Roman Markets and Polanyi's Pessimism
Emily Gowers reviews in the “Times Literary Supplement”, 8 February, p. 11: Claire Holleran. 2012. “Shopping in Ancient Rome: the retail trade in the late Republic and the Principate”. Oxford University Press.
“Nice Girls Don’t Go There”.
“After all, the extraordinary minute gradations of choice we know were available in imperial Rome – Pliny lists at least nine different types of writing paper, twelve kinds of plum, twenty-seven varieties of liner – speak of a complex system of discrimination and a demanding consumer base. The very existence of sumptuary laws and other top-down attempts at limiting luxurious consumption (Julius Caesar’s dawn raids on the meat markets, for example) attests to a society whose competitive rituals of gift-giving and party- giving repeatedly threatened to spiral out of control. …
The more limited sources for Rome suggest similar complexity in the journey of goods from producer to buyer and an equally diverse field of retailers, from the occasional “design house”, like that of “cosmos the cult perfumer to the hawker from the other side of the Tiber (mentioned by Martial, who made a living by trading broken glass for sulphur matches. Arcane vocabulary attached itself to various trades: purpurarius meant a dealer in purple cloth, crepidarius maker of sandals, coactilarius a felt worker, faber oculariarius a maker of eyes for statues. … regular “ninth-day” Roman markets (nundinae) to which rural smallholders brought their wares (if they had not already offloaded them on to wholesalers); seasonal peaks, like the rush on sigillaria (traditional figurines), hams and candles before the December Saturnalia; specialist shopping districts, like the Horrea Piperataria for spices; and out of town production sites, like the tile and brick factory owned by Domitia Lucilla, mother of Marcus Aurelius. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill has recently traced (Rome’s Cultural Revolution, 2008) a per Romancolation of metropolitan fashions into small-town Roman Italy similar to that detected by Neil McKendrick for eighteenth-century England. …Emperor Nero built a vast food hall, the Marcelum Magnam, and celebrated it on his coins. …
They did have giant warehouses (horrea) lining the Tiber, and wholesalers who maintained links with business contacts (negotiatores) across the Empire. There were customs duties, credit mechanisms and even the odd “pop-up” shop for merchandise that had fallen off the back of a chariot. … another important difference from the present day was the widespread that respectable people should not need to go shopping. Cicero berates the ‘squalid” Epicurean Piso for going to market to buy bread rather than having it baked at home. … the aspiration of the self-made was “home-made, not “bought-in”.
The review illustrates the early emergence of market-based economic activity of longevity undermining Polanyi’s claims of the uniqueness of 19th-century capitalism, which claim was also made by Karl Marx for his purposes. Roman civilisation added another major ingredient of market economies, namely large government spending, particularly in Rome’s case that of an active garrison army dispersed to all regions of the Empire. Of course, when western Rome fell in the 5th century, it pulled the plug on economic development, that terminated market growth until the 15th century. This coincidentally was around the same time as China, which had invented most of the innovative technology in the world, turned away from external trade by imperial edict and commenced nearly 500 years of stagnant economic growth.
Karl Polanyi made much of the changes taking place in 19th-century Britain in his “The Great Transformation” (1944), a book popular among Leftist scholars for its critique of fundamentals common to “capitalism”. I have expressed my criticism of Polanyi’s denial’s that markets were important features of classical societies, long before they became dominantly familiar in the modern period. I found support for my critique of Polanyi’s thesis in Morris Silver’s stunning assembly of data in his “Economic Structures of Antiquity” (1995, Greenwood).
Reading Emily Gower’s review in the “Times Literary Supplement”, I was struck by the details she selected from Claire Holleran’s “Shopping in Ancient Rome”.
Adam Smith was quite clear of the significance of markets in his historical Four Phase chronology from humans leaving the forests (1st Age of Man), the emergence of shepherding (2nd Age of Man) and the settlements required for farming (3rd Age of Man) through to (“at last!”) commerce (4th Age of Man).
Hunter-gatherer societies (1st Age) with their small populations were (and surviving examples are) limited to what they could kill or gather from their immediate environments, relieved only by moving to another area when their locality was hunted-gathered-out. World population in their heydays that lasted several million years (all proto-human species) was relatively small and the land space remained vast. Illustrating this we know that in the deep past there were at least two major population movements of predecessor variants and Homo sapiens out of Africa into Europe and Asia, and later into the Americas and Australia.
The emergence of shepherding and farming (2nd and 3rd Ages) changed the technologies of food acquisition. It was also associated with the emergence of tool technologies, bodily decoration, and social rituals. But it was also still mainly small scale because total populations were also small scale.
Commercial activities (4th Age) began to change everything. Small settlements developed food processing and manufactured by-products. Mining took various forms across the world. Incidentally, mining is an under-rated contributor to the growth of commerce and technology, which developed quite separately from agriculture and town-based commerce.
This created a remarkable growth in population that eliminated the Malthusian trap because total outputs across all categories of subsistence “necessities, conveniences, and amusements” grew at unprecedented rates, raising for example per capita incomes from $1 or less a day towards $20 a day by the end of the 19th century in a corner of North-West Europe. It is now closer to $100 a day across much of Europe, North America and other parts of the world with similar adaptations of capitalist market systems.
Polanyi wrote during the 2nd world war and had a pessimistic outlook. Those developing countries that have and are now breaking through to and beyond the $1 a day income levels or the bulk of their populations – elites in all human societies known to mankind have always done better than majority of their populations in all economic systems – have or are now experiencing the positive effect of markets on their desperate situations.
These are the consequence of the only Great Transformation that matters: the raising the living standards of the desperately poor by growing their market economies.
The angst felt by intellectuals in their comfortable circumstances at what is happening is vulnerable to the question of what do they suggest that is practical as a workable alternative, given the experience of actual collapse of 20th-century socialist non-market experiments?
Given what happened after the collapse of the 5th-century Roman markets and the invasion of the barbarian warlords, do they want to risk repeating the centuries that followed?