Related teams & projects

Research program

The study of ancient economies entered a new phase in the 1990’s. Economic archaeology and natural science research provide new data on economic performance. Neo-institutional and development economics offer new theoretical frameworks. Comparative and longue durée analyses gained central importance.

Most scholars today think that levels of economic performance in the Roman world peaked c. 2nd century CE and were not surpassed until well into the early Modern period. Disagreement reigns over the causes of this trend, but a growing number of scholars believe that the specific institutional make-up of the Empire was responsible both for the secular growth of the Roman economy and its subsequent contraction.

However, paradigmatic and methodological shifts raise fundamentally new research questions. How reliable are archaeological proxy data? How can we ensure that cross-cultural or trans-epochal comparisons are meaningful? Was the course of economic development (e.g. of markets) determined by changes in the institutional framework and/or vice versa? What structural constraints and possibilities were determined by ecological factors ?

The challenge is considerable. Studying ancient economies through time from a combined theoretical, proxy data based and comparative approach requires a joint and interdisciplinary effort. We want to create such an effort to study the structure and performance of the Roman economy from roughly the 2nd c. BC to the 6th c. AD.

The research program we propose asks three broad questions to inquire what drove economic development and how this in turn affected society:

(1) Can the growth/decline of the Roman economy be attributed to its man-made institutional context? How resilient was this institutional frame to stochastic shocks ?

(2) Did the institutional framework change significantly in response to economic developments?

(3) What part was played by (non-institutional) ecological factors as geography, climate, or disease pools? Did nature-culture interactions sustain regional trajectories in the long term?

The program will be organized around five research axes:

1. Ecology and natural resources: Concerning the influence of nature – culture interactions on economic and institutional developments (and vice versa). The varied accessibility of natural resources and the ecologic context both offer and limit human possibilities. Conversely, human agency changes ecologic contexts (changing landscapes, breeding new varieties, irrigating dry lands or draining wet lands, ...).

2. Human resources – efforts and skills: Concerning the ways in which institutional and ecological context affected or changed in response to the organization of labor, the formation of specialized/specific professions and the accretion and passing on of cognitive tools, skills and know-how.

3. Social groups, organizations and networks: Concerning how the structure and dynamics of social groups/organizations/networks (family, familiae, guilds and associations ...) affected the institutional and ecologic context (and vice versa) and how this affected the organization of economic production and distribution.

4. Political and para-political systems and structures: Concerning how political and para-political structures (e.g. temples and churches) affected economic development (and vice versa). For instance, were states, cities, and churches parasitical organizations that undermined economic development, or did they stimulate efficiency and growth? Were they causative agents of economic change or passive subjects ?

5. Laws, contracts and legal instruments: Concerning how Roman and provincial law functioned as regulatory and enforcement systems for economic activities. Of particular interest are questions related to the development of law systems (e.g. did it respond to the demands of entrepreneurs or traders, or reflect beliefs and interests of political elites and the landed aristocracy) ; questions related to legal practice (e.g. were legal regulations merely frames of reference to facilitate economic bargaining, or were they effectively enforced by the state apparatus); and questions concerning comparative law (for instance why Roman law never developed the legal instruments which helped pave the way for modern capitalist markets).

Our objective is to coordinate research along the lines set out above, to organize discussion forums and to increase opportunities for collaboration and exchange among scholars. We aim to achieve these objectives in the following ways:

- By organizing workshops, guest lectures and seminars related to the network’s research program and support or participate in larger conferences on related subjects (for instance by organizing or subsidizing specific sessions).

- By supporting joint publications between (associate) members and by providing general logistic assistance with publications of (associate) members (peer-review prior to publication, review by native speakers etc.)

- By providing fellowships to visiting scholars or members of the network

- By assisting and stimulating applications for grants and projects

- By setting up a website to stimulate the exchange of information between scholars, students and interested outsiders.