Metahistories, Decline, and the Roman Economy

Yesterday, prompted by some well meaning colleagues and social media, I read Kim Bowes’s very recent article “When Kuznets Went to Rome: Roman Economic Well-Being and the Reframing of Roman History” in Capitalism: A Journal of History and Economics 2.1 (2021): 7-40. It’s good, thought provoking, and, while it might appear to deal narrowly with the Roman economy has significance for many areas in the study of the ancient world.

In a nutshell (and grossly simplified) Bowes argues that the current trend to calculating ancient GDPs relies on deeply flawed ancient (and later) which is then decontextualized in various ways (sucked and smeared) to fill the myriad gaps that constitute our understanding of the Roman economy. Moreover, many of the arguments that rely on this kind of decontextualized data often involves circular reasoning: the assumption is that the Roman world was like most other preindustrial societies where growth rates were low and inequality high. Thus, many other preindustrial economic indicators can help fill gaps in the Roman economy and prove that the Roman world was as stagnant as other preindustrial economies.

These arguments are often made in big books, festooned with complicated and impressive graphs and charts, and offering sweeping arguments for the economic trajectory of human history. These mighty books, almost entirely written by men, make impressive claims on the back of less than optimal datasets. These claims often emphasize narratives of decline and fall (typically associated with ancient economic systems shackled by key limitations) or triumphalist narratives that celebrate the rise of the modern economy, greater equality, and more inclusive political regimes. 

These sweeping narratives often seek the triggers such as climate change or pandemic-scale disease or political and military instability that destabilized the stagnant balance achieved in the Roman world and brought the state and society crashing to its knees. The tendency to attempt to identify single catastrophic causes amid the sea of complex data reflects long-standing approaches to the ancient world predetermined by narratives of decline (and typically embracing tragic forms of employment with their reductionist mode of explanation (which Hayden White famously associated with Marx and Tocqueville).

[I’ve been thinking a bit about this very issue in a paper that on “the long late Antiquity” on Cyprus. While I’m not especially interested in the economic arguments that Bowes’s is focusing on here, I do argue that traditional big narratives of decline tend to fall apart in the face of more careful and detailed reading of site specific archaeological evidence. Attention to site formation, the complexities of abandonment and post-abandonment processes, and the limits of the stratigraphic and material record often make it far more difficult to identify clear signs of catastrophic or abrupt change at sites.]       

The final pages of Bowes’s article remind me a bit of an article by Christina Sessa a couple of years ago in the Journal of Late Antiquity. Sessa argued that many of the arguments for the impact of climate change in Late Antiquity are unconvincing because by drawing together vast bodies of evidence, they end up decontextualizing the particularities of textual, archaeological, and other documentary sources. Bowes makes similar arguments for archaeological and textual evidence for the Roman economy. She stresses that most of the sources for the ancient economy are incomplete, vague, frustratingly imprecise, and dispersed. At the same time, they offer nuance, especially at the level of the household, where real measures of quality of life, economic vitality, and human suffering and prosperity are manifest. 

Of course, this kind of attention to the small(er) world of households means a step back from some of the big questions their attendant metahistories that have come to be a staple of “big book” histories. This also  involves a step away from the lure of social and economic theories that tend to undergird these big books.  In their place, it would seem, come a kind of history that is more attentive to the details of particular situations, a greater emphasis on empirical description, and a return to low range theory (as opposed to low end theory) and mid-range theory.

This kind of work, of course, is unlikely to attract the accolades that big books offering big solutions to big problems garner. At the same time, attention to small problems in finely defined contexts returns archaeology’s attention to the forms of nuanced evidential reasoning where the discipline has tended to thrive. It also so happens that this is a practically realistic move for the field. Most big books come from a handful of elite, male scholars at a handful of elite institutions (Stanford seems to be particularly fertile ground for them). Bowes’s call for more particular work is democratizing as more highly specialized, empirical, and descriptive scholarship lends itself to the chaotic lives of most scholars who have to balance heavier teaching loads, more onerous professional service obligations, and often more demanding roles in home life. In other words, the small, but far more real worlds that fine grain archaeological work reveal reflect the real world responsibilities of more and more practitioners in the discipline who do not have the privileges afforded scholars at elite institutions.

It may also have the benefit of producing more focused studies that are easier for their fellow scholars to consume and analyze. Small books that address small problems create an environment conducive to greater interpretative, methodological, and theoretical diversity than the ponderous demands made by big books addressing big problems.

At this point, I’m pretty far from Bowes’s fine article, so I’ll conclude by encourage folks to give it a read. 

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