Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.04.36 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.04.36

Matthew S. Hobson, The North African Boom: Evaluating Economic Growth in the Roman Province of Africa Proconsularis (146 B.C. - A.D. 439). Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series 100.   Portsmouth, RI:  Journal of Roman Archaeology, 2015.  Pp. 181.  ISBN 9780991373048.  $99.00 (hb).  

Reviewed by Matthew M. McCarty, University of British Columbia (


Under the Roman Empire, the central and eastern Maghreb (roughly corresponding to modern Tunisia and western Libya) grew into one of the richest and most productive landscapes of the Mediterranean. Large batteries of olive-oil presses on rural sites, the quantity of African amphorae found at Ostia and Rome, the development of fish-salting “factories” along the coast, the dominance of African red-slip ware (ARS) from the third century onwards across the Mediterranean, and an important textile industry fueled the creation of the densest monumental urban landscape in the provinces, and catapulted wealthy African landowners into the Roman Senate—and one even into the imperial purple. Explaining the nature and causes of this seeming economic boom has driven numerous studies, starting with nineteenth-century French colonial scholars eager to posit a post-Roman, Arab decline of the region (and hope that French colonial efforts could restore such prosperity). Hobson offers a timely and valuable synthesis of many aspects of the North African economy, with careful attention to regional and chronological variability and an emphasis on the local contributions (rather than imperial stimuli) that drove development. Hobson’s ambitious aim is not only to understand the nature and scope of the North African economic boom in fine-grained detail, but to restore some of the social and cultural dimensions to the ancient economy that contemporary New Institutional Economics has stripped away. In the attaining of the more modest goal, Hobson offers a valuable synthesis of key debates and data that will make this book a standard reference; in the wider goal, he offers a positive starting point rather than a paradigm shift.

Hobson situates his work within the wider context of debates on the nature of the Roman economy, offering a number of timely critiques of contemporary discourses on the ancient economy—and yet, ultimately, he remains mired in the traditional battle-lines of these debates. Something of a scholarly consensus has developed in recent studies of the Roman economy, led by works out of Stanford and the Oxford Roman Economy Project: there was a Roman economy, which can be subjected to similar forms of quantitative analysis as modern market economies. Hobson pushes back against this, allying himself more with the work of Moses Finley to argue that North Africa demonstrates the ways in which the Roman economy was embedded within wider social frameworks (never mind the academic sleight-of-hand that in one breath proclaims the economy indivisibly embedded in something else, yet capable of undergoing examination as a discrete phenomenon).1 To bolster his position, Hobson adds a postcolonial twist to arguments penned by Finley and his successors: the market-oriented analyses of the Roman economy are, Hobson contends, products of neoliberal development economics, and thus, to fully “de-colonize” histories of the Roman economy requires jettisoning such models.

In order to make his wider argument for the social embeddedness of North African economic development, Hobson offers two chapters on the historical development of the province and its social dynamics (2 and 5, the latter presented in the form of a conclusion) that flank syntheses of recent archaeological work on olive-/wine-presses (chapter 3) and ceramics (amphorae and ARS: chapter 4). Individually, each of these chapters offers a nuanced and compelling argument for how to read these various types of evidence, with refreshing awareness of many of the limits of these bodies of material.

Chapter 2 sets the stage for the social-history argument by looking at the historical development of different land-holding patterns in Africa and challenging the causal role often attributed to imperial policy in driving the economic boom. Drawing together new work on the centuriation patterns observable in Tunisia and new interpretations of the Gracchan lex Agraria, Hobson argues that the generations after Rome’s destruction of Carthage are key moments in setting the stage for the later agricultural boom: the process of surveying the new province of Africa, and probably awarding substantial plots to absentee landlords, fundamentally reshaped the social and productive landscape of the region. The late first century saw the development of large imperial estates in central-western Tunisia (west of the Fossa Regia), while the inhabitants of the coastal cities of Tripolitania were the landowners of the huge oil-producing estates of the inland Libyan djebel. These different landholding patterns play out in the distribution of olive (or wine) presses that Hobson quantifies in Chapter 3, synthesizing data obtained through several survey projects. The Tripolitanian elite focused on cash-crop (near) monoculture in an arid environment ill-suited to other crops, building the highest-capacity batteries of presses; smaller pressing installations dotted the smaller estates of northern Tunisia. Such regional particularities suggest that top-down control of production, and the impact of imperial programs (the lex Manciana and lex Hadriana de rudibus agris), is less important for shaping the agricultural boom in Africa than often assumed.

In turning to the production and distribution of North African ceramics, Hobson combines typological studies, land distributions, and shipwreck data to offer a nuanced synthesis of recent work that throws into relief the different regional patterns and fates of various products. Estates in central Tunisia sent their agricultural goods (oil, but also wine) to coastal cities in perishable containers like skins, where the products were repackaged in amphora made at coastal kilns before being sent onwards—primarily to Italy following the construction of Trajan’s harbor at Portus. This process not only speaks to the integration of specialized regions and to the polyculture of inland Tunisia, but to a marked difference with Tripolitania, where amphorae were produced near where the olives were pressed before being sent outward via coastal ports. The production of ARS for export markets piggybacked onto the olive-oil industry, occurring on the estates in northern and central Tunisia, using press waste for kiln fuel, and following the same inland-coast transport infrastructure; still, ARS achieved a much wider distribution than products contained in amphorae in the second-fifth centuries, hinting at the movement of other, less archaeologically-visible products (grain, textiles) from Africa to the wider empire. Yet while the importance of other commodities—animal products, textiles, marine products like garum and salsamenta—is acknowledged throughout the book, these remain bit players in Hobson’s account (there is, for example, no discussion of fish-salting on par with that of press installations, and other animal products are often confined to brief mentions or footnotes), which maintains the impression (contrary to Hobson’s explicit argument) that the North African economic boom was an “olive boom.”

While Hobson’s social-history account of the North African economic boom is a potentially useful corrective to the focus on quantifiable market dynamics or imperially-driven development, the nature of the evidence examined creates a kind of disconnect between the social history framing and the archaeological data in chapters 3-4, a disconnect that plagues many similar studies. Epigraphic, legal, and literary material offers the chance to study the social dynamics of individuals or distinctly marked groups (whether landowners, coloni, or the late-antique circumcelliones); pressing installations, artifact distributions, and shipwrecks are more often than not anonymous and multiple, more amenable to the quantitative approaches that remove individuals and historical actors and see anonymous forces. The rare moments when these data overlap, as on the saltus Beguensis or with the elite of Leptis Magna, offer the most compelling moments in Hobson’s account for the different social and economic strategies pursued by landowners, though material pertaining to such cases is scattered throughout the text (and difficult to reconstitute, given the lack of index).

Perhaps what is needed to understand the Roman economy are new approaches and interpretive frameworks, rather than revisiting the formalist-substantivist debates, or those over statal versus individual agency/interest. One productive way forward may be through inter-regional comparison, in order to determine the degree to which the social dynamics Hobson fingers as causal agents might actually be key variables driving economic development. Baetica offers a particularly apt comparison: a western province similarly engaged in polyculture but with an emphasis on surplus production of oil (especially for state-sponsored distributions), but with different patterns of land-tenure and use (and a mix of imperial, senatorial, and smaller estates).2 While debates about statal-, market/demand-, or landowner-driven development are similarly raging in Baetica, setting the provinces side-by-side with the level of detailed analysis Hobson provides should be a desideratum in studies of the Roman economy.

Nevertheless, the critiques offered here should not detract from the multiple and valuable contributions this book makes to the history of North Africa and to the study of the Roman economy. In collating disparate data points and debates, Hobson offers an important status quaestionis of the economy of Roman Africa, if little that will surprise those who work in the region.


1.   B. Nongbri, “Dislodging ‘Embedded’ Religion: A Brief Note on a Scholarly Trope,” Numen 55 (2008): 440-460.
2.   J. Remesel Rodríguez, “Oleum afrum et hispanum” in A. Amrabet and J. Remesal Rodríguez (eds), In Africa et in Hispania: Études sur l’huile africaine (Bareclona 2007), 315-328 offers a quick comparison in which the value of the approach is already apparent, as is the need for a more detailed account. While the volume itself is comparative insofar as it provides case studies from both Spain and Africa, like other recent discussions, analysis of each region tends to run in parallel rather than analytical comparison.

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