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The North African Boom: Evaluating Economic Growth in the Roman Province of Africa Proconsularis (146 B.C.–A.D. 439)

The North African Boom: Evaluating Economic Growth in the Roman Province of Africa Proconsularis (146 B.C.–A.D. 439)

By Matthew S. Hobson (JRA Suppl. 100). Pp. 181, figs. 50, tables 9. Journal of Roman Archaeology, Portsmouth 2015. $99. ISBN 978-0-9913730-4-8 (cloth).

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Hobson undertook this study to test the validity of the “African boom” (or “olive boom”) model of the economy of North Africa under Rome. Formulated in the late 20th century through contributions from several scholars and based on evidence for the production and distribution of olive oil, fish sauce, wine, and ceramics, this model suggests that Africa Proconsularis underwent substantial economic growth from the second to fifth centuries C.E. The notion of an African boom is significant because it contradicts the model, constructed slightly earlier by Moses Finley and others, that has argued for limited economic growth and minimal long-distance trade in the ancient world.

Through an evaluation of new as well as older data, Hobson upholds the view that the North African economy grew. What is new—and of fundamental importance to a wide range of scholars—is the case he makes that modern scholars have inappropriately evaluated the nature of ancient economic growth. Hobson aims his critique at ancient historians and archaeologists, especially those pursuing approaches consistent with the New Institutional Economics (NIE), who have linked economic growth in antiquity with improved standards of living. He maintains instead that “economic growth” is a value-laden phrase, and its interpretation as beneficial is an ideological assumption associated with neoliberalism and development economics (28–9). As Hobson notes, widespread attention to inequality in the distribution of wealth since the global financial crash of 2008 influenced his thinking.

The book is organized in five chapters: an introduction covering scholarship on the African boom model, the ancient economy, and Roman imperialism; a chapter on the exploitation of land; a chapter on olive and vine cultivation; a chapter on ceramic evidence; and a conclusion explaining Hobson’s view of a socially embedded economy.

In the second chapter, discussions of centuriation and the Lex agraria of 111 B.C.E. exemplify how Hobson builds his case. First, he argues that the main phase of centuriation in North Africa dates not to the reign of Augustus, as most have argued, but to the late second century B.C.E. He establishes the date by reasoning that the centuriation lay entirely within the territory of Carthage, conquered in 146 B.C.E.; that it omitted territory belonging to African allies of this time; and that it crosscut later phases of centuriation. Next, he mines the Lex agraria for information about the formation of large estates. The law deals with the sale of land owned by Carthaginian colonists; Hobson surmises that although we have little evidence for the names of property owners before the writings of Cicero, these plots were purchased by wealthy Roman families at an early point in the occupation of the province (39–44). These observations enable the author to detect the establishment of considerable inequality in landholdings in the Late Republic, a time during which other scholars have previously identified little Roman interference in Africa. Subsequent incorporation of North African territory (Tripolitania, Numidia, Mauretania) was handled differently, Hobson argues, but also resulted in vast estates owned by the emperor and the senatorial class.

Hobson evaluates the evidence for production (ch. 3) and distribution (ch. 4) of agricultural and marine goods. These chapters echo current thinking in several ways. First, Hobson emphasizes that the production of salted fish, fish sauce, and wine has been underestimated in relation to that of olive oil. Second, concerning the export patterns of African goods, he notes that the widespread distribution of African Red Slip Ware throughout the Mediterranean contrasts with the more limited spread of African amphoras and African cooking wares in the western Mediterranean. The patterns have suggested that North African goods did not necessarily travel together: grain may have been shipped with African Red Slip Ware, while oil, fish, and wine bottled in amphoras may have been shipped with cooking wares. He finds some confirmation of these patterns in evidence from shipwrecks. One of the more novel elements is the discussion of the organization of production in the hinterland of Tripolitania. Here Hobson documents that agricultural goods and amphoras were both produced on rural estates. He distinguishes this organization from the better-known pattern found in Africa Proconsularis, where estates produced foodstuffs then sent them to port cities like Carthage and Leptiminus, at which amphora manufacture and bottling for transshipment across the Mediterranean occurred. The reason for these differences is not clear and deserves more examination.

Although there is a great deal unknown about the North African economy, due in part to the invisibility of commodities such as grain and textiles and also to the scarcity of excavations at rural sites, Hobson correctly shows that the surviving evidence provides a formidable challenge to the position of Finley and others on the absence of growth in the ancient economy. It is for this reason that much recent scholarship on the subject has moved beyond the concerns of Finley to issues of demographic growth, gross domestic product, per capita income, and other topics associated with the NIE and modern development economics. Yet, Hobson has documented that structural inequalities between the wealthy and the lower classes were preserved and even strengthened at the same time as economic growth occurred in North Africa. In doing so, he has warned of the inappropriateness of introducing such modern concepts to the study of the ancient economy. His conclusion is that the African economy was “structurally embedded” (160–62), that is to say, conditioned by social relations rather than the market. This last point—which takes Hobson back to one of Finley’s arguments that has not been so effectively dismantled—is deserving of much greater articulation in the data from North Africa.

Hobson has challenged current thinking on the ancient economy and North African archaeology in important ways. This book deserves consideration not only by specialists working in this region but also by scholars examining economic trends elsewhere in the premodern world.

David L. Stone
Department of Classical Studies
University of Michigan

Book Review of The North African Boom: Evaluating Economic Growth in the Roman Province of Africa Proconsularis (146 B.C.–A.D. 439), by Matthew S. Hobson

Reviewed by David L. Stone

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 4 (October 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1204.Stone

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