Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.11.13

Emanuele Papi (ed.), Supplying Rome and the Empire: the Proceedings of an International Seminar Held at Siena-Certosa di Pontignano on May 2-4, 2004, on Rome, the Provinces, Production and Distribution. Journal of Roman Archaeology, Supplementary series no. 69.   Portsmouth, R.I.:  Journal of Roman Archaeology, 2007.  Pp. 227.  ISBN 9781887829694.  $69.00.  

Reviewed by Edward Luttwak, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC (
Word count: 1923 words

This exceedingly useful and mostly very readable collection of conference papers also contains a synthesis paper of which more anon, but many non-specialists will focus on the particular rather than the general, because in most cases the subject matter is inherently so interesting.

Mediterranean fisheries were notoriously poor (they are slightly richer now because of littoral sewage), fish is the most perishable of foods, yet the Roman diet was much enriched by fish. Laura Cerri's "Salsamenta dalla Tingitania" focuses on one aspect of the paradox: In Tingitania the more abundant Atlantic fishery provided the raw material, evaporation basins provided the salt, and processing plants produced salted fish (including Pliny's cordyla or young tuna), whose preservation required the removal of the innards, which were not wasted but instead fermented to produce garum, a most transportable source of protein and pungent condiment for insipid cereal gruels. Cerri surveys the industry from production facilities (photographically illustrated) to the commercial network; a map shows finds of local amphorae as far away as the lower Rhine.

In "Olio d'oliva per Roma e per il mercato intraregionale," Mariette de Vos examines another North African product which did not have as much of a comparative advantage given its Mediterranean ubiquity, olive oil from Africa Zeugitania, in contemporary Tunisia. Olive presses have stone collecting bases, and it is their prevalence that is the focus of the survey, whose aim is to determine the vitality of the sector. Received political history would incline one to guess otherwise, but out of 474 sites, 8% are pre-Roman, 39% are Roman of all periods, no fewer than 27% are attributed to the Vandal interlude, and 25% to the Byzantine period. Careful quantitative analysis is the strength of this paper: we learn among other things that the single press of a farm in Aïn Wassel (others had more, one had 12) could produce 226 kilos of oil in 24 hours, so that it could supply the household's needs in 4 days of the 90-day season, with up to another 12,510 kilos for sale, assuming that the landlord received a third of the output as per the lex Hadriana de rudibus agri--things could have been worse for the farmer. In addition to photographs, there are two exceptionally clear relief maps which identify the farms.

In "Ambra del Nord nell'impero romano" Jerzy Kolendo presents another kind of survey, not a summation of local archaeological reports but more of an interpretative essay. Amber, fossilized tree resin, occurs in many places around the world but for the Romans it was Baltic amber that counted. Most easily found on the beaches from the Vistula east to the Niemen and especially in Samland (now in the Kaliningrad enclave), it reached the empire most directly through central Europe to Aquileia near modern Trieste; but as Kolendo indicates the so-called "Amber road" was a direction rather than a track, notwithstanding the impressive accuracy of Pliny's (NH 37.45) estimated distance of 600 [Roman] miles from Carnuntum to the east Baltic shore. Finds of carved amber are neither rare nor abundant enough to support quantitative analysis.

There is more specificity in Andrew Wilson's "The metal supply of the Roman Empire" which actually covers monetary metal alone. Coin was paid out to sustain the army and bureaucracy, then collected again by taxation. Wilson notes that even 1% attrition due to hoarding and losses would halve the coinage in 70 years, and also gives credence to the curmudgeons (Tacitus Ann. 3.52; Pliny NH6.101 and others) who deplored the outflow of gold to pay for luxury imports; but the craftsmen and workshops of the empire--some veritable factories--produced much that its neighbors craved, and the inflow of gold might well have matched or exceeded the outflow. What is certain is that mining augmented the gold supply. Wilson mentions the evidence for both tunneled hard rock mines and alluvial extraction in many places but focuses on the Spanish mines, the largest and most advanced, noting their hydraulic engineering feats, which are clearly explicated. Wilson next examines the resulting coinage, the aureus worth 25 silver denarii, set at 7.75 grams and over 99% purity by Augustus in 19 B.C.E. which was not replaced until the 4.5 gram solidus of Constantine, though its gold content started to decline from the early third century (Wilson has a graph). Spain was also the major source of silver; the Rio Tinto mines were worked until 1996 (!) . The Augustan denarius contained c.3.6 grams of silver unalloyed except for original impurities, but its debasement started early, under Nero with copper. Again there is a silver content chart, in which the denarius gives way to the antoninianusof Caracalla, tariffed at two denarii with only 80% of their silver. Diocletian introduced the supposedly 95% fine argenteus, but a 310 specimen had 34% silver on the surface and only 23% in the core. That silver production declined is probable, but Wilson 's attempt to confirm this with a graph showing lead concentration levels in Greenland ice-core samples (silver smelting releases lead), is inconclusive.

Wilson's conclusion depicts a strong relationship between the supply of fine coin and imperial fortunes, arguing that the "massive" coin production of the first century did not cause inflation because local economies were still being monetized; actually it was due to the increased productivity of tranquil times.

Laura Gasti's "Animali per Roma" does not deal with pigs or sheep but only with the supply of wild animals for public entertainments in Rome, including elephants, ostriches and tigers as well as the proverbial lions; such was its political significance that it continued into the fifth century, in spite of all the disasters of the times. Gasti's detailed survey starts with the cages, documenting different types from fragmentary frescos and mosaics, including the spectacular and intact Piazza Armerina "great hunt". Transport is further documented by narrative sources, including all the different techniques that were developed to load and unload, and to safeguard animals during long and difficult voyages to Ostia, including hoists to prevent battering in stormy seas. Gasti argues that the navalia, Tiber-side storage sheds for ships were also used to keep caged animals until they were needed, but with more conjecture than evidence. Animals were displayed in vivaria and not merely killed in the circus, but again the evidence is very fragmentary.

J. Theodore Peña's much longer, much more detailed "The quantitative analysis of Roman pottery: general problems, the methods employed at the Palatine east, and the supply of African Sigillata to Rome" is also much more specialized. Given that pottery data is studied as an index of economic activity and more specifically of exports, Peña's ambitious aim is to promote the use of a particular method: C. Orton's EVE, estimated vessel equivalents, i.e. the sum of the portions of the various vessels represented, normally determined on the basis of one specific vessel part, rim, base, handle etc. Peña argues that Roman pottery specialists have failed to accept EVE because of its difficulty, thereby continuing to rely on the statistically invalid EVREP, estimated vessels represented, as well as the plainer measures of sherd numbers and weights. Peña treats Rome's "Palatine East" excavation data as a case-study, first carefully explaining how the dig was conducted. Within that larger frame, he examines the data for imported African Sigillata (from Tunisia) among the sherds to show how its interpretation varies under the EVE and EVREP methods. To his lengthy quantitative analysis that only specialists can evaluate, Peña adds an even more technical note by James McCraw on how to calculate vessel capacity from profile drawings--obviously important given that the aim is to estimate the volume of export activity from recovered sherds.

"Supplying Rome: safeguarding the system" by Boudewijn Sirks refers to legal and institutional safeguards, such as the collegia of workers who collectivized responsibilities ensuring their fulfillment and the societas that could pool capital and outlive individuals (the modern era added only limited liability). Sirks can mostly rely on the well-known legal sources which he analyses from a logistic viewpoint, so to speak.

Barbara Scardigli begins her survey in "I rifornimenti per l'esercito in età repubblicana: una rassegna" by defining the respective roles of the Senate and occasionally the people, who had to authorize and procure supplies; of the army commander--not necessarily a professional under the Republic any more than his soldiers--who had to ensure transport; of private contractors and merchants who delivered supplies in bulk to the legions on campaign, and of retailers, who sold comfort items to the troops, and bought booty slaves, animals and other valuables from them. Next, Scardigli examines what was supplied, starting with the cereals that dominated the diet, but also water as well as fodder, timber and wood for burning. Siege machines were habitually built on site but weapons came from workshops and indeed factories, which are almost undocumented in the Republican period. A brief chronological overview from early times till Caesar completes this rather superficial survey.

David Nonnis and Cecilia Ricci also examine supply in their "La legio II Augustain Britannia: il contributo dei materiali iscritti" but in thrice focused fashion, by limiting themselves to one legion, to the epigraphic evidence and to one question: the relative scope of private enterprise by contractors and merchants, as opposed to state self-supply, including legionary agriculture and animal husbandry. Two centuries of residence at the thoroughly studied Caerleon fortress provide much evidence, inscribed pottery and bricks, lead seals, and documents and letters on wooden tablets. The conclusion is inconclusive, for there is evidence of both self-supply and private commerce.

Werner Eck's "Das römische Köln: Wie deckt eine Provinzstadt ihren Bedarf?" is also focused, on the supply of Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, a provincial city to be sure but far from unimportant, and the subject of Eck's well-known city history. The pottery evidence features largely in this essay but so does the careful calculation of agricultural production parameters.

Another group of papers, by M. Bonifay ("Que transportaient donc les amphores africaines?"); Elisabetta Gliozzo ("The distribution of bricks and tiles in the Tiber valley: the evidence from Piammano, Bomarzo, Viterbo," and her further paper "Supplying Italy with black and white pigments"); Emanuele Papi and Francesco Martorella ("Il grano della Tingitania"); and Maria Grazia Granino Cecere and Vincenza Morizio ("Nuove testimonianze sull'amministrazione dei marmi nella Roma imperiale") are no more inaccessible thanks also to mostly excellent graphics, maps and data tables, but they are too densely documented to be usefully summarized here, though each contains much for non-specialists as well.

David Mattingly's concluding overview begins by noting that the complexity and scale of Roman logistics are "highly atypical of a pre-industrial state", positioning himself on one side of the debate on the empire's relative "modernity"--which is the right side, this reviewer believes. Also persuasive is Mattingly's next proposition, that one should think of multiple economies, local, provincial and imperial, as supposed to a single economy. A useful table illustrates their differences, with the archaeological correlates. He next differentiates between the Late Republic, Early Principate, the 3rd century, Constantine, 4th century and later, in tabulating the sources of government revenue streams, the sources of metal for coinage, and the epoch's "problems affecting coinage supply", including that probable trope "luxury trade with the East." In conclusion Mattingly importantly notes that archaeological evidence has refuted the assumption that transport costs confined trade to a handful of luxuries, in part because the annona system that moved mass quantities of revenue grain could cross-subsidize reverse flows. This too contributed to an economy that was "extra-ordinary by the stands of the pre-industrial world."

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