BMCR 2003.06.32

Mercati permanenti e mercati periodici nel mondo romano. Atti degli Incontri capresi di storia dell’economia antica (Capri 13-15 ottobre 1997). Pragmateiai 2

, Mercati permanenti e mercati periodici nel mondo romano : atti degli Incontri capresi di storia dell'economia antica, Capri, 13-15 ottobre 1997. Pragmateiai ; 2. Bari: Edipuglia, 2000. 279 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm.. ISBN 8872282462. EUR 30.98.

This volume presents fourteen papers originally delivered at a conference held on Capri in the fall of 1997 on permanent and periodic markets in the Roman world. It also includes an introduction by the editor and brief but spirited concluding remarks from Marcello de Cecco. While the essays inevitably vary somewhat in quality, all are worthwhile and of substantial value to economic historians. The contributors address a wide variety of topics, from the architecture of macella to the sale of wine, but three main issues repeatedly surface: the nundinae, government regulation, and economic models. Some authors, such as Jongman, introduce new arguments and ideas, while others, like De Ruyt, have chosen to provide their riflessioni, revisiting old questions and hypotheses in light of more recent developments. In the paragraphs that follow I will briefly discuss each contribution.

Raymond Descat’s “L’etat et les marchés dans le monde grec” (13-29) looks at the ways Greek cities regulated markets in order to attract or retain traders and control, or at least influence, prices. Though he discusses many forms of government intervention, Descat is principally concerned with the effects of price registration ‘upstream’ of the market and suggests that communities, such as Delos, used this method to stabilize prices. He argues that although their circumstances and interests varied, cities could often “intervenir sur les marchés d’une manière efficace” (28).

In “Impresa, mercato, diritto. Riflessioni minime” (31-67) Feliciano Serrao seeks insight into the Roman economy through a study of the aediles’ edict. Serrao surveys the development of Roman ‘market law’ from the third century BCE to the third century CE and beyond, asking how aedilician law interacted with markets, businesses and the praetors’ commercial law. Although this paper touches upon an array of topics, the issue of the slave trade inevitably comes to the fore. Based on what we know of the aediles and the content of their edict, the author tentatively suggests that the commerce in slaves was organized on an empire-wide scale and dominated by the complex corporations of “grandi possessori di capitali” (61), who tended to do business in large, specialized urban markets.

Jean Andreau’s “Les marchés hebdomadaires du Latium et de Campanie au Ier siècle ap. J.-C.” (69-91) argues that the rhythm of Italian commercial life changed in the early Empire. Andreau begins with a review of his 1976 article1 in which he used the tablets of L. Caecilius Iucundus to suggest that periodic markets were hebdomadal rather than ogdoadal, i.e. held every seven rather than eight days (as the term nundinae would seem to indicate). Assuming that auctions were held on the same day as periodic markets and that Iucundus conducted his business according to a set routine, Andreau showed that the dates of Iucundus’s receipts for sales at auctions better fit the hypothesis of a seven-day week. This is a clever but not altogether convincing argument. To support his thesis Andreau here marshals additional dates gathered from the Murecine tablets which, he feels, “résolvent la question” (73). Though I doubt we have sufficient data to produce statistically significant results by this method, other epigraphic evidence also points to the spread of the hebdomadal week in the first century. Andreau concludes by asking why the literary and legal sources make no mention of this important development. He speculates that both commercial rhythms may have coexisted in Italy for a time or that regional differences persisted. He also notes that “les texts littéraires sont souvent silencieux sur la vie quotidienne” (90).

In her “Reti interregionali integrate e circuiti di mercato periodico negli indices nundinarii del Lazio e della Campania” (93-130) Alfredina Storchi Marino tries to make sense of the various inscriptions listing market days which survive from Latium and Campania. After a brief review of the evidence, she focuses on the question of why the names of some cities appear in different positions in different lists. For example, in both the Index Pompeianus and the Index Suessulanus, Cumae follows Nola by one day but Index Allifanus A has these two cities in reverse order. After rejecting the idea that some cities could have had more than one market day per cycle, Storchi Marino suggests that the lists reflect at least two separate systems and therefore a reorganization of the nundinae must have taken place. According to her scheme the indices from Allifae derive from the initial system, instituted during the reign of Augustus or Tiberius, while the Pompeian index as well as those from Posillipo and Latium represent the new system of the late Julio-Claudian period. The Index Suessulanus, which fits neither system entirely, may come from “una fase di passaggio” (113). Storchi Marino suggests that economic considerations factored in the organization of the new system since the market circuits integrated different zones of production while serving local, regional and, above all, Roman needs. The author’s interpretation is appealing and, since the later market system seems influenced by the seven-day week, it also buttresses the case made by Andreau in the preceding paper.

Arianna Ziccardi’s “Il ruolo dei circuiti di mercati periodici nell’ambito del sistema di scambio dell’Italia romana” (131-148) is also concerned with the indices nundinarii, especially what they reveal about patterns of exchange. Ziccardi argues that the Italian market system was organized on two different but complementary levels: networks of local exchange within particular regions or between city and country, and a larger interregional commercial network which channeled surplus goods to Rome or specialized products to their consumers everywhere. This design provided great flexibility in economic relationships since “flussi di beni differenti potevano circolare attraverso il medisimo sistema di mercato in maniera differente” (146). More details and a few illustrations or tables would have greatly facilitated the discussion of these complex issues. Ziccardi’s thesis deserves fuller treatment elsewhere.

In his “Commercants itinerants et marchands sedentaires dans l’Occident romain” (149-160) Xavier Colin looks for specific Latin words designating professional itinerant traders and asks whether the commercial vocabulary indicates differences in economic practice or social status. Colin begins by evaluating the terms typically considered to mean ‘traveling trader’ such as ambulator, circitor, circulator, and circumforaneus. He finds that none of these terms unequivocally conveys the idea of commercial itinerancy and concludes that there was no specific word for a traveling merchant except perhaps circitor. Next Colin examines passages featuring itinerant commerce in order to identify the specific words used to describe this activity. He notes that both mercatores and negotiatores appear at fairs and periodic markets while institores sometimes function as peddlers. He finds that no specific formula existed to describe itinerant trade and suggests that ancient economic thought lacked an independent concept of such practices. Colin also finds that most of the terms describing itinerant trade are used disparagingly, the chief exceptions being mercator and negotiator. Mercatores and negotiatores were viewed with less contempt because they operated on a larger scale, were legally independent and perhaps had permanent home bases, making them less itinerant than circulatores and circitores. Itinerancy, it seems, carried the greatest stigma among Roman merchants.

Lellia Cracco Ruggini’s “Plinio il Giovane a proposito di nundinae private inter-cittadine: dispositivi giuridici e collusioni di fatto tra centro e periferia” (161-175) focuses on a controversy recounted in two of Pliny the Younger’s letters (5.4 & 13). Tiberius Lucius Bellicius Sollers, a praetorian senator and major landowner from Verona, had requested senatorial authorization to hold a market on his estate, but a nearby community, Vicetia, had objected. Cracco Ruggini considers Sollers’ possible motivations for instituting a market on his lands and why the Vicetians may have opposed him. While the outcome of the matter, apparently referred to the Emperor, is in doubt, the author uses the episode as a jumping-off point from which to discuss the history of markets and fairs in Imperial Italy and the relationship between major landowners and municipalities.

Claire De Ruyt’s “Exigences fonctionnelles et variété des interprétations dans l’architecture des macella du monde romain” (177-186) reviews recent developments in the study of the macellum. She focuses on the typical characteristics of and variations in the macellum design, while discussing scholarship, inscriptions and sites published subsequent to her 1983 book Macellum, marché alimentaire des Romains. De Ruyt’s useful survey essentially argues that the macellum was not a narrowly defined architectural type and thus allowed architects greater flexibility in their designs. Unfortunately this occasionally makes the secure identification of macella somewhat problematic. From the standpoint of economic history her most important contribution here is to emphasize the critical civic importance of these markets in the Roman world.

In his “Wool and the textile industry of Roman Italy: a working hypothesis” (187-197) Willem Jongman rightly emphasizes the potential importance of the textile trade for our understanding of the Roman economy. Here he focuses on “good quality wool” (189) and suggests that it typically came from less populated areas in northern and southern Italy and was exported in raw form to the more populous central Italian cities for manufacture close to its ultimate consumers. He contrasts this pattern of “widely distributed textile manufacturing” (195) with the medieval European situation in which a few cities came to dominate the industry and concludes that it is “a sign of the greater integration and larger scale of the Roman economy” (189). Perhaps, he suggests, the Roman economy was more ‘modern’ than the medieval one. While Jongman’s argument is not fully articulated, his “provisional results” (189) are quite provocative.

Andrè Tchernia’s “La vente du vin” (199-209) asks how wine got from vineyard to table during the Roman Empire. He considers both the point of view of the producer and that of the consumer. The producer, he argues, essentially had two options. He could either sell his wine directly to consumers in small quantities or sell it in bulk to traders. While there is reason to believe that some producers sold their wine retail, there is more evidence for the sale of wine through merchants. Merchants could come to the producer’s estate and buy the wine once it had been made or ‘on the vine.’ Alternately the producer might take the wine away to be sold at market or for self-consumption elsewhere. Unfortunately there is insufficient evidence to determine which of these alternatives was most common. In general, however, it seems most wine was sold through intermediaries who insulated the producer not merely from the ultimate consumer but from all commerce beyond his estate. Turning to the consumer’s point of view, Tchernia sees tabernae as having a major role since they might carry many grades of wine and even sell in bulk to households. Tchernia suggests that we should expect to find warehouses, such as the one he believes has been discovered in Olbia, distributing amphorae of both local and imported wine, but he concedes that commerce cannot be completely responsible for the composition of the cellars of the wealthy. Here as elsewhere in this volume some discussion of the relationship between self-sufficiency and Roman markets would have made sense.

Neville Morley’s “Markets, Marketing and the Roman Élite” (211-221) attempts to gauge the relative importance of markets and the market to producers, consumers and merchants. The market, he suggests, “dominated the lives of most urban consumers and all merchants” (212) but not producers, for whom the market was an option not a necessity. Thus peasant farmers, for example, need not rely on the market. They could adopt self-sufficient agricultural practices and, if they wished, sell their surpluses at the nundinae. Despite what he calls the “obsessive concern with self-sufficiency” (218) of the agricultural manuals, Morley observes that many slave-run estates were oriented towards the market. The wealthy, however, bypassed the nundinae and sold directly to merchants at their estates in order to avoid transport costs, “keep the sordid business of buying and selling at a distance” (218) and build up “ties of dependence and obligation” (219) with the buyers. Though merchants might be attracted to the nundinae in order to buy up peasant surplus at low prices, these periodic markets “played little or no part in dealing with the surplus produce of the villas and other large estates, and so their significance for the supply of the city of Rome and other major markets was correspondingly limited” (220). Only on the local level were the nundinae somewhat important. Morley concludes by suggesting that the economic integration of Italy owed more to “networks of elite friendship, patronage and private exchange relationships” (220) than market systems. I believe that by overestimating the capacity of peasant farmers for self-sufficiency — a topic deserving fuller treatment here — Morley has underestimated the reliance of peasants on periodic markets and, by extension, the importance of such markets in the broader Italian economy.

Yan Zelener’s paper (223-235) examines “Market dynamics in Roman North Africa” from the first to the fourth-century CE and constructs a new model for the region’s economic development. He argues that North Africa experienced an autocatalytic cycle of population growth and agricultural intensification during this period as nomadic groups settled, polyculture spread and Roman demand grew. The distribution of amphorae and tableware as well as an analysis of shipwreck cargoes testify to the increased importance of North African products in the western Mediterranean by the end of this period (though it is curious that the author chose to analyze only the fourth-century evidence for shipwrecks when he is interested in long-term trends). The region’s economic development, Zelener suggests, spurred improvements in its distribution system which one can detect in the appearance of new markets, most notably at Castellum Mastarense and Castellum Tidditanorum. These markets, held a day apart, apparently formed part of a commercial network around Cirta. Though some of his evidence is tenuous or at least not fully articulated, Zelener presents a compelling argument and makes some incisive comments concerning, among other things, Keith Hopkins’ influential taxes-and-trade model of the Roman economy.

Luuk de Ligt’s “Governmental attitudes towards markets and collegia” (237-252) asks whether Roman officials restricted the holding of rural periodic markets because they considered such gatherings a potential threat to the state. De Ligt begins by rejecting the theory that one could obtain the ius nundinarum only from the senate or emperor. He cites several instances in which provincial governors granted this privilege to various communities. When governors expressed concern about new markets, they were probably more worried about the disruption of existing markets rather than subversion. The bulk of this paper focuses on collegia rather than markets. De Ligt here addresses Brent Shaw’s argument that the evidence concerning collegia demonstrates that “the Roman state ‘had an almost morbid fear of any unofficial assembly or association'” (237).2 While his attempts to minimize Roman anxieties towards collegia are less successful, de Ligt is surely right to insist on the separation of the two problems. Markets and collegia were quite different institutions and likely generated different concerns among Roman officials.

Keith Hopkins’ “Rents, Taxes, Trade and the City of Rome” (253-267) is a revised and abbreviated version of his 1995/96 article “Rome, Taxes, Rents and Trade” and revisits the topic of his well-known 1980 paper “Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire (200 B.C. – A.D. 400)”.3 Hopkins suggests that in the first two centuries CE the government and ruling elite spent at Rome much of the tax and rent money collected from the empire. If “local self-sufficiency predominated” and coins moved rather slowly between provinces, how, he asks, “were the balances between creditor and debtor (tax-receiving and tax-paying) regions achieved” (263)? To answer this question Hopkins conceives of the Roman economy “as operating on five intersecting planes” (263) i.e. the natural or barter economy, bronze, silver and gold coinage and credit. Gold and credit, he believes, were the most important means for the long distance transfer of money. Hopkins has refined and reaffirmed his taxes-and-trade model (though this version could use further elaboration); it will no doubt continue to provoke much discussion.

The book ends with a lightly edited transcript of Marcello de Cecco’s “Conclusioni” (269-273), his “consumer’s report” (269) delivered at the close of the conference. The informal style of these remarks may put off some readers. The first few sentences are rather obscure and the first paragraph ends with a truly gargantuan sentence weighing in at well over 200 words. Nevertheless de Cecco, an economist and the author of an important article on Roman monetary history,4 has some intriguing things to say. He asserts that economic historians spend too much time worrying about outmoded economic theories and trying to generate quantitative data. They need to concentrate on their strength, “the analysis of microphaenomena,” (269) and to realize that economists have begun to share their interest in the concept of the embedded economy. He declares “we [i.e. economists] are going towards you [i.e. economic historians] rather than the other way round” (272). This is certainly an interesting trend, but some more specific remarks about the various papers would have been gratifying.

Overall this is an excellent resource for anyone interested in Roman economic history. The volume is well produced and I found very few typos despite its trilingual contents. There are occasional problems with punctuation and capitalization (e.g. in the table of contents and, curiously, the first sentence of Hopkins’ contribution). Another quibble is that the papers are not presented in an entirely uniform fashion. Why do three papers get bibliographies while the others must make do with just footnotes?


1. J. Andreau, “Pompéi: enchères, foires et marchés”, Bulletin de la Société Nationale des Antiquaires de France (1976), 104-127.

2. B.D. Shaw, “Rural markets in North Africa and the political economy of the Roman empire”, Antiquités Africaines 17 (1981), 47.

3. K. Hopkins, “Rome, Taxes, Rents and Trade”, Kodai 6/7 (1995/96), 41-75 and “Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire (200 B.C. – A.D. 400)”, Journal of Roman Studies 70 (1980) 101-125.

4. M. De Cecco, “Monetary Theory and Roman History”, Journal of Economic History 45 (1985) 809-822.