- Roman Artisans and the Urban Economy by Cameron Hawkins
In current scholarship about the ancient economy the application of modern theory is standard practice; but the open question is whether the ancient economy resembled our modern economy or operated according to different values and limitations. The theoretical framework of New Institutional Economics emphasizes the detrimental impact of transaction costs, such as the extra time, effort, and resources required to enforce agreements or to evaluate the availability and efficiency of workers. Cameron Hawkins’s excellent book highlights two obstacles to the emergence of reliable concentrated markets in ancient Roman cities, even in an enormous city such as Rome during the late Republic and early Empire: seasonality and uncertainty. How did artisans, entrepreneurs, skilled workers, and other urban producers respond to the instability of demand for their services and goods?
Several factors created peaks and troughs in demand (chapter 1). Most importantly, the rhythms of urban life were directly correlated with “the seasonal rhythms of both the weather and the agricultural calendar” (32). The size of urban populations fluctuated, as people left cities to help with harvests or to avoid the malarial season, or as farmers migrated to cities looking for extra work during slack periods. The purchasing power of urban residents was likewise erratic because of volatility in food prices and slowdowns in construction due to inclement weather.
For entrepreneurs and artisans, the “economic environment of the Roman world must have seemed anything but predictable” (65). Their responses emphasized their reliance on direct social relations. Since entrepreneurs could not afford to maintain specialists whose skills were required only intermittently, they coordinated production and services by depending on networks of subcontractors (chapter 2). For the enforcement of contracts, they trusted the professional associations (collegia) as governance structures, “in which members rely on the politics of reputation to mitigate transaction costs” (103). Another strategy for hoarding labor was the manumission of slaves (chapter 3). Artisan slaveholders [End Page 285] could ease the risks of seasonal demand “by demanding that their freed slaves deliver specified quantities of skilled labor as repayment for their manumission” (133). At the same time artisans and retailers “generally chose to establish their sons in independent careers rather than to employ them in their own businesses” (204). Because of uncertain demand, entrepreneurs could not guarantee enough productive employment for their sons and instead encouraged them to start independent careers by establishing their own workshops (chapter 4).
Hawkins’s insights and arguments are both stimulating and convincing. Not only is his analysis fluent in the technical terminology and concepts of economic analysis, but it also deploys comparative evidence about consumer preferences from the economies of European states during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in order to construct models of economic strategies and test hypotheses. These hypotheses provide frameworks for interpreting both stray examples from ancient texts, such as a dream about fishing that was explained as a prediction of an extended period of idleness, and large data-sets of funerary inscriptions for entrepreneurs describing patterns of commemoration and succession. This is an exemplary discussion of labor issues in the cities of the Roman world.
Hawkins also suggests that his arguments have implications for the overall performance of the Roman economy. Artisans and entrepreneurs relied on the occasional labor of subcontractors and freedmen, while urging their sons to seek paid work outside their households but limiting their wives to household tasks that did not produce income. The tactics that they adopted to deal with thin markets effectively inhibited the development of the thick markets that would have promoted increased consumption and allowed intensive specialization. As a result, after the jolt to the economy from the exploitation that followed the vast overseas expansion during the late Republic, “sustained growth in productivity was unlikely to have taken place in the Roman world” (272).