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A Market Economy in the Early Roman Empire*

  • Peter Temin (a1)


The economy of the early Roman Empire has been an object of study for at least the last century. The discussion has been marked by continuing debate, known sometimes as the primitivist/modern debate and at other times as the Finley debate, following his famous Sather lectures, The Ancient Economy. This paper is a contribution to this debate, written by an economist rather than an ancient historian. My purpose is to define the concept of a ‘market economy’, and to see if it fits the evidence we have for the early Roman Empire.

Finley declared that, ‘ancient society did not have an economic system which was an enormous conglomeration of interdependent markets’. He drew implicitly on research by Polanyi to oppose the views of Rostovtzeff within the field of ancient history and those of Fogel and Engerman in economic history, but he did not explicitly join their conceptual apparatuses. Morris has summarized the debate fuelled by Finley's dramatic lectures in his foreword to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition and argued that the controversy is still vigorous today. I hope to clarify the issues in this debate and even resolve the debate for the period of the early Roman Empire.


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I thank Roger Bagnall, Alan Bowman, Richard Eckaus, Joseph Manning, Ian Morris, Steven Ostrow, Walter Scheidel, and the Editor of this journal for helpful comments. All errors are mine alone.



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1 M. I. Finley, The Ancient Economy (1973), 22–3.

2 K. Polanyi, The Great Transformation (1944); K. Polanyi, The Livelihood of Man (1977); M. Rostovtzeff, The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire (1957); R. W. Fogel and S. L. Engerman, Time on the Cross (1974).

3 I. Morris, ‘Foreword’, in M. I. Finley, The Ancient Economy (updated edn, 1999), ix–xxxvi.

4 This analysis is similar in spirit to Hopkins, K., ‘Taxes and trade in the Roman Empire’, JRS 70 (1980), 101–25, but concentrates on the processes by which resources were allocated, in contrast to Hopkins' concern with the allocation itself.

5 Finley, op. cit. (n. 1), 27, 182.

6 Polanyi, op. cit. (n. 2, 1977), 35–6.

7 ibid., 40.

8 D. P. S. Peacock and D. F. Williams, Amphorae and the Roman Economy (1986); W. Jongman, The Economy and Society of Pompeii (1988); P. Garnsey, Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco-Roman World (1999).

9 F. L. Pryor, The Origins of the Economy: A Comparative Study of Distribution in Primitive and Peasant Economies (1977).

10 ibid., 34.

11 W. G. Neale, ‘The market in theory and history’, in K. Polanyi, C. M. Arensberg, and H. W. Pearson (eds), Trade and Markets in the Early Empires (1957), 371.

12 Temin, P., ‘Modes of behavior’, Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 1 (1980), 175–95.

13 H. Phelps Brown and S. V. Hopkins, A Perspective of Wages and Prices (1981); O'Brien, P. K., ‘The political economy of British taxation, 1660–1815’, Economic History Review 41 (1988), 132; R. Floud and D. N. McCloskey, The Economic History of Britain since 1700, Vol. 1:1700–1860 (2nd edn, 1997); J. de Vries and A. van der Woude, The First Modern Economy: Success, Failure, and Perserverance of the Dutch Economy, 1500–1815 (1997).

14 M. Bloch, Feudal Society (1961).

15 J. S. Berliner, The Innovation Decision in Soviet Industry (1976).

16 Greene, K., ‘Technological innovation and economic progress in the ancient world: M. I. Finley reconsidered’, Economic History Review 53 (2000), 2959.

17 A. L. Slotsky, The Bourse of Babylon: Market Quotations in the Astronomical Diaries of Babylonia (1997).

18 A. C. Johnson, Roman Egypt to the Reign of Diocletian (1936); R. Duncan-Jones, The Economy of the Roman Empire: Quantitative Studies (1982); D. Rathbone, Economic Rationalism and Rural Society in Third Century A.D. Egypt (1991).

19 CIL IV.138; Cicero, De officiis 1.42; Tacitus, Annals 6.13, 12.43; CIL IV. 1679.

20 CIL III.805–9.

21 Reichskommissar für Preisbildung, ‘Mitteilungsblatt des Reichskommissars für die Preisbildung’, 1937–38 (Bundesarchiv RD13/1).

22 Howgego, C., ‘The supply and use of money in the Roman world 200 B.C. to A.D. 300’, JRS 82 (1992), 131.

23 CIL III.934–5.

24 P. Tebt. II.389, quoted in J. Rowlandson, Women and Society in Greek and Roman Egypt (1998), 254–5.

25 J. Andreau, Banking and Business in the Roman World (1999), 90–4.

26 Cicero, 2 Verr. 3.165–70: Brutus' loan to Salamis in Cyprus.

27 Duncan-Jones, op. cit. (n. 18), 132–8.

28 Andreau, op. cit. (n. 25), 94.

29 Clark, G., ‘The political foundations of modern economic growth: England, 1540–1800’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 46 (1996), 563–88.

30 Plutarch, Cato the Elder 21.5–6.

31 D. Rathbone, ‘Prices and price formation in Roman Egypt’, Economie antique, Prix et formation des prix dans les economies antiques (1997), 211.

32 Quoted in Garnsey, op. cit. (n. 8), 247–8.

33 G. Rickman, The Corn Supply of Ancient Rome (1980), 10; Garnsey, op. cit. (n. 8), 191, 231.

34 D. J. Mattingly, Tripolitania (1995).

35 Hopkins, op. cit. (n. 4); B. Sirks, Food for Rome (1991), 21.

36 Rickman, op. cit. (n. 33), 40–2; Garnsey, op. cit. (n. 8), 232; Sirks, op. cit. (n. 35), 25.

37 N. Morley, Metropolis and Hinterland (1996), 159–74.

38 Cato, Agr. 144–8.

39 Rathbone, op. cit. (n. 18), 396–401.

40 Rickman, op. cit. (n. 33), 27–8.

41 Sirks, op. cit. (n. 35), 25–33.

42 Andreau, op. cit. (n. 25), 54.

43 B. Bailyn and L. Bailyn, Massachusetts Shipping, 1697–1714; A Statistical Study (1959).

44 Tacitus, Annals 6.16–17; Cassius Dio, 58.21.1–5; Suetonius, Tiberius 48.1; quoted in C. Rodewald, Money in the Age of Tiberius (1976), 1–3.

45 Rathbone, op. cit. (n. 18), 393.

46 CIL XI.1147; R. Duncan-Jones, Structure and Scale in the Roman Economy (1990), 127.

47 de Neeve, P. W., ‘The price of agricultural land in Roman Italy and the problem of economic rationalism’, Opus 4 (1985), 77109.

48 Ep. 3.19.2–3.

49 Stigler, G. J. and Sherwin, R. A., ‘The extent of the market’, Journal of Law and Economics 28 (1985), 576.

50 Duncan-Jones, op. cit. (n. 46), 9–11.

51 R. W. Bulliet, The Camel and the Wheel (1975).

52 A. K. Bowman, Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier: Vindolanda and its People (1998); Bowman, A. K. and Thomas, J. D., ‘New writing tablets from Vindolanda’, Britannia 28 (1996), 299328.

53 R. Bagnall, The Kellis Agricultural Account Book (1997), 57–62.

54 R. Eisner, The Total Incomes System of Accounts (1989), 26.

55 Temin, P., ‘Is it kosher to talk about culture’, Journal of Economic History 57 (1997), 267–87.

* I thank Roger Bagnall, Alan Bowman, Richard Eckaus, Joseph Manning, Ian Morris, Steven Ostrow, Walter Scheidel, and the Editor of this journal for helpful comments. All errors are mine alone.

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A Market Economy in the Early Roman Empire*

  • Peter Temin (a1)


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