Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.06.44 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.06.44

Kerstin Höghammar, Brita Alroth, Adam Lindhagen (ed.), Ancient Ports: The Geography of Connections. Proceedings of an International Conference at the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University, 23-25 September 2010. Boreas, 34.   Uppsala:  Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 2016.  Pp. 346.  ISBN 9789155496098.  SEK 305.00.  


Reviewed by Clayton Miles Lehmann, University of South Dakota (clehmann@usd.edu)

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

As the editors explain in their brief introduction, this collection includes eleven peer-reviewed papers delivered at a conference about ancient Greek and Roman ports as distinctive social and economic systems connected to each other and to their hinterlands. The editors do not explain whether the conference included other papers; the published collection treats no ports outside the Aegean, Adriatic, Ionian, and Tyrrhenian Seas other than Leptis Magna and Hispalis (Seville), though the authors do include comparative references to other ports, such as Alexandria. Each article includes an abstract and bibliography. The production meets high standards of editing and presentation, including many tables, plans, and photographs in color; unfortunately, the book has no index.

Surprisingly for papers originally presented at a single venue, the authors rarely engage with each other, a failure especially noticeable between the two papers on the ports of Rome. The exception comes in the first article, Reger’s theoretical discussion of the sociology of port towns, or “sailor towns,” which have a distinct character due to their connectivity with people across the seas and into the hinterland. Melville’s New Bedford, colonial Havana, and ancient Delos evoke the distinctiveness of sailor towns, and Reger references the papers by Bouras, Lindhagen, and Boetto for discussing the networking of Aegean ports, the sociology of Narona in Dalmatia, and the exclusively commercial character of Portus, respectively. Intriguingly, Reger asks us to think of ports in a flexibly comparative way by considering oases as desert ports.

The papers by Archibald and Bonnier focus on the commercial connections of inland peoples to each other and the sea. Archibald draws on his work at ancient Pistiros in Thrace to move from a theoretical discussion of connections between sea ports and inland harbors to a valuable case study of the movement of goods from northern Aegean ports up the Strymon and Nestos rivers and over mountain passes into Thrace. Legal and practical structures facilitated trade: for example, the Pistiros inscription (SEG 43.486) and the availability of farm animals for transport during agricultural off seasons. Bonnier summarizes his dissertation about connections from the archaic through Hellenistic periods between Achaean poleis on the Corinthian Gulf and “satellite” sites and microregions located on the coast and up the valleys to Arcadia. He argues that the mountains did not obstruct but rather channeled through the valleys trade of upland timber and animal products for imported grain, wine, and oil.

The next two papers consider the connections of Kos to the Aegean and the wider Mediterranean world. Höghammar surveys three types of Koan “webs” in the Hellenistic period attested by proxeny decrees, bronze coins, and grants of asylia to the sanctuary of Asclepius and of panhellenic status to its games. She finds that the connections were always most important along the trade route running up and down the western coast of Anatolia. Most interestingly she argues persuasively that Kos’s grants of proxeny honor non-Koans who assisted the city during food crises. The decrees regularly include a provision securing the persons and goods of the proxenoi, whom she identifies as “heads of shipping and trading houses” (p. 129). Höghammar emphasizes the provisional nature of her results, and suggests that a fuller study should look at epigraphs, shipwrecks, and the distribution of ceramics. Nevertheless, she has produced a small monograph, which at seventy pages more than doubles or triples the length of the other articles. Next, Kokkorou-Alevras, Grigoropoulos, Diamanti, and Koutsoumpou draw on their excavations and surveys at Halasarna on the southern coast of Kos to chart the history of the town’s imports from the Neolithic through the end of antiquity. They summarize only provisional data, and they have not identified the harbor, but they can give an impression of increasing imports in the classical period when the Halasarnans began shipping their wine and oil in locally produced amphorae; contacts increased in the later Hellenistic through the Roman periods; and in the fourth through seventh centuries Halasarna flourished with plentiful trade throughout the Aegean, eastern Mediterranean, and North Africa.

Bouras offers a general overview of the Aegean network in the Roman period, noticing that ancient geographers did not understand our Aegean as a discrete subregion of the Mediterranean but rather as a group of discrete seas defined by groups of islands. She highlights the disconnect between the literary evidence, which identifies major east-west and north-south navigational routes between a few terminal ports, and the archaeological evidence, which points to a hierarchy of ports according to the extent of the development and the size of the harbors.

Lindhagen takes us to the Neretva River in Dalmatia and describes the long history of the area that gave access from the Adriatic coast into the hinterland of Dalmatia from before the Roman annexation after 168 BCE to modern times. He studies the river harbor town of Narona (modern Vid), which controlled this area until the course of the river shifted during the Middle Ages. Lindhagen investigates the changing sociology of this multicultural town, first a gateway between Adriatic Greeks and Illyrian tribes trading wine for agricultural products, minerals, slaves, and timber, then a staging area and administrative center for Roman control of Dalmatia as well as a center for commerce managed by freedmen agents for merchants in Rome. Under the empire, once Narona became a colony, Italian elites settled there and took over the trade directly. Finally, after the second century, as Dalmatia Romanized, the military and administrative importance of Narona declined, and Salona became a more important commercial harbor.

Lentini, Blackman, and Pakkanen turn to the Greek west and draw on their recent excavations at Sicilian Naxos to make some preliminary observations about its situation as a node in the colonial network eastward to Chalcis and Naxos and northward to Pithecusae and Cumae as well as a node in the local network of eastern Sicily and the straits. They conclude with the interesting observation that Sicily’s character as a small continent with many port cities rather than a large island with a few complicates our current understanding of the maritime character of typical Greek cities.

The following two chapters on Rome’s port system review much of the same material with respect to the infrastructure of Portus, but otherwise address quite different problems. Boetto’s fascinating, multidisciplinary paper studies the hydrography, hydrology, and geography of the Tiber from its headwaters to its mouth as well as its archaeology and history. She distinguishes the river’s various transport zones, defined by depth and rate of flow—each requiring a distinctive type of vessel—and the transit zones between them, where goods moved via storage facilities from one type of vessel to another. Finally, she distinguishes the seaport of Portus from the fluvio-maritime port of Ostia and the fluvial ports of Rome as components of “an integrated harbour complex” (p. 269). Boetto shows that the imperial-period Grandi Horrea of Ostia, currently a subject of her research, could have held 1645 to 2430 tons of grain. Twelve to eighteen seagoing ships of some 150 tons would have filled it, then a fleet of twenty to thirty river-going ships of some seventy tons could have carried it up to Rome within a month during the period of at least three hundred days per year when the Tiber was navigable. Keay’s paper extends the analysis from the port system of the Tiber to the “poly-focal hub” of the Tiber ports with other central Italian ports such as Puteoli—Rome’s seaport until the development of Ostia and Portus in the imperial period—and then to patterns of trade among Mediterranean ports in general with their respective connections to their hinterlands. In effect, Keay offers a preliminary report on his comprehensive study of the relationship among Portus, Rome, and Mediterranean ports, the Portus Project. In this paper he asks two specific questions: How did the development of Rome’s port system in the second century affect the development of other Mediterranean ports as they moved local goods to the imperial center? To what extent did regional development depend on imperial direction as opposed to local initiative? He answers these questions in two case studies involving the provision of olive oil to Rome. Hispalis (modern Seville) does not show signs of central direction as its port infrastructure developed in the second century; Leptis Magna does, due to the personal interest of its native son Septimius Severus, but Keay cannot say whether economic motivations account for the development as opposed to imperial display. Further study will also investigate changes in the volume of shipping and the extent of economic integration in the Roman Mediterranean.

The volume concludes with Malmberg’s study of the port of Ravenna. Here the focus returns to the sociology of a sailor town subject to major changes throughout the Roman period due to political and geographical alterations as much as to commercial developments in the Po valley and the lagoon systems of the northern Adriatic. Augustus developed Ravenna’s harbor for military purposes, but the infrastructure became available for local and Mediterranean trade, which Malmberg charts chronologically. The presence of the fleet meant an influx of soldiers from outside Italy, especially from the Balkans, and the arrival of the imperial court in the fifth century meant an influx of luxury-hungry elites, bureaucrats, and the soldiers of the praetorian prefecture. Add Goths and the clergy of the now powerful Ravenna bishopric and you have a remarkably cosmopolitan and varied population. But silting from the Po put the harbor and lagoon out of use, and Ravenna declined as towns to the north took over its commercial functions until Venice emerged as the Queen of the Adriatic.

This collection constitutes a valuable contribution to the study of the ancient (and in some cases medieval and modern) Mediterranean, particularly with respect to geography, commerce, networks, and the sociology of port communities. The theoretical work of Polanyi, Braudel, Horden and Purcell, and Malkin inform these studies, and the authors’ familiarity with the scholarship of their subjects and in most cases their direct participation in excavation and survey ensures immediacy and practicality. All eleven papers fulfill the organizers’ intention to study ports as distinct types of communities due to their connection to each other and to their hinterlands.

Authors and titles

Kerstin Höghammar and Adam Lindhagen, Preface
Gary Reger, “Nodes of sea and sand. Ports, human geography and networks of trade.”
Zosia H. Archibald, “Moving upcountry: ancient travel from coastal ports to inland harbours.”
Anton Bonnier, “Harbours and hinterland networks by the Corinthian Gulf, from the Archaic to the Early Hellenistic period.”
Kerstin Höghammar, “International networks of an island port in the Hellenistic period—the case of Kos.”
Georgia Kokkorou-Alevras, Dimitris Grigoropoulos, Charikleia Diamanti, and Maria Koutsoumpou, “Maritime connections of Halasarna on Cos from prehistory to Late Antiquity: a view based on the pottery and other finds.”
Catherine Bouras, “The geography of connections: a harbour network in the Aegean Sea during the Roman Imperial period?”
Adam Lindhagen, “Narona in Dalmatia—the rise and fall of a ‘gateway settlement.’"
Maria Costanza Lentini, David Blackman, and Jari Pakkanen, “The port in the urban system of Sicilian Naxos (5th century BC).”
Giulia Boetto, Portus, “Ostia and Rome: a transport zone in the maritime/land interface.”
Simon Keay, “Portus in its Mediterranean context.”
Simon Malmberg, “Ravenna: naval base, commercial hub, capital city.”
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