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The Ancient Economy

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"Technical progress, economic growth, productivity, even efficiency have not been significant goals since the beginning of time," declares M. I. Finley in his classic work. The states of the ancient Mediterranean world had no recognizable real-property market, never fought a commercially inspired war, witnessed no drive to capital formation, and assigned the management of "Technical progress, economic growth, productivity, even efficiency have not been significant goals since the beginning of time," declares M. I. Finley in his classic work. The states of the ancient Mediterranean world had no recognizable real-property market, never fought a commercially inspired war, witnessed no drive to capital formation, and assigned the management of many substantial enterprises to slaves and ex-slaves. In short, to study the economies of the ancient world, one must begin by discarding many premises that seemed self-evident before Finley showed that they were useless or misleading. Available again, with a new foreword by Ian Morris, these sagacious, fertile, and occasionally combative essays are just as electrifying today as when Finley first wrote them.


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"Technical progress, economic growth, productivity, even efficiency have not been significant goals since the beginning of time," declares M. I. Finley in his classic work. The states of the ancient Mediterranean world had no recognizable real-property market, never fought a commercially inspired war, witnessed no drive to capital formation, and assigned the management of "Technical progress, economic growth, productivity, even efficiency have not been significant goals since the beginning of time," declares M. I. Finley in his classic work. The states of the ancient Mediterranean world had no recognizable real-property market, never fought a commercially inspired war, witnessed no drive to capital formation, and assigned the management of many substantial enterprises to slaves and ex-slaves. In short, to study the economies of the ancient world, one must begin by discarding many premises that seemed self-evident before Finley showed that they were useless or misleading. Available again, with a new foreword by Ian Morris, these sagacious, fertile, and occasionally combative essays are just as electrifying today as when Finley first wrote them.

30 review for The Ancient Economy

  1. 5 out of 5

    Emily

    I don't mean to be a giant nerd, but this was probably one of the most interesting books I read while studying classics.

  2. 4 out of 5

    M.J.

    Finley's "The Ancient Economy" is a fascinating look into how very different the concept of an economy is in the ancient world from our modern assumptions and understanding. Without a strong narrative or central thesis, the book can feel a bit too broad, but it does an excellent job of pushing back against an ahistorical view of the classical economy (or, perhaps more accurately, economies). Finley's book does an excellent job of placing the Roman and Greek slave societies within their context an Finley's "The Ancient Economy" is a fascinating look into how very different the concept of an economy is in the ancient world from our modern assumptions and understanding. Without a strong narrative or central thesis, the book can feel a bit too broad, but it does an excellent job of pushing back against an ahistorical view of the classical economy (or, perhaps more accurately, economies). Finley's book does an excellent job of placing the Roman and Greek slave societies within their context and discussing them dispassionately from an analytical point of view, rather than getting lost in our understandable revulsion at economic models that are heavily based on the enslavement of other human beings. In fact, a large portion of his work focuses on the importance of relationships (master and slave, patron and client) and land-ownership in the socio-economic system. It is well-written and successfully reaches out to the non-academic reader. I'm not sure I share his view that economics can teach us little about the ancient economy (as, he reasons, economics is such a new field), but I take his point that imposing modern assumptions about economic activity and incentives is foolish at best. A lack of a strong narrative connecting the various chapters gives them a bit of a disjointed feeling, perhaps a reflection of the book's origin as a lecture series, and leads to a rather abrupt ending (despite the further considerations chapter of the second edition that I read). But the reader comes away better informed about the period and the perspectives of their main economic actors. Recommended as supplemental reading for those interested in the period.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Matthew Dambro

    Seminal work by a Marxist historian who put aside his political beliefs and wrote the best work on Greek and Roman history of his generation. Anyone who seeks to understand the real workings of the Classical world must begin here.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Fairweather

    An incredibly interesting book to be sure, but at a certain point my limitations were apparent to the point of a sort of mental immobility—try as I might, I could not gain a foothold. That said, there are themes of this book that I enjoyed working out… seeing that I wrote them down, I might as well summarize some of my half-baked thoughts. I’d say the most salient point Finley makes here is that the Greeks lacked a concept of economy disembedded from society. Activities we may describe as “econom An incredibly interesting book to be sure, but at a certain point my limitations were apparent to the point of a sort of mental immobility—try as I might, I could not gain a foothold. That said, there are themes of this book that I enjoyed working out… seeing that I wrote them down, I might as well summarize some of my half-baked thoughts. I’d say the most salient point Finley makes here is that the Greeks lacked a concept of economy disembedded from society. Activities we may describe as “economic” such as farming, trading, manufacturing, mining, taxing, coining, and the deposit and loaning of money were all done, but not under a single sub-system termed “economics.” This is most evident by way of Finley’s reminder that markets (let a lone a system of inter-dependent markets) are formed when the process of exchange requires an explanation of the formation of price. Antiquity lacked such institutional behavior. From the book itself— “Economic growth, technical progress, increasing efficiency are not ‘natural’ virtues; they have not always been possibilities or even desiderata, at least not for those who controlled the means by which to try to achieve them.” While any idea of capital formation would’ve been alien to the economies here studied, wealth itself was certainly a driving factor. This is another way of saying that the economic mindset of ancient Greece and Rome was acquisitive rather than productive. The desire for wealth was *not* the desire to create capital. When public resources were outrun, there were two options—either reduce the population by sending it out or bring in resources from the outside through booty or tribute. Dissimilarities between our world and the ancient world do not simply rest on the abstract level of production vs. acquisition. Economic behavior was (from our own point of view, at least) compromised heavily by class systems and other incentives more clearly embedded within a more social realm. Status was a considerable driver of “economical” decision making. Cicero’s ‘De Officiis’ quoted at length in Finley’s book is illuminating. Laboring for wages is seen as a crude and unfree way of life and are the “warrant of their slavery.” Merchants and craftsmen who make profits only by “outright lying” and well as retailers and performers that “cater to sensual pleasures.” Medicine, architecture, teaching and large-scale commerce are respectable if only for their intellectual character, but to be content with one’s profits and retire to ones landed estate—there is nothing better for the free person. To be free is to be enabled to live an honest life free of the entanglements and morally ambiguous quandaries of obligation. Certainly, to be free was to, as Cato said, “be a seller, not a buyer.” A free man was not economically dependent on another, neither for wages under debt. But denunciations by elite of wage and slave work drew upon moral rather than economic values. If the land was seen to be the fountainhead of all that is good and moral, these exhortations were usually issued by the town weary poets who recommend that people go back to the land. To be free implied no sense of economic well-being of the freedman. This brings us to additional ruptures between the modern and ancient economic frameworks can be found in looking at labor. According to Finley, forcing labor into three strict categories—slave, serf, free—is impossible and a meaningless exercise. Slaves and freemen often did the same sorts of work (moneylending, shopkeeping) as each other, yet did not feel in competition with one another since the institution of wage-labor came only much later. The intellectual abstraction of one’s labor as an entity to be sold was not immediately apparent. Neither was the proper measurement of “labor time.” In fact, it was often unclear what the benefits of being a free person was. The *ordo-plebeiorum* included both beggars, skilled and unskilled workers, domestics, administrators, all those who made possible luxury consumption of all the upper orders of both modest and immodest circumstances. Sometimes, especially in the late ancient world, the freer the peasant the more difficult life was, what with variables like bad harvests, or obligations like army service and domestic flareups. An acceptance of dependent status could sidestep some of these challenges. In Finley’s own words: “The client of the archaic period or the *colonus* of the later Empire may have been variously oppressed, but he was also protected by his patron from dispossession, from the harsh laws of debt, and on the whole from military service. The genuinely free peasant had no protection against a run of bad harvests, against compulsory army service, against the endless depredations in civil and foreign wars.” Indeed the acceptance of dependent status “became the rule in the course of the Roman Empire.” Finely notes that in the eastern empire, “the decline of slaver was a reversal of the process by which slavery took hold. Once upon a time the employers of labour in these regions imported slaves to meet their requirements. Now their own lower classes were available, as they had not been before, from compulsion, not from choice, and so there was no need for a sustained effort to keep up the slave supply, nor to introduce wage-labour.” Not a thought was put towards greater productivity, for the social structure and cultural attitudes that birthed the puzzling relationship between slave and freeperson never gave cause to technological innovations necessary for an economy which mirrors our own values of growth, productivity and efficiency. Our own demons aside, the acquisitive economy had obvious limitations. It was an economy based upon greater and greater acquisition in concert with idleness and leisure of the gentleman. The trend of the later empire was a steady increase in the size of landholdings by fewer and fewer landholders. Finley notes that, “Large incomes, absenteeism and its accompanying psychology of the life of leisure, of land ownership as a non-occupation, and, when it was practiced, letting or sub-letting in fragmented tenancies all combined to block any search for radical improvements.” And so it inevitably all came apart, not in an explosive fashion, but a slow and decadent rot that took hundreds of years. “A vicious circle of evils was in full swing. The ancient world was hastened to its end by its social and political structure, its deeply embedded and institutionalized value system, and, underpinning the whole, the organization and exploitation of its productive forces.” It’s stimulating (and depressing) to wonder at our own limitations. Many have said that the bell has tolled for capitalism but I don’t think that people have seriously considered what this might mean. I think many people think some sort of “revolution” will take place, bringing people to their knees in a state of chaos or ushering in some sort of paradise. I think the truth is closer to Finley’s own analysis of the slow decay of the ancient world. While history and the present rhyme rather than repeat, I think it’s clear that asset holding is becoming a greater and greater share of wealth throughout the world in our own time. Mental habits of free market fundamentalism remain unassailable in ruling circles and a similar idleness is settling in… and with the weakening of labor, a growing underclass that opts for the security of dependency over the wilderness of freedom may seem increasingly likely… Whether this takes place as becoming a part of some *oikos* or living in debt peonage as a Uber driver… well I see little difference. Has the decadent rot begun? I’ll leave many of Finley’s other themes alone since I’m not qualified to remark on them. Whatever limitations I encountered here are probably exponents of my own… There’s no doubt a simper introduction to this topic… but this was a fascinating book nevertheless, particularly the second chapter on masters and slaves.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Sinan Öner

    Sir Moses I. Finley's "The Ancient Economy" is one of the best books for studying the ancient economies of Greek and Roman Societies. Sir Moses I. Finley uses the modern historiographical methodology to conceptualize the ancient economies in his "The Ancient Economy" - Adam Smith's "rationalist" and "realist" methodology, Marx's "dialectical and historical materialist" methodology and Braudel's historiographical methodology. For describing the ancient economic structures, changes and relations, Sir Moses I. Finley's "The Ancient Economy" is one of the best books for studying the ancient economies of Greek and Roman Societies. Sir Moses I. Finley uses the modern historiographical methodology to conceptualize the ancient economies in his "The Ancient Economy" - Adam Smith's "rationalist" and "realist" methodology, Marx's "dialectical and historical materialist" methodology and Braudel's historiographical methodology. For describing the ancient economic structures, changes and relations, Sir Moses I. Finley uses the ancient documents, the ancient "primary and secondary" sources, and the modern works about the ancient history. Sir Moses I. Finley thinks about "the slavery economy", "the ancient production relations" and "the ancient political and bureucratic structures which relate to the ancient slavery economy". Sir Moses I. Finley uses the ancient historians', the ancient politicians' and the ancient philosophers' works to produce a modern understanding of the ancient societies in his history writing.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Becky Snow

    This is a very good book. I found the chapter on master and slave to be really intriguing, and how Finley related the information to other chapters on status and the very informal economy.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Nick

    Interesting chapter on slavery, this is a really useful work for people studying ancient history.

  8. 5 out of 5

    B

    This read more like a collection of essays than a coherent book (which may have been the intent?). However, there was still a lot of great information here, and I was able to learn a good amount about the economy of the ancients. In some ways, the economy of the time was much more sophisticated than I would have imagined but in other ways not nearly as much. Overall, very interesting book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Blessy Abraham

    This was the first book by Moses Finley that I have read till now. Despite not being very familiar with classical Roman and Greek history, I found the essays to be extremely articulate and cogent. One also appreciates Finley's point that the ancient economy has to be understood in its own historical and political context, instead of forcibly trying to analyze it from our present understanding of economy and capital. Certainly a must read for any amateur historian, particularly for Finley's style This was the first book by Moses Finley that I have read till now. Despite not being very familiar with classical Roman and Greek history, I found the essays to be extremely articulate and cogent. One also appreciates Finley's point that the ancient economy has to be understood in its own historical and political context, instead of forcibly trying to analyze it from our present understanding of economy and capital. Certainly a must read for any amateur historian, particularly for Finley's style of reading and interpretation of primary sources.

  10. 5 out of 5

    David Robertus

    An excellent diagnosis of a problem that far too many assumptions have been made about in the past. This study looks at the ancient mindset of what an economy was (and was not). It provides a very important foundation for understanding the medieval economy and mindset. Kudos to a brilliantly researched and original hypothesis.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Jerry Mrizek

    Not a light read and requires extensive background knowledge but a great way for modern readers to understand how the "economy" worked in ancient times.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Ezgi

  13. 5 out of 5

    E

  14. 5 out of 5

    John Cairns

  15. 5 out of 5

    H.Z

  16. 4 out of 5

    Nicholas

  17. 5 out of 5

    Mert

  18. 4 out of 5

    Manuel Bautista

  19. 4 out of 5

    Anas

  20. 5 out of 5

    Louis Bouchard

  21. 5 out of 5

    Sander Boek

  22. 4 out of 5

    Geoffery

  23. 5 out of 5

    John

  24. 5 out of 5

    Andrej

  25. 5 out of 5

    Serge

  26. 5 out of 5

    Sas

  27. 5 out of 5

    Chad Tronetti

  28. 4 out of 5

    Anthony Coker

  29. 4 out of 5

    Tdr85

  30. 5 out of 5

    Dan

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