|Ancient history vs. Economic history: economic structure in a social world
Bas van Bavel & Bas van Leeuwen
*ancient economies increasingly important:
a) Provide the institutions important for economic development
b) Are increasingly found to be richer (GDP) than expected
c) Are “simpler” to analyse in the sense that interaction (for example via trade) is much less strong than in more recent periods.
d) Provide the institutions for social structure
e) More social history arguments
*Difficult to analyse because of limited (and specialist) source material
* Consequently, ancient history so far has been scrutinized largely by researchers of ancient history who have focused on descriptive history, rather than using social and economic theory.
* This comes forth especially in the Finlayan tradition, which says that ancient societies have their own structure and cannot be compared to modern societies. Even though this has often been interpreted in an economic sense, by implication this also goes for social history. After all, if the social structure makes it impossible to apply modern economic concepts, this implies a break with the social structure somewhere during the medieval period.
* More and more the modernist (as opposing the Finleyan/primitivist) method becomes dominant. Hence, ancient societies can be compared to modern ones. Yet, the descriptive Finlayan methods still dominate ancient history. This has led to bits and pieces of information that cannot be aggregated to answer bigger questions using social or economic theory.
In this text, we try to ask a few questions and suggest some directions for ancient history.
Primitive societies or complex social networks?
*Ancient economies have often been characterised in terms of social interactions. In The Ancient Economy Moses Finley argued that economic actions in the ancient world were dominated by social concerns.
* Above argument makes the social structure of ancient societies even more important. Are they primitive, or complex?
* The modernists view have recently been accepted. This also implies a more complex social structure. After all, a cost-benefit relationship requires a wider range of social interaction outside the own family friends.
Poor and rich in World history: economic structure
* Economic man: Modernists have proven that social structure was such that modern cost-benefit analyses could be applied to ancient history as well.
* Economy was relatively complex (at least not less complex than in the early middle ages). For example in Egypt, ca. 300 BC almost 40% was working in agriculture, not much different from England around 1300.
* Also GP in Babylon in 300 BC was about the same as in Iraq in 1900. In Egypt around 300 AD not much different as in Egypt 1200, and in Italy GDP remained almost stagnant between ca. 0 and 1500 AD.
*Great divergence: It is clear that the complexity of the economy greatly affected income levels. In England, Rome, Athens GDP per capita was much higher than in Babylon or China. The latter countries were largely agricultural, but so was England. The difference was that England had a far greater share of pastoral output, causing GDP per capita to be higher since kcalories from pasture are more expensive (but not per capita kcaloric consumption was higher). After ca. 1500, the gap with especially Holland and England widened rapidly. At least partly, this must have been caused by large scale investment in human and physical capital, the latter driven by capital accumulation in the pastoral sector and release of labour because of more animated technology (see for example Broadberry and Campbell).
* The ancient world was different from ours in many ways.
* Yet, the basic motivation (cost-benefit) was the same.
* This implies also a more complex economic structure.
* This remained constant for about 1000 years.
* Nevertheless, difference already existed with largely agricultural, non-pastoral societies like China and Babylon.
* The gap increased in the early modern era when large scale investment furthered technology in Western Europe.