sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 9

Mareike Tonisch: Omnia Romae cum pretio

Ancient historians often lament the lack of "hard data" for the study of the Roman economy. The truth is that there does exist a significant corpus of ancient prices and economic figures, but the problem lies more in the shape in which this information comes down to us. We find data across an extraordinarily wide range of sources, from monumental inscriptions to wax tablets, papyri, literary texts, and so on, each with their own method of analysis. Moreover, the distribution of evidence is highly uneven, as its survival often owes as much to chance as anything else. We know far more about prices from towns in Middle Egypt or along Hadrian's Wall than we do about Rome itself, where "everything had a price" (Juv. Sat. 3.183-4). As a result, prices form a sort of siren's song for historians: this material is alluring because it offers ancient historians the sort of data, which economists regularly employ for later periods, but its analysis requires careful attention.

For such work, we can now turn to Mareike Tonisch's book, a revised version of her 2018 University of Vienna dissertation. Half the study comprises a two-hundred-page catalogue of price data, while the other half contains a clear and methodical account of how this database was constructed, what it contains, and some ways it sheds light on Roman economic and monetary history.

Tonisch is a master of categorization, dividing her database into forty categories of goods and services for which values appear in the evidence. The list is arranged alphabetically, from alimentary subsidies to custom duties (Zölle), and in between everything from burial costs to statues, building prices, bribes, slave prices, wages, inheritances, groceries, and so on.

Information come from epigraphy, literary texts, and papyri. Latin inscriptions form the focus, while for literary texts, Tonisch relies on W. Szaivert and R. Wolters, Löhne, Preise, Werte: Quellen zur römischen Geldwirtschaft, 2005, and for papyri mainly on H.-J. Drexhage, Preise, Mieten/Pachten, Kosten und Löhne im römischen Ägypten bis zum Regierungsantritt Diokletians, 1991.

The study's chronology conforms to the period of the denarius (211 BCE - 294 CE), while its regional boundaries are set by Tonisch's decision to focus only on Latin epigraphy, excluding the Greek-speaking provinces except Egypt. Tonisch makes this choice largely because of the availability of the Clauss-Slaby database for Latin epigraphy, while there is no comparable search engine for Greek epigraphy. [1] This is true, but perhaps understates the accessibility of Greek evidence. She makes a sondage in the PHI epigraphic database with limited results, but does not consult the Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum, searchable online since 2009. The opportunity is not taken, therefore, to gauge the impact of the imperial economy upon those parts of the Empire, which had longest used coined money. The procedure also produces other gaps, as I discuss below.

The book centers on the results of Tonisch's search on the Clauss-Slaby database made in 2013 and rechecked in 2019. Of 517,692 inscriptions available at the latter date, 3,425 contained relevant information, only about 0.5 %. Tonisch offers some structural reasons for this low figure and also wonders whether it reflects Roman attitudes against open displays of wealth.

Tonisch makes meaningful distinction between "Alltagsinschriften," texts on ephemeral materials for daily use, and monumental inscriptions for permanent public display. The former more often reveal prices, but the problem, as she notes, is that they survive only in exceptional circumstances like the eruption of Vesuvius, or owing to the wet or dry climates of Britain or Egypt. Thus, our richest data is unevenly distributed in space and time.

As the book's analytical section notes, once the weight of these "Alltagsinschriften" is accounted for, the data follow the main outlines of Roman epigraphic habit. If this conclusion is not particularly surprising, it is well-founded, as Tonisch's analyses are methodical and cautious. She is skeptical of the epigraphic data's ability to describe price trends or inflation. Statistical analysis of denominations shows the dominance of the sestertius as a unit of reckoning but not necessarily a reflection of coins in circulation. An interesting section exploits the publications of the series Rinvenimenti monetali a Pompei to compare denominations of Pompeian coin finds to those attested in the city's epigraphy. Generally, she endorses broad monetization in the Empire, at least in urban and civic spheres. A final section considers how epigraphy reveals a rhetoric of numeracy, not dissimilar to literary sources.

There is value in this discussion, but, again, choices made in constructing the database create some noticeable gaps. A number of documents, whose price information has been much discussed, are left out either because they appeared after Tonisch completed the 2019 Clauss-Slaby database search, or because they fell outside the book's geographical parameters. There is no mention of the spices and tolls recorded by the Muziris Papyris (PVindob. G40822), or the grain prices and silver victoriati in an important recently published elogium from Pompeii (AE 2018.497), or the slave prices in the Delphic manumission texts. Because of the Mediterranean scale of Rome's grain market, it would have been good to consider grain prices from the East (AE 1925.126b; SEG XI.492; IG XII.5 947, etc.). These are texts that one expects in a comprehensive study of prices in the Roman Empire. Issues especially arise from reliance on Drexhage's 1991 book, as newer publications have revised the papyrological data. [2] Another issue is simply that data continue to appear: this book arrived too late to incorporate a large number of slave prices just published in P.Oxy. LXXXVI (2021).

Thus, for a study of the Roman Empire, the picture felt incomplete, although the last case stresses that collecting price data can at times seem like trying to catch a flowing river. Perhaps this should encourage new paths forward. Tonisch notes how digital humanities motivated her project, as search engines like the Clauss-Slaby database are changing the way we carry out research. This led me to wonder about how digital humanities might shape the output of this research program, not only its inputs. That is, the book presents its catalogue in static format, but what if this information were presented using digital tools to allow greater flexibility and engagement? Tonisch provides a screenshot of the computer database created to support her project. A next step would be to publish this database online in a format allowing for edits and additions, not to mention keyword searches.

Prices remain necessary if complex datapoints for the study of Roman economic history. Tonisch's book moves research forward with a large, well-organized dataset, mainly drawing from Latin epigraphy. At the same time, the results remain to some extent partial, owing both to elements of the project's design and to the wider nature of the exercise.



[2] For example Kyle Harper: People, Plagues, and Prices in the Roman World: The Evidence from Egypt, in: Journal of Economic History, 76.3 (2016), 803-39.

Rezension über:

Mareike Tonisch: Omnia Romae cum pretio. Löhne, Preise und Werte im Römischen Reich (= Veröffentlichungen des Instituts für Numismatik und Geldgeschichte der Universität Wien; Bd. 25), Wien: Phoibos Verlag 2022, 382 S., 23 s/w-Abb., zahlr. Tbl., ISBN 978-3-9504268-4-7, EUR 60,00

Rezension von:
Seth Bernard
University of Toronto
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