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Economics with Ancient Data

Paper Session

Friday, Jan. 4, 2019 2:30 PM - 4:30 PM

Atlanta Marriott Marquis, International 1
Hosted By: American Economic Association
  • Chair: Gojko Barjamovic, Harvard University

Trade, Merchants, and the Lost Cities of the Bronze Age

Gojko Barjamovic
Harvard University
Thomas Chaney
Sciences Po and CEPR
Kerem Coşar
University of Virginia and CEPR
Ali Hortaçsu
University of Chicago and NBER


We analyze a large dataset of commercial records produced by Assyrian merchants in the 19th Century BCE. Using the information collected from these records, we estimate a structural gravity model of long-distance trade in the Bronze Age. We use our structural gravity model to locate lost ancient cities. In many instances, our structural estimates confirm the conjectures of historians who follow different methodologies. In some instances, our estimates confirm one conjecture against others. Confronting our structural estimates for ancient city sizes to measures of modern populations and income, we document persistent patterns in the distribution of city sizes across four millennia, even after controlling for time-invariant geographic attributes. Finally, we offer evidence in support of the hypothesis that large cities tend to emerge at the intersections of natural transport routes, as dictated by topography.

Of Mice and Merchants: Trade and Growth in the Iron Age

Jan Bakker
University of Oxford
Stephan Maurer
University of Konstanz and CEP
Jörn-Steffen Pischke
London School of Economics and CEP
Ferdinand Rauch
University of Oxford and CEP


We study the causal connection between trade and development using one of the earliest massive trade expansions in prehistory: the first systematic crossing of open seas in the Mediterranean during the time of the Phoenicians. For each point on the coast, we construct the ease with which other points can be reached by crossing open water. This connectivity differs depending on the shape of the coast, the location of islands, and the distance to the opposing shore. We find an association between better connected locations and archaeological sites during the Iron Age, at a time when sailors began to cross open water very routinely and on a big scale. We corroborate these findings at the level of the world.

Landscape Change and Trade in Ancient Greece: Evidence from Pollen Data

Anton Bonnier
Uppsala University
Adam Izdebski
Jagiellonian University-Krakow
Tymon Słoczyński
Brandeis University and IZA
Grzegorz Koloch
Warsaw School of Economics
Katerina Kouli
National and Kapodistrian University of Athens


In this paper we use pollen data from a number of sites in southern Greece and Macedonia to study long-term vegetation change in these regions from 1000 BCE to 600 CE. Based on insights from environmental history, we interpret our estimated trends in the regional presence of cereal, olive, and vine pollen as proxies for structural changes in agricultural production. We present evidence that there was a market economy in ancient Greece and a major trade expansion several centuries before the Roman conquest. Our results are consistent with auxiliary data on settlement dynamics, shipwrecks, and ancient oil and wine presses.

Roman Roads to Prosperity: Persistence and Non-Persistence of Public Goods Provision

Carl-Johan Dalgaard
University of Copenhagen, CAGE and CEPR
Nicolai Kaarsen
Danish Economic Council
Ola Olsson
University of Gothenburg
Pablo Selaya
University of Copenhagen


How persistent is public goods provision in a comparative perspective? We explore the link between infrastructure investments made during antiquity and the presence of infrastructure today, as well as the link between early infrastructure and economic activity both in the past and in the present, across the entire area under dominion of the Roman Empire at the zenith of its geographical extension (117 CE). We find a remarkable pattern of persistence showing that greater Roman road density goes along with (a) greater modern road density, (b) greater settlement formation in 500 CE, and (c) greater economic activity in 2010. Interestingly, however, the degree of persistence in road density and the link between early road density and contemporary economic development is weakened to the point of insignificance in areas where the use of wheeled vehicles was abandoned from the first millennium CE until the late modern period. Taken at face value, our results suggest that infrastructure may be one important channel through which persistence in comparative development comes about.
Matt Delventhal
Claremont McKenna College
Simon Fuchs
Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta
Jeffrey Lin
Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia
Simon Alder
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
JEL Classifications
  • N7 - Transport, Trade, Energy, Technology, and Other Services
  • O4 - Economic Growth and Aggregate Productivity