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Economic structures of antiquity

Economic Structures
of Antiquity

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Economic Structures
of Antiquity
Morris Silver

Contributions in Economics and Economic History,
Number 159
George Schwab, Series Adviser

Greenwood Press
Westport, Connecticut • London

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Silver, Morris.
Economic structures of antiquity / Morris Silver.
p. cm. — (Contributions in economics and economic history,
ISSN 0084-9235 ; no. 159)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-313-29380-5 (alk. paper)
1. Economic history—To 500. I. Title. II. Series.
HC31.S555 1995
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data is available.

Copyright © 1995 by Morris Silver
All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be
reproduced, by any process or technique, without the
express written consent of the publisher.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 94-17306
ISBN: 0-313-29380-5
ISSN: 0084-9235
First published in 1995
Greenwood Press, 88 Post Road West, Westport, CT 06881
An imprint of Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc.
Printed in the United States of America

The paper used in this book complies with the
Permanent Paper Standard issued by the National
Information Standards Organization (Z39.48-1984).
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

To my wife Sandy,
who made everything possible

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Author's Notes
Transcriptions and Phonetics








Chronological Table




Part I Structural Characteristics of the Ancient Economy


1. Gods as Inputs and Outputs of the Ancient Economy


A. The Contribution of Gods to Economic Growth


B. Syncretism as an Investment in Trust


C. Oaths and the Gods


D. The Contribution of Temples to Economic Growth


E. Contribution of Economic Growth to the Gods: An
Application of Behavioral Economics




2. Adaptations of Markets and Hierarchical Relationships to
Transaction Costs


A. Symbolic Action and Recitation in the Contractual


B. Code of the Merchant: Investment in Name Capital


C. An Alternative Interpretation of "Gift Trade"


D. Importance of Family Firms


E. Family Ties and Innovation


F. Women as Businesspersons and Entrepreneurs


G. Employment of Slaves and Adoptees


H. Size of Firm and Versatility of Firm


3. Who Were the Entrepreneurs? The Problem of "Public"


4. Commercial Transport, Gains from Trade, Storage, and
Diffusion of New Technology


A. Land Transport


B. Water Transport


C. Storage and Monopoly Power


D. Diffusion of Technology


Part II Markets in Antiquity: The Challenge of the Evidence


5. The Existence of Markets


6. The Credibility of Markets


Part III The Response to Changes in Economic Incentives
and Public Policy


7. New Markets and Land Consolidation


A. Sumer


B. Archaic Greece


C. Babylonia




8. Changes in Economic Policy and Organization


9. Concluding Remarks


Selected Bibliography




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For their patient assistance in the development of this project, I owe a deep debt
of gratitude to numerous scholars. Special thanks are due to Michael Astour,
J.A. Brinkman, Mark E. Cohen, Chris J. Eyre, Thomas Figueira, Benjamin Foster, Louis Heller, K.D. Irani, Benjamin J. Klebaner, J.R. Kraus, Niels Peter
Lemche, Donald Norman Levin, Baruch Levine, E. Lipinski, David Lorton,
Donald N. McCloskey, Douglass C. North, Marvin A. Powell, Erica Reiner,
Noel Robertson, Chester G. Starr, Piotr Steinkeller, Jacob Stern, Gordon Tullock, and Norman Yoffee. I owe special thanks to Stanley Friedlander and to
George Schwab for including this work in the series Contributions in Economics
and Economic History.
My research was greatly facilitated by a grant from a fund created by the will
of Harry Schwager, a distinguished alumnus of the City College of New York,
class of 1911. The Schwager Fund also provided a grant for support of typesetting costs. I also wish to express my gratitude to the City College of New
York for a Fellowship Award leave that enabled me to complete this volume.

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Author's Notes
General Notes
Certain conventions have been accepted for representing ancient languages in
romanized script. For example, Sumerian words are indicated in Roman type
with a widening of the spaces between letters. There are, more importantly,
conventions for representing the signs for phonetic values, distinguishing (usually by means of subscript numbers) among signs with the same phonetic value,
representing word signs (logograms), and representing unpronounced phonetic
or semantic indicators (determinatives). These conventions permit specialists in
ancient languages to restore the original signs from transliterations and to be
alerted to uncertainties concerning their value.
These conventions will not be observed in this book because it has been
written by a professional economist for a wide audience consisting of all those
(including nonspecialists in ancient languages) who are fascinated by ancient
economies. All foreign words, with only a handful of exceptions, are transcribed
in italic type, in the lower case, on the line, and with normal spacing between
the letters. The use of brackets within quotations indicates that the transcription
is my own, not that of the cited authority.
Proper names are not italicized and are usually transcribed without diacritics.
Notes on Individual Languages
1. Greek (Alphabetic). The transcription of Greek letters is standard. Eta,
long e, and omega, long o, are written with the circumflex. Upsilon is written


Author's Notes

as y or as u when it follows alpha, eta, or omicron. The transcription of Greek
words is according to the ancient orthography; individual letters are not accented
and no attempt is made to reproduce the ancient pronunciation of words.
Many of the familiar names are given in their Latin form. Less-known names
are transliterated from the Greek.
2. Mycenaean Greek (Linear B). Transliterations of Linear B words employ
dashes to divide one group of letters representing one syllabic sign from another.
Normalized transcriptions are not sign-by-sign transliterations and are not written with dashes.
3. Egyptian. The Egyptian system of writing was a consonontal script; as in
old Semitic languages such as Ugaritic, Hebrew, Phoenician, and Arabic, the
vowels of the words were not written. Personal and place names are written in
this book in their familiar vocalized form. As an aid in the pronunciation of
Egyptian words, I have (following a conventional procedure) mechanically intercalated an e between consonants except when a 3 (double aleph) or a e (ayin),
which may be read a, are present. (There does seem to be a correspondence
between Egyptian 3 and Semitic r.) Note also that / and r are interchangeable
in ancient Egyptian.
4. Sumerian. Sumerian words have been transcribed without diacritics.
5. Semitic Languages. Personal and place names are written in their familiar
vocalized form. Transliterations of vowel signs are retained when provided
in my sources. The macron or the circumflex are placed over a vowel to show
that it is long. The breve is placed over a vowel to show that it is short. In a
few instances the value of the vowel is indicated by raising it over the line.
Vocalization is not supplied for words given in my sources in an unvocalized
6. Near Eastern Languages. The following table shows the standard diacritical marks for consonants and how each is transcribed in this book.
Standard Diacritical Mark
' aleph; smooth breathing or glottal stop

ayin; rough breathing
3 Egyptian vulture or double aleph
\ Egyptian semivowel or vowel indicator
d Egyptian
g Egyptian
h Semitic rough h
h Egyptian intensified h
h Semitic hard h
h Egyptian

Nontechnical Transcription
Not rendered at the beginning or end of
a word; otherwise '
Semitic: e ; Egyptian: a
ch [(c)h at beginning of word]
ch [(c)h at beginning of word]
kh [(k)h at beginning of word]

Author's Notes


h Egyptian

kh [(k)h at beginning of word]

k Egyptian like q in queen





sh\ ssh for double occurrence

s emphatic s

ts [(t)s at beginning of word]

( emphatic t


t Egyptian


Translations enclosed in brackets—[ ]—are restorations by the translator of
material that is obliterated in the original or an explanatory comment by the
present author. Translations enclosed in parentheses—( )—indicate words
necessary for English idiom or clarity but are not present verbatim in the original. An asterisk (*) before an ancient word means that the word is reconstructed—that is, the form cited is not directly attested to in the ancient
AHw.: W. von Soden, Akkadisches Handworterbuch
A.P.: Athenaion Politeia (Athenian Constitution) of Aristotle
Boisacq: Emile Boisacq, Dictionnaire Etymologique de la Langue Grecque
CAD: I.G. Gelb et al., The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute (University
of Chicago)
Chantraine: Pierre Chantraine, Dictionnaire Etymologique de la Langue Grecque
D.S.: Diodorus Siculus
Hdt.: Herodotus
Hes.: Hesiod
Horn.: Homer
//.: Iliad of Homer
LSJ: Lidell, Scott, Jones, Greek-English Lexicon
Od.: Odyssey of Homer
OLD: P.G.W. Glare, Oxford Latin Dictionary
Pa.: Pausanias
S.: Solon in Lives of Plutarch
Str.: Strabo
Tk: Theogony of Hesiod
Works: Works and Days of Hesiod


Author's Notes

Many of the sources used in the preparation of this book are not cited in the
notes at the end of each chapter and in the Selected Bibliography. The omissions
resulted from the desire to make this work readable and were dictated by the
economics of publishing. A complete list of sources utilized for the various
topical divisions of the book and a complete bibliography are available from
the author. All sources listed in the text are cited in the Selected Bibliography.
A few additional valuable works are also included in the Selected Bibliography.

Chronological Table


Early Dynastic I

ca. 2900-ca. 2700

Early Dynastic II

ca. 2700-ca. 2500

Early Dynastic III
Akkadian (Sargonid)
S argon

26th or 25th century
ca. 2500-ca. 2300

Post-Akkadian (Gutian)


Neo-Sumerian (Ur HI)


Old Babylonian

ca. 2000-ca. 1600



First Dynasty of Babylon


Middle Babylonian and Middle

ca. \600-ca. 1000

Kassite Dynasty


Second Dynasty of Isin



Chronological Table


ca. 1000-626

Neo-Baby Ionian


Persian (Achaemenid)


Western Iran, Elam
Kings of Awan

ca. 2350-oz. 2150

Kings of Shimashki

ca. 2100-1900

Kings of Sukkalmah

ca. 1900-1500

Middle Elamite

ca. 1450-1100

Later Elamite Kings

ca. 760-644(?)



Asiatic Turkey (Anatolia)
Assyrian trade with Cappadocia

ca. 1940-oz. 1800

Hittite Old Kingdom


Hittite Empire

1460-oz. 1215


Mid-third millennium


ca. 1825-ca. 1759


18th and 15th centuries


ca. 1400-ca. 1200

Early Canaanite (Early Bronze Age)

ca. 3150-ca. 2200

Middle Canaanite (Middle Bronze Age)

ca. 2200-ca. 1550

Late Canaanite (Late Bronze Age)

ca. 1550-ca. 1200

Israelite (Iron Age)

ca. \200-ca. 586

United Monarchy

ca. 1000-a*. 925

Divided Kingdoms (Israel and Judah)


Judah alone



Before ca. 3000

Archaic Period (1st and 2nd Dynasties)

ca. 3000-ca. 2780

Old Kingdom (3rd to 6th Dynasties)

ca. 2780-2260
Alternative: 2686-2181

First Intermediate Period (7th to 10th


Middle Kingdom (11th to 12th Dynasties)


Chronological Table
Second Intermediate Period (13th to
14th Dynasties and 17th Dynasty)
Hyksos (15th to 16th Dynasties)
New Kingdom (18th to 20th Dynasties)


Divided Kingdom and Libyan Period
(21st to 24th Dynasties)


Late Period


Assyrian domination


26th Dynasty (Saite)




Alexander and Ptolemies



Mycenaean civilization (Linear B)

ca. \700-ca. 1200


ca. 1200-ca. 1100

Dark Age

ca. 1100-ca. 900

Orientalizing and Geometric

ca. 900-800







Minoan civilization (Linear A)
First Cretan Palaces

ca. 3000-ca. 1450
ca. 2000

Second Cretan Palaces

ca. 1550

Destruction of Minoan sites

ca. 1450

Mycenaean Crete (Linear B)

ca. 1450-ca. 1400

Mycenaean imports at Etruria and contacts with Pithecusae, Vivara, Lipara

12th century

Greek colony at Pithecusae

ca. 775

Foundation of Rome

Traditional date 753

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In 1977, and many times since then, historical economist Douglass C. North
suggested that an analysis of transaction costs—that is, the resources used up
in exchanging ownership powers, including costs of communication, acquiring
and disseminating information, and designing and enforcing contracts—provides
a useful framework for comparing ancient and modern economies. This proposal
remains attractive. Within such a research agenda, the terms ancient and modern
acquire substantive content instead of serving to disguise, as is so often the case,
the trivial contrast between long ago and now. The ancient economy emerges
as a class of economies with its own laws of motion shaped by transaction costs.
Indeed, illumination of private microchoices of institutions is the major task of
neoclassical institutional economics. This branch of economics applies choicetheoretic models to transform structural characteristics from noneconomic givens
into endogenous variables. Thus, to illustrate the meaning of the economist's
jargon, instead of explaining ancient economic behavior in terms of the peculiar
mindsets that, supposedly, characterize the ancients, the mindsets themselves
become variables to be explained by economic theory. Sociologist Mark Granovetter (1985: 504) properly calls for researchers to "pay careful and systematic attention to the actual patterns of personal relations by which economic
transactions are carried out." But again the social relations of economic life
must themselves be explained, not merely assumed or described.
More concretely, relatively high costs of communication would have operated
to reduce one's control over trading partners, agents, and employees while increasing the danger of monopolistic exploitation (reducing production to raise
prices and profits). Similarly, the technological level of ancient society probably



operated to raise the relative cost of defining and enforcing claims to property
ownership. Clearly these costs discouraged division of labor and encouraged
self-sufficiency and storage. On the other hand, an important role for the sacred
in the making of contracts; the performance of magical technology; the substitution of memory, recitation, and symbolic gestures for general literacy; the
emphasis on professional standards and maintaining a good name; the prominence of women in entrepreneurial roles; and, more generally, the elevation or
extension of familial ties and other departures from impersonal economics in
the markets for both consumer goods and productive factors must be understood
as major structural adaptations permitting cooperation in ancient economic life
(see, e.g., Ben-Porath 1980 and Landa 1981). These peculiar behavior patterns
of ancient economic man must be understood not as social constraints on an
otherwise autonomous economy, but as facilitators of economic growth and
well-being in a world of otherwise high transaction costs. The examples cited
and many other institutional characteristics of the ancient economy are explored
in Part I of this book.
However (and here is the central question examined in Part II), is North
(1977: 710) correct in stating that transaction costs "would have been an insuperable barrier to price-making markets throughout most of history"? Later
North (1984: 262) maintained that "in the premodern world, economies were
simple, uncomplicated organizational structures. Exchange was, for most individuals, a supplement to a largely self-sufficient life." In his premise we may
detect the influence of the economic historian Karl Polanyi (1981), who believed
that markets became important only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
of the present era. Polanyi continues to enjoy major support among anthropologists, archaeologists, prehistorians, ethnohistorians, economic historians, adherents of the older tradition of institutional economics, and other social
scientists (see, e.g., Millett 1991: 221; Ortiz 1983: Part I; Zagarell 1986). Even
Marxists find value in Polanyi's theories. Thus, classical scholar Paul Cartledge
(1983: 6-7) concludes that
there seem to me several flaws in "Polyanyism" as a self-sufficient theory of economic
history, principally the absence of a concept of exploitation, an economic analysis based
on patterns of allocation rather than relations of production, and the stress on integration
at the cost of disregarding conflict and competition. .. .Yet, so far as ''trade and politics"
in archaic Greece is concerned, Polanyi's work does share a signal merit of Hasebroek's:
it compels us to rethink or rather to think away concepts appropriate only to the capitalist
market economy. Moreover, unlike Hasebroek, Polanyi did also develop a detailed set
of alternative concepts specifically designed to account for the peculiar features of nonmarket exchange.
When Purcell (1990: 49-54) persistently refers to ancient Greece's international
trade as "redistribution," he obviously has one cautious eye fixed on the critical
reaction of Polanyi's intellectual axis.



Although Polanyi is never quoted or even cited, his influence is ubiquitous
in economist Raymond Goldsmith's (1987) discussion of ancient financial institutions. My conclusion from an extensive review of this literature is that
Polanyi's influence among ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman specialists
is far more pervasive than they admit or, sometimes, are aware of. As Liverani
(1990: 19) well notes, "Polanyi's influence in economic and political anthropology has now become so pervasive as to make use of many indirect channels—so that an essay could easily be written about 'The impact of Polanyi's
theory upon scholars who never read it.' " Polanyi's influence becomes obvious
in discussions of the markets for land and labor power or, rather, in the assertion
that antiquity lacked these markets. Sometimes the validity of one or another of
Polanyi's positions is shifted to times and places outside the scholar's main area
of expertise, most often to third-millennium Sumer or Pharaonic Egypt or to
Minoans and Mycenaeans in the second millennium. This temptation to rescue
Polanyi's hypotheses by safely displacing them in time and space provides one
good reason for a study treating the entire ancient world.
Presently it is not possible to write a textbook titled The Ancient Economy.
Instead, Part II carefully compares Polanyi's empirical propositions or assertions
with the available evidence. In the case of Polanyi, the form of a polemic contributes a sharp focus on the key technical and operative mechanisms of ancient
markets—Polanyi deserves credit for this—while providing ample scope for an
overall evaluation of what is known about the ancient economy. As Gledhill
and Larsen (1982: 198) pointed out,
The investigation of Polanyi's theories is ultimately of more fundamental significance
than proving Polanyi right or wrong in a special case. Advancing alternative accounts of
the empirical data of necessity leads to problems of theory and conceptualization, and
our observation must both underpin and be selected by an alternative analytical framework.
In the course of providing this alternative analytical framework, critical attention
is given to the economic views of the Assyriologists I.M. Diakonoff, W.F. Leemans, Mario Liverani, and J.N. Postgate; of the Egyptologists Jacob J. Janssen
and Wolfgang Helck; and of the numerous disciples of the distinguished classical scholar Moses Finley. In-depth consideration is given to several key questions, including whether ports of trade served to economize on costs of tax
collection, the part played by contractual slavery in credit markets, adverse selection in the slave market, individual versus communal land ownership, the
importance of trade and capital accumulation, markets versus temple and palace
hierarchies, the presence of coinage and token money, and the resort to legal
fictions to circumvent government regulations.
An analysis of the ancient economy must comprehend a great deal of material
in terms of both space and time. Apparently disparate data must be placed side
by side on account of their inner analytical unity. The analytical perspective is



unfamiliar to and often disturbs conventional linguistic scholars and specialized
ancient historians. It should be noted, however, that despite their manifold differences, all ancient societies had to cope with the problem of relatively high
transaction costs. Common problems tend to provoke common solutions. Beyond the commonality induced by a shared technological challenge, we may
safely assume a common Mediterranean substratum shared by Greeks, Romans,
Israelites, Babylonians, Sumerians, Egyptians, Canaanites, and other peoples of
the ancient world. Cultural transfers resulted from junkets of cultic personnel,
officials, soldiers, merchants, artisans, and ordinary people looking for a better
life. There is ample evidence, both archaeological and literary, of significant
cross-culturation in the ancient Mediterranean world (Silver 1992: 19-21). Thus
there is a sound basis for pooling the often sporadic evidence from a wide
spectrum of ancient societies. The gains in understanding from this empirical
approach are, as I hope to show, large.
Nevertheless, a danger of the most inclusive perspective is that the resulting
picture may be misleadingly static and uniform in composition. A contributory
factor is, of course, the sporadic nature of the surviving evidence, which forces
Assyriologists to comprehend the workings of ancient Near Eastern institutions
by means of case studies. Such objections are real, but to give in to them would
make progress toward a scientific synthesis impossible. A deliberate effort has
been made to avoid a telescoped image by calling attention to the causes and
effects of changes in living standards and by taking account of geographic diversity, including differences in natural resource endowments and proximity to
trade routes. More important, Part III copes with the impact on ancient economies (Near Eastern and Archaic Greek) of changes in economic incentives and
of changes in economic policy. It takes a major step toward lifting the veil over
the variety of concrete historical situations and correcting an image of outstanding uniformity. Ancient economies, we learn, were capable of making profound
alterations to take advantage of new economic opportunities. The reader is invited to compare the comments of economist Raymond W. Goldsmith (1987:
10) on the alleged "stability" of these economies. We also see that the ancient
Near East experienced periods of pervasive economic regulation by the state
interspersed with lengthy periods of relatively unfettered market activity. There
were also "Dark Ages," in which household economy increased in importance
relative to both markets and hierarchies. Of course, the final test of my ambitious
pudding is in the eating.
Economic Structures of Antiquity builds on my earlier Economic Structures
of the Ancient Near East, published in 1985. The present work provides an
extended examination of Egypt and the Greek world while incoporating research
findings on the ancient Near East that were not available earlier.

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