By Hartmut G. Ziche
Introduction: The economy as an autonomous category of historiographical discourse is largely absent from the production of Greek and Roman writers. Works which specifically focus on the economy, like for example Xenophon’s Poroi, stand out as oddities. This does not mean that ancient histories of various genres are completely devoid of economic information, but elements which we perceive as economic history have, for the most part, different functions for contemporary writers and readers. Information on the development of taxation under different reigns for example is to a large extent an element of political and biographical narrative which separates “good” from “bad” emperors. Remarks on the economies of cities in the Roman empire are not foremost examples of economic history, but rather elements of panegyric praise – or lack thereof – for the vitality of urban civilisation. The mention of a vibrant market in this context has precisely the same value as the description of baths and aqueducts – or theatres and city walls –, it is an element of urban culture, not of urban economics.
The “embeddedness” of economic narrative in ancient authors reflects Karl Polanyi’s observation that the ancient economy as a whole is “embedded” in the sense that economic interactions and development are part of overriding social and political developments. In terms of the presentation of subject matter by ancient historians this means that their economic remarks, observations and interpretations are subordinate to their political or panegyric narrative. Economic developments are not seen as the driving force of historical events, but rather as a function of other types of determining historical forces. Taxation is a concrete example of this practice. “Good” emperors, according to the judgement of ancient writers, are defined by a complex set of non-economic, political and personal characteristics, and thus necessarily design and implement moderate tax policies.