The essays collected by Luke Lavan aim at assessing the significance of local exchanges in late antiquity, especially with regard to inland regions. Most studies on the late antique economy place considerable emphasis on the highly visible aspects of pan-Mediterranean trade (predominantly, though not exclusively, finewares and amphorae of African and Eastern Mediterranean origin). This volume’s major contribution is to bring to the fore the non-coastal regions of the Mediterranean and North Atlantic world during late antiquity. While the chapters do not take a unanimous stand on the long-debated question of the relative prominence of taxes/government requisitions vs. market exchanges as drivers of the Roman economy, most of them endeavor to confront this historiographical issue. Indeed, one of the strengths of the volume is its presentation of a wide range of nuanced takes on this particular question.
The book is divided into four sections. The first section includes five bibliographical essays, including two essays by Alyssa Bandow (one on theoretical and methodological approaches to the late antique economy, the other on transport and distribution infrastructure), two by Andrea Zerbini (settlement patters and rural and artisanal production), and a final essay on ceramics and trade by Stefano Costa. For reasons of space I will not review them here, but they provide useful guidance for those interested in these issues.
The second section, titled “Theoretical Papers,” consists of two chapters by Mark Whittow and Peter Sarris. In his contribution, Whittow addresses the question of marked change in the evidence for economic exchange between 400 and 700 (which he labels a “decline”). Based on comparative evidence from medieval England, he argues that the late antique economy was predominantly (though not exclusively) market-driven because of the cumulative effect of small, almost imperceptible transactions by peasants who had to pay rents and taxes. This model remained possible as long as the state secured the predictability of market exchanges, which, Whittow argues, it no longer did after the so-called fall of the western empire and the Islamic conquests. Sarris, on the other hand, sees the late antique economy as an aggregate of regional markets, many of which preceded the Roman Empire. The late Roman state would intervene in these markets for specific fiscal and political purposes. At the same time, the state fostered markets through the transportation of products to the capitals and the demand for tax payments in cash. But Sarris claims that the state alone cannot explain the late antique exchange system per se. As in his previous scholarship, he brings to the fore the role of local landed elites in stimulating exchanges, with their production oriented towards markets. Sarris believes that post-Roman elites in the West gave up certain economic privileges and the trade network stimulated by the late imperial tax system in exchange for local autonomy and enforcement of property rights. Overall, these two essays draw attention to the regulatory aspects of state intervention, without completely rejecting the role of state-sponsored tax collection in stimulating commercial exchanges.
The theory section is followed by six chapters dealing with production in inland regions. In the first chapter, Kim Bowes invites us to reconsider the significance of late antique rural villas in inland Hispania. Contrary to theories that relate these villas to property concentration and/or direct tax collection and transportation, Bowes argues that rural mansions were built to advance the interests of a landowning class in the context of a more intense bureaucratic (i.e. state) presence. The wealth-generating opportunities of the tax system allowed local elites to compete among themselves by investing in projects in the countryside, where the state’s gaze was more intense due to the thinner urban network in Hispania. In the second chapter, Tamara Lewit analyzes the location of inland Gallic fineware workshops and the circulation of their products, which were widely distributed within Gaul though they scarcely made it out of the region in late antiquity. Lewit argues that fineware distribution had its own characteristics and that it was separate from the transportation of other local bulk products. Trade in fineware ceramics, Lewit suggests, was profitable enough to have its own dynamic, independent of tax-based circulation—at least at the local and regional levels. The third essay of this group, by Emanuele Vaccaro, also questions the primacy of the fiscal model as an explanation for the distribution of goods throughout the Mediterranean. In particular, he asserts that Sicily supplied Rome after 332 not only with taxes in kind but, more importantly, through the sale of agricultural surplus. This explains what Vaccaro sees as the late antique agricultural boom in inland Sicily. Through the study of the agro-town of Philosophiana, he traces the intense commercial contacts between inland Sicily and the Mediterranean (largely through African finewares and amphorae) into the second half of the fifth century, if not later. Vaccaro suggests that this marked continuity shows the relative independence of the inland Sicilian rural economy from the annona system. Elizabeth Fentress then looks at the highlands of Numidia in the region of Diana Veteranorum (Zana, Algeria). Through survey analysis, she argues that there was economic prosperity in the region during late antiquity, which may be puzzling since the earlier military garrison at Lambaesis no longer existed and there is little evidence of large-scale agricultural commodity production. Fentress argues that textile production, which was oriented towards local markets in smaller border garrisons and provincial capitals, must explain the apparent wealth of the region. She also suggests that the horse- and slave-trade provided the exchange network that facilitated textile distribution.
Two eastern Mediterranean case studies close this section of the book. Adam Izdebski takes the reader to the Anatolian countryside, where he also traces signs of prosperity in inland areas and coastal zones. Vine, olive, and walnut pollen is found in both regions, which leads him to stress the fundamental similarities between coastal and inland Anatolia. Their general prosperity, deduced predominantly from field surveys, allows him to argue that Constantinople, which was predominantly supplied from coastal areas, was not the only market for Anatolian agricultural products. Rather, he contends, we need to look at villages and small towns as places to which inland production was oriented, at least until the late fifth century. In the last chapter of this section, Fanny Bessard directs our attention to late antique cities east of the Jordan Valley. The main argument of her contribution is that this region had an active local exchange network during the Byzantine period, to which pottery attests. It was also in contact with Egypt and Arabia, in what Bessard calls “short-range trade.” Under the Caliphate, however, short-range trade intensified and the region also fostered contacts with Iraq, supported by pilgrim routes and the caliphs’ infrastructural investments in the road system. Bessard argues that this internationalization of exchanges may have favored the concentration of workshops in certain cities, in a virtuous circle of mutual reinforcement. The fourth and final section of the book, titled “Exchange in Inland Regions,” offers five papers covering a wide range of the empire’s geography. Jeremy Evans looks at the pottery evidence from late Roman Britain to demonstrate the increasing regional dimensions of the island’s exchange network after the third century. While he does not deny the potential role of the army, he suggests that the military was supplied by local, rather than trans-regional (especially Mediterranean), sources. Evans suspects that both cash transactions and direct military appropriations in the form of taxes fomented the exchanges between southern Britain and the northern garrisons, but he seems to favor taxes as the principal engine behind circulation of goods. Phil Mills also analyzes British evidence, this time ceramic building materials. Mills describes the changing nature of regional demand from military and urban civilian constructions (early empire) to villa construction in southeastern Britain (late empire).
These two chapters on Britain are followed by three contributions dealing with Central Europe, Africa, and Syria. Piroska Hárshegyi and Katalin Ottományi analyze imported and locally produced pottery in Pannonia. While African wares reached Pannonia in late antiquity, the authors describe local traditions of finewares that supplied most of the sites—some traditions imitating Roman wares, others following traditions from outside the empire’s borders. The presence of Mediterranean products is attributed to the annona and commercial exchanges. But these products overlapped in some sites, with local productions imitating Roman finewares. The question of ethnicity in relation to burnished wares appears at several points in their chapter. The authors suggest that this ceramic tradition was introduced by barbarians through trade and migrations/invasions. Michael Bonifay’s chapter moves the focus to late Roman Africa, in which he compares the consumption of ceramics in inland and coastal regions. Whereas the coasts were in contact with the main pan-Mediterranean exchange networks (ARS wares, African, Spanish, Eastern Mediterranean, and Sicilian amphorae), the inland areas had scarce signs of amphorae and a limited variety of African finewares. Nevertheless, Bonifay is able to trace micro-regional variations in inland sites, from which he concludes that a closer look at the evidence reveals a less stark contrast between coast and interior in terms of distribution patterns. The final chapter of this section, by Agnès Vokaer, also focuses on local and imported ceramics, in her case from Syria. This region also participated in the pan-Mediterranean world of late antiquity, as the presence of African and Eastern Mediterranean wares indicates. More importantly, Syria was supplied by local producers of so-called “Brittle” cooking wares and other forms as well as Syrian amphorae, probably used for transporting wine. Vokaer seems to favor the idea that the success of these wares and amphorae was due to the trade routes associated with military garrisons.
It is clear from this brief (and irremediably incomplete) summary that the debates over the relative importance of taxes versus commercial exchange as drivers of the late antique economy, recently re-sparked by Chris Wickham’s book, lie behind several of the contributions.1 In the case of inland economies, approaching this question is particularly challenging. While it is relatively simple to stress the fiscal connection between, say, Africa and Rome, it is almost impossible to trace “micro-tax worlds”—that is, circulation based on local networks of tax collection (at the estate, village, and city levels). What some of the papers seem to illustrate is the regionalization of exchanges during late antiquity (Gaul, Britain, Pannonia, Jordan). Does this mean that we are dealing with less commerce or with intensified local commerce? What is the role of the new tax system in this “regional turn”? These and other questions are crucial to understanding these “local economies” but are rather difficult to answer with the extant archaeological evidence.
Moreover, as some of the contributions stress, the interior and the coast could have been more connected economically than finewares and amphorae reveal. This leads us to the other looming question throughout the book: regional connectivity. This is crucial to defining an “inland region,” since the connectedness of a region depends not only on its distance from the coast but also on the connectivity infrastructure. Has the recognizability of African and eastern Mediterranean products in the archaeological record exaggerated the apparent density of commercial exchange in coastal areas? The chapters on Anatolian, Sicilian, and African production and exchanges may suggest so. Perhaps a more direct engagement with Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell’s work (and the responses of their critics) throughout the volume would have allowed for more explicit engagement with the complexities of overlapping regional and interregional systems of production and exchange.2
This reader’s overall impression of this book is marked by the diversity of the inland world of late antiquity and the balance between trans-regional systems and local networks in each of the regions discussed in the contributions. The volume addresses one of the fundamental historiographical questions of the period (state-sponsored vs. market-driven exchanges) from a less studied angle (inland regions). The answers may not be uniform, and are in some cases very provisional due to the nature of the evidence. But the contributions confirm that we must take inland regions as more than a mere appendix to the ongoing discussion about what made the late antique Mediterranean economy tick.
1. Chris Wickham. Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
2. Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell. The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History. Oxford; Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.