Neville Morley

The Possibility of Capitalism in the Roman Agronomists


“Capitalism” is a term freighted with heavy ideological baggage; its meaning and significance is disputed in the modern world, and the question of whether or not it is a useful or appropriate term for understanding classical antiquity is inextricably entangled with broader debates about the nature of the ancient economy and how it should be studied. From a Marxist perspective, capitalism refers to an advanced socio-economic formation based on wage labor and on increasing polarization between capitalists and proletarians; describing pre-modern societies like Greece or Rome as “capitalist” is always possible, but it is always misleading, and most likely a deliberate attempt at presenting capitalism as a universal phenomenon rather than as historically specific and limited.

In other contexts, however, “capitalism” may be understood in a much looser sense, as economic practice involving the productive deployment, especially investment, of fixed or variable capital assets, associated with private property, free markets and rational decision-making; this may indeed be taken as an expression of natural and universal human tendencies, but it can – as in the work of Max Weber – also be seen as a historical phenomenon that is not necessarily confined to the modern world. Within this tradition of thought, it becomes possible to speak of capitalist elements or tendencies within otherwise pre-capitalist contexts; even, in the case of Weber, without necessarily implying that this represents a thwarting of the “natural” tendency towards economic development.

Discussions of “capitalism” in classical antiquity have tended to take for granted a simplistic and outdated narrative of the emergence of European capitalism as a point of reference; they have therefore focused on the development of trade and manufacturing, and the development of cities, as the “natural” context for any emergent capitalist tendencies. Modern studies, however, emphasize the role of changes in agricultural production as the essential basis for economic development in the early modern period; and, arguably, the strongest evidence we have for changes in the organization of production and the development of rational economic calculation in the ancient world is found not in the increasing volume of trade but in the agricultural experiments of the Roman villa-owners.

The aim of this paper is to re-read the writings of the Roman agronomists in terms of the assumptions and predictions of capitalist thinking, with the aim not of demonstrating the hitherto-unsuspected existence of ancient capitalism but of exploring the crucial differences between Roman economic ideas and those of modern neoclassical economics.


Coming late 2021.