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Posts Tagged ‘ancient economy’

If ever there was a good week to smuggle out an announcement of a conference with a few diversity issues, it’s this week; unless you have Jordan Peterson and Steve Bannon as keynotes and put on a minstrel show as part of the evening entertainment, there’s no way you could look worse than the Stanford Sausage Fest.

But having more female speakers than none is hardly cause for self-congratulation; 25%, as we have for our forthcoming workshop in Berlin at the beginning of next month on Thomas Piketty and Capital in Classical Antiquity, really isn’t great. I’m writing this partly to acknowledge the problem and accept responsibility for it, and partly – more importantly – to emphasise the lesson: having a diverse range of speakers as one of your goals in putting together a conference programme, and taking various steps to try to ensure it, may still not be nearly enough. (more…)

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I’ve been making a few changes to the blog recently – adding the Twitter feed, reordering some of the widgets, expanding the biographical information and the like – as a result of an interesting conversation a few months ago with a couple of people on Twitter (@lizgloyn and @EllieMackin, as I recall; apologies if I’ve forgotten others) about online presence. My move to Exeter this summer brought it home to me that this blog, plus my Twitter feed, represents my professional activities online at least as much as any official institutional profile (especially when I’m still struggling with the publications database). I’ve never trusted academiadotedu, so felt smugly reassured when their commercial orientation became more obvious this year – but that does bring to mind the things that this blog currently doesn’t do, that might be useful for some visitors. (more…)

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I spent the weekend in Tübingen at a conference organised by John Weisweiler on Debt: the first 3500 years, exploring different aspects of the ideas presented by David Graeber in Debt: the first 5000 years within ancient contexts, from early Babylonia to the early Islamic period; programme can be downloaded here, or follow my attempts at pithy summary on Twitter under #Debt3500. My initial reaction to the idea was that it’s amazing no one had thought of doing this before. It’s not just that Graeber’s book offers some provocative ideas about the roles of debt and money in shaping human relationships (above all, different forms of dependence) that seem well worth exploring in the context of antiquity, but also that the periods we ancient historians are concerned with play a significant role in his overall schema of historical development – this is the Axial Age, in the phrase he borrows from Karl Jaspers, where world-changing intellectual developments went hand in hand with far-reaching economic and social changes, with dramatic implications for everything that then followed up to the slow-motion car crash of contemporary capitalism. (more…)

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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… (more…)

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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?
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Ancient Athens continues to be used as a big stick with which to beat modern Greece. “Once upon a time there was a model kingdom,” begins Roman Pletter’s article in Die Zeit this week (not yet on the website as far as I can see); yes, they had slaves, but they were democratic, the many has the power rather than the few, the people were equal before the law, appointments to public office were based on ability rather than patronage, and it could be taken for granted that everyone was free. “That sounds like a country that would fit very well in the European Union,” and of course it’s classical Athens. The punchline is signalled from miles away: “Of this model kingdom there isn’t much left.” Hey, Greeks, you invented the idea of strong social and political institutions as a means of ensuring the well-being of all the citizens, but you know what? These days you’re rubbish. (more…)

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Certain strands of contemporary ancient economic history have a tendency to suffer from economics envy, rather as some social scientists suffer from science envy: partly it’s the apparent solidity and certainty of the knowledge that it generates, and the confident assertions of its practitioners, unconstrained by the sorts of wishy-washy historicist doubts that plague humanities scholars; partly it’s the fame and the money; and partly, at least some of the time, it’s about the possibility of direct engagement with the world, the fact that ‘real’ people (i.e. policy makers and governments) will actually listen to economists now and again. This envy is then one of the drivers of the adoption of economic theory in the study of the ancient economy – by no means the only driver, as there are entirely sound reasons why some economic ideas can be useful, but it’s surely a factor; hence (again, if we’re being pedantic, among other reasons) the popularity of the New Institutional Economics, which allows ancient historians to align themselves ostentatiously with contemporary (well, only slightly dated) economic approaches without actually having too abandon too much of the complexity and historical specificity that is our bread and butter. It also fuels the ongoing disparagement of alternative approaches to pre-modern economies as naive primitivism, obsessively raking over the fruitless debates of the 1970s rather than facing up to post-1989 reality. As I’ve argued elsewhere – can’t for the moment remember whether it’s here or in a forthcoming publication, or possibly both – the neoliberal agenda is pretty unmistakeable in ancient economic history as elsewhere. (more…)

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