José Knust

Ancient Mediterranean Peasants at the Market:
Market-Oriented Farming and Settlement Pattern Change between the Sixth through Third Centuries BCE


In the last half century, field survey projects have identified a pattern of rural settlement dispersion in several regions of the Mediterranean basin between the sixth to third centuries BCE. These findings have tended to be framed within specific traditions of scholarly debate that have interpreted them as results of internal transformations in these regions. For instance, scholars of the British School at Rome interpreted the infill of rural settlement by isolated small sites in South Etruria within the fourth to third centuries BCE as the result of Roman conquest and pacification of the region in this period. Since the 2000s, however, with the development of comparative approaches in Mediterranean archaeology, it is evident that these changes in settlement pattern are part of a wider Mediterranean process and, as such, demand a search for Mediterranean explanations.

In recent decades, scholars have proposed some hypotheses to this end. Most have taken agricultural intensification as the main cause of the changes in the settlement pattern. The pivotal assertion has been that more intensive forms of agriculture, such as olives, vines, and horticulture, demanded continuous work on the land throughout most of the agricultural year. The question that follows is, why this intensification of agriculture took place across the Mediterranean basin? One suggestion has been that it was a way to increase access to markets, which seems reasonable. The sixth to third centuries BCE was undoubtedly a time of expanding trade throughout the Mediterranean, and several types of evidence attest to the multiplication of economic exchange between different regions in the Mediterranean basin. However, this explanation assumes that ancient Mediterranean peasants would invest in cash-crops as soon as the situation became favorable to market-relationships. In sum, it assumes that ancient Mediterranean peasants had a natural affinity for profit-seeking, which is one of the most debatable assumptions in neoclassical economics.

Therefore, the study of how ancient Mediterranean peasants engaged in the market and how it could have been a driving-force in the changes of their settlement pattern can reveal important elements of the debate on capitalism’s past. In this paper, I will review the evidence of some case studies that allow scholars to link settlement dispersal and the development of trade. Thenceforth, I will discuss some alternative theoretical frameworks from anthropology, sociology and economic history that I believe are useful for explaining this data. I intend to show the empirical and theoretical advantages of these approaches to the study of economic history in spite of essentialist approaches.


Coming Autumn 2019.