Review: Hellenistic Economies

Zofia H. Archibald, John Davies, Vincent Gabrielsen and G.J. Oliver, eds. Hellenistic Economies. London/New York: Routledge, 2001. 400 pp., 41 figs, 11 tables. Hb. ISBN 0-415-23466-2. $85.00.

Although there is often a tendency to think of the collections of the American Numismatic Society in terms of individual objects, it is always worth remembering that the ancient coins, weights, and stamped amphora handles contained in the ANS vaults are really the shattered and disarticulated remains of once larger structures known as economies. Over the centuries the patterns of supply and demand, the vagaries of local and international trade, and the political and social ideologies that gave these ancient economies their motive force have decayed and disappeared, leaving us with little more than the dry bones. Hellenistic Economies brings together thirteen papers originally presented at a Liverpool conference in 1998 in an attempt to flesh out diverse aspects of the multiplicity of large and smaller scale economies that operated in the period delineated by the death of Alexander in 323 BC and the Battle of Actium in 31 BC.

John Davies sets the scene and makes observations about the direction that the future study of Hellenistic economies should take in the first paper, “Hellenistic Economies in the Post-Finley Era” (pp. 11-61). He persuasively argues that the influential minimalist and substantivist approach to the ancient economy developed by Moses I. Finley in The Ancient Economy (1973) needs revision and that modern students of Hellenistic economies would do well to reexamine the data and attempt to explore new models. However, despite the emphasis on departure from the Finleyan view, many of the articles that follow, including those that deal closely with aspects of coinage and monetized economies, and which will probably also be of the greatest interest to most readers of ANS Magazine, generally tend to reach the sorts of conclusions that Finley would have approved.

The most traditionally numismatic of the papers is Katerina Panagopoulou’s “The Antigonids: Patterns of a Royal Economy” (pp. 313-364), which primarily focuses on the problems of interpretation that have dogged the precious metal coinages struck in the name of “King Antigonos” and especially the tetradrachms bearing the types of Pan and Poseidon. By preparing a die study and employing recognized statistical formulae (all supplemented by extensive tables and two plates of illustrations), the author estimates the total obverse die production for four chronological periods in the reigns of Gonatas and Doson and comes to the important conclusion that the Pan and Poseidon coinages could not possibly have accounted for all of the money needed by the Antigonids for their involvement in the Chremonidean War (268/7-261 BC) and other military adventures in Greece and Asia Minor during the third century BC. Thus, she suggests that neither Gonatas nor Doson produced their coinages with the intention that they would be used to facilitate international or large-scale local trade and that indirect means such as booty and exactions from the cities were employed to meet the military costs of the kingdom. The majority of coinage used in the Antigonid realm is thought to have been provided through posthumous Alexanders and foreign coins on the Attic weight standard. In this case, the author endows the Pans and Poseidons with the primary political purpose of celebrating victories in the Chremonidean War and the battle of Andros (246/5 BC). By such emphasis on the political motivation, Panagopoulou seems to support Finley’s view that social and political forces dominated “economic rationality” in the ancient world.

Both “Population-Production-Taxation-Coinage: A Model for the Seleukid Economy” (pp. 69-102) by Makis Aperghis and Klaus Bringmann’s, “Grain, Timber and Money: Hellenistic Kings, Finance, Buildings and Foundations in Greek Cities” (pp. 205-214) also reach minimalist conclusions regarding the role of coinage in Hellenistic royal economies, again smacking of Finley’s school of thought. It is with some irony that at the same time, Aperghis also goes further than most of the authors in the collection to follow Davies’ introductory advice and attempt to develop a model for the economy of a Hellenistic state.

By separately analyzing data sets for each of the four economic factors of population, production, taxation and coinage, Aperghis seeks to discover their relationship to one another and to produce a workable model for the economy of Seleukid Mesopotamia. Unfortunately, while the methodology is sound and the intent laudable, one must question the validity of the data. For example, a population of 5-6 million is estimated for Mesopotamia based primarily on extrapolation from archaeological surveys and literary evidence for the population of Ptolemaic Egypt since direct evidence for the number of inhabitants in the region is entirely lacking. The data for individual rations and prices of grain in Mesopotamia are much more secure, as they are derived from contemporary Babylonian administrative texts and astronomical diaries, but it is unclear how much faith can be placed in the total of 10,000 talents as the estimated value of subsistence cereals in Mesopotamia, since it is arrived at through the use of less than certain population figures. Die statistics for Mesopotamian mints under Antiochus III and Seleucus IV are employed in order to estimate the quantity of coin circulating in the region at about 1-2 talents per 1,000 inhabitants, but again the role of estimated population in the equation must cast a shadow over the validity of this figure. The origin of the data for obverse dies under Antiochus III is also unclear, since the cited source only provides data for Seleucus IV. Because the number of coins tallies with a total tax of 1 talent per 1,000 inhabitants, arrived at through a disputed figure given by Herodotos (1.192) and Aperghis’ population estimate, it is concluded that the main purpose of Seleukid coinage was to provide the means for the population to pay taxes to the government. While the theory is plausible, the flawed nature of the evidence makes it difficult to accept without serious reservations. The underlying assumption that coinage had a very prescribed function within the Seleukid economy and that interregional trade had an almost negligible role in this closed system suggests the acceptance of Finleyan minimalism.

Bringmann’s paper eschews questions of production and circulation in favor of those involving the use and limits of money in royal euergetism. Based on literary and epigraphical evidence, he argues that the kings in general, regardless of dynasty and differing royal economic circumstances, rarely had enough cash on hand to cover benefactions to cities with price tags in excess of 100 talents. For more expensive gifts, such as the educational institutions founded by Eumenes II in Rhodes and Miletos, or the multinational relief effort on behalf of Rhodes after the earthquake of 228 BC, the kings preferred to make payment in kind, either donating large quantities of grain, which the civic authorities were then required to sell for hard currency, or providing raw materials for building construction. Through the use of these methods of indirect finance, the author observes that the kings were able to compete with each other for status as great benefactors while compelling the cities to partially underwrite the gifts, since the latter ultimately had to provide the cost of labor to convert the raw materials and grain into finished buildings and money.

This conclusion might seem to support the Finleyan idea of a “primitive” economy, in which exchange was largely driven by political and social considerations, coinage only played a limited role, and transactions in kind were dominant. However, Bringmann’s proposal that means of indirect finance were purposely used by the kings in an attempt to keep their coined money in their own states, a concern that has already been recognized in the creation of closed monetary zones in the Attalid and Ptolemaic kingdoms, may point to a more sophisticated understanding of economy in the Hellenistic period than Finley would allow. It is also tempting to think that indirect finance may lie behind the production of cistophoric tetradrachms by certain cities under Attalid control, for we know that they received their bullion from the crown in the form of benefactions (F. Kleiner and S. Noe, The Early Cistophoric Coinage (1977), p. 125 and n. 19), but apparently assumed the cost of minting themselves. One wonders whether similar arrangements might not have been involved when cities under the authority of other Hellenistic monarchs struck coins in the names of their rulers.

The fourth and last article to directly touch on coinage is Kenneth Kitchen’s “Economics in Ancient Arabia: From Alexander to the Augustans” (pp. 157-173). Unlike the papers discussed above, it does not so much analyze the evidence for a facet of Arabian economies with the intention of developing a model for how it may have operated, but rather offers a simple descriptive overview of the history and economic involvements of the several ancient Arabian states. Despite the title, only five pages (pp. 166-170) are actually devoted to the Hellenistic and early Roman periods, while the majority of those that precede them are dedicated to briefly sketching the early political and economic history of the Arabian Peninsula. The author provides a valuable bibliography of studies on ancient Arabian coins, including material published up to 1999, which will no doubt be of interest to specialists in Sabaean, Himyarite and Minaean coinages. However, his treatment of Arabian coinage in the main text leaves something to be desired. While Kitchen suggests that the Arabian imitation of Athenian and Roman coin models had to do with the facilitation of international trade, he fails to really argue the point. Instead, he prefers to use the coins more as evidence for political history than for any light that they might shed on the operation of economies. The coins are important because they provide the names of otherwise unknown kings of Hagar, or because their presence can be interpreted (not necessarily correctly) as a sign of political domination, as in the case of Characenean coins found as far south as the territory of the modern United Arab Emirates, rather than because circulation patterns might elucidate economic interaction between the Arabian states and the wider Hellenistic world. Mention is made of royal coins of Hagar found in Asia Minor, but nothing further is done with this information. Although the general understanding of the Arabian kingdoms as important players in the larger network of international trade stands in opposition to Finley’s “primitivist” economic views, the author’s treatment of the artifacts of that trade betrays the Finleyan tendency to focus on the social and political, rather than the economic importance of coinage.

It is really only in the articles that do not deal explicitly with coinage that we can catch a few glimpses of movement away from the Finleyan outlook. Amos Kloner’s paper on “The Economy of Hellenistic Maresha: Inferences from the City Plan and Archaeological Finds” (pp. 103-131) describes this remarkable city in central Israel in which all of the currently excavated houses were equipped with man-made subterranean complexes. The presence of some 22 olive presses and 85 columbaria in these underground rooms makes it fairly clear that in the Hellenistic period the people of Maresha were involved in industrial specialization, something that Finley generally argued against.

Zofia Archibald’s “Making the Most of One’s Friends: Western Asia Minor in the Early Hellenistic Age” (pp. 245-270) and “The Rhodian Associations and Economic Activity” (pp. 215-244) by Vincent Gabrielsen both attempt to keep the Finleyan habit of embedding actions in social, rather than economic, motivation at arm’s length while discussing the possible use of proxeny decrees to reconstruct inter-regional commercial connections and the manipulation of religious associations by their members and the Rhodian aristocracy as a means of controlling resources of man-power. The epigraphical record also provides the springboard for Graham Oliver’s excellent snapshot of an Attic micro-economy in “Regions and Micro-Regions: Grain for Rhamnous” (pp. 137-155). In this article the author illustrates the continued importance of local grain production in the deme of Rhamnous by analyzing an honorific decree inscribed on behalf of Epichares for his actions to protect the harvest and provision the deme during the Chremonidean War. Here one of the main goals is to underline the importance of looking at the “multiplicity of regional layers of economic activity” as well as the grander schemes of long-distance trade.

In “Between Colonies and Emporia: Iberian Hinterlands and the Exchange of Salted Fish in Eastern Spain” (pp. 175-199), Benedict Lowe also takes interest in a regional economy as he charts the development of the salted fish trade in Hellenistic Iberia, arguing that native communities were able to use their control over resources in order to manipulate demand by Greeks and Carthaginians.

While the influence of Finley can be detected in many of the articles, David Gibbins’ valuable overview of Classical and Hellenistic shipwrecks in “Shipwrecks and Hellenistic Trade” (pp. 273-312) is perhaps the most explicitly Finleyan of them all, considering the emphasis on the importance of socio-cultural needs as the motivation for trade, the small scale of most shipping, and an insistence on limited “economic rationalism.” The strong Finleyan overtones of Gibbins are nicely contrasted by the last article to deal with a specific economy, “Hellenistic Economies: The Case of Rome” (pp. 367-378) by Jeremy Paterson. Here the author maps the tensions between what he defines as the “natural,” “political,” and “market” economies of Republican Rome, emphasizing the greater importance of the “natural” economy in the long term. This discussion is especially worthwhile because it serves to challenge some of the basic tenets of the Finleyan outlook, such as the greater expense of land versus water transportation and the relatively minor importance of trade for the movement of goods. Of all the papers, Paterson’s is really the only one that makes a serious break with Finley and also presents an alternative economic model as recommended by Davies at the beginning of the collection.

The book concludes with Zofia Archibald’s “Away from Rostovtzeff: A New SEHHW” (pp. 279-388), which essentially critiques M.I. Rostovtzeff’s classic and seminal work, A Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World (1941) and the Finleyan reaction that ultimately grew out of it.

As we have seen, with a few important exceptions, the articles in Hellenistic Economies tend not to affirm the types of post-Finleyan discourse that Davies in his opening and Archibald in her closing article look towards. Instead the collection is very much a monument to the continuing and often subtle influence of Moses Finley’s minimalist and substantivist views on the ancient economy. As such it is well worth reading, for it is a clarion call to economic historians as well as to specialists in the physical remains of economic structures, like numismatists, warning that there is still much work to be done before we can truly begin to imagine new skins and sinews for the dry bones and to strike out on the paths of ancient economic interpretation that went undreamed of by Finley.

—Oliver D. Hoover