Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.5.15


Neville Morley, Metropolis and Hinterland: The City of Rome and the Italian Economy, 200 B.C.-A.D. 200. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 1996. Pp. 211. $49.95. ISBN 0-521-56006-3.


Reviewed by Michael Meckler, Yale University.

Like many Americans native to regions outside the Northeast, I grew up in a post-World War II "boom town." Columbus, Ohio, had a population of roughly 300,000 in 1940. Today the city is at the center of a metropolitan region that is home to 1.4 million people. Even three decades ago when I was a child, nearly two-thirds of Franklin County was classified as farmland. Today farms take up less than ten percent of the county's area. When I return to Columbus to visit my parents, I am constantly amazed to see shopping malls where once I saw cornfields, and golf courses where groves once stood.

This transformation by a growing urban center of its surrounding countryside is not unique to the "boom towns" of postwar America. The similar transformation of central Italy by the growth of ancient Rome is the subject of Neville Morley's Metropolis and Hinterland.

M.'s study is derived from his Cambridge Ph.D. thesis. Like many theses, M.'s book contains competent summaries of scholarly arguments on a variety of issues pertaining to the ancient economy. Yet readers familiar with the issues will find the book disappointing, for M. adds few original ideas to the problems discussed.

The book is organized into seven chapters, along with an introduction and the barest of conclusions. Each of the chapters surveys an aspect of the Rome-suburbium relationship, from population and migration to agriculture and markets. The history of scholarship on these aspects is reviewed and well-known arguments repeated. For example, the beginning of chapter two is taken up with the question of the population of Rome under Augustus, and after touching upon views from Beloch to Brunt, M. eventually provides the not-very-surprising estimate of between 850,000 and one million (p.38).

Novel approaches are rare. The most noteworthy is M.'s application of Walter Cristaller's central-place theory on the nundinae system of periodic markets (pp.168-73). The theory attempts to explain the location of markets, assuming that agricultural markets would be evenly spaced throughout a region but for differences in population, terrain and transportation systems within that region. The region is then represented as a set of interlocking hexagonal districts in which these differences affect the distances goods might be expected to travel. Interpreting the nundinae lists from Campania of market days of various cities and towns in the region, M. notes that Rome's inclusion on such lists must demonstrate the tremendous pull of such a large urban center on a relatively distant region, even though Capua must have been seen as the primary market location for Campanian produce.

Most of M.'s book is rarely as innovative. Perhaps the book's tedium is tied to M.'s systematic approach of treating issues separately and with diachronic completeness. A far more interesting approach would have involved providing "snapshots" of the relationship between Rome and its countryside at, say, 100-year intervals from 100 B.C. to A.D. 200. In 100 B.C., for example, when Romans were throwing rooftiles at Saturninus, where were those rooftiles manufactured? What were the lives like of those involved in every facet of getting those tiles from the brickyard to the rooftop? From the well-to-do to the working poor, where did residents of Rome in 100 B.C. do their shopping? How many of these residents had moved to Rome from villages and towns in central Italy? What were the communities they left behind like? M. provides a general background in his various chapters to answer these sorts of questions, but had he drawn the bits of information together into a vivid picture of daily life at four separate times in history, he would have written a far more compelling book.

His study should also have been more adventurous, for M. might have attempted addressing issues where intuition must supplement our meagre evidence, such as how food importers, vendors and consumers dealt with spoilage. Was spoiled food sold cheap? Was it transformed into preserved food items, and by whom? Most of the evidence on spoilage concerns wine, which as M. notes, is a peculiar item (p.165). One might assume that the large-scale waste of food in today's American society would have been unknown in ancient Rome, though perhaps highly perishable foods such as green vegetables and fresh fish remained luxuries that rarely made it to the tables of the urban poor. Wealthy households might well have thrown such foods away when the items began to spoil, though intuition suggests not.

Readers will find themselves wondering about a variety of such concrete issues, issues only peripherally discussed in M.'s study. To examine the practices of daily life is the direction in which studies on the ancient economy should really be going. Thirty years of "big picture" theorizing has been helpful in giving scholars a sense of shape and scale, but these studies have also tended to obfuscate the operations of the ancient world in the same way that today's government-announced economic data often provide little sense of a country's well-being. Creative examinations of the little known details of economic activity would provide greater impetus to increasing our understanding of the ancient world.

Metropolis and Hinterland provides a competent summary of scholarship on the ancient economy for those with little background, but it is a summary that will disappoint readers familiar with the arguments involved. M. has demonstrated that he has mastered the bibliography on the ancient economy. It is hoped that in future writings he will allow freer rein to his imagination to produce more creative approaches to understanding the economy of ancient Rome.