Over the past decade, the New Institutional Economics have become a popular model for analyzing ancient economic history. However, the notion of cultural beliefs, which plays a central role in Douglass North’s recent work and Avner Greif’s analysis of institutional change, has been largely ignored. This article argues that a neo-institutional approach taking this notion into account offers a better means of understanding how ideology and moral values influenced the ancient economy than the Finleyan model. Rather than acting as a deterministic constraint on human behavior, cultural beliefs help to orient decision making and allow one to anticipate the (re)actions of others.
This article explores two key sets of norms and values in Roman culture that profoundly marked the economy’s institutional framework. The first focused on reciprocity, which supported social networks beyond the confines of the familia-freedmen group and underlay the development of contract and agency law. The second was based on citizenship, which shaped political culture by creating individual rights and obligations that the political elite was given the authority to enforce in order to secure and stimulate both private and common interests. This resulted in Roman law and the distribution of justice. Ideologically, the Roman Empire presented itself as a meta-city that incorporated local communities, which were in turn gradually transformed to fit the civitas model.
Both sets of beliefs lowered transaction costs without threatening the preeminent position of local and imperial aristocracies. Toward the end of the second century CE, local communities weakened as the imperial administration grew stronger, causing local and regional aristocracies to turn to the imperial court and army for status, influence, and power. The ideology of citizenship as the guiding principle of political culture gave way to that of the sacred emperor, who guaranteed divine justice and order.