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Iris Därmann / Aloys Winterling (Hgg.): Oikonomia und Ökonomie im klassischen Griechenland. Theorie - Praxis - Transformationen, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag 2022, 226 S., ISBN 978-3-515-12745-5, EUR 54,00
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Rezension von:
Alain Bresson
Chicago / Bordeaux
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Matthias Haake
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Alain Bresson: Rezension von: Iris Därmann / Aloys Winterling (Hgg.): Oikonomia und Ökonomie im klassischen Griechenland. Theorie - Praxis - Transformationen, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag 2022, in: sehepunkte 22 (2022), Nr. 12 [15.12.2022], URL:

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Iris Därmann / Aloys Winterling (Hgg.): Oikonomia und Ökonomie im klassischen Griechenland

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This edited volume examines the question of Hauswirtschaft, understood as "household management", and its place in ancient and more recent "economic" literature. This review will first provide a summary of its content, before giving it a global assessment.

1) The volume begins with two short introductions by the editors, Iris Därmann (on economy as a concept and reality that finds its preconditions of existence in non-economic values and environments) and Aloys Winterling (on whether it is legitimate to apply to the ancient world concepts such as economics, the names of which come from antiquity, though they have taken on new meaning in the modern world).

The volume is divided into four sections. The first one consists of one chapter only, by Neville Morley, who provides an overview of current research on the ancient economy (on which see further below). The second section (ancient theory) includes two chapters: Peter Spahn presents a valuable comparative analysis of Hesiod's Works and Days and Xenophon's Economics. In sharp contrast with Hesiod, Xenophon puts the accent on the increase of the property, the control of slaves (the master of the oikos is not an autourgos, he does not himself till the land), and the key role of the wife. Darel Tai Engen proposes a synthesis of the well-known contrast between oikonomia and chrēmatistikē in intellectual productions of the Classical period, focusing on Xenophon, Plato, and Aristotle.

The third section (ancient praxis) also contains two chapters. In a suggestive essay, Armin Eich shows that money circulation created an integrated social-economic system, which had major effects on transregional money circulation. States could implement policies to limit price variations and ensure that the money supply would be sufficient. For Eich, war was the element that challenged autarky. The elites had to pay for war (and for other expenses). Under this pressure, they had to invest in the (for them highly profitable) production of goods, the prices of which were not under the control of the city: agricultural products such as oil or wine, or various craft products. In another good chapter, Moritz Hinsch underscores the role of household management as the fundamental form of economic organization in pre-modern societies. The household economy aimed to satisfy the needs of its members. But it was multifunctional and aimed also to acquire profit and social prestige. The strategies of the ancient household fitted with the fragmentary nature of the ancient economy and of its market. The goal of the household was not autarky, but autarkeia, which included beneficial exchange with other partners. The master of the household developed strategies to acquire money, which provided the security of a store of value. The ancient world did not have commercial companies and guilds, which developed in the later Middle Ages. With a reference to D.C. North, this difference is interpreted in terms of path dependence from earlier institutions, as it was too risky and too costly to introduce new ones.

The fourth section (aspects of transformation) is in three chapters. Wolfram Keller analyzes the case of Geoffrey Chaucer, both a poet and a high-level administrator for the English crown's treasury in the second half of the fourteenth century. This was a troubled time for England, which also experienced a big wave of monetization and economic transformation. His poems translate the roles both of oikonomia, which provides stability, and of chrēmatistikē, or infinite multiplication, which liberates the poet's imagination. Helmut Pfeiffer analyzes Leon Battista Alberti's Della famiglia (1433-1440). He shows that la masserizia, or management of the house, was not a science to Alberti. It left a large space for experience and was built on the conception of the autarkeia of the landed property, which allowed one to protect oneself against the uncertainties of political life. It could nonetheless also include investment in craft. In the last chapter, Birger Priddat examines the dynamic relationship between oikos and polis in premodern and modern times. The model of the ancient oikonomia - autarkic, not open to the market, and oriented towards the satisfaction of needs rather than the search for profit - remained a basic structure not only for private agents, but also for collectives and states until the radical transformation of the nineteenth century. For him, however, the old oikos model can still be found today both in the modern conceptions of state-organized economies and in the theories of rational choice, in which the individual appropriates the market and money as social institutions.

2) Actually, a more fitting introduction to the volume would have been Moritz Hinsch's observations about the place of Hauswirtschaft in the debate relating to the ancient economy. In the framework of the old controversy between primitivists and modernists, the concept of household management has seemed to be intrinsically linked to the former, which explains the lack of interest in the concept in more recent literature. To put it more explicitly, both primitivism and modernism are now completely discredited conceptions and new forms of analysis of the ancient economy have emerged. Therefore, the interest in household management has been "lost in evolution". Indeed, Hinsch's remarks open a methodological debate: can we analyze the notion of household management independently from the primitivist conceptions of the ancient economy? Implicitly, Hinsch gives a positive answer to the question. But for the authors of some other chapters, who set the tone of the volume, talking about Hauswirtschaft is only a pretext for trying to rehabilitate the most discredited primitivist conceptions of the ancient economy, which is really unfortunate.

Peter Spahn re-uses Karl Bücher's typology of Hauswerk (domestic work, in which the worker processes his or her own raw material, and for his or her own needs), Lohnwerk (wage work, in which the worker processes a raw material provided by the customer), and Preiswerk (price work, in which the worker processes his or her own material, and the product is sold for a price in the market). For him, the ancient world ("die Antike" (63)) would have almost completely ignored the third type, as well as the "class consciousness" of the craftsmen, supposed to be typical of the European Middle Ages. Bücher's typology has the suggestive power of all typologies. But used uncritically it mutilates ancient realities: consider not only, for instance, the professional associations of Roman Imperial Asia Minor, but also the craftsmanship of the Classical and Hellenistic worlds, which deserves other methodologies of analysis to make sense of its organization.

As for Neville Morley's chapter, it is a misguided polemic against New Institutional Economics (NIE). For him, the authors of the Cambridge Ancient History of the Greek and Roman World, who wrote from the perspective of North and NIE, saw in the market, trade, money, and the power of globalization the best vectors for a triumphing growth. But this neoliberal creed would have been proved wrong by the global economic crash that started in 2007, "in a pleasing coincidence, the same year as the [CAHGRW] volume was produced". (23)

To his mind, NIE is a mere branch of neoliberalism, and, as applied to the ancient world, its intellectual failure would be as certain as the fate of neoliberalism in the world of today. In line with Finley, we should put the emphasis on structures, not on performance and growth. Also, following Finley, we should not involve ourselves with quantified analyses. The dramatic renewal of studies of the ancient economy in recent decades is thus blatantly rejected or ignored.

Thus, the editors and authors of the CAHGRW would be the agents of the neoliberal hydra. Seriously? Hopefully, few will accept this sleight of hand. NIE is part of a general theory of the genesis of institutions, in which they are defined as the products of Nash equilibria in the interactions between human beings. Defined as such, any social, political, economic, or religious institution falls within this analytical framework. For the economic sphere, NIE aims at making sense of cultural specifics as institutions, including the infinite productions of the human mind (in short: Popper's World Three), and whatever form they take. Thus, its range of application has no limit, either chronological or sociological. As for the specific case of the capitalist market, and in direct contradiction with the neoliberal doctrine according to which the market must rule everything and the role of the state become ever smaller, NIE maintains that the role of the state is pivotal to maintaining stable and inclusive institutions, which in turn will guarantee property rights and minimize transaction costs. The reader less familiar with NIE will read R.H. Coase's and D.C. North's Nobel Prize lectures to make their own judgment about Morley's views. [1] NIE has nothing to do with Morley's criticism.

Though several individual chapters are of great interest, the volume is thus sadly a missed opportunity. To avoid the trap of primitivism, the ancient economy should be studied in a global perspective. Hauswirtschaft would be better defined in English as "patrimonial economy". [2] The concept may thus be applied to any (specific) form of ancient management - that of a farm (whatever its size), but also that of a craftsman's workshop or a sanctuary, or even a satrapy, city, or kingdom. [3] After all, wasn't it already the perspective developed by the Ps-Aristotle in Book II of his Economics?


[1] and

[2] For the rules of patrimonial economy see Andrea Carandini: Columella's Vineyard and the Rationality of the Roman Economy, in: Opus 2.1, (1983), 177-204, and Alain and François Bresson: Max Weber, la comptabilité rationnelle et l'économie du monde gréco-romain, in: Sociologie économique et économie de l'Antiquité. À propos de Max Weber. Cahiers du Centre de Recherches Historiques 34, ed. by Hinnerk Bruhns / Jean Andreau, 2004, 91-114.

[3] For the concept as applied to ancient Greek sanctuaries, see Véronique Chankowski: Divine Financiers: Cults as Consumers and Generators of Value, in: The Economies of Hellenistic Societies, Third to First Centuries BC, ed. by Z. Archibald / J.K. Davies / V. Gabrielsen, Oxford 2011, 142-165.

Alain Bresson