BMCR 2019.11.43

Building Mid-Republican Rome: Labor, Architecture, and the Urban Economy

Seth Bernard, Building Mid-Republican Rome: Labor, Architecture, and the Urban Economy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. 315. ISBN 9780190878788 $85.00.


In this innovative and impressive study, Seth Bernard examines public construction at Rome between the Gallic sack and the mid-third century BC in order to explore its social and economic consequences. He draws on archaeological, numismatic, and epigraphic evidence as well as literary sources to focus our attention on this neglected aspect of Republican economic history. His chapters marry often novel analyses of seemingly disparate developments to shed unexpectedly revealing light on them. The conclusions he draws boldly challenge much of what we thought we knew about developments in this period and are certain to provoke salutary debate and reevaluation among scholars of the mid- Republic (as they did for this one).

The first chapter lays out the case for approaching the development of urban Rome in the mid-Republic via new institutional economics, which emphasizes the role of social structures and ideology in shaping economic outcomes. This approach is particularly apt in this case because the decades around 300 BC were a period of critical institutional change as the divisions first began to form between urban workers and rural agriculturalists that would be central to the late Republic and Empire. Bernard acknowledges the challenges posed by the evidence for the period but holds that Livy and other historians, when used cautiously, can complement and be complemented by the archaeological record.

Chapter Two explores the sources and characteristics of the stone, clay, timber, metal and other items out of which the Romans constructed the mid-Republican city. Bernard offers a lengthy discussion of the various types of tuff (stone formed by consolidation of volcanic ash) available to builders, where these were quarried, and their physical properties as related to their usefulness in constructing monumental architecture. Similar discussions cover wood and metal, although the evidence here is scantier. More important is the question of how provision of building materials was organized, which Bernard argues operated through a fluid collaboration between the state and private enterprise.

The consequences of the Gallic sack are the focus of Chapter Three. Bernard argues that archaeology provides no support for Livy’s and possibly earlier sources’ depiction of massive destruction by fire of the built environment but indicates only limited damage to particular buildings. Yet the lack of temple building in the period after the sack reflects economic stagnation, and if the need to devote resources to rebuilding the entire city cannot account for it, some other explanation is required. Bernard finds it in a scarcity of labor attendant upon the acquisition of the ager Veientanus. While the conquest of Veii offered the potential for economic growth, it also thinned the supply of available labor relative to demand. There were simply not enough workers to utilize fully the productive potential of both the newly available farmland and the ager Romanus. Evidence for conflict over debt-bondage and the rise of chattel slavery likewise point to a manpower shortage.

Labor is also central to the following chapter, which examines how Rome’s massive 4 th century circuit walls were built and models the economic and social consequences of their construction. Bernard calculates that the wall required nearly a million blocks of tufo giallo, each weighing in the vicinity of 624 kg, and around 45,000 blocks of tufo del Palatino at about 229 kg each. In addition, nearly 700,000 cubic meters of earth had to be excavated for the ditch in front of the wall, while on the order of 3,775,000 m 3 of soil formed the agger enclosed between the exterior and interior stone faces of the fortifications. All of this required in Bernard’s estimate some 6,800,000 person-days of skilled and unskilled labor performed by slaves and free citizens. The former, likely recently enslaved Veians put to work in nearby quarries, excavated the stone while free citizens shaped and transported the stone and constructed the walls, trench, and agger.

This workforce in Bernard’s view comprised adult males aged 17 to 45, roughly between 16,300 and 32,000 men based on a total free Roman population of between 75,000 and 150,000. Hence, each man in his estimate would have had to perform on average between 246 and 123 days of work on the wall. Some of that work would have been spread over a considerable period, since loading the stones onto boats, transporting them down the Tiber, and then moving them into position had to be done piecemeal. In addition, blocks of tufo giallo had to be cured for several years before they could be used in construction. However assembling the stones into a wall could be accomplished relatively quickly: 36 meters of wall would take 200 men about 15 days to construct. All of this was accomplished using unpaid corveé labor extracted from the citizens. Based on models of the labor available to families on small farms, Bernard calculates that some of them disposed of so small a surplus beyond what they required to support themselves and to perform military service that if construction took only 4 or 5 years, the labor demanded from them would have exceeded that surplus and so caused many of their farms to fail or fall into debt. Here Bernard locates a second and much more critical cause of Rome’s economic stagnation in the mid-fourth century.

This chapter is certainly the book’s most provocative. Like many models, Bernard’s is built on a number of assumptions, any one of which might be challenged and so alter the conclusions he draws. What is beyond question however is the larger point he makes, that building the wall was a heavy lift (so to speak) for the Republic’s citizens, the effects of which must have been highly consequential for economic and social developments in the mid-fourth century. That is a conclusion that no future study of the period can afford to ignore. One might only have hoped for some discussion of what the ability to undertake a project of such magnitude can tell us about the development of the Republic’s government and the progress of state formation, particularly since in the following chapter Bernard accepts that passage of the lex Ovinia ca. 335 constituted the foundational step in securing senatorial authority over the res publica. If so, then who or what organized and carried out this massive construction project over so many years? Answering this question is not of course the task that Bernard set himself in writing this book, but it is to be hoped that he might take up this important problem at some point in the future.

Chapter Five examines the intersection of censorial building and the appearance of both coinage and public contracts at Rome. Public construction resumed after 318 coincident with the rise in importance of the censorship following passage of the lex Ovinia, for both of which Ap. Claudius Caecus serves as the prime exemplar. Appius’ road and aqueduct in Bernard’s view were coincident with and supported by the rise in the senate of a new class of aristocrats, men who derived their wealth from commerce in contrast to those whose wealth came from status and their dependents. The importance of precious metal differed for each group: the latter saw its value as symbolic of their elite status; for the former, it was primarily a medium of exchange. Hence the late fourth and early third centuries witnessed a contest over the meaning of precious metal in relation to wealth and power. This provides the context for the first appearance of coinage at Rome. Bernard argues that it originated not from the need to pay for Appius’ or any other building projects or Roman warfare but instead arose within this contest where its role was at least in part political, “an embodiment of the market-based exchanges that gave authority to a new group of Roman elites.” (152-3) Finally, Bernard argues that contracts to facilitate public works, which permitted costs to be expressed via coinage, began to appear in this same period in the context of a competitive political elite eager to claim credit for constructing public monuments. Thus contracts, coinage, and censorial building all worked together to facilitate one another’s continued development.

Changes in the labor supply during the first part of the third century form the focus of Chapter 6. Bernard argues that the numerous public buildings constructed in this period created a demand for labor in Rome that was met by a combination of chattel slavery, which developed as a consequence of the abolition of nexum and corveé, and free wage labor from across central Italy and elsewhere. The latter swelled the city’s population as workers were drawn to Rome by the prospect of work, a development reflected in the appearance of aes grave coinage. This small denomination coinage arose from a demand for forms of money suitable for paying workers who in turn needed small value coins to buy food and other necessities. The establishment of food markets located in particular areas of the city confirms in Bernard’s view the existence of a money economy for free urban workers as does the association of specific neighborhoods with particular crafts. Epigraphic and other evidence demonstrates the mobility of workers and their ability to switch jobs. The characteristics of the city’s late Republican economy thus find their origins in developments two centuries earlier.

The final chapter argues for a considerable degree of innovation in mid-Republican building technology well before the advent of concrete. Bernard sees this developing in two areas, first in the increasingly sophisticated uses of particular types of stone in public construction projects, choices that related to the suitability of each type’s physical characteristics for specific structural applications. Thus the use of tufo giallo gradually was restricted to non-load bearing parts of buildings where its physical deficiencies would not weaken the structure. The second area of innovation lay in the evolution of techniques for lifting stone blocks quarried in various parts of Central Italy. Their different physical characteristics required different mechanical means of gripping them as they were hoisted. Both of these advances arose as a consequence of master stone masons from various parts of Italy moving to Rome. They were drawn by work on public construction projects and brought with them their knowledge of their local stone and the appropriate techniques for working with it.

A brief conclusion summarizing the nature of economic developments during the mid-Republic and two appendices round out the volume.

Bernard has written an important and timely book, one that takes its place among a number of recent studies that are fundamentally reshaping our picture of early and mid-Republican Rome. He reminds us forcefully that land, while central, was not the only economic game in town and that study of the city’s public buildings has much more to teach us than simply where they were or what they looked like.