BMCR 2020.11.15

Italy’s economic revolution: integration and economy in Republican Italy

, Italy's economic revolution: integration and economy in Republican Italy. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. 297. ISBN 9780198829447 $90.00.

Roselaar’s highly welcome and innovative book is the result of her long engagement with socio-economic developments in the Late Republic and thus a rather densely argued work. Roselaar emphasises the agency and long-overlooked role of the Italians in the process of economic change between the 3rd and 1st centuries BC and the consequent economic integration of Italy into the wider Mediterranean. In doing so, Roselaar’s book intersects very closely with the recent work of Nicolà Terrenato whose latest book has accentuated the political agency of the Italians during the early phase of Rome’s expansion.[1] Roselaar claims that the importance of the economy and economic integration – defined “as an increase of economic contacts between different regions of Italy” – as a catalyst for broader socio-political developments in the Late Republic has long been neglected, which she seeks to remedy with the present book. To this end, Roselaar uses the nowadays ubiquitous New Institutional Economics (NIE) as her main analytical tool and highlights the importance of institutions in economic transactions. It is an ambitious undertaking, in which Roselaar wants to kill two birds with one stone: namely the hotly contested question of a common Italic identity and the economic development of the Later Republic.

The book is organised in six chapters, which follow a broadly chronological order. An extensive bibliography and index conclude the volume. Additionally, the book is accompanied by an online Appendix comprising an interactive prosopographical map.

In chapter 1 “Introduction: economy and integration in the Roman Republic” Roselaar presents in a highly reflective manner her theoretical and methodological cornerstones. This includes deliberately taking the perspective of the Italians and asking what the benefits of, and incentives for, loyalty to Rome were for them. In addition, three concepts are discussed, which form the basis for the explanations that follow: identity, conquest and globalisation, and NIE with special consideration of transaction costs. Identity should not be seen as unchangeable and monistic, Roselaar argues, but rather there may have been multiple, sometimes conflicting, identities, which could be adopted flexibly according to the particular contexts. A basic distinction is made between personal and social identity, between emic and etic attributions, and it is pointed out that ethnicity is only one aspect of identity. At this point, a definition is offered of who qualified as “Italians”, which is based on a legal distinction: Italians were all those who did not have Roman citizenship. In addition, the current state of the field in theoretical discussions of Romanisation is discussed and special attention paid to the theories of globalisation and glocalisation, which can serve to shed light on the interplay between progressive homogenisation and local responses. Finally, NIE is brought into focus, as well as the role that formal and informal institutions could play in reducing transaction costs. Increased security and uniform legal, monetary and measurement systems, for example, all contributed to a significant reduction in transaction costs.

The basis and opportunities for contact are described in chapter 2, “Points of contact: interaction between Roman and Italian”. Colonies, which serve as contact zones and were to a certain degree embedded in their extended surroundings, played a particularly important role. In addition, not all residents of these colonies were necessarily colonists, but one must also expect there to have been economic migrants, since many of the colonies were important economic centers. Other places of reunion could be sanctuaries, markets, or fairs. Romans and Italians could also come into contact through marriage, institutionalised networks of relationships such as hospitium, migration or spatial proximity during military service, even though Romans and Italians did not serve in the same units. But common trade was the first and most important form of contact. These increasing contact options led first to changes on the economic level and finally also on others. However, while Roselaar succeeds in describing the framework for possible contact, it is not always clear how this exchange actually took place.

Chapter 3 deals with “The economic integration of Italy”, which is addressed on two levels. On the one hand, the role of the Italians in export, trade and economic contacts with regions outside the Italian peninsula and especially the Greek East is discussed. Already from the late-4th and 3rd century BC Italians are found involved in economic affairs outside Italy, often together with Romans. The turning point, however, was the establishment of the free port at Delos in 167 BC. On the other hand, the economic changes within the Italian peninsula are exemplified by goods such as wine, oil, black- gloss pottery attested in the regions of Lazio, Campania, Apulia, Lucania and Bruttium. Especially from the 2nd century BC onwards, there was a greater regional specialisation with individual cities and regions not just producing for their discrete territories, which they nonetheless maintained, with the exception of Rome, but for larger markets, which were created by the Roman conquest. Roselaar assumes, thus, a horizontal and not a vertical integration. It was not only Roman citizens that participated in these processes of agricultural change, since these also took place in areas where Roman ownership of land could not be expected a priori such as in Lucania and Bruttium. The legal status of certain individuals or individual cities does not seem to have been decisive for successful economic development. A much more important factor for economic prosperity was being in a good location. The chapter also contains examples of cases where the application of NIE and its emphasis on transaction costs does not always seem to be appropriately embedded in its respective historical context. For instance, Roselaar puts forward the very plausible thesis that the development of the province of Asia stimulated trade and reduced transaction costs through enhanced legal security. This can be seen, among other things, from the increased number of inscriptions set up by or for Italians and Romans, meaning that they were present in greater numbers in Asia Minor than before. If this is probably true, this type of epigraphic evidence nonetheless cannot easily be put into such a clear pattern, since the contexts in which honours could be bestowed in different communities at different times are not discussed. Was it possible for a negotiator to be honoured in Pergamum when it was still a royal capital?[2]

Chapter 4 “Consequences of interaction: institutional and cultural change” addresses a variety of different processes, including legal practices, local administration, coinage, and  language. Most of these processes see increasing homogenisation in the Italian peninsula, albeit at different speeds. In the 2nd century BC there was a boom in public building. For some, like the sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia at Praeneste, the connection with (overseas) trade is obvious through the donor inscriptions, in which families turn up that also appear in the east. The intensification of trans-Mediterranean exchange led to an increased reception of an architectural language with strong references to the Hellenistic world, which, despite all local peculiarities, contributed to cultural homogenisation and the establishment of a cultural Hellenistic-Italic koine. The formation of a common Italic identity from the 3rd century BC onwards is perceived, on the one hand, through the establishment of Italia as a discrete geographical unit. On the other hand, the common experience overseas played a significant role too, because a comparatively small number of Romans and Italians were operating alongside one another in an environment in which they were all strangers. Especially through inscriptions in the Hellenistic east, e.g., on Delos, we can see that the entire group described themselves as Italikoi/Italici and self-identified as a group. But local identities are therefore not readily abandoned, which can be seen in the usage of language or local material culture. An example of this is maintaining local measures and weights for a comparatively long time. However, it remains unclear why the keeping of weights and measures should have been an expression of a local identity. This is only to be understood under the implicit assumption that there must have been a positive reason for maintaining them in order to outweigh the otherwise greater benefits of lower transaction costs, which, in turn, would be a rather problematic assumption. One misses here the consideration of older studies on the problem of identity such as Andrea Giardina’s seminal work L’Italia romana: storie di un’identità incompiuta (Rome 1997). It also seems that, unfortunately, Carlà-Uhink’s The “Birth” of Italy. The Institutionalization of Italy as a Region, 3rd-1st Century BCE (Berlin 2017) was published too late to be considered.

Chapter 5 “From economic to political integration” revolves around the Social War and the conferral of Roman citizenship. Roselaar’s basic assumption is that originally there was no a priori benefit in acquiring Roman citizenship. Apparently, it was only in the late 2nd century BC that the disadvantages of the alliance with Rome outweighed the advantages, which fundamentally changed the status of the relationship between Rome and its Italian allies and the significance of Roman citizenship. This problem was addressed by the Romans, for example, through more institutionalised paths to the citizenship such as civitas per magistratum. Reasons for this disenchantment between Romans and their allies in the 2nd century BC involved inter alia a stronger interference in internal affairs by Rome and more openly displayed asymmetries of the balance of power. The human and economic costs of military operations or the closed access to profitable positions such as publicani are also considered relevant by Roselaar. Problems surrounding the distribution of ager publicus in the late 2nd century BC were particularly serious and finally decisive. This can be inferred from the fact that support for the war was greatest where land had been distributed by the Gracchi or where there was a particularly large amount of land left to distribute. At the same time, it is acknowledged that it is difficult to establish a direct connection between economic interests on the one hand and the key actors in the Social War on the other. During the war, pan-Italian symbols and a specific Italian identity became apparent for the first time, if only in contrast to Rome. The granting of citizenship is seen as the beginning of a process of cultural unification, the effects of which then manifested themselves fully in the Augustan period. However, local identities are never completely abandoned, although for the later period Roselaar subsumes them under the keyword folklore.

The book concludes with a summary of the main theses and results of the analysis in chapter 6 “General conclusions”.

Finally, I would like to discuss the online appendix. The claim of this appendix is nothing more but nothing less than to attempt “to record all known individuals known from Italy from the Republican period”. A manual and a bibliography transparently explain the scope and basis of the interactive map, which leaves Etruscan and Messapian names aside but counts nonetheless over 9600 individuals. The linking of individual records to the other databases of Pleiades and Peripleo makes the map a positive example of the application of linked open data. The color coding of the different centuries facilitates its use tremendously. With such an ambitious undertaking, however, it is easy to find individual points of criticism. For example, it is striking that a statue erected in honour of an individual is treated on the same level as a stamped amphora-handle. What leaves the reader baffled and irritated is, however, that the map is not mentioned in the book and plays no role at all in the argumentation.

These minor quibbles aside, Roselaar has succeeded in writing a truly thought-provoking book, which fits nicely into a growing trend of reappraisal of the agency of non-Romans in the formative years of the Roman State. Italy’s economic revolution will certainly be very stimulating for further in-depth studies and, not least, the digital prosopographical map will be an indispensable tool for further research.


[1] N. Terrenato, The early Roman expansion into Italy: elite negotiation and family agendas (Cambridge 2019)

[2] R. Bielfeldt, “Wo nur sind die Bürger von Pergamon? Eine Phänomenologie bürgerlicher Unscheinbarkeit im städtischen Raum der Königsresidenz,” Istanbuler Mitteilungen 60, 2010, 117-201.