CfP: Capital in Classical Antiquity

Call for papers, deadline 1 December 2017

Berlin, 09.04.2018 - 10.04.2018

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century was, within a few months of its publication in English in 2014, hailed as the most important work in political economy for many years. Piketty’s work makes a significant contribution to the understanding of inequality and wealth in the modern world, based on detailed analysis of data from the last few centuries; it also offers a striking new way of approaching the workings of the economy, drawing as much on historical sources and nineteenth-century novels as on abstract equations, to reveal the system’s inherent tendencies towards inequality and instability.

Piketty makes only a few passing mentions of pre-modern societies, including classical antiquity, emphasising their lack of significant development in comparison to the modern era. However, his work has significant implications for research in ancient economic history as well as modern, and at the very least offers a stimulating starting-point for debate that goes beyond the traditional polarities of modernism (‘the differences between past and present were quantitative rather than qualitative’) and primitivism (‘the past was utterly different and completely under-developed’).

There is widespread (though not universal) agreement among historians that antiquity, especially under the Roman Empire, did experience some economic growth (albeit several orders of magnitude smaller than the modern phenomenon), but the dynamics of this growth have scarcely been considered. Piketty’s study highlights the need to disaggregate public and private wealth, and to compare rates of capital accumulation with rates of productivity growth, in order to understand the real social consequences of a developing economy. Further, it offers a means of understanding the roots and effects of the persistence of massive inequalities within ancient society, by situating them within the organisation of the economy, its relation to demographic structures and processes and the uncertainty of the Mediterranean environment. These two strands together offer the possibility of developing a new understanding of the specific dynamics of the economies of classical antiquity, and of the role of economic theory in studying it.

The aim of this workshop is to bring together scholars working on relevant topics within ancient history, from a variety of perspectives, to discuss the implications of Piketty’s work and related themes for classical antiquity; this will enable us to reformulate existing debates in ancient history in a new way, and to ask new questions of the surviving evidence. Key questions include: How should we characterise the ‘development’ of the economy/economies of the classical Mediterranean, in relation to the role of ‘capital’ and the prevalence of inequality? How was wealth, both public and private, evaluated and managed? How far does Piketty’s work offer a model for ancient economic history, both methodologically and politically?

The number of places on this workshop is strictly limited. If you wish to propose a paper (30 minutes), or to apply to attend as a discussant, please write with a brief account of your relevant research interests, and a 300-word abstract if you wish to give a paper, by Friday 1st December. We can offer accepted speakers accommodation in Berlin for the conference, and a contribution towards travel costs. There is no conference fee for other participants.

Neville Morley (Exeter): & Christian Wendt (FU Berlin):