Let it be clear from the beginning: Rosalba Arcuri has written an interesting and learned contribution to the debate about agrarian economy in late antique and early medieval South Italy, which bridges the tradition of macro- and micro- economic history and offers a nuanced synthesis of how life in the country was organised in the 6th century.
Due to the tendency in the 70s and 80s to explain the course of history through the use of economic models, the economic history of Roman Italy has been a much-debated subject among historians and archaeologist. One approach to Italian agriculture is the notion that the villa-system experienced a crisis in the third century causing profound and irrecoverable reduction in the number of villas because of the political, economic and military instability that followed the German migration, changing emperors and the breakdown of the monetary system. As a result, it has been assumed that the reduction in the number of villas was followed by a similar reduction in productivity. In the last three decades a more micro-orientated approach to the development in Italian agriculture has replaced this more theorised and general attitude towards the landowners’ choice of crops (olive, vine and grain), use of labour (slaves or tenants) and mode of production (villa, latifundium and massa fundorum). This focus on the history of specific sites and regions has offered a more nuanced but also more fragmented understanding of how the agrarian economy developed in antiquity.
In South Italy this approach has been particularly successful, as the excavation of several villa-structures in Puglia, Calabria and Basilicata has enabled scholars to tell the story of these individual locations and thereby to offer a more informed picture of Italian agriculture in late antiquity. These studies of the South Italian villa-structure have now revealed that some villas were abandoned while others were enlarged so that both the living quarters and the production facilities were upgraded. This had led to the conclusion that the land was not given up, but collected in larger units, organised into a system where different forms of production unities were placed under the same owner.
Rosalba Arcuri’s contribution to this debate is in line with the recent approach in Italian scholarship to studying Italy’s rural economy from a micro-economic perspective. In the introduction Arcuri readdresses the problem of periodization, arguing that labels such as ‘late antiquity’ and the ‘mediaeval world’ often create an artificial break in an ongoing development and blur our ability to follow continuities in the economy or in the mode of production. Arcuri is surely also right to point out that the political and the economic-social developments did not necessarily follow each other in parallel (s. 14).
In the following chapters Arcuri addresses the question of how South Italian agriculture developed in late antiquity and questions the orthodoxy that the rural economy was in a state of permanent decay. Based on the history of the individual villas, Arcuri describes a structure where large self-sufficient villas, e.g. villa San Giovanni Ruoti in Lucania, continued until the end of the 6th century. By considering the continued production of local ceramics, Arcuri questions the tendency to conclude from the import of African pottery that there was a demographic decline. Instead she supports the notion of a change in the organisation and the circulation of various products in a local and regional market, and not automatically a profound reduction in the activity or abandonment of the locations in general.
In the case of Calabria, Arcuri points out that the region had been cultivated by a system of medium sized villas since the republican period and was, for instance, recognised for its wine production (38 and 44). After the 3rd century the Calabrian villas went through a period of change, where there developed a new and more flexible form of production suitable for the new socio-economic situation (39). Arcuri notes that the reduction of the number of villas is part of a crisis, peculiar to the type of production, where slaves provided the main labour force. But instead of interpreting this development as an irrecoverable crisis leading to a rural economy driven by depopulation, Arguri offers a more positive picture of a transformed and modified agriculture with a notable production outcome. To Arcuri, the system where the land is collected in larger self-sufficient unities is not a sign of crisis and abandonment of intensive production, but a form of property management where several forms of production, cultivated by either tenants or slaves, were collected in larger unities (185).
Another important contribution in the book is the discussion of how the Gothic war and the Gothic domination affected the South Italian countryside in the 6th century. Arcuri offers once again a balanced approach to the question, emphasizing that the South was less marked by the war compared to other parts of Italy and points out that South Italy as part of the Byzantine Empire experienced greater continuity particularly in Calabria (188).
Arcuri’s contribution is interesting as it collects the results of specifically Italian scholarship, often devoted to a particular villa, villages or region into a coherent thesis on rural economy in the gray area between late antiquity and the medieval period. Arcuri reveals an impressive command of recent as well as earlier scholarship and the careful use of literary and archaeological evidence is admirable and gives new readers a place where most available and relevant literature is collected. The book is written for experts with a solid knowledge of South Italian geography. There are no maps, which could have improved the accessibility for readers who do not know the location of various villas and other sites in question.