thus Oetjen on rational choice approaches to euergetism, or Marcus Sehlmeyer (Rostock) on the idea of coding different societies for their relative level of collective action, presented their papers explicitly as thought experiments, and were clearly prepared at a moment’s notice to switch to the conventional “but obviously in reality it’s much more complicated” rhetoric of historicism. For Carl Hampus Lyttkens (Lund) on rational choice approaches to graphe paranomon, Athanassios Pitsoulis (Hildesheim) on Byzantine debasements and iconoclasm as fiscal policy, or George Tridimas (Ulster) on a public choice analysis of ostracism (interesting, incidentally, how often the focus seems to be on Greece, or classical Athens, rather than Rome), the basic premises of the theory are not in question; uncertainty is located in its specific application and/or the limited evidence available for testing it.
Given that a key theme in my own paper was questioning the usefulness of the rational choice model as a basis for understanding Roman economic thought and behaviour, I was expecting much more push-back than I actually got. I can think of plenty of possible reasons for this: I was speaking in English, it was first thing in the morning and the cafe didn’t open until midday so no decent coffee, they were all very polite, pleasant people, and I grounded this turn to a more sociological understanding of human motivation with a wave to behavioural and experimental economics rather than to substantivist anthropology; in other words, the right sort of dissent from the mainstream.
But it did reinforce my sense than many economists, while they clearly know that e.g. the rational utility-maximiser is a simplifying assumption for the sake of understanding the relationship between other key variables, don’t always appear to know this, or at any rate to feel it with the intensity that historians do. As I said above, we’re dealing with different sensibilities; the historians cleave instinctively to difference and detail, the economists to similarity and generalisation, and neither really ‘gets’ the other. Hence the persistent impression among historians that economists actually believe that humans are rational utility maximisers with clearly defined preferences and complete information, or at at least that this could be a slippery slope to such a belief if it isn’t loudly hedged about with qualifications, and the incomprehension among economists as to why the historians are getting so worked up about this innocuous theoretical assumption.
This mutual incomprehension can be seen very clearly in the developing argument between Josh Ober and Kostas Vlassopoulos, following the latter’s intemperate review of The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece (Princeton 2015) in BMCR. Ober sets out his intentions clearly in the Preface: to understand the origins and sustainability of the present, exceptional conditions of modernity, characterised by democracy and growth or at any rate the expectation that democracy and growth are the norm, through a comparative study of an earlier instance of such exceptional conditions, namely classical Greece. His express intent to bring past and present into conjunction is founded on an explicit rejection of historicist and humanistic approaches – which also provides the justification for his employment of modern social scientific ideas, above all rational choice theory and New Institutional Economics, in his interpretation of Greek history:
The strong version of the historicist argument rejects quantification and focuses on the contextual specificity of the societies in question and their cultural products. Historicists embrace the idea that comparative analysis highlights differences by showing how desperately foreign each society is when viewed from the perspective of the other. Comparison of similarities, on this argument, yields only false analogies. The historicist approach is, however, incomplete insofar as patterns of human behaviour are fundamentally similar across societies widely separated in time and space. Social science (like natural science) is predicated on the possibility of determining regularities that underpin apparently diverse phenomena. The goal of much contemporary social science is to infer the causes of observed social, political and economic phenomena, based on parsimonious “micro-foundations” – minimal and at least potentially testable assumptions about the motivations of collective and human action under specifiable conditions.
That final sentence is doing an awful lot of work; one might reasonably question whether the assumptions of mainstream economics and political science are really so “minimal”, given their claims to capture the essence of human motivation, and given that, when they are tested (rather than just potentially testable) for the populations of contemporary capitalist societies, the results rarely match the assumptions in a straightforward manner. Further, as with the economists I mentioned above, in practice Ober seems to slip all too easily from making such simplifying assumptions for the sake of developing a model of Greek political and economic development to offering an account in which the Greeks simply are rational, freedom-loving entrepreneurs – or modern-day Californians, as Richard Seaford has suggested in his own review of the book in The Literary Review. Rather like Oetjen’s paper, the rhetoric of Ober’s book is that of a conventional historical account rather than a social-scientific thought experiment, running the risk that readers might be misled about the status of its claims.
This is certainly one of the aspects of the book that Vlassopoulos objects to: Ober’s Greece, he argues, is bizarrely untainted by slavery, exploitation, hierarchy, debt and perennial civil war, but offers a rosy picture of technological advances, economic growth and individual freedom that is not remotely justified by the evidence, which is inadequate for any attempt at quantification. “This kind of ‘common-sense’ modernist interpretation was the stock-in-trade of twentieth-century scholarship, until Finley convinced most ancient historians to think explicitly about their assumptions and base them on the existing sources.” That’s a slightly odd way of characterising modern historiographical developments; the problem with a historian like Rostovtzeff, from a Finleyite perspective, was that he actually had lots of evidence but interpreted it unthinkingly through a modernising lens. Ober is manifestly not such a ‘common sense’ positivist – but he is assigned to that camp because his account of classical Greece parallels some of the conclusions of the modernisers, even though he grounds it in a completely different (and much more sophisticated) style of argument. In something of a parallel move, I find myself sharing a fair number of Vlassopoulos’ objections to Ober’s substantive account, while completely disagreeing with the grounding of his argument, especially when it comes to the conclusion. Vlassopoulos writes:
If there is value in a social science approach to ancient history (and I am personally deeply sceptical about it, for reasons that there is no space to explore here), this will have to be proved through careful analysis. Such an analysis should start from serious engagement with comparative history, rather than employ ahistorical caricatures; it should explore how to link economic growth with culture and political institutions, not through simplistic reduction, but by creating frameworks that can accommodate the diversity and contradictions of real life; it should take into account the totality of phenomena, rather than obliterate whatever does not suit the agenda; it should examine how to apply an analytic framework to the dynamic complexity required by historical narratives; and, importantly, it must consider carefully how this framework can illuminate the existing sources and be documented through them, rather than generate pseudo-scientific data to fit a preconceived agenda.
In other words, a social-scientific approach to history is acceptable only if it is thoroughly historicised, and stripped of every element of social science. This is a little odd. The underlying drive of social science, as Ober characterised it in his Preface, to seek to identify and understand regularities within apparently diverse phenomena, has likewise been the aim of theoretically-informed ancient history for the last half century, even if not all such historians would put it in quite those terms; debate has focused on the nature of those regularities, whether they’re context-specific or not, and what concepts and terminology should be employed to investigate them.
It is, I think, the absolutist tendency of this critique that bothers me most: Ober’s specific brand of social science is taken to represent the entire enterprise, and hence his alleged historical failings are taken to condemn it. Further, in his evocation of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy and Wilamowitz’s review of it as parallel to his own situation, Vlassopoulos seems to ascribe to Ober’s book a degree of radicalism and iconoclasm that, with all due respect, doesn’t appear to be remotely warranted. From a theoretical and methodological standpoint, The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece is pretty conventional, echoing the series of publications over the last fifteen years or so applying New Institutional Economics to ancient history; what’s distinctive about it is the book-length treatment bringing together economic, political and social developments, rather than the usual format (as at Hildesheim) of individual studies of specific institutions in these terms. This is no Zukunftshistoriographie, and nor is it the kind of threat to conventional ancient history that such a comparison implies. Another Woozle has joined the first two? No, we’re just following the same old debate round in a circle again.
It was Karl Marx – and Vlassopoulos’ emphasis on the themes of slavery and exploitation suggests that this may be an appropriate name to invoke at this point – who observed that one can of course describe pre-modern economies in the language of modern political economy, but never innocently, always with the effect of erasing difference and naturalising present-day assumptions and conditions. This is obviously true, and there are plenty of grounds on which might suspect Ober’s book of pursuing (even if inadvertently) such an ideological project – but the same is true of Marxism, with the exception that it is supposedly more open about the political and present-orientated dimensions of all accounts of the past. Especially when studying a topic like the ancient economy, anachronism is wholly unavoidable; it is simply a question of where we strike the balance between similarity and difference, context and generalisation – and there is no single correct answer to that question, but a range of different possibilities that will inevitably yield different perspectives on the past. Until this is recognised and accepted within the study of ancient society, the debate will continue to trudge fruitlessly along the same old circular path.