Political Economy and Classical Antiquity

Journal of the History of Ideas 59 (1):95-114 (1998)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Political Economy and Classical AntiquityNeville MorleyThe literature of the ancients, their legislation, their public treaties, and their administration of the conquered provinces, all proclaim their utter ignorance of the nature and origin of wealth, of the manner in which it is distributed, and of the effects of its consumption.... The steadily increasing progress of different branches of industry, the advancement of the sciences, whose influence upon wealth we shall have occasion hereafter to notice, and the direction of public opinion, at length estimating national prosperity as being of some importance, caused the science of political economy to enter into the contemplation of a great number of writers.J.-B. Say 1I. The science of political economy offered an entirely new way of understanding human society. 2 Say’s account of its emergence is teleological and self-serving, figuring his own work as the logical culmination of earlier enquiries, but it accurately reflects the way in which political economy was perceived and presented as a modern innovation. The more that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century political economists turned their attention towards the economic rather than the political state of the nation, the more they became aware of their own originality in doing so. The writings of the ancients might still dominate discussions of political theory, but the moderns noted with satisfaction the failings and fumblings of classical authors in the study of the economy; they alone had discerned its significance and developed the tools with which to [End Page 95] analyze it. Moreover, there was no obvious reason why this new science should confine its attentions to the contemporary world; the economies of the past could be studied in the same manner, and thus political economy offered the possibility of understanding ancient society better than the ancients did themselves.Students of ancient society were slow to respond to this challenge. Neither Edward Gibbon nor George Grote had much to say about the ancient economy, despite their close relationships with economists of the Scottish Enlightenment and the Philosophic Radicals respectively. Gibbon was well aware of contemporary debates on luxury (see below), and he also disputed Montesquieu’s theory that taxes decrease according to the level of despotism in a state, but that was all. 3 A letter written by Grote’s wife suggests that his chapter on Greek colonization was intended to infuse useful doctrines on political economy and the principle of population, but in the published version this intent is limited to vague statements about the importance of agriculture in sustaining a colony. 4 Grote’s advocacy of comparative history—“not omitting the points of resemblance as well as of contrast with the better-known forms of modern society”—was in practice limited to politics and the history of ideas, above all in the debate on the merits of democracy. 5 The sole exception was a comparison of Solon’s legislation restricting Athenian exports with the British Corn Laws, to the advantage of the former. 6With the lone exception of Boeckh’s 1817 treatise on The Public Economy of Athens, the subject of the ancient economy was almost entirely ignored by historians until the middle of the nineteenth century. 7 Their own interests and those of the ancient sources on which they relied led them to conceive of history in terms of events, above all of events in the fields of politics and war. Economic matters were touched upon in their accounts of certain episodes—the reforms of Solon, for example, or the Roman agrarian laws—but never in detail or with much analytical sophistication, let alone drawing upon the theoretical insights of political economy. William Ramsay’s Manual of Roman Antiquities in 1851 devoted much more space to economic topics than had been customary, but was otherwise indistinguishable from its predecessors; the chapter on Roman agriculture was little more than a paraphrase of the writings [End Page 96] of Vergil and Varro, and his account of state revenues merely compiled information from the ancient sources as an end in itself. 8The drought was not ended until 1854, when Theodor Mommsen’s History of Rome not only devoted considerable attention to such subjects as agriculture, commerce, and...



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