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Debating the Ancient Economy


Admission requirements

This course is part of the (Res)MA History Programme. It is not accessible for BA students.


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 role 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.

Through an examination of important books and articles 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

General learning objectives

The student has acquired:

  1. The ability to analyse and evaluate literature with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;
  2. The ability to give a clear and well-founded oral and written report on research results in correct English, when required, or Dutch, meeting the criteria of the discipline;
  3. The ability to provide constructive feedback to and formulate criticism of the work of others and the ability to evaluate the value of such criticism and feedback on one’s own work and incorporate it;
  4. The ability to participate in current debates in the specialisation;
  5. (ResMA only): The ability to participate in a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

  1. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of one of the specialisations or subspecialisations as well as of the historiography of the specialisation, focusing particularly on the following;
    • in the Ancient History specialisation: unification processes in the Graeco-Roman World, 400 BC – 400 AD; insight into the recent large-scale debates in the field with respect to both the history of mentality and socio-economic history; application of socio-scientific methods and above all critical thinking; specialised source knowledge: archaeological, epigraphic and literary sources;
  2. (ResMA only): Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical foundation of the discipline and of its position vis-à-vis other disciplines.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this Literature Seminar

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 (500BC – 500 AD) from the 19th century to the present day:

  1. 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;
  2. The ability to analyze and evaluate literature and sources for the purpose of producing an original scholarly argument;
  3. Insight into the social relevance of history;
  4. (ResMA only): The ability to evaluate the influence of broader societal change on the sorts of questions asked by ancient historians and social scientists more generally;
  5. (ResMA only): The ability to implement some of the primary sources of evidence –archaeological, literary and epigraphic – in the construction of a characterization of ancient economic activity.


The timetable is available on the MA History website.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar

Course Load

Total course load 10 EC x 28 hours= 280 hours

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

  • Study of compulsory literature: 68 hours

  • Preparation oral presentation: 80 hours

  • Writing of essays: 120 hours

Assessment method

  • Research Essay (4000 words, ResMA: 5000 words, see below)
    Measured learning objectives: 1-4, 6, 8-10 (ResMA: 1-12)

  • Theoretical Essay (3000 words, see below)
    Measured learning objectives: 1-4, 6, 8-10 (ResMA: 1-12)

  • Oral presentation and participation (see below)
    Measured learning objectives: 1-4, 8-10 (ResMA: 1-12)

  • Attendance and general conduct (see below)
    Measured learning objectives: 1-4

Theoretical and Research Essays
Students are required to submit two pieces of written coursework in essay form: a 3,000-word theoretical essay midway through the course, and a 4,000-word research essay at the end of the course (5000 words for Research MA students).
The theoretical essay is intended to cover some of the major points of theoretical and epistemological controversy surrounding one of the course’s main themes, while the research essay is intended to give the student the opportunity to research in more detail a sub-topic within broader course framework. Research MA students will be expected to select their own essay questions in consultation with the course tutor.

Oral Presentation and Participation
Students are expected to be actively engaged in discussion of the content and issues raised within the set texts each week, and to be able to summarize the material they have covered for the rest of the group in English. Research MA students will be required to summarize slightly lengthier works, and will be expected also to deliver a short presentation to the rest of the group, which will be assessed in terms of structure, clarity, use of visual aids, and the fulfillment of course objectives 1-5 and 8-9.

Attendance and General Conduct
Students are required to attend and to carry out the set readings for all of the six seminar sessions. For each session the student should have taken and printed written notes on the themes and content of the readings,
and have prepared themselves to summarise their notes and personal views to the group.
Research MA students are expected to cover a slightly greater depth of reading, both in terms of broader theoretical works, and in engagement with more specific primary and secondary source material. In practical terms this means providing written and oral summaries of whole books and debates between authors, rather than simply assimilating single articles or book sections.


Research Essay: 40%
Theoretical Essay: 20%
Oral presentation and Participation: 20%
Attendance and General Conduct: 20%

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficient.


Failure of the course requires a full resit the following year or the completion of another Literature Seminar.


Blackboard will be used for:

  • To make students aware of the set readings ahead of each seminar

  • To make some of the course materials available to students

  • To notify students of essay titles, requirements, and deadlines

  • For all general course notifications

Reading list

Preparation for the first seminar:

  • Finley, M. I. 1999. The Ancient Economy. 3rd edition. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.
    Please read Chapter 1 (pg 17-34) and Chapter 5 (pg 123-149). (The 1st and 2nd editions are 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 and select bibliographies will be provided in class.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


dhr. Dr. M.S. Hobson