Related teams & projects

Long-Distance Trade in the Greco-Roman World, Medieval Europe and the Premodern Muslim West

A conference and publication project of the international research network ‘Structural Determinants of Economic Performance in the Roman World'.

Antwerp and Ghent Thursday 15 - Saturday 17th September, 2016

Organised by Koenraad Verboven, Wim Broekaert (Ghent University), Peter Stabel and Jeroen Puttevils (University of Antwerp)

Participation is free but registration is required (otherwise we will not be able to guarantee that there will be enough coffee, tea and biscuits …). Please do so by sending an email to  or . If you wish the participate in the lunches please contact the same *before 1 September 2016*


Economic History began its engagement with the social sciences nearly a century ago, initiated by German scholarship and by the likes of the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne. The subject was hesitantly taken over by the French school of the Annales, which was always more interested in societal developments. The past 50 years, however, have been a bumpy ride: Marxism declined as a central paradigm (although its shadow still lingers on, in particular in rural and labour history), while neo-Smithian approaches and above all New Institutional Economics became unstoppable and new approaches like Environmental History outgrew their own particular niche. More recently, new methods like Social Network Analysis and Social Capital Theory changed our views on the social organisation of trade in particular. All these theories and models have sparked fierce debates, but it cannot be denied that the engagement with social sciences has enriched our research field. Besides giving us conceptual tools and models to interpret and analyse historical data, they made it possible to detect patterns in historical societies that provide the basis for meaningful comparative historical studies across the traditional temporal and geographical divides.

Western economic history has been at the forefront of this evolution. Cross-national and –regional studies within Europe and its colonies are well established today. Comparative studies for 19th- and 20th-century global economic history too are now well advanced. Cross-cultural and cross-temporal comparative studies for pre-industrial societies, however, are still in their early phases. The bulk of what has been done has been towards understanding what Pomeranz famously called ‘the Great Divergence’ : why did the Industrial Revolution take place in Europe and nowhere else? This is obviously an important theme, but history did not start around AD 1500, when the West began its colonial expansion. Global economic history can and must go beyond this very limitative and (despite its ambitions) still very Eurocentric framework. The challenge for cross-cultural comparative economic history today is to detect and understand patterns in pre-industrial economies and establish what makes particular economies distinct. A lot of empirical ground work needs to be done before this is possible : sources have to be identified and interpreted in ways that are both reliable and compatible to economic analysis, patterns inside historical economies need to be detected and understood away from a teleological and Eurocentric bias. Over the past decades work in this direction rapidly progressed, which led to a boom of empirically well founded comparative studies, for instance, on pre-industrial empires (Bang 2008 ; Scheidel 2009 ; Bang & Bayly 2011), on factor markets (van Bavel e.a. 2009), and on slavery (Dal Lago & Katsari 2008).

This project proposes a similar comparative study of long-distance trade in three of history’s largest and most influential economic trade systems: that of Greco-Roman Antiquity, of the Arab and Turkish Middle Ages and of medieval Europe. While it is true that long-distance trade never drew more than a fraction of what pre-industrial societies produced and exchanged (subsistence agriculture, local crafts, domestic trade, retail trade, and non-market extraction and distribution always far outweighed long-distance trade in quantity and value), long-distance trade integrates regional economies, helps to spread new technologies, and stimulates the development of monetary institutions that enhance the liquidity of economic resources. As such it creates a higher level of interaction that interconnects and lifts economic systems.

Clearly, the Greco-Roman world, medieval Europe and Arab/Turkish medieval economy were not the only ‘super-size trading systems’ in history, but they are related and interconnected more more strongly than was the case, for instance, for Han China and the Roman Empire, or Yuan China and the Mamluk sultanate. They shared similar basic economic institutions (such as private property rights, contracts, coinage, …) that were supported, at least in theory, by legal systems imposed by political rulers, but because differed strongly in terms of culture, religion and political institutions, these basic institutions were embedded in profoundly different social rule complexes.

Greco-Roman society shows one of the largest and long-lasting economic systems in history. Its institutional history is relatively well documented for a period of about 1000 years. Archaeological data show beyond reasonable doubt that a level of performance was achieved c. AD 150 that was not surpassed until c. 1550-1650. The 4th century brought an economic recovery in the Mediterranean core of the empire which continued in the east until the 6th century but then petered out. With a few exceptions (the most notable being the trade with India and China) it formed a closed system. The cause of whatever drove its economic development has to be searched inside the system (although obviously not necessarily in its economy). The Arab/Turk medieval economy inherited institutional arrangements of the Late Roman economy and that of Sassanid Persia, but changed and reinterpreted these, added on to them and embedded them its own institutional set-up, strongly influenced by the tenets of Islam. The European medieval economy, as well, inherited remnants of the Roman imperial economy, and developed in close interaction with the Arab economic system and with the middle and late Byzantine economy. Through its cities and associations, however, it created its own economic system that profoundly differed from that of the Roman empire or the Arab world.

Ancient economic history began its turn towards the social sciences as early as in the 1970s and 1980s, inspired (mainly) above all by Max Weber’s economic sociology and Karl Polanyi’s anthropological substantivism, rather than by mainstream (whether neo-classical or Keynesian) or (neo-)marxian economics. Strikingly, this process took place the other way round for economic history of later time periods in Europe (Middle Ages and Early Modern Periods), where traditional neo-marxist, neo-smithian and neo-malthusian approaches were refined and corrected by NIE and anthropological paradigms. Since the early 1990s both ancient and pre-modern European economic history have been transformed. In the latter New Institutional Economics brought about a shift of paradigm, looking for barriers in pre-modern economy or catalysts for change (but not ridding the discipline from teleological assessments of how and why the West was the best). In the former, familiarity with mainstream economics and social capital theory now pervades conferences and publications. A number of mainstream economists seriously started to study ancient economies (Temin 2013 ; Silver 2011; Amamiya 2007 ; Hampus-Lyttkens 2012). Newly developed techniques from bio- and geosciences allow economic archaeology to produce an endless and continuing stream of qualitative and quantitative data. Work on the economic history of medieval trade in the Muslim world, as well, has rapidly progressed. Thanks to the controversial work by Avner Greif (2006) on the Jewish Maghribi traders in old Cairo, and the reactions and intense debates that followed (Edwards and Ogilvie 2012 ; Greif 2012 ; Goldberg 2012) there is now a firm ground to study institutional arrangements in the medieval Arab world. Specialists of Muslim trade like Francisco Appelaniz (2009) or John Meloy (2010) have followed suit. A strand of data-rich scholarship is now available about the medieval and early modern period (like Maya Shatzmiller’s work on labour (1994) and participation of women (2007), or the many works by Suraya Faroqhi’s (e.g. 1987; 2009; 2014) or André Raymond on Ottoman economies) that paved the way to deeper studies of North African and Middle Eastern pre-industrial economies and societies. This strand of new empirical research (above all carried out by Turkish scholars), has until now steered clear of the (NIE-inspired) teleological biases in European pre-industrial history. Timur Kuran’s controversial “long divergence” model (2011), however, and its neo-institutional approach to the (presumed) effects of Islamic law on economic development, shows that a similar debate is emerging also in this field between non-specialists (usually economists) and specialist historians.

These debates and controversies have created a common language to discuss the empirical ground work that has been done. In all three systems, we can now track institutional changes and ups and downs of economic performance, detect stochastic shocks, changing externalities (such as climate change or technological innovations) and possible institutional dead-ends. We believe, therefore, that the state of economic history of the ancient world and the Arab/Turkic world has progressed sufficiently for a meaningful cross-cultural and cross-temporal comparative project with western Europe. We propose to start c. 500 BCE, when the institutional set-up of the Classical Greek poleis becomes clearly visible. As an upper boundary we suggest c. 1600. This includes the early Ottoman empire and the early impact of the trade with the American colonies, but avoids as much as possible the divergence debate and its teleological trappings.


Antwerp, Thursday, 15th Sept.

City Campus, room D015
Grote Kauwenberg, 21, 2000, Antwerpen

10:00 K. Verboven and P. Stabel, Welcome and introduction

Institutions and Institutional Change

11:45 coffee break

13:00 lunch

15:30 coffee break

Ghent, Friday, 16th Sept.

Joseph Plateaustraat, 9000 Gent

Mercantile Communities, Networks and Organisations

11:30 coffee break

13:00 lunch

15:00 coffee break

Ghent, Saturday, 17th

Koninklijke Academie voor Nederlandse Taal- en Letterkunde
Koningstraat 18, 9000 Gent

Information Tools and Management

10:30 coffee break


Wim Broekaert
Occupational associations and monopolies in the Roman economy

This paper explores the role of occupational associations in the Roman economy, by applying to Roman society the current controversy in Medieval and Early Modern history over the potentially harmful effect of guilds on the economy at large. I consider the effects of associations’ social capital, monopoly rights, apprenticeship and quality control on economic performance and argue that the weak integration between Roman collegia and civic authorities limited their negotiation power, but also protected the economy against many of the abuses of power Medieval guilds were capable of.
Medieval and Early Modern Europe

Jeroen Puttevils and Peter Stabel,
Florentine Traders in Bruges and Antwerp


Bruce Travis,
Translating the Divide: Dragomans as Cultural Mediators in the Thirteenth-Century Mediterranean

Most of the literature on dragomans addresses more high-level/diplomatic activities. I am actually interested in the intersection of culture and commerce that happens with dragomans attached to the diwan, specifically how they served as active links in the creation of merchant networks in the markets of North Africa, not just as translators but also as brokers connecting Christian and Muslim merchants. Part of this considers questions of trust and reputation (à la Goitein/Constable/Greif/Goldberg), as dragomans parlayed these into profitable relationships for themselves and their clients.

Francisco Apellaniz,
News on the Bulaq: a Mamluk-Venetian Memorandum on Asian Trade, AD 1503

The article presents and discusses a source of unique importance for our knowledge of early modern global exchanges. Produced in 1503 by the Egyptian administration, and found among the records of a Venetian company with global commercial interests, the document records maritime connections with some localities on the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia, followed by cargo figures. By sending the Memorandum to the head office in Venice, the Company’s agents in Egypt were laboring to solve the most important concern of Venice’s information network, that of coordinating Indian with Mediterranean trading seasons. By analyzing the document’s context, namely, the Foscari Company and the risky business conjuncture it was undergoing, this paper attributes the Firm’s success to the capacity of its agents to gather information through collaboration, networking and ultimately, friendship with Muslim partners and informers.

Roxani Margariti,
Wakil al-tujjar: Go-Betweens in the maritime trade of the medieval Indian Ocean

The openness and navigational complexities of ocean waters and the multiplicity of languages, legal systems and polities constitute the structural characteristics of medieval Indian Ocean trade that presented both challenges and opportunities to its varied set of participants. This paper examines the evidence for agency relations and the role of mercantile representatives operating across this complex world. It argues that the wakil al-tujjar (or representative of the merchants) known from mostly Arabophone primary sources originating in the Islamicate Middle East had counterparts in Indian Ocean East Africa and maritime India, and that a particular merchant status common across geopolitical and cultural divides emerged from the need to mediate between disparate but interdependent parts of a transregional and essentially maritime system. 

Alain Bresson,
Transacting in the Ancient Greek World

Transactions in ancient Greece provide an excellent case study to look deeper into the theory of transaction costs and into the theory of the firm. Transactions in the ancient Greek world were performed with obviously a total faith in the market and in the institutions of the market. The Greeks transacted at every level, for procuring daily subsistence on the local market, or for sending a trade ship to the other side of the Mediterranean or to India. State institutions guaranteed the security both of local and international trade. If a business conflict took place, it was in general efficiently and quickly solved by a court (at least there was reasonable expectation that it would be). The existence of a state guaranteed currency procured also the necessary long term security of transactions. Yet, and this is a major difference with the modern contemporary world, in the ancient world firms as such did not exist. This is a strange paradox, but a crucial one, and all the more so that the existence of the firm is also linked to the development of modern capitalism. Indeed, one might want immediately to correct the statement that firms did not exist in the ancient Greek world. Couldn’t we see for instance in big farms employing slave labor the equivalent of our firms? The answer should be negative. The slave system is precisely the opposite of the transaction system: or it should be said that slavery is a transaction where one of the potential has been neutralized. How should we reconcile these two seemingly contradictory aspects of the world of transactions in ancient Greece (or Rome, which in this respect was not different from Greece)? The paradox can be solved in the framework of the transaction costs theory and of the theory of the firm. The ancient Greek world can be defined as a world of extreme externalization, which allows to make sense of the also extreme fragmentation of transactions. Finally, it is the conditions of possibility of this form of transaction, that is of this “forced externalization,” that needs to be examined.

Kai Ruffing,
Market Systems in the Roman Empire

A main interest of the current research on the economic history of the ancient world is the question of the existence of an integrated market in the Roman Empire and whether the Roman economy can be described as market economy. Scholars, however, has been less interested in the market itself and its conceptualisation. A reason for that, as underlined some years ago by the economist Rudolf Richter, can be seen in the fact that in a neoclassical view there is no need for a specific market system, since it is a world witout any transaction costs. Those interacting by means of a market have perfect foresight and perfect rationality. The neoclassical world, consequently, is a world, in which everyone is trading with everybody else wherever and whatever he wants. Thus institutions do not matter. As a matter of consequence the market in the research on the ancient economy is conceived as a more or less homogeneous phenomenon, which is defined by offer and demand.

But people and traders had (and have) to choose, in which market situation they want to act before selling or acquiring goods. This choice is an institutional one. Thus this paper starts from the basic assumption that there are different forms of market situations which are shaped and defined by different and specific institutions and which can be labelled as market systems. It aims to show that long distance traders in the Roman empire used different market systems for selling they goods and that on the other hand those, who had an interest to attract long distance traders (e.g. cities in the Roman Empire), shaped the institutions of their markets in a specific way as well.

Jean-Jacques Aubert,
The Roman jurists on long-distance trade

Were classical Roman jurists concerned with the specifics of long-distance trade? Some legal institutions, such as agency, maritime loan, and the Rhodian sea-law on jettison, illustrate the adaptability of Roman law to the widening scale of ancient trade, mostly through the development of edictal law in the late Republican period.". The Roman law of obligations acknowledges the importance of disrupting factors such as mora, the role of intermediaries such as nuntii, and the potential of split patrimonies such as peculia. This paper will investigate how the development of legal concepts and instruments was conditioned by the needs of long distance trade.

Ulf Christian Ewert,
Simple, but efficacious: Institutions of trade at the periphery of late medieval Europe

A common picture of late medieval European long-distance trade typically shows sedentary merchants who exchanged ‒ with the help of employed commercial agents and well-equipped with risk capital ‒ all sorts of commodities via large markets like Bruges or Venice, thereby using sophisticated contractual schemes and being backed by a far stretched banking system, these institutions enabling risk sharing, money exchange and cashless payments. In stressing all the mercantile innovations that had been introduced into European trade in the so-called Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ag-es, this classic view, however, neglects the fact, that older patterns like barter trade, e.g., still were intensely used in the fifteenth century.

In the 1440s and 1450s the Portuguese established a profitable trade with West Africa. Spices, ivory and gold were brought to Portugal and sold from there to all across Europe. This exchange was based on a simple barter trade, which was coordinated and controlled by outposts like Arguím, and later on Sao Jorge da Mina. At the same time, merchants of the Hanse sailed each year to Novgorod to buy furs, wax and timber for their western customers, commodities they had to pay for in silver cash. Quite similar-ly, some merchants from Lübeck, Rostock and Stralsund still moved during each summer to Bergen to trade there with dried cod and fish-oil, which were in great de-mand Europe-wide.

Hence, at the periphery of the continent, relatively basic forms of trade still survived in the late Middle Ages. However, being the only viable means to organise commercial exchange with less developed regions, these simple institutional arrangements certainly proved to be instrumental in securing basic needs of European customers as well as in improving on the variety of commodities that could be delivered to them.
With the paper, a comparative analysis of institutions that governed long-distance trade at the north-eastern and south-western edges of Europe is attempted, also with the aim of highlighting that their effective operation in general was important for late medieval European economic development and growth. The focus herein will be especially laid on how peripheral institutional arrangements of exchange were determined by the obvious huge differences in economic development, respectively, and on how these rather simple forms of trade were linked to ‒ and presumably also efficiently integrated into ‒ the European trade system of the fifteenth century with its more advanced practices and standards.

Lars Boerner and Battista Severgnini,
Epidemic Trade

This paper uses the spread of disease as a proxy to measure economic interactions. Based on a case study of the Black Death (1346-51) in the Mediterranean region and Europe, we find geographic, institutional, and cultural determinants of trade. To achieve this we create and empirically test a trade model between cities. Our findings allow us to create a new methodology to measure economic interaction and shed light on open questions in economics, especially pertaining to trade, economic history, and growth.

Jessica Goldberg,
Business organization and the economy in the Medieval Mediterranean

An Islamic business manual of the eleventh century states a truth on which modern economists agree: for success in long-distance trade, one needs agents. And more than almost anything else, the approximately 1500 commercial documents we can associate with the merchants of the Cairo Geniza in the period 990-1150—primarily letters, but also contracts, accounts, and other ephemera—show the intensity of agency relations within this group. At the same time, a dominant and perhaps pre-mature urge to make comparisons to European merchants, and a narrow focus in the literature on differences in agency contracts and their governance, threaten to swamp discussion, and in fact obscure much broader opportunities both to examine the Mediterranean Islamic economy, and make careful comparisons between Italian and Islamic medieval merchants. A re-examination of the agency relations used by Cairo Geniza merchants that have been at the heart of recent scholarship and debate shows how previous scholarship has misconstrued or over-simplified both institutional and structural differences in the economic situation of these merchants in comparison to their European counterparts. This becomes clear when we consider not a static contrast of a majority preference in the Geniza documents to an overwhelming pattern in notarial contracts, but instead look at the complex array of options Geniza merchants faced and at their shifting choices in using different forms over the course of the eleventh and early twelfth century.

Koenraad Verboven,
Bankers and other financial intermediaries as information trustees and managers in the Roman world

Deposit banks were a wide-spread institution in the cities of both the Greek and Latin provinces. They catered to the needs of local and long-distance trade. They pooled funds, provided payment and receipt services and extended bank loans. As a rule they did not finance long-distance trade or other high-risk projects, but they did acts as financial brokers—establishing contacts between financiers and traders, drawing up, witnessing and safe-keeping contracts, and arranging actual payments. They were not the only financial specialists to provide such services. Faeneratores (‘lenders at interest’) as well are often attested as middlemen, rather than independent financiers. Less well known professional categories, such as the proxenetae (‘brokers’) and the somewhat mysterious pararii, as well, played a part in laying contacts.
This papers studies the institutional (mainly legal) constraints under which these various categories operated and their impact on long-distance trade.

Yadira Gonzalez de Lara,
The Impact of Formal Monitoring on Financial Development: From Debt to Equity in Late Medieval Venice

In late-medieval Venice the state regulated the ex-ante operation of trading voyages in a manner that facilitated the ex-post verification of merchants' accounts. Specifically, colonial governors, convoy admirals, ship scribes, tax collectors and various other officials monitored merchants at all times, thereby generating and transmitting (verifiable) information which investors could present as evidence in support of their claims to the court. Formal monitoring thus enhanced the legal protection of investors from expropriation by controlling merchants and fostered the development of equity markets. The Venetian institutional system thus went far beyond the informal relations of trust that facilitated the transition from the debt-like sea-loan to the equity-like commenda contract in other Mediterranean localities at basically the same time. This paper investigates the distinctive nature of the Venetian institutions, their different efficiency and distribution implications and their evolution over time.