FRESH meeting on Ancient Economy and Early Economic Developments

A FRESH meeting was organized in Esbjerg October 1-2 to bring together researchers in Ancient History and Economic History to share research and exchange interdisciplinary ideas. The economists and ancient historians who took part in the workshop are explicitly interested in collaborating across disciplines. Their papers covered a wide spectrum of topics and approaches and provide a comprehensive overview of the different strands of research done in ‘economics and ancient history’, with the intent of bridging the gap between humanities and social science research in Ancient history and long run development.

Carl-Hampus Lyttkens (Lund Univ) gave the first day’s keynote lecture

The first day began with three presentations by Ancient historians that nicely set the stage for highlighting the differences in research scope and methodology, and the similarities in the research goals. Gregor Utz (Regensburg Univ) discussed the challenges of using pottery fragments in assessing trade through the cases of Marseille and Arles in the Later Roman Empire, and the economists in the audience wondered about the possibility of using truncation and censoring models to assist in estimating figures. Vincent Gabrielsen (Univ. of Copenhagen) gave a lively talk about the role of the Hellenistic benefactor in state finances, discussing an evolution in state dependence on individual wealth that spoke to modern issues of regulatory capture and the dynamics of political power and wealth, as financing varied from direct taxation (rare) to money lending or even Ponzi schemes. Roland Oetjen (Kiel Univ), co-organizer, talked about the ways in which we can perceive of euergetism (private provision of public goods or ‘good works’) as credible commitments of political investment. These two papers fit nicely together, using economic concepts in carefully detailed ways to elaborate on human behavior in Ancient Greece.

Carl-Hampus Lyttkens (Lund Univ) gave the first day’s keynote lecture which showed how applying economic principles can help elucidate even the behavior of specific individuals in Ancient Greece. He applied a rational actor framework to Pericles’ behavior regarding his rival Kimon, essentially tracing out Pericles’ response function to Kimon’s successes. George Tridimas (Ulster) then also used game theory to discuss the fall of Athenian democracy. His intriguing model differentiates between rich and poor in their expected returns from warfare and shows how the impetus for too much war, leading to demise, stemmed from the poorer factions.

Markus Sehlmeyer on the formation of the Bosporan Kingdom

Returning to ancient history, Markus Sehlmeyer (Marburg Univ) very nicely discussed the formation of the Bosporan Kingdom using collective action theory, making another nice bridge between economics and Ancient history.

The day concluded with PhD students Joshua Günther and Felix Hahn (Kiel) also discussing individual rational actors Kleisthenes and Kleomenes. In their ongoing research, they are considering their behavior in light of principle-agent problems.

The first days’ conversations extensively worked to share information about the application of economic models and the ways in which economic thought and modeling can augment research in Ancient history, as well as its limitations in generalizing.

A lovely dinner, sponsored by SDU Department of Environmental and Business Economics, with lively conversation followed at Gammelhavn.

The second day had greater focus on long run development issues from an economic standpoint. Ezgi Kurt (Bogazici Univ) presented on the roles of military technology and resource endowments in long run economic growth in Eurasia. She has collected data on dynasties and their longevity to examine political instability and growth.

Tønnes Bekker-Nielsen (SDU Odense) gave a fascinating presentation on Roman road design that brought together GIS, engineering, economics, and an understanding of the limitations of these in the contemporary period to examine the evolving efficiency of Roman road design in minimizing the distance cost (physical effort) of those using the roads by minimizing elevation change. This would have matched nicely with Carl-Johan Dalgaard’s (Univ. of Copenhagen) planned keynote talk on Roman roads and long term economic development, but last minute considerations led him instead to give a more polished presentation on comparative development along North-South lines. His story aims to establish that the turnaround in development, which at earliest periods is located in warmer climes, but then moves away from the equator, is tied to quality investments in child-rearing based on thermal requirements for weaning. Thought-provoking indeed!

The discussion of long run growth continued with Fabian Wahl (Hohenheim) presenting on city development and participative political institutions from 800-1800. This work provided interesting contrast to Kurt’s earlier paper and the two authors defended their positions with gusto. After lunch, Anastasia Litina (Luxemborg) also tackled long run growth issues, looking in to geographical conditions of early state formation. This work dovetailed nicely with the previous day’s presentation on collective action and state formation, and the two authors, along with many other participants, shared ideas on how to incorporate more of each other’s fields into their works.

Anastasia Litina (Luxemborg) discussing the geographical conditions of early state formation

The final two presentations shared a focus on resource use and economic development. The first, by Georg Schwesinger (Univ. of Bremen), outlined a new research project seeking to develop bio-economic models of economic development and collapse in the Ancient world. The second, by co-organizer Brooks Kaiser (SDU Esbjerg), investigated the long-standing questions about the timber supply for the extensive Athenian navy in the Classical period using theories from institutional economics and resource economics.

The meeting concluded with a desire to continue the interdisciplinary dialogue in future workshops.

This blog post was written by Brooks Kaiser, Professor WSR at the Department of Environmental and Business Economics at University of Southern Denmark and co-organizer of the FRESH meeting.