Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.11.17 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.11.17

Miko Flohr, Andrew Wilson (ed.), The Economy of Pompeii. Oxford studies on the Roman economy.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2017.  Pp. xvii, 433.  ISBN 9780198786573.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by Jeffrey D. Veitch, University of Kent, Canterbury (

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

This volume is divided into five sections, following an introduction, with two chapters in section one, three in section two, and four each in sections three and four. The final section is a single chapter by Willem Jongman, which reflects the work as a whole and the development of Pompeian economic history following Jongman’s own 1988 monograph, The Economy and Society of Pompeii.

Wilson and Flohr, in their introduction, contextualise the economic history of Pompeii as a revitalised field, which has increasingly broadened following the studies of the 1980s and 90s. The editors note three books in particular, Jongman’s The Economy and Society of Pompeii, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum, and Ray Laurence’s Roman Pompeii: Space and Society. While these are not the only books on the subject, they mark a turning point in the study of Pompeii, in general, and economic history, most notably in Jongman’s case, in particular (pp. 7-8). In their own ways, these monographs were products of their time. Changes to the administrative and archaeological practices in the late 1990s have also resulted in different approaches, divisions of labour, and specialisation within Pompeii (p. 8). These changes in practice led to the systematic explorations of pre-79 CE layers alongside specific projects focused on shops and workshops. Wilson and Flohr seek to bring this new work to light through the in-depth analysis of four key themes in economic history, themes which form the division of the volume and guide this review discussion.

The first theme is city and countryside, which is taken up in chapters one and two by Girolamo Ferdinando De Simone and Miko Flohr respectively. Chapter one addresses the agricultural hinterland of Pompeii and its ability to supply the area in the first century CE. The discussion ranges across various forms of agriculture, including wine, olive oil, grain and other crops, and woodland farming. Of note, is the conclusion that Pompeii was connected to wider supra-regional trade and an associated move towards regional specialisation. Certain staples, such as grain and fuel, had to be imported by certain Vesuvian cities, while specialised regional items, namely wine, were exported (pp. 47-8). This highlights potential areas for further study of the inequalities between regional specialisations, known in geography as uneven development. Flohr specifically addresses the question of inequality in his study of the housing stock, population, and the latter’s distribution within the walled area of the town. Drawing on a database of all fully excavated buildings and their rooms in Pompeii, Flohr undertakes a quantitative analysis of the socioeconomic inequalities evident in the standing remains (p. 55). What results is the ‘few rich/many poor’ model of social differentiation is at odds with the material remains at Pompeii. When these results are paired with De Simone’s conclusions about the importation of food staples, the standard ‘consumer city’ model comes into serious question. Instead, it would seem that the increasing specialisation for certain productive items, at different scales, enabled a wider social group to, quite literally, buy into certain elements of elite culture that appear in the archaeological record. Again, opening up further studies of the integration of these supra-regional exchanges at varying scales, as well as of the social implications for such mobility of commodities, will highlight the territorial inequalities at the level above regions.

Quality of life is the theme of the second section, which largely focuses on human health and diet practices as seen through specialized studies of sewers, waste, and human skeletal remains. In particular, this section provides a critique of a trend in scholarship that sees ancient cities as sites of dirt, diseases, and, in particular, poor living conditions. Instead, Erica Rowan argues that there was more complexity in the dietary habits across social strata than previously recognized, and Estelle Lazer that there are under-recognized levels of healed injuries within the population. Lazer, in particular, argues against the over-emphasis on high mortality, pointing out that the Pompeian victims were the ones who had survived other dangerous periods of human development, only to fall victim to a natural disaster, unlike those found in cemetery contexts (p. 153). The analyses of diets and skeletal remains work together and highlight particular supra-regional dependencies at a more local scale than is found in De Simone’s chapter. Nick Ray looks at the economic choices made by those of the high socio-economic levels of Pompeian society by studying the vessel assemblages found in their houses. Diversity in choice is apparent, although in this case only within a distinct group of houses. Together, the section emphasises the diversity available in economic choices, as well as durability within the population. Diversity and choice are not directly linked to the health of inhabitants, which would require its own study, but the emerging picture of Pompeii is one of its citizens having access to a greater choice of goods and foodstuffs than previously thought.

There are four chapters in the third section, ‘Economic Life and its Contexts’, which begins with Eric Poehler’s GIS network analysis of the Pompeian ‘movement economy’. Through the simulation of all possible movements within the road network, Poehler can trace a hierarchy of movement within that network, emphasising an under-recognised area of intense movement at the intersection of the Via Consolare, Vicolo di Modesto, and Via delle Terme (p. 190). Nicolas Monteix discusses the role of urban production through a series of short case studies that highlight the issues and problems with interpreting various material remains at Pompeii. Monteix highlights the importance of geographical distribution of resources, which enabled urban production to function (the système technique approach), recalls earlier chapters on the Pompeii’s supra-regional connections and their influence on individual economic choices. The two other chapters in this section focus on entrepreneurial decisions (Damian Robinson) and wall paintings (Domenico Esposito). Robinson pairs the archaeological evidence for insula VI 1 with elite literature to contextualise economic investment as a priority in the shaping of architectural space. Esposito examines the surviving wall paintings and distinguishes two workshops that catered to different clienteles across Pompeii. In their own ways, these two chapters provide insights into the economics of sociality and tastes. The chapters display distinctive differences in approach, as Monteix raises the problematic nature of Latin terminology for understanding social and spatial designations, while Esposito uses Latin nomenclature freely to designate styles and types of painting.

Four chapters make up the fourth themed section, ‘Money and Trade’, which is split between a discussion of the role of money and coins in Pompeian studies and a discussion of the social, cultural, and legal networks that made economic choices possible. Steven Ellis tackles the problems of methodology and interpretation regarding the correlation of coin loss and coin finds, and considers the implications of these problems for our reconstruction of monetary activity. Ellis proposes an ‘afterlife’ of coins in which they pass into tertiary contexts, such as refuse or construction debris. The coins from Ellis’ own excavations are predominately from the stratified layers associated with construction fills. Richard Hobbs turns to the earliest numismatic evidence for Pompeii, highlighting the importation of coins from modern day Ibiza (Ebusus) and Marseilles (Massalia). The circulation of large quantities of Republican coins from Ebusus and Massalia, alongside local imitations, indicates early connections between the Campanian region and the wider western Mediterranean. Koenraad Verboven contextualises monetized transactions within the social relations of the Roman world. Verboven emphasises the importance of credit and accounting institutions in the economy of the Bay of Naples. While coins were the primary instrument of transactions, an institutional framework of credit and accounting reduced transaction costs within Roman society. The social relationships within the business communities were the primary means for dealing with fraudulent business partners, as Wim Broekaert argues. Using the Sulpicii archive, he explains the reliance on such relationships as the key first step in dealing with fraudulent partners. Both Verboven and Broekaert, in their own ways, highlight the importance of social networks for the proper functioning of the Roman economy. Pompeii and Campania are exceptional in many ways, particularly because they are one of the central commercial hubs in Italy, linking to networks within the wider Mediterranean, as several chapters in the volume point out.

In the final chapter, and section, Willem Jongman discusses the development of Pompeian economic history since his 1988 monograph. For Jongman, Pompeii is no longer the ideal case study-city due to the limitations it imposes on our ability to understand changes over time. The volume shows the prosperity of Pompeii, which extended to lower levels of society than Jongman had once thought (p. 425). The Finley ‘consumer city’ model remains as a potential model for Pompeii’s relationship to its hinterland, though it must now be altered to account for greater regional specialisation. His suggestions for potential areas of further research are limited to general comments on ‘more on standard of living’, ‘empirical data on prosperity’, and ‘more on agriculture’ (p. 426). Readers may find, as I did, that it is difficult to relate this chapter to the papers that preceded it.

The volume integrates the most recent archaeological research on Pompeii within the broader field of economic history. As noted in this review, the basic economic model has not changed, although the individual studies provide new ways of understanding economic and social relationships over space and time. It is a valuable resource for students and scholars already familiar with the site. Introductions to some of the particular forms of analysis are minimal, but are adequate for understanding the arguments put forward. In the end, the volume makes a coherent argument for Pompeii’s particular role within the economic and geographical development of Roman Italy at the level of city, region, and supra-regional scales and is a welcome addition to the growing number of scholarly analyses of Pompeii.

Authors and titles

Miko Flohr and Andrew Wilson, ‘Introduction: Investigating an Urban Economy’
Girolamo Ferdinando de Simone, ‘The Agricultural Economy of Pompeii: Surplus and Dependence’
Miko Flohr, ‘Quantifying Pompeii: Population, Inequality, and the Urban Economy’
Nick M. Ray, ‘Consumer Behaviour in Pompeii: Theory and Evidence’
Erica Rowan, ‘Sewers, Archaeobotany, and Diet at Pompeii and Herculaneum’
Estelle Lazer, ‘Skeletal Remains and the Health of the Population at Pompeii’
Eric Poehler, ‘Measuring the Movement Economy: A Network Analysis of Pompeii’
Nicolas Monteix, ‘Urban Production and the Pompeian Economy’
Damian Robinson, ‘Wealthy Entrepreneurs and the Urban Economy: Insula VI 1 in its Wider Economic Contexts’
Domenico Esposito, ‘The Economics of Pompeian Painting’
Steven J. R. Ellis, ‘Re-evaluating Pompeii’s Coin Finds: Monetary Transactions and Urban Waste in the Retail Economy of an Ancient City’
Richard Hobbs, ‘Bes, Butting Bulls, and Bars: The Life of Coinage at Pompeii’
Koenraad Verboven, ‘Currency and Credit in the Bay of Naples in the First Century AD’
Wim Broekaert, ‘Conflicts, Contract Enforcement, and Business Communities in the Archive of the Sulpicii;
Willem Jongmann, ‘Pompeii Revisited’
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