Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.03.17

Octavian Bounegru, Trafiquants et navigateurs sur le Bas-Danube et dans le Pont Gauche à l'époque romaine. PHILIPPIKA. Marburger Altertumskundliche Abhandlungen 9.   Wiesbaden:  Harrassowitz, 2006.  Pp. 197; ills.  ISBN 3-447-05217-1.  €59.70.  

Reviewed by Elias K. Petropoulos, Democritus University of Thrace (
Word count: 2546 words

As is generally well known, when Rome completed her conquests in the wider region of the Eastern Mediterranean, trade intensified, while at the same time the trade routes within what had become a unified empire were expanded. Chief among the contributing factors to this expansion were the fall of Carthage and the destruction of Corinth in the middle of the second century B.C. However, the founding of the province of Asia was apparently what gave new impetus to trade throughout the Aegean. The organization of the provinces of Moesia and Dacia also played a particularly important role in the flourishing of trade and further expansion of land trade routes in the Balkans. In this way, from the period noted up to the age of Augustus we see that the boundaries of trade and commercial enterprises expanded as far as the western shores of the Black Sea, creating a complex and fairly extensive communication network both by land and by sea. The volume under review, by the Rumanian historian Octavian Bounegru, offers an interesting scholarly approach and analysis of trade relations and of the many economic, legal, and cultural developments within these geographic regions of Europe and Asia, in language that is comprehensible and clear.

Bounegru's analysis is based on the results of recent archaeological excavations, on careful study of the relevant inscriptions related to this subject, and finally, on bibliographical sources that are quite extensive1 for such a specialized field in historiography. All these characteristics make Bounegru's work both attractive and enjoyable. As the author himself notes in his "avertissement" (7-9), the present work is an updated summary of his doctoral dissertation, which was defended in September 1995 at the "Al. I. Cuza" University of Iasi (Rumania), under the supervision of Professor S. Sanie. As originally conceived, the work was limited in its geographical scope to the southeastern part of the province of Moesia Inferior (the modern region of Dobroudja, Eastern Rumania), while in its final version--what we have in book form, that is--it extends its geographical bounds to a much wider area, stretching from the Lower Danube basin to Thrace. Within this particular area, four Roman provinces were established (Dacia, Moesia Superior, Moesia Inferior, and Thrace). The author presents the results from his more than two decades of research on the ancient economy, particularly that of the Roman provinces. The study of the economic development of the Roman provinces, according to Bounegru, is a subject "d'une remarquable complexité et ayant des implications difficiles à évaluer, pour le moment, sur la connaissance de la société romaine dans son ensemble" (7).

The book consists of an introduction, six chapters, a seventh chapter in the form of an appendix that includes all the ancient inscriptions that were employed in the text, followed by Abbreviations, the Bibliography, Indexes (including: Geographica antiqua et moderna, Nomina, Imperatores, Dii Deaeque, Nomina latina, Nomina graeca), and illustrations. In the Introduction (11-17), Bounegru gives a very brief but comprehensive history of research on the subject which will occupy him in the main body of the book, recalling in particular the valuable pioneer work by the great historian of the early twentieth century M. I. Rostovtsev. At the heart of Bounegru's work is "l'analyse des sources épigraphiques qui mentionnent les marchands et les navigateurs dont l'activité s'est déployée dans les régions mentionnées" (17).

The book's first chapter (19-32) is entitled "Les provinces romaines au Bas Danube aux IIème siècle avant J.-C. et IIIème siècles après J.-C. Considérations historiques générales". In the first of its two subsections, the periodic expansion of the Romans into Thrace and the Lower Danube is presented. From the early second century B.C. until Mithridates Eupator, from Mithridates to Augustus, and from Tiberius to Trajan, the author describes the entire historical backdrop against which the gradual but steady penetration by the Romans into the Balkans was accomplished. The establishment of Roman rule in the Lower Danube was sealed with the founding of the province of Dacia. Thus, Rome successfully imposed "un contrôle effectif sur quelques zones stratégiques et économiques importantes, comprises entre le bassin égéen, le Pont Gauche et le Danube" (27). The second subsection contains a brief summary of the organization of the provinces of Moesia, Thrace, and Dacia. One is struck by the fact that according to the evidence from inscriptions, the Roman conquest of the wider region and the creation of the provinces under discussion led inter alia to the development of urbanization in these provinces, and consequently to a change in their physiognomy. It thus appears that the Romans, in parallel with their military and political sovereignty, aimed primarily at the development of the economy through improved trade relations.2

The second chapter, with the title "Armateurs et navigateurs" (33-57) consists of four subsections, the first of which is of a more philological character, dealing with references to armatures in literary and epigraphical sources, both Latin and Greek. Among the references are included words such as emporos, naucleros (the Roman navicularius) and others, whose meaning, Bounegru (37) concludes, "échappe aux définitions modernes parce qu'au fil du temps, les fonctions de cettes personnes se sont modifiées et se sont superposées".3 In the second subsection, he discusses the associations of navigators (corpora naviculariorum) and their relation to the official Roman state. While we see that originally Roman administration managed to impose its control on this particular type of association, from the fourth century A.D. this control loosened, and until the sixth century the corpora naviculariorum--elbowing the official administration out of their way--multiplied in number, with a corresponding increase in their autonomy in the transport of goods. The classification of navigators on the basis of the nature of their activities, as well as the economic and geographical context within which these activities were conducted, constitute the subject of the third subsection. The author's basic view is that a comparable attempt at classification on the basis of descent or ethnic origin could not be supported, given the continuous mobility of populations, which makes distinctions of this sort impossible. It emerges from analysis of the data that in the Western Black Sea region, autonomous corpora naviculariorum were active from relatively early on; their activity was not limited to the transport of goods along the coast of this region only, but extended inland as well via the Danube.

The attempt to determine the origins of a navigator is the topic of the fourth and final subsection of the second chapter. Although--as was noted above--this procedure is risky, and for the additional reason that from the beginning of the Principate there began a period of commingling between the Greek and Roman worlds, East and West--nevertheless, the author believes that "le seul critère de mise en évidence de l'ethnie des navigateurs mentionés dans les provinces dont nous nous occupons est la langue que ceux-ci parlaient ou, plus exactement, la langue où sont rédigées les inscriptions qui les mentionnent" (55).

The third chapter (59-88), divided into six subsections, introduces us to the world of merchants during the period under consideration. In the first of these are presented references to merchants in literary and epigraphic sources in both Latin and Greek. The following subsection presents the overall picture of the important merchants in the three eastern provinces, using as its basis the data provided by inscriptions which, though few in number, contain quite a number of details regarding the movement of goods in these regions. While we do not have much reliable data about the types of products that were traded, the final conclusion is that the Danube provinces comprised an important way station along Roman trade routes, and maintained contact with the era's most important economic centers.

The transport of goods to various urban centers as well as the hinterland was a field of activity where various small traders, who covered the entire gamut of local trading activities, played a key role. The professional associations, which according to the paltry information provided by inscriptions were in operation during this era, had inter alia the goal of limiting competition among the small traders. These and a number of other issues, such as that of the ancient terminology, are described in the third subsection. The fourth subsection complements the third, focusing attention on a particular group of small traders, the cives Romani consistentes. Bounegru sets out all of the problems and issues related to the economic, commercial, cultural (in the sense of the Romanization of subject countries) and legal importance of this group--which is in turn classified among the second-order groups--for the history both of the provinces as well as of the Roman empire itself.

The fifth subsection discusses some cases of hypothetical references to merchants. More specifically, in the texts of the inscriptions one may discern another category of merchants, for whose identity and presence "la liaison très probable entre l'origine des personnes attestées épigraphiquement et la nature de leurs intérêts" (81) is useful. As in the previous chapter, the final (sixth) subsection of the third chapter is devoted to an investigation into the ethnic origins and religion of merchants in the provinces of Moesia, Dacia, and Thrace. The main result of this subsection is the ascertaining of a two-way relationship in terms of communication between merchants of the eastern and western provinces.

The book's fourth chapter (89-111), "Navigation et moyens maritimes et fluviaux de transport" transports us to another environment, specifically that of navigation. In its first subsection, Bounegru makes a number of general observations concerning the typology of merchant ships in the Roman world. He emphasizes the fact that among the already existing data regarding such ships available to researchers, evidence offered by various preserved images from this era should also be included. Thus, we can acquire a fuller picture of shipbuilding and navigation during the Roman period, which assists us in better understanding the practices involved in transporting commercial goods by sea. The second subsection consists of two parts. The first presents large merchant ships, particularly those that could transport marble and various marble architectural members, while the second presents the smaller-scale ships that primarily sailed short distances to the various harbors of the Western Black Sea. These show the wide extent of trade relations among the three Balkan provinces. Another category of ships of the Roman era, the Romans' "naves actuariae", is presented in the third subsection. These are "mixed ships" that could reach high speeds and manoeuvre more easily. It appears from existing evidence that the "naves actuariae" transported amphorae and other small tradable goods exclusively.

In contrast to what we know of seafaring ships, the data we have for river navigation is incidental and sporadic. In the fourth subsection, the author notes some of the evidence researchers have at their disposal, chiefly regarding ships that sailed on the Evros and Danube in times of both war and peace. The fifth subsection describes navigation in the cities of the Western Pontus and its inland rivers. On the basis of existing information about commercial ships in this region, the author demonstrates the breadth of trade connections among the three Balkan provinces. However, future research is expected to throw more light on questions involving "l'intensité et l'évolution de la navigation commerciale de la Dacie, Mésie et Thrace" (111).

In the fifth chapter (113-122), there is a presentation of the organization of customs and connections among the cities of the Western Black Sea region, based on various sources, institutions, and documents, e.g. the text of a lex locationis, issued by the Consuls L. Octavius and C. Aurelius Cotta in 75 B.C. The author undertakes to approach the problem of customs duties on the basis of data from inscriptions, concluding that the Roman administration, with its low duties in certain regions, was trying to facilitate and encourage trade in goods, and commercial relations among provinces more generally. As noted above, the Romans' basic objective was to develop the economy through expanded and intensified trade connections among the provinces under its occupation.

The sixth and essentially final chapter of the book constitutes a concluding summary of Bounegru's study of the ancient Latin and Greek inscriptions. Research shows that the Romans' economic interest in the provinces of Dacia, Moesia, and Thrace is explained by the geopolitical context of these provinces, including both their strategic location, with rich lands lying between large, navigable rivers and seas, as well as the fact that they were a key point at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Furthermore, it is obvious that the Danube provinces were very quickly incorporated within the empire's wider economic system, becoming a basic component of the Roman economy. This fact had a powerful influence on ethnic and cultural ferment in the region of the Lower Danube, and of the entire Western Black Sea.

At the end of the volume there is a seventh chapter (131-139) in the form of an Appendix, which includes the inscriptions employed in the book. In all, sixty-eight inscriptions, both Greek and Latin, are cited.

In conclusion, we may say that Octavian Bounegru's Trafiquants et navigateurs sur le Bas-Danube et dans le Pont Gauche à l'époque romaine has great scholarly value for the specialized topics with which it deals, chiefly economic in nature, as well as for the history of the Greek cities in the Western Black Sea region during the Roman period.4 The inclusion of the Eastern and Southern Balkans and the Black Sea in the administrative and economic system of Rome had many consequences, both negative and positive, for the lives of those inhabiting this region.

If there is any criticism that should be reported concerning Bounegru's book, this would be the absence of a detailed map or maps to make it easier for readers, especially for those without a good working knowledge of the geography of the sites referred to in the book. I would venture to say that such a map must have been foreseen on page 192, most likely in place of the first illustration, where there is the caption "les routes commerciales", which obviously refers to a map showing trade routes, although the actual illustration shows four numbered ships of the era that are described in the book. From what one may gather, the caption is unrelated to the content of the illustration. I would think that this must have been a printing error, which certainly by no means affects the high scholarly value of the work. Since the wrong caption was placed on the first illustration, many of the following illustrations have captions that are clearly incorrect as well, because the numbering of the ships in the illustrations does not correspond to the captions accompanying each illustration. For example, the captions accompanying illustrations 3, 4, 6, 7 and 8 do not explain the content of these images. But, as I remarked above, this does not constitute a flaw for the scholarly content of the book itself. I think that the volume is well produced, and the author has produced a very good scientific work. The book is of remarkable value for its careful concern to clarify how the Roman Empire developed its economy in the new provinces. This will be a necessary addition to any serious reference library and of continuing interest to those working especially on wide-ranging implications on how we can view Roman economic history in general.


1.   A note of clarification here: the book's copious Bibliography extends up to the year 2000, with only one reference to that year, an article written by the author himself.
2.   For a more global overview (in Mediterranean terms), see: N. Purcell, "The Boundless Sea of Unlikeness? On Defining the Mediterranean", in I. Malkin, (ed.), Mediterranean Paradigms and Classical Antiquity. London and New York (Routledge), 2005: 14-16.
3.   On the word emporos and its development from ancient times, see Elias K. Petropoulos, Hellenic Colonization in Euxeinos Pontos: Penetration, Early Establishment, and the Problem of the 'Emporion' Revisited. British Archaeological Reports International Series, 1934. Oxford, 2005: 81-83, with references to recent bibliography.
4.   For recent evidence on the economic and commercial history of the Greek cities of the West Black Sea littoral and hinterland during the early era of the Roman Provinces in this region, see: D. Nedev and Kr. Papayotova, "Apollonia Pontica (end of the 7th-1st centuries B.C.)," in D. V. Grammenos and E. K. Petropoulos, (eds.), Ancient Greek Colonies in the Black Sea. Publication of the Archaeological Institute of Northern Greece, Nr. 4. Thessaloniki, vol. I, 2003: 120-123; Hr. Preshlenov, "Mesambria," in idem, 2003: 180-6; A. Minchev, "Odessos (6th century B.C. to early 1st century A.D.)," in idem, 2003: 249-54; A. Avram, "Histria," in idem, 2003: 311-19.

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