Oxford professor discusses Roman economy

Tufts Daily

Andrew Wilson, a professor of the archaeology of the Roman Empire at Oxford, is visting campus this week as the speaker for a four-part lecture series sponsored by the Department of Classics. The last two installments of the Balmuth Lecture Series will take place tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Cabot 206 and tomorrow at the same time in Braker 001. While on the Hill, Wilson took a moment to sit down with the Daily’s Carter Rogers.

Carter Rogers: First off, how did you become interested in archaeology, Roman archaeology and Roman economic archaeology?

Andrew Wilson: I’ve always been interested in the past. When I was a kid, my parents would take me around ancient monuments in Britain: churches, castles, roman sites, prehistoric sites, and family holidays tended often to be going to look at ancient things in France and Spain … I read classics at Oxford and had wanted to be a classical archaeologist, but somewhere along the line I lost sight of that. It was a very text-based course in Greek and Latin literature, and I flirted with the idea of doing Medieval Latin as a doctorate, but I thought that would end up being too lonely — a library-based existence. Somehow I lost sight of the archaeological aim, and I became a computer consultant for a couple of years. I worked for IBM between school and university. About a year into that I felt that that wasn’t really satisfying me. I didn’t want to spend the next 40 years doing that. I was spending all my free time reading up about the Roman world and all my holidays going out to Tunisia to look at Roman ruins, so I thought, “Let’s try to make a career out of this.” I gave up my job and applied back to Oxford to do a doctorate in archaeology. I was always interested in how things worked, so I did a doctorate on ancient water systems and aqueducts and so on in Roman North Africa and from there got generally interested in ancient technology and mills and in particular, the use of mechanical power and then got interested in what the effects of that technology were [such as the] economic impact. I’d also been interested in settlement patterns and in trade. All of this came together in some interest in the ancient economy.

CR: Yesterday [Monday], you were talking about the amount of state involvement in economics at the time … How great was the state involvement in economics then compared with now in your mind?

AW: I think less than a current nation-state would do, but for the ancient world, a remarkably high degree of involvement. It wasn’t a command economy like ancient Mesopotamia, for example; it wasn’t a completely dirigiste economy. But the state does intervene in a number of ways. It intervenes in markets as a large customer or by incentivizing certain activity. It provides, and quite intentionally so, a lot of capital infrastructure in the form of roads, harbor facilities, canals, which facilitate trade. Even if some of these also have a military use, and by implication the road system had primarily been constructed for troop movement, but long distance trade quickly follows in that wake. I think what we do see in the late Roman world, the late third century onwards, is a more dirigiste involvement by the state as economic conditions become harsher. And, trying to recover from the crisis of the late third century onwards, the state does take a much more dirigiste line, for example, compelling people whose fathers were in certain professions to follow in those professions. That suggests a labor shortage or skill shortage.

CR: Do you think this could parallel the current increase in state involvement in banking with the current economic crisis?

AW: That’s an interesting question. There’s not much evidence of direct state involvement in banking. There clearly are banks in the Roman world. I suppose the nearest thing is a crisis where the people bid to collect the taxes overbid and can’t collect, and they need to be bailed out by the state.

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