Professor Venticinque examines ancient economy in new book

Cornell College Professor of Classics Philip Venticinque turns back the pages of time to examine the ancient economy in his newly released book “Honor Among Thieves.”

Professor of Classics Philip Venticinque
Professor of Classics Philip Venticinque

Venticinque focuses on the interactions between craftsmen, merchants, associations, and various elite and non-elite groups in Egypt during the first seven centuries A.D. The book takes a look at the ancient economy and society from the bottom-up.

“Traditionally, much more attention has been paid to the habits and strategies of the elites, wearing the fancy clothes and using the fine goods, than to the craftsmen and merchants involved in their production and distribution,” Venticinque said. “A book about the social and economic lives of craftsmen, merchants, and associations in Roman Egypt had yet to be written, and there was a story to tell about the economic lives of craftsmen, merchants, and members of professional and religious associations, how they viewed their economic and social world, how they participated in their communities, and the strategies they used to deal with myriad problems and challenges they faced.”

While Venticinque has been researching for nearly a decade, a majority of the book was completed while on leave from Cornell College supported by fellowships (American Council of Learned Societies, The Center for Hellenic Studies, and the Loeb Classical Library Foundation) during 2012-2013 academic year.

The title of the book, “Honor Among Thieves,” was developed as the author studied aspects of trust, reputation, and esteem among the craftsmen, merchants, and association members, which are groups of people often characterized as less than honorable in many literary sources.

Venticinque said he especially enjoys sharing his work with his students at Cornell.

“The most rewarding thing about the process has been the chance to talk about the book, the research, and material and to share the research and my ideas with students in my classes: Greek and Roman history, Egypt after the Pyramids, and The Ancient Economy,” Venticinque said. “My students have always helped me refine my ideas and my arguments, and pushed me to find ways to make the strategies employed by weavers and salt merchants in Egypt connect to larger ideas about the ancient society and economy.”

Interested readers can get the book through the University of Michigan Press website and from other online retailers.

“I hope readers will see and appreciate the nuance that existed in ancient social and economic relationships between people of varying status groups, and the strategies individuals and groups used to navigate the different status hierarchies they confronted,” Venticinque said. “I also hope they see the economic importance of trust, reputation, esteem, and social capital in the ancient world.”

Venticinque has already started writing and researching a second book focused on economic and social history, but from a different perspective. Among many topics, it will touch on magical material, commercial and business curses, and amulets.