(RE)APPROACHING ROMAN FRUGALITY
[27 Dicembre 2013]
The Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge will host an international interdisciplinary workshop on the theme of frugality in Roman history, culture and society, to be held on Thursday, 9 and Friday, 10 January 2014 . Panel presentations by speakers will be followed by a roundtable discussion.
1. Defining “frugality” By “frugality” we mean a set of cultural models, prescribed attitudes, practices, and institutions aimed at bringing about – or simply imposing – the limitation of material needs and wants, consumption, and luxury in ancient Rome, from the archaic age to the beginning of the imperial period.
2. Traditional approaches Two fundamental approaches to Roman frugality have developed within the history of scholarship on the Roman economy (Lo Cascio 1991). The first considers frugality a mental attitude typical of comparatively primitive societies. When technology and socioeconomic development are at a low level, standards of living must likewise be low, and consequently societies are expected (or obliged) to elaborate cultural models promoting self-restraint and reduced consumption. In this framework, frugality is viewed as a “serious mental obstacle” (Harris 2007) hindering the growth of the Roman economy. The second considers frugality instead a relatively late ideological construction (De Albentiis 1990), the purpose of which is to idealize the simple past of a city-state where accumulation of wealth was in fact a prerequisite for status and power and where, in certain periods, the levels of production, exchange and consumption reached remarkably high levels for a precapitalistic society (albeit inferior to modern levels). What is striking about these two fundamental interpretations of Roman frugality is that neither takes frugality seriously: that is, they both deny to Roman frugality the status of a sophisticated (and distinctive) cultural model elaborated to cope with pervasive issues concerning 2 the relation between material means and ends in a given society. Assessing frugality either as a primitive custom, or as an ideological reconstruction, both scholarly approaches reveal their reliance on two interpretive paradigms that, at heart, privilege the economic model of the modern West – one based on the idea of a linear, progressive economic evolution (with capitalistic, market and consumption-oriented economies at the top); the other on the idea that every human community (and all human beings) seek to satisfy as many material wants as possible, and as efficiently as possible, by means of economic growth (modern Western economies naturally achieving the best results in this respect: cf. North 2005). From this paradigm, it follows that frugality, when present, is nothing more than an ideological superstructure.
3. New perspectives. Natural sciences, social anthropology, unorthodox economics A challenge can be raised to these long-established approaches, however, on the basis of recent methodological insights developed in the natural sciences, in economic anthropology and in “unorthodox economics”, opening up new perspectives on Roman frugality. To begin with, studies of DNA, demonstrating that it is impossible to single out more- or less- developed, more- or less- “progressive” genomes, have ruled out the possibility of interpreting cultural differences in terms of a linear evolution from lower to higher social levels, calling into question any “primitivizing” theory and showing that social and economic differences – and evolution – are determined not by a natural progress, but by cultural elaboration and adaptation (Geertz 1973, 1983; Sahlins 1976). Ethnographic research has shown, in this respect, that frugal – or, at the least, not maximizing – customs, practices and “theories” are identifiable in numerous societies which, in many cases, have deliberately chosen to preserve traditional materially “sober” habits in the face of Western consumeristic patterns (Sahlins 1972; Gudeman 1986, 2009; Bird-David 1992; Empson 2012). The idea that human wants are theoretically infinite, and that the only possible objective of any economic system is growth has turned out to be a construction typical of modern Western culture, not applicable to most societies (Sahlins 1996). Furthermore, in recent years, the mainstream economic model based on the “scarcity postulate” has been challenged even inside economic theory, and considered as one of the major causes of unfair distribution of resources and goods, of the production of waste, and of an ever-increasing production of useless (and purposefully obsolescent) means in the globalized world (Sachs and Santarius 2005; Ims and Jakobsen 2008). Paradoxically, frugality now appears to many economists as the most “rational” way to improve the economic life of contemporary societies (Daly 2008; De Foucauld 2011; Latouche 2011).
3. Re-thinking Roman frugality A rethinking of human evolution, of the “culturality” of human economies, of economic theory, and of the concept of frugality itself suggests reconsideration also of the ancient economy in general and of material sobriety, thrift and restraint, in particular, as decisive factors in Roman economic thought and practice. “Local models” like parsimonia, frugalitas, moderatio, paupertas – their definition, exemplarity, effectiveness, transformation over time, and disappearance in the early Empire – can thus become useful tools for the scholar aiming to assess Romans’ means-ends view, while avoiding projecting modern Western ideas on other societies, and to understand economichistorical dynamics, and causation, in a way that is much closer to “the native’s point of view”. This workshop, “(Re)Approaching Roman frugality”, thus proposes to bring together the group of European scholars, specializing in different branches of classical studies, who have most contributed to research on Roman frugality (and its opposites), inviting them to reflect upon Roman concepts and practices concerning material sobriety in the light of new methodological challenges brought forward by the most recent scholarly trends – as well as by the character of the times in which we live. 3
The organizers Dr Rebecca Flemming Dr Ingo Gildenhard Dr Cristiano Viglietti
Contacts Dr Cristiano Viglietti Faculty of Classics University of Cambridge Sidgwick Ave Cambridge, CB3 9DA, UK e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org phone: +44 01223 748492
The (Re)Approaching Roman Frugality workshop is funded by the People Programme (Marie Curie Actions) of the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013), under the REA agreement n. PIEF-GA-2011-300061.
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