ANCIENT HISTORY AS A SOCIAL SCIENCE
Panel at the 2004 Annual Meeting of the American Philological Association, San Francisco, January 4, 2004
Ian Morris and Walter Scheidel
The founding fathers of social science drew heavily on ancient history to explain the transition to modernity. Marx and Engels argued that a Classical Mode of Production combined with a Germanic Mode to produce feudalism, then capitalism, and ultimately communism. Max Weber contrasted ideal-types of modern and ancient societies, to identify the variables that made capitalism possible. Polanyi took Athens and Babylon to typify reciprocal and redistributive economic systems, in contrast to modern market systems. Social scientists continue to draw on ancient history (e.g., Nobel Laureate Douglass North’s Structure and Change in Economic History).
Finley brought Weber and Polanyi’s ideas into ancient history in the 1950s. But despite huge changes in the social sciences and demands to move beyond Finley, few ancient historians have engaged with newer social scientific work.
We have three goals:
To bring newer social scientific questions and methods into the ancient historian’s armory.
To contribute directly to debates in the social sciences.
To create dialogues between ancient historians and social scientists, generating new questions for both groups.
We have addressed the second goal in published panels and papers at social scientific conferences, and the third in a series of conferences sponsored by a new research center for Social Science History. This APA panel concentrates on the first goal.
Ian Morris (Stanford) will explain the intellectual history summarized above, and sketch some of the developments in the social sciences since the 1970s.
Walter Scheidel (Stanford) shows how advances in demography change our understanding of ancient history. The application of homeostatic population theory and theories of fertility to the study of ancient economic systems sheds new light on the most fundamental patterns of change in the classical world.
Joe Manning (Stanford) shows how the New Institutional Economics and Law-and-Economics schools revolutionize our understanding of the Ptolemaic state. The study of private rights in real property in Ptolemaic times illustrates several key issues in the New Institutional Economics.
James Quillin (Northwestern) argues that game theory generates new insights even in such a well-studied field as Roman Republican politics. Employing game theory to create competing models of how senators won popular compliance with war policies, this panelist tests a series of predictions concerning fear propaganda against ancient evidence.
Richard Saller (University of Chicago) will assess these contributions.
“From Marx and Weber to North and Mann: Ancient history as a social science”
Social scientists since Marx and Weber have made ancient history central to their explanations of the transition to modernity. Moses Finley brought some of Weber and Polanyi’s key questions and methods into professional ancient historians’ discussions. But despite demands that we move beyond Finley, ancient historians have shown little interest in developments in the social sciences since the 1950s. After defining some of the basic terms, this paper explains some of the questions social scientists now ask and the methods they use to answer them; what they contribute to ancient history; what ancient history can contribute to the social sciences; and new questions that are emerging from dialogues between these groups.
“The interdependence of demographic and economic development in the Greco-Roman world”
As a result of the conceptual isolation of ancient economic history from modern economic theory (and arguably also because of Moses Finley’s lack of interest in population history), studies of ancient economies do not normally take proper account of demographic factors. By contrast, economic historians specializing in more recent periods have long acknowledged the pivotal importance of population for economic development. In this paper, I shall introduce a formal parametric model of the causal relationship between economic and demographic variables in pre-modern systems. This model provides a template for the assessment of otherwise decontextualized data samples from the ancient world, and allows us to reconstruct and explain the occurrence or absence of significant historical change. In particular, I will seek to demonstrate that a combination of theoretical approaches (from the theory of homeostatic population regulation to the theory of the low-equilibrium trap) is essential for our understanding of the potential for economic growth in ancient societies. This approach provides an alternative to the culturalist perspective advocated by Finley and perpetuated by his followers as well as his critics, and helps to re-integrate the study of ancient economies into the mainstream of economic history.
“Property rights and contracting in Ptolemaic Egypt”
In this paper, I shall discuss Egyptian contracts dating to the Ptolemaic period. I ask the following question: What was the impact of the Ptolemaic takeover on the land tenure regime and on private contracting? The study of private rights in real property in the Ptolemaic period offers a good case study that illustrates several key issues in the New Institutional Economics:
With respect to transaction-cost economics, land holding patterns in the Ptolemaic period illustrate Ellickson’s “efficiency thesis.” This holds that problems of transaction costs, information, and enforcement of rights were reduced by landholding patterns within families and social status groups. Egypt’s physical environment reinforced this pattern. The path dependence of land tenure institutions established millennia before the Ptolemies, and the adaptations made by a new state and new populations to ancient land tenure patterns, shows the constraints that limited economic development. A contract theory of the state (North’s “neoclassical theory of the state”) provides a more dynamic model of the Ptolemaic state than have traditional assumptions of a vague colonial model. The Ptolemaic state’s failure to create a single property rights regime in Egypt produced incentives for the local elite to siphon revenue from the state, and also acted as a constraint against real economic growth.
“Defensive Measures in Italy in 192 BC: Genuine Alarm or Alarmist Charade?”
In this paper, I aim to demonstrate how our understanding of a particular episode in the political history of the Roman Republic can be refined and improved by an insight from game theory. Prior to each of the four largest overseas military expeditions of the period 200-146 BC, our sources depict members of the senatorial elite arguing that war was necessary for preventive reasons. Some scholars have rejected these reports mainly on the grounds that the mass of evidence suggests that the foreign states in question posed no immediate threat. However, such an approach requires discarding testimony that is otherwise internally consistent. Others are inclined to accept the authority of the sources and conclude that the elite habitually reacted in a paranoid manner. While it may be true that an excessively fearful outlook sometimes drove elite demands for war, close examination of the sources for three out of the four wars (the Second and Third Macedonian and Third Punic Wars) suggests that the elite cannot have genuinely believed the claims they were making about the aggressive intentions of its proposed enemy, since the Senate took no defensive actions in Italy and in two of the cases claimed that its enemies possessed fleets when Roman legates must have known that this was false.
The case of the Syrian War is less clear. In the years 192 and following the Senate did take specifically defensive measures in Italy designed to repel a possible invasion by Antiochus III. These maneuvers have been taken as proof by most scholars that the Senate genuinely believed in the possibility of a Syrian sneak attack on Italy. However, this response is surprising after the Senate’s demonstrable lack of concern about Philip V in 200. While Philip and Antiochus both had fleets that would have made an invasion of Italy theoretically possible, Roman legates had warned Rome in advance of Philip's aggressive intentions, while legates to Antiochus in 192 had reported only that there was as yet no "matura causa" for war. With no Syrian army in Greece, no Syrian fleet in the Adriatic, and Carthage clearly compliant, the Senate's apparent anxiety, though not unimaginable, remains puzzling.
While the Senate’s defensive actions make it impossible to prove that its fear was insincere, neither are those actions proof of its sincerity, since another interpretation is possible. I use a game theoretical model of mass/elite communication to show how the defensive maneuvers in Bruttium and Sicily may have been intended as a "costly signal" meant to increase the domestic audience’s belief in the Senate’s honesty. The audience would have perceived the signal as costly because, if the defensive measures were a charade, ambitious Roman commanders were being diverted from real opportunities for military achievement elsewhere. The model shows that a costly signal is more persuasive than a costless signal because the sender incurs costs that are well spent only if the signal is sincere. Only senders who gain more from convincing the audience that the signal is sincere than they lose from the costs incurred wish to send such a signal. If an audience is uncertain exactly how much an insincere sender gains by persuading them of the sincerity of the signal, a costly signal causes the audience to revise its belief in the sincerity of the signal in a positive direction. Considering this case in the context of other examples of elite threat inflation, we cannot rule out the possibility that defensive maneuvers prior to the Syrian War were intended as a form of domestic pro-war propaganda.