THE MAKING OF THE ANCIENT GREEK ECONOMY: Institutions, Markets, and Growth in the City-States

By Alain Bresson, tr. by Steven Rendall

Princeton and Oxford (2016) h/b 620pp £30.95 (ISBN 9780691144702)

 It is a sad mark of how monoglot the Anglophone academic world has become that B.’s two-volume L’économie de la Grèce des cités (2007-8) has had so little impact. Now appearing as a single volume, updated by the author, who has added references to scholarship in English and increased the bibliography by 50%, and wonderfully translated by Steven Rendall (but ‘triperie’ extends to the entrails generally as ‘tripe’ does not), this book must surely sweep the field. Whether one is an undergraduate student, an early-career scholar, has been chewing over the ancient economy for a career, or is simply a general reader with a curiosity about how the ancient economy worked, this is now the go-to work.

B. has produced a book that is at the same time something of an encyclopaedia of the ancient Greek economy, full of in-depth discussions about more or less every product and every economic phenomenon, a sourcebook of texts, particularly epigraphic texts, illustrating economic phenomena, and a book with an argument. In that way it rather puts into the shade that other recent ‘encyclopaedic’ book on the economy, Peter Acton’s Poiesis: Manufacturing in Classical Athens (Oxford, 2014), which by comparison seems both more random in the information it gives and very much less sophisticated. B.’s (new) Introduction puts the argument very much up front: ‘This book has a hero: not Achilles or Pericles, but the exceptional economic growth that took place in the Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods’ (xxi). Nor are B.’s methods hidden: the tools of the classical economist and of new institutional economics are repeatedly deployed, and the final sub-heading reads ‘International Constraints and the Nash Equilibrium’.

 Although B. does not hesitate to go into particular issues at very great length when he thinks that necessary, this is a book that engages the reader from the start and keeps the reader engaged because of its exemplary, and wonderfully unpatronising, pedagogy. B. has a shrewd sense of what the reader needs to know, and when they need to be told it, and he proceeds to unfold the substance and working of the economy of the Greek city-state before the reader’s eyes.  

 Alongside the massive gains from B.’s approach there are some losses. If Finley’s Ancient Economy lost all sight of the economy (it is Finley’s challenge to show that already in the ancient world we are dealing with an ‘enormous conglomeration of interdependent markets’ which B. definitively addresses), B. loses sight of the sociology of the ancient world—most seriously in losing sight of slaves and their place in the economy. B.’s otherwise optimistic view of Greek economic achievement is curiously traditional in claiming impossibly low agricultural productivity (and unfair and inadequate in discussing e.g. Garnsey’s arguments to the contrary). So too his foray into the Roman economy, which he feels obliged to make in order to show why his optimistic view of the economy of the Greek city state cannot be sustained, is unconvincing. But that there is much to argue with here is one of the virtues of this book: so clearly does B. lay out his stall, and so abundantly does he document his claims, that he makes it possible for the argument to start right here.

 Many attempts have been made to bring back to life the ancient economy killed off by Finley’s work. This book, surely, will succeed, if any book can.

Professor Robin Osborne—King’s College, Cambridge



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