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date: 18 January 2020


Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: money, prices, coinage, value, wheat, economics

In classical antiquity, the prices of various commodities—especially agricultural products—could and did change from season to season or from year to year. Over the long term and on aggregate, however, inflation was low.1 As a consequence, deviations from the norm—selected periods during which prices seem to have risen rapidly and systemically—contrast sharply with the prevailing price stability in the Greco-Roman world and, therefore, attract the attention of scholars. Perhaps the most well known of these inflationary episodes occurred in the mid- to late 3rd century ce, when prices across a range of commodities suddenly and permanently surged by roughly tenfold.2 Surviving prices from Ptolemaic Egypt also indicate periods of punctuated inflation.3 The causes behind ancient price movements, whether over the short or long term, are difficult to pinpoint. Historians typically look to monetary reforms, product shortages, plagues, wars, and even ecological changes when identifying and explaining inflation in the ancient world.

Price databases, such as the collection compiled by Walter Scheidel, of prices from Roman literary sources, help scholars identify and date changes in price levels.4 Tracking price inflation, however, requires scholars to convert price data into price indices—sets of regionalized prices restricted to particular classes of goods across defined periods of time.5 Such indices allow scholars to simplify their investigations through the use of standardized units of value and comparisons between similar goods or categories of goods. The index of (mostly Egyptian) ancient wheat prices, for example, is consulted regularly in studies of ancient prices and price inflation because of its relatively comprehensive coverage decade to decade, if not year to year in some periods.6 While this index helps economic historians identify periods of price inflation, the exact cause(s) of specific inflationary episodes continue to generate debate. Wheat prices appear to double, for example, in Roman Egypt in the mid- to late 2nd century ce. It is difficult for scholars to say, however, whether prices rose due to changes in monetary standards, low grain production, state interventions in the grain market, drought, local violence, demographic changes due to the Antonine plague, or some complex mixture of these or other factors.7 Changes in the nominal values and exchange rates of currencies, for example, are likely to permanently alter all prices measured in monetary units. Alternatively, shortages or gluts in the supplies of specific goods, whatever their causes, can lead to rapid changes in prices that may subsequently even out over time. Scholars, therefore, tend to be careful when using highly regionalized, product-specific datasets to draw generalized conclusions about economic trends across wider geographic and economic contexts. Prices from other regions of the ancient world, which are unfortunately not as well preserved as those found in papyrological archives, can nevertheless be compared to Egyptian prices in order to speculate about broader movements in prices. Several scholars have, for example, compared movements in the wages of Roman soldiers to changes in Egyptian wheat prices, in order to better understand how systematic and severe inflation might have been, as well as to identify or at least eliminate potential causes.8

The supply of money may also be related to price inflation. Some economists and economic historians take the view that increases in the supply of money tend to be reflected in higher prices as a matter of axiomatic economic logic.9 Indeed, if, in a simple hypothetical economy, the money supply were multiplied, but the amount of all goods and services in an economy and the rate at which money was spent remained constant, then prices would in fact rise in proportion to the supply of money. This deductive truism—commonly known as the “quantity theory of money”—implies that money supply and inflation, even in the ancient world, must have been logically linked. If the Roman money supply, for example, multiplied by a factor of ten between 158 and 50 bce, the simple logic of quantity theory suggests that either prices should have risen proportionally, or offsetting changes in circulation and economic output would have been necessary to reduce or even nullify inflation.10 Simple economic logic, therefore, can be used to draw conclusions about inflation and, by implication, money use, the demand for money, and economic output in ancient economies.11 Some scholars, however, take a more sceptical view of the use of economic tautologies such as quantity theory due to concerns that the nature and workings of ancient monetary systems may be over-simplified and even mischaracterized.12

Inflation in the ancient world may also have been connected to the quality of money.13 If the precious metal content of coins directly influenced monetary value and acceptability, it follows that reductions in coin quality (i.e., debasement) may have led to increases in prices. Recent metallurgical and metrological analyses of the mid- to late 2nd-century ce Egyptian tetradrachm, for example, show a correlation between price inflation and changes in coin quality, as the coin was reduced in both thickness and silver content.14 At the same time, evidence for price inflation in the mid-3rd century ce, when the Roman antoninianus was similarly debased and reduced in quality, is conspicuously absent.15 Because notions of value—monetary or otherwise—in the ancient world seem to have been dependent upon context, it remains difficult for scholars to definitively connect inflation with specific monetary and numismatic phenomena.16

Historians reasonably expect that the vagaries of the ancient agricultural economy produced all manner of seasonal and otherwise short-term price fluctuations, but bouts of severe, sudden, and seemingly permanent inflation have also been identified. Comparing these inflationary periods with other phenomena—whether monetary, economic, political, or environmental—provides some indications not only of the causes and consequences of inflation, but also of the character and nature of ancient economies generally.


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(2.) Dominic Rathbone, “Prices and Price Formation in Roman Egypt,” in Économie Antique: Prix et Formation Des Prix Dans Les Économies Antiques, ed. Jean Andreau, Pierre Briant, and Raymond Descat (Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges: Musée Archéologique, 1997), 183–244; and Dominic Rathbone, “Monetisation, Not Price Inflation, in Third Century A.D. Egypt?,” in Coin Finds and Coin Use in the Roman World, ed. Cathy E. King and David G. Wigg (Berlin: Gebrüder Mann Verlag, 1996), 321–339.

(8.) Temin, The Roman Market Economy, 70–91.

(10.) Indeed, this argument was put forward by Keith Hopkins as part of his “Taxes and Trade” model. In the late Roman Republic, surplus cash was soaked up in state treasuries, private hoards, and in transit across the increasingly vast Roman Empire (reducing the speed of circulation), and the quantity of economic output surged due to increased trade and monetized transactions. See Keith Hopkins, “Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire (200 B.C.–A.D. 400),” Journal of Roman Studies 70 (1980): 106–112.

(13.) Scheidel, “Coin Quality, Coin Quantity, and Coin Value in Early China and the Roman World”; Kenneth W. Harl, Coinage in the Roman Economy, 300 B.C. to A.D. 700 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 141; and Hopkins, “Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire (200 B.C.–A.D. 400),” 117 n48.

(14.) Christopher Howgego, Kevin Butcher, and M. Ponting, “Coinage and the Roman Economy in the Antonine Period: The View from Egypt,” in Mining, Metal Supply and Coinage in the Roman Empire, ed. Alan K. Bowman and Andrew Wilson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming); and Elliott, Colin P, “Silver Debasement, Climate, and Plague in Second-Century A.D. Egypt.” in Debasement: Manipulation of Coin Standards in Pre-Modern Monetary Systems, ed. Kevin Butcher. London: Routledge, unpublished manuscript.

(15.) Rathbone, “Monetisation, Not Price Inflation?”

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