Home > Books, Late Antiquity > The Hateful Earth and the Late Roman Economy

The Hateful Earth and the Late Roman Economy

201001250817.jpg On a snowy weekend, I managed to plow through the rest of M. Decker’s Tilling the Hateful Earth (Oxford 2009). (Get it, plow (or for my readers in the UK, plough, through… you know, like a farm plow…). Anyway. Decker’s work is the most recent installment in the recent vogue for ancient economic history over the last decade (see, for example, Horden and Purcell’s, The Corrupting Sea, M. McCormick’s Origins of the European Economy, Christopher Wickham’s, Framing the Early Middle Ages, J. Banaji’s Agrarian Change in Late Antiquity as four significant works that immediately come to mind). Decker’s book stands out in that it is neither theoretically ambitious or immensely long. This isn’t meant to be a criticism. In fact, Decker does what he does quite well. He describes and analyzes in some detail the agrarian landscape of the Diocese of Oriens.

As per my usual practice, I’ll eschew giving anything like a comprehensive review and, instead, make a series of observations:

1. The strength of this book is the detailed analysis of agricultural practices rather than a comprehensive view of the agricultural economy in the East. The information presented on various settlement types, rural structures, crops and agricultural practices will provide a nice foundation for any kind of comprehensive archaeological and historical study of this region in the future.

2. If any weakness in the detailed study of the agricultural practices did exist, it was in the area of Cyprus. Decker does not seem to have as full a command over the impressive body of material from Cyprus. In particular, he does not take into full account M. Rautman’s important studies of the village at Kopetra or any less comprehensive, but nonetheless valuable studies of Late Antique settlement elsewhere in Cyprus. This is unfortunate because the Cypriot countryside is rapidly becoming one of the best documented regions in the Late Roman East and it falls within the geographic boundaries of the Diocese of Oriens. It was particular disappointing in that Late Antique Cyprus has recently produced an impressive body of quantified Late Roman ceramic evidence which would have contributed to the author’s main argument.

3. While the detailed nature of Decker’s study was a welcome repast from the sweeping or expansive analyses common these day in the study of the ancient economy, his work did leave me wondering why such economic and agricultural prosperity occurred in the East. In places, he argued relatively persuasively against the “minimalist” perspectives on the ancient economy offered by M. Finley and A. H. M. Jones (pp. 228-229). In other words, he did not see the prosperity of the east on a macro level as being tied to administrative practices (namely taxation and other such administrative trade) and their impact of economic and social decisions on the micro level. This, of course, begs the question why he chose the Diocese of Oriens — an administrative unit — as the basic unit for his analysis. If trade really functioned according to markets, as he argues, wouldn’t it have been more effective to make an argument based on, say, market catchments for agricultural produce or even commercial networks where one could hope to detect the kind of competitive, collaborative, and responsive practices that would characterize market economies in the ancient world? This isn’t to suggest that Decker did not analyze specific market reasons, but his decision to organize his book around an administrative unit sometimes made it hard to detect the main impetus of market forces in the Mediterranean basin more generally.

4. From the perspective of my field project, the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project, Decker’s effort to define or at least describe settlement types is helpful. While one can argue that site size definitions are not the most useful (and comparable) kinds of data for the understanding of settlement structure, his description of the features in various kinds of sites does form a useful point of departure for a more comparative approach to settlement during Late Antiquity. For example, he notes the proliferation of settlement which lacked a proper, or at least formally defined, elite, but nevertheless saw the development of some kinds of public buildings and services, churches, and even traditional practices of euergetism. This indicates that by Late Antiquity euergetism had become severed from self-promotion within the traditional avenues of civic or even imperial service. This enabled wealthy folks to give money to their communities outside both the physical and institutional confines of civic or imperial centers. While Decker does not explain why people would have done this (collective security? economic benefit? hopes of civic or imperial promotion? Christianity?), it reveals a shift in how most scholars have understood at least one component of the Late Roman gift economy. Moreover, it explains sites that did not have formal administrative or civic standing could receive both Christian and practical monumental architecture through the generosity of the local elite.

It’s a good book! Focused chapters, copious bibliography (befitting a revised dissertation), and nice maps make it a useful contribution to anyone’s library.

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Categories: Books, Late Antiquity
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