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A Market Economy in the Early Roman Empire*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 March 2012

Peter Temin*
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA


The economy of the early Roman Empire has been an object of study for at least the last century. The discussion has been marked by continuing debate, known sometimes as the primitivist/modern debate and at other times as the Finley debate, following his famous Sather lectures, The Ancient Economy. This paper is a contribution to this debate, written by an economist rather than an ancient historian. My purpose is to define the concept of a ‘market economy’, and to see if it fits the evidence we have for the early Roman Empire.

Finley declared that, ‘ancient society did not have an economic system which was an enormous conglomeration of interdependent markets’. He drew implicitly on research by Polanyi to oppose the views of Rostovtzeff within the field of ancient history and those of Fogel and Engerman in economic history, but he did not explicitly join their conceptual apparatuses. Morris has summarized the debate fuelled by Finley's dramatic lectures in his foreword to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition and argued that the controversy is still vigorous today. I hope to clarify the issues in this debate and even resolve the debate for the period of the early Roman Empire.

Copyright © Peter Temin2001. Exclusive Licence to Publish: The Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies

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I thank Roger Bagnall, Alan Bowman, Richard Eckaus, Joseph Manning, Ian Morris, Steven Ostrow, Walter Scheidel, and the Editor of this journal for helpful comments. All errors are mine alone.


1 M. I. Finley, The Ancient Economy (1973), 22–3.

2 K. Polanyi, The Great Transformation (1944); K. Polanyi, The Livelihood of Man (1977); M. Rostovtzeff, The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire (1957); R. W. Fogel and S. L. Engerman, Time on the Cross (1974).

3 I. Morris, ‘Foreword’, in M. I. Finley, The Ancient Economy (updated edn, 1999), ix–xxxvi.

4 This analysis is similar in spirit to Hopkins, K., ‘Taxes and trade in the Roman Empire’, JRS 70 (1980), 101–25,Google Scholar but concentrates on the processes by which resources were allocated, in contrast to Hopkins' concern with the allocation itself.

5 Finley, op. cit. (n. 1), 27, 182.

6 Polanyi, op. cit. (n. 2, 1977), 35–6.

7 ibid., 40.

8 D. P. S. Peacock and D. F. Williams, Amphorae and the Roman Economy (1986); W. Jongman, The Economy and Society of Pompeii (1988); P. Garnsey, Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco-Roman World (1999).

9 F. L. Pryor, The Origins of the Economy: A Comparative Study of Distribution in Primitive and Peasant Economies (1977).

10 ibid., 34.

11 W. G. Neale, ‘The market in theory and history’, in K. Polanyi, C. M. Arensberg, and H. W. Pearson (eds), Trade and Markets in the Early Empires (1957), 371.

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19 CIL IV.138; Cicero, De officiis 1.42; Tacitus, Annals 6.13, 12.43; CIL IV. 1679.

20 CIL III.805–9.

21 Reichskommissar für Preisbildung, ‘Mitteilungsblatt des Reichskommissars für die Preisbildung’, 1937–38 (Bundesarchiv RD13/1).

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24 P. Tebt. II.389, quoted in J. Rowlandson, Women and Society in Greek and Roman Egypt (1998), 254–5.

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26 Cicero, 2 Verr. 3.165–70: Brutus' loan to Salamis in Cyprus.

27 Duncan-Jones, op. cit. (n. 18), 132–8.

28 Andreau, op. cit. (n. 25), 94.

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32 Quoted in Garnsey, op. cit. (n. 8), 247–8.

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34 D. J. Mattingly, Tripolitania (1995).

35 Hopkins, op. cit. (n. 4); B. Sirks, Food for Rome (1991), 21.

36 Rickman, op. cit. (n. 33), 40–2; Garnsey, op. cit. (n. 8), 232; Sirks, op. cit. (n. 35), 25.

37 N. Morley, Metropolis and Hinterland (1996), 159–74.

38 Cato, Agr. 144–8.

39 Rathbone, op. cit. (n. 18), 396–401.

40 Rickman, op. cit. (n. 33), 27–8.

41 Sirks, op. cit. (n. 35), 25–33.

42 Andreau, op. cit. (n. 25), 54.

43 B. Bailyn and L. Bailyn, Massachusetts Shipping, 1697–1714; A Statistical Study (1959).

44 Tacitus, Annals 6.16–17; Cassius Dio, 58.21.1–5; Suetonius, Tiberius 48.1; quoted in C. Rodewald, Money in the Age of Tiberius (1976), 1–3.

45 Rathbone, op. cit. (n. 18), 393.

46 CIL XI.1147; R. Duncan-Jones, Structure and Scale in the Roman Economy (1990), 127.

47 de Neeve, P. W., ‘The price of agricultural land in Roman Italy and the problem of economic rationalism’, Opus 4 (1985), 77109Google Scholar.

48 Ep. 3.19.2–3.

49 Stigler, G. J. and Sherwin, R. A., ‘The extent of the market’, Journal of Law and Economics 28 (1985), 576CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

50 Duncan-Jones, op. cit. (n. 46), 9–11.

51 R. W. Bulliet, The Camel and the Wheel (1975).

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53 R. Bagnall, The Kellis Agricultural Account Book (1997), 57–62.

54 R. Eisner, The Total Incomes System of Accounts (1989), 26.

55 Temin, P., ‘Is it kosher to talk about culture’, Journal of Economic History 57 (1997), 267–87CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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