The Region

Life in the Ancient Near East

Book Review

David Levy | Vice President

Published September 1, 1998  | September 1998 issue

By Daniel C. Snell
Yale University Press
270 pages

If you could still find an economic history text, its first chapter would likely tell the story of classical Greece and Italy. Not much if anything would be said about what preceded those cultures in socioeconomic terms, except possibly some speculation on how similar or dissimilar earlier societies may have been to life in Athens or Rome. Usually, our Western economic historians begin their reasoning from primary materials of the classical tradition and work forward in time to the present. So today, nearly the 21st century, we suffer from a gap in our understanding.

book jacket Daniel Snell, in his newest book, Life in the Ancient Near East, armed with a great deal of new information culled from an ever-expanding body of ancient literature in a variety of languages, steps into that gap, writing a comprehensive history on the social and economic conditions of the Near East. His formal account starts in pre-history and carries forward to Alexander the Great's conquest of the region in the fourth century B.C.E. Since most of Snell's sources are textual, his de facto starting point comes with Sumerian writing and concludes when the Greeks, as political overlords, chose to write on parchment rather than clay tablets. We still have the cuneiform etched tablets, while the papyri have rotted to Middle Eastern dust.

By Ancient Near East, Snell means the areas of the modern countries of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt. Today's newspaper accounts would call it the Middle East; the terms Near East and Middle East derive from a Eurocentric compass. West Asia would be proper, if only anyone thought of it that way.

Mostly, Snell concentrates on Mesopotamia (the area of modern Iraq and Eastern Syria between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers), no doubt because the material is so abundant, rich and "economic" in nature.
A thoroughly accessible book for the nonscholar, Life in the Ancient Near East is thought provoking. Virtually every page draws a scene for the reader that then begs for comparison with the present. For instance, Snell, a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma, tells us, "There is the kernel of an economic theory produced under the Ur kings but concerning the fall of Akkad. The supposed impiety of Naram-Sin was felt to have led to high prices, and consequently piety in general was felt to lead to low prices ... one could say righteous policies led to low prices." These days, most economists think of inflation as a monetary phenomenon.

Today we debate the government's role in the economy. Evidently, that debate has traveled a very long path. In the period 2000-1600 B.C.E., according to Snell, "There were several efforts by various governments to regulate the economy. Most of the efforts failed and most of them may have been inspired not by analysis of economic social life but by a need to be seen doing something about the economic crisis." Early attempts at "spin" no doubt.

As we travel throughout the Ninth Federal Reserve District we are often asked what can be done about the disappearance of the family farm. Our response is to point out that demographers tell us this is a trend that has been occurring for decades. It's not new. Turning to Life in the Ancient Near East, it seems that trend is older yet and not unique to any one place: "It appears that many times rich people bought up the land held by the poor and destroyed the old agrarian order, replacing it with their own farms," says Snell. "Social critics in Israel protested against what they saw as a depersonalization and a rejection of old values inherent in establishing new farms at the expense of old ones."

Snell discusses prices in each of his period chapters. He notes that at some time before 1600 B.C.E. "... field prices everywhere seem low, only three or four times the cost of grain produced in a year on the field." Surprisingly, 4,000 years later that ratio roughly holds true on Midwest farmland—on average.

Perhaps I've seen too many Charleton Heston movies to ever accept Snell's myth-busting notion that, "It is much more likely that the pyramids were part of government make-work projects that used idle peasants in the off-season from agriculture in forced labor." A trip up the Nile as a tour of Ancient New Deal projects?

The appendix is aptly titled: "Theories of Ancient Economies." Here Snell explores the ideas and their importance of theorists including (and among others) Karl Marx, Max Weber and the late Hungarian-American economist Karl Polanyi. We get a brief glimpse of Snell's own philosophical compass as his colleague Marc Van De Mieroop of Columbia University notes: "Snell focuses primarily on trade rather than production or consumption. His emphasis on economic exchange places him within the group of scholars who consider it possible to study ancient economies with the tools neo-classical economic theories use to study modern capitalist societies."

Each chapter of Life in the Ancient Near East is introduced by a Michneresque vignette designed to humanize the otherwise nonfiction tomb. It works, helping the reader to understand some aspect of life for the real people who inhabited places like Babylon or Ur. It will no doubt draw disapproving eyebrow gestures from the enforcers of academic conventions. Not to worry, says Van De Mieroop, professor of Ancient Near Eastern history, "Part of the fun of this scholarly discipline is that we can use our imagination to make men and women long dead familiar to us." No words could possibly resonate more perfectly with the editorial philosophy of The Region magazine.*

* See Region interviews with dead and long-dead Carter Glass and Adam Smith.