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Debating the ancient economy


Admission requirements



What was the nature of the economy in classical Greek and Roman civilisations? Did economic factors have a significant impact on the trajectory of ancient history? Is it appropriate to talk of an ancient economy at all, and if so, what should be the rôle of economic analysis within the study of ancient history? Such questions belong to a long and illustrious debate, stretching back into the 19th century and beyond. From one of the initial controversies between modernist and primitivist camps at the end of the 19th century, through to the more nuanced theoretical approaches of the second half of the 20th century, this course will firmly ground the student in the history of the debate in this field of study. Students will be introduced to a range of thinkers: Marxists, formalists and substantivists; anthropologists, philosophers and historians. A consideration of recent archaeological discoveries, now altering our picture of the scale of ancient trade and production, as well as an examination of the impact of contemporary neoliberal politics, will give the student an up-to-date and critical understanding of the current state of the discipline.

Course objectives

Students will be expected to develop a knowledge and understanding of:

  • The social and political background to the debate over the nature of the ancient economy from the 19th century to the present day.

  • The main forms and sources of evidence – literary, archaeological and epigraphic – which have been fundamental to both primitivist and modernist interpretations of past economic organisation.

Students should also develop and improve the following skills:

  • The ability understand the social and political background which led to certain forms of argument being made, and certain types of questions being asked of the past, at particular points in history.

  • The ability to assimilate broad-ranging textual material, and to take efficient, clear and concise electronic notes.

  • The ability to present accurately the views and ideas expressed in primary and secondary source material to a study group, and to express an opinion, contributing to discussion.

  • The ability to write a review, or paper.

  • The ability to give constructive feedback on the work of others.


See here.

Mode of instruction

Literature Seminar

Course Load

  • Seminars (2 hours per week during 6 weeks), 12 hours.

  • Study of compulsory literature, 60 hours.

  • Preparation oral presentation, 80 hours.

  • Writing of essay/review article, 120 hours.

Assessment method

  • Participation in discussion: 25% final mark.

  • (Oral) Presentation short paper: 25% final mark.

  • Written essay/review article: 50% final mark.


Blackboard is used for announcements and course documents.

Reading list

Readings for the first seminar:
Finley, M. I. 1985. The Ancient Economy. 2nd edition. London: Hogarth Press.

Please read Chapter 1 (pg 17-34) and Chapter 5 (pg 123-149). [The 1st edition is also acceptable as the text is essentially the same]. Students are expected to take detailed notes in electronic form, print them (and bring them to the seminars), and be prepared to present them to the group in oral form.

Additional readings will be announced in class.


via uSis.

Contact information

Email: Dr. M.S. Hobson