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The Market Economy of Ancient Rome: A Research Proposal
Prof. Peter Temin, MIT Department of Economics
March 1, 2000

Historians of the ancient world tend to describe the Roman economy as "underdeveloped", comparing it to a developing country in today's world.

Professor Temin argues:

1 - The Roman economy was "modern", the most advanced economy of its time. It was urbanized and productive.

2 - The Roman economy was a market economy. It used market exchanges and prices varied with supply and demand. Prices served to allocate resources.

We know that there was regional specialization: wheat was grown in Egypt, oil was shipped from Tunisia. How was this regional specialization achieved? Was it a command system? If so, how could it operate with such a small bureacracy?

3 - The Roman economy was a capitalist economy. They were profit maximizers and relied on free labor. Their economy is comparable to 17th and 18th century England and Holland.

How can one prove these hypotheses?

Source material: Literary sources were filtered through the medieval church. Monks weren't interested in trade, so those records were not preserved. However, court decisions, inscriptions, hoards, and secondary sources do exist.

Professor Stager: This type of behavior extends back to 2000 B.C.E. Standardized containers were used at least that far back in time - he cites the example of Canaanite jars found on sites in the Near East.

Professor Temin notes that the uniformity of the Ashkelon amphorae suggests a complex system of production. How and why did this develop? What was the motivation for it? Functionally, amphorae of the same dimensions would fill a ship's hold most efficiently and securely.



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