- The Open Sea: The Economic Life of the Ancient Mediterranean World from the Iron Age to the Rise of Rome by J. G. Manning
Books on "the ancient economy" continue to be published with great regularity and it is wonderful to find one like Manning's that opens up new vistas and approaches and elaborates them in a (mostly) clear and convincing way. A radical [End Page 376] difference between this book and all others that seek to study the ancient economy in broad terms is its perception of what ancient means. Most scholarship follows Moses I. Finley's directive that this only includes Greece and Rome and that the contemporary cultures from the Near East and Egypt were part of an entirely different world. Manning, a classicist whose research focuses on Ptolemaic Egypt, begs to differ. In an extremely well informed way he cites and analyzes data from the Near East and Egypt, not only from the first millennium b.c. (from the Iron Age to the rise of Rome), but also from earlier periods. He mentions early second millennium b.c. documents such as commercial cuneiform archives from Anatolia and hieratic letters and accounts from an Egyptian private estate. He integrates data on Babylonian prices, an unparalleled record from the second half of the first millennium b.c., and discusses Phoenician maritime expansion in the Mediterranean. The 50 pages of footnotes and 70 pages of bibliography show how wide-ranging his research has been. This is a major change—and to this reviewer a very welcome one—from the attitude of "ancient" historians, who habitually ignore non-Greco-Roman material, taking intellectual cover under Finley's assertion of the radical differences between East and West. Although scholars of the ancient Near East and Egypt need to accept some of the blame for this attitude, in that much of their writing was hard to access for broader audiences, Manning is somewhat unfair when he writes that their work "has finally begun to actively engage in general treatments of ancient economies" (37), referencing a 2010 work. Earlier scholars engaged with theories of the "ancient economy," but were ignored. Manning's attention to the greater eastern Mediterranean world may come at the expense of that of the western Mediterranean, which is barely mentioned. But this is very much a text-based rather than an archaeological investigation, and the West produced relatively little written evidence in the period considered here.
As is true for all ancient economic history, this book is greatly informed by the contemporary circumstances of the author. Manning acknowledges this when he states (9-10) that the modern discipline of economics was forced by the 2008-9 crisis to question its former attitudes towards market behavior, governments' roles, and so on. So he feels one can utilize analytical methods of the type modern economists use—again in opposition to Finley. He is far from alone here, as attitudes in scholarship on the ancient economy have changed substantially since Finley's days and New Institutional Economics has been the rage for some time.
Another very current concern in this book is climate change. Manning emphasizes short-term impact, especially how volcanic eruptions affected the Nile flow in Egypt which, he argues, repeatedly caused a decline in agricultural production and consequent social unrest. The evidence seems convincing to me, but admittedly I am unable to evaluate the scientific data. That climate had a fundamental impact on the ancient economy should not be a matter of debate. How great its role was is another question, especially when we consider specific historical events such as Rome's annexation of Egypt. I cannot imagine that Manning believes that everything can be explained through climate data, but he does overwhelm the reader somewhat with the details of his discussion.
This is a book all students of the ancient economy in Greece and Rome as well as in Egypt...