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CHAPTER FOURTEEN. The Imperial Economy

David Mattingly


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The Roman economy is often presented as underdeveloped and underachieving ( Garnsey and Sailer 1987 : 43–7). Such views are the legacy of the huge intellectual contribution of Moses Finley (1985) to the debate on the ancient economy. Key elements of what I shall term the Finleyite primitivist (minimalist) vision of the Roman economy are: an emphasis on subsistence agriculture; the role of towns as centers of consumption, rather than of trade and industry; the low social status of craft workers; retarded technological diffusion; and a lack of economic rationality, illustrated inter alia by the low level of non-agrarian capital investment ( Finley 1985 ; de Blois et al. 2002 ; Duncan-Jones 1982 : 1; Hopkins 1983a : x-xiv). Such views are not unchallenged, however, and there is also strong support for a vision of a more evolved and complex economy than Finley was prepared to admit (K Greene 1986 ; W. V. Harris 1993b ). Strong evidence has been adduced in favor of more rational economic accounting on Egyptian estates in the Fayum ( Rathbone 1991 ). Rather more surprising perhaps is the fact that similarly sophisticated accounting systems are to be found even in the remote oasis communities of the Egyptian desert ( Bagnall 1997 ). In several recent discussions an emerging strand is that the Roman economy contained elements of both achievement and underdevelopment ( de Blois ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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