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Article

John Weisweiler

The just distribution of social goods was fiercely debated in the ancient Mediterranean and the ideologies of egalitarianism and inegalitarianism developed in Rome and Athens shaped Euro-American political thought from the Enlightenment onward. By contrast, the study of actual income and wealth distributions in ancient societies is a more recent development. Only in the early 21st century have scholars begun to make systematic attempts to quantify levels of inequality in the ancient Mediterranean and Near East. Since we lack the documentary sources on which the study of inequality in contemporary economies is based, most of these reconstructions rely on a combination of modelling and the interpretation of isolated figures found in literary texts. This fragmentary evidence suggests that in the best-attested regions of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East inequality was considerable. In particular, the formation of large territorial states—most notably the empires of Babylon, Persia, and Rome—facilitated the concentration of wealth into fewer hands. But it is unclear whether inequality increased over time. At least, there is no unambiguous evidence that wealth and income were more unequally distributed in late antiquity than in earlier periods of Roman history.

Article

The Greeks and Romans did not develop a concept of “the economy” or discuss economic matters at any length; the study of the ancient economy therefore began only in the late 18th century, in parallel with the developing study of contemporary economic development, and was heavily influenced from the beginning by the question of the relationship between antiquity and modernity. The field has long been dominated by two different but closely connected debates about the nature and degree of development of the ancient economy (was it “primitive” or, on the contrary, proto-modern?) and about the correct theoretical and methodological tools for studying it, with constant anxieties about the dangers of anachronism. A notable trend has been the increasing weight given to material as compared with literary evidence, as archaeologists have accumulated ever greater information about economic activity, leading to calls in recent years to focus on ancient economic performance rather than on the structures of culture and thought that supposedly inhibited ancient development.

Article

Robert Schon

During the Bronze Age, people living in the Aegean region began adopting standardized measures. Aegean metrology took numerous forms and included measurements of weight, volume, length, area, and time. Some metrological units are depicted on Linear B (and some earlier Linear A) texts of the Late Bronze Age. In a few cases, archaeological remains, such as weights and scales, provide further insights into Aegean Bronze Age metrology.Ancient weights have been identified in numerous ways, some more reliable than others. A few weights appear in proportional sets or are marked with their unit designation, making their identification straightforward. In other cases, archaeologists rely on context or reasonable deduction (e.g., “What else could they be?”). Certain spool-shaped stones found in Early Bronze Age (c. 2500bce) contexts, most notably at Tiryns, may be weights.1 If so, these would be the earliest confirmed balance weights in the Aegean. Eleven haematite and two similarly hard stone weights were discovered by Valmin in various strata at Malthi, a Bronze Age site in .

Article

Andrew M. Riggsby

There is a large body of evidence for Roman use of weights and measures. In theory, they would have been able to measure a variety of quantities with great precision, given the variety of different-sized units at their disposal and an elaborate system of fractional subdivisions of those units. Moreover, those measurements could have been accurate with respect to a shared system because of publicly available exemplary standards, a theoretical connection between the definitions of the most important measurements, and the existence of state officials who could enforce the standards. As a result, Romans could, in principle, have conveyed very specific metrological information across a great deal of space and time. In practice, measurement was considerably less predictable and less precise. Actual measurement did not necessarily avail itself of the full resources of the theoretical system, and sometimes did not appeal to any general system. Moreover, overtly competing systems coexisted with the “official” ones at all times. Finally, it is not clear how coherent that official system was, nor were the actual systems of enforcement particularly robust. As a result, measurement was often imprecise and/or tightly localized (which probably generated weak expectations of being able to replicate measurement across different contexts).

Article

Catharine Edwards

While the definition of luxury might be contested, high-value goods played a crucial role in articulating social distinction and political power in Greece and Rome. Particularly in ancient Rome, where imperial expansion brought increased wealth and access to a wider range of goods, luxury was often the object of moralizing criticism, both as a personal vice and as a general threat to the well-being of the state.

Originally a term to characterize the exuberant growth of plants (see OLD 1), the Roman word luxuria (cf. luxus, luxuries), applied to human behaviour, is regularly associated with the desire for and consumption of high value ephemeral items, such as food, drink, and perfume, costly fabrics and accessories, precious artworks and furnishings, beautiful slaves, and private residences constructed on a large scale and/or out of precious materials.1 The pursuit of luxury is often presented as inimical to manliness and (particularly in the historical discourse of the late Roman republic and early principate) features as a causal factor in accounts of political crisis and moral decline.

Article

Travis Rupp

Beer was a staple of ancient diets, extending from the ancient Near East to Egypt and from the Greek Aegean to Rome. The brewing process developed in Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Syria, and Israel, while industrialized production of beer continued in Egypt. However, in Greek and Roman culture, discussions and acceptance of beer are not as prevalent in the composed texts of the elite populace. These authors avoid or degrade the topic. Though no one word for beer universally translates in ancient Greek and Latin languages, further examination has demonstrated that beer was a nutritional necessity and was produced in Greek and Roman history; yet, the resilience of beer is largely attributed to peoples living on or beyond the boundaries of Greek and Roman dominion. Their direct contact with Rome’s legions compelled beer’s development even without a full embrasure from aristocratic elites. Combining art, architecture, archaeology, and literature, a comprehensive story for the existence and permanence of beer is told from 9500 bce to 500 ce.

Article

Colin P. Elliott

Most currency systems in classical antiquity used precious metals at standardized weights and/or fineness. Debasement describes reductions in currency standards, whether such reductions were openly declared or hidden, or whether they were enacted by legitimate minting authorities or counterfeiters. Some debasements may have been unintentional, the result of imprecisions in the minting process. Often, however, debasements were carried out on purpose and for a wide range of reasons—in response to crises such as wars or famines, or as part of a larger economic or monetary reform. Contemporary responses to debasements varied. Coin-users and money specialists developed techniques to assess the quality of coins. Some polities enacted legal tender laws—sometimes to discourage the use of debased counterfeit coins, but often to require the use of legitimate coinage after it had been debased. The scholarly study of changes in coin standards continues to provide insights into both the practical workings of ancient monetary systems and the abstract notions of value, acceptability, and other embedding frameworks that governed the use of ancient coinage.

Article

Colin P. Elliott

Inflation typically refers to rising prices. In both ancient and modern societies, inflation is sometimes difficult to identify, measure, and explain with precision. Inflation can occur in the prices of individual goods, the goods and services associated with a particular industry or sector of an economy, or as a macro-phenomenon in which all or most prices in an economy rise. The magnitude of price rises and the duration during which prices stay elevated also have a bearing on how inflation is studied. The ancient world witnessed periods of both slow and steady inflation as well as punctuated surges in prices. Some regions, such as Egypt, offer hundreds of prices, which facilitate quantitative measurements of inflation. In many areas and periods, however, inflation is poorly understood because sufficient numbers of prices do not survive. Scholars, therefore, often use theoretical models and proxy evidence to better understand the nuances and complexity of inflation in classical antiquity.

Article

Kim Bowes

Roman landscapes exhibited enormous diversity, from the rolling hills of the Mediterranean heartland, to Nile marshlands, Apennine mountain pastures, and African pre-deserts. New work on this diversity has demonstrated the intensive methods with which they were managed for agriculture and artisanal output, as well as their highly periodized histories. While much debate in the study of these landscapes has revolved around ancient climate change, more apparent is robust human intervention, which often reached a peak during the Roman period. Romans thought deeply about landscapes, and their literature and religious rituals used landscape to frame moral, religious, and political values.

Unlike the landscapes of the Greek city states, those encompassed by the Roman empire at its height were diverse in the extreme. Among the empire’s territories were the pre-desert regions of Tripolitania and the Syrian frontier, the mountain pastures of the Apennines, and the marshes of the Egyptian oases, not to mention the rolling limestone landscapes of the Mediterranean heartland. Even within smaller slices of these territories (and even within tiny micro-regions), new work has revealed the remarkable diversity of vegetation, sunlight, rainfall, and topography. It is the plurality of these landscapes that gave Romans material for a rich tradition of literary and religious expression as well as a vast and intensive apparatus for economic exploitation.

Article

Giusto Traina

The most common words to designate a marsh, a swamp, or a bog are helos in ancient Greek and palus in Latin; beside these terms, less common words were also employed. Literary and epigraphic texts give evidence for marshlands in the countryside, in the coastal areas, and also close to urban agglomerations. The sources often give evidence for drainage activity, but cases of extensive drainage are rare. In fact, they were possible only at public expense, by employing free or slave labor. On the other hand, several territories were characterized by a sort of marsh economy. Although rarely portrayed in literature, and despite the risk of malaria, marshy areas presented some economic potential: fishing, hunting, salt extraction, and farming. In many respects, the negative image of wetlands is a modern invention. The contrast between the rational order of the Roman countryside and the “barbaric” medieval landscape was introduced by the Enlightenment, and must be treated with caution.