BMCR 2021.01.07

Roman seas: a maritime archaeology of eastern Mediterranean economies

, Roman seas: a maritime archaeology of eastern Mediterranean economies. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 336. ISBN 9780190083656. $85.00.


This book analyses the maritime archaeological record of Roman and Late Antique southwestern Turkey and southern Cyprus with the aim of informing a “new and spatially grounded economic history” (216) of the eastern Mediterranean from the 2nd c. BC to the 7th c. AD. The first chapter, “Maritime Interaction and Mediterranean Communities,” outlines the evidence base, primarily comprised of shipwreck and port sites, and the methodology, which involves using digital tools to integrate these archaeological remains with other evidence for environmental, social, and economic conditions to reconstruct regional patterns of maritime interaction. Leidwanger takes as his departure point literature on developments in the social and economic history of the ancient Mediterranean over the longue durée, most prominently the monographs of Braudel and Horden and Purcell,[1] stating that he aims to fill in the gaps between the microregional focus of the latter and the Mediterranean-wide perspective of the former.

While Leidwanger’s focus in spatial terms is thus “mid-range,” his approach is multiscalar and diachronic. He notes that regional maritime landscape studies have become increasingly popular in other parts of the world but remain uncommon in the Mediterranean. Rather, research on maritime connectivity and commerce in the ancient Graeco-Roman world has generally worked from Mediterranean-wide datasets—most notably Parker’s widely used corpus of shipwrecks[2]—that tend to obscure important regional variety in key parameters such as ship size and cargo composition. Leidwanger makes clear that he chose to study the Datça Peninsula in southwestern Turkey and the south-central coast of Cyprus because they were important centres of ancient nautical activity, but even more so because they happen to have produced some of the most abundant and accessible maritime archaeological evidence in the eastern Mediterranean, lending his analysis considerably greater spatial and chronological resolution than would have been possible in studying other regions. Thus, while this book’s chronological scope is broad, extending over almost a millennium, whenever possible it examines changes on a sub-centennial timescale.

Leidwanger’s approach is to layer various parameters systematically, including wind patterns, topography, technology, social networks, shipwrecks, port sites, and landscape surveys, within a single model to add “texture and dynamism to a maritime world often portrayed as flat, frictionless, and infinitely connected” (198). Chapter two, “Topography and Tools of Interaction,” examines the natural and technological factors that affected maritime activity, including “seas, winds, currents…vessels, technologies, and capabilities” (27). Most notable is Leidwanger’s integration of recent research on the ancient Mediterranean sailing season and advances in shipbuilding technology into his model. Thus, he accepts that ancient mariners took sail both at night and in the winter season more commonly than once thought; and that developments in nautical technology did not necessarily follow a linear trajectory of progress from the Hellenistic period through to the end of Late Antiquity, but rather provided sailors greater options to respond to local environmental and economic factors. Chapter three, “Modeling Maritime Dynamics,” proceeds to the human factors impacting seafaring, employing a bottom-up network approach inspired in particular by the work of Broodbank and Tartaron to define regions of maritime activity.[3] Much has been made of regions and “regionalisms” in the study of the economic history of the ancient Mediterranean, but often without much reflection on the methodology involved in defining such units; Leidwanger’s careful effort to “define meaningful regionalisms in seaborne connectivity” (5) by considering the full range of actors and activities involved in seafaring is thus salutary.

Chapter four, “Exploring Shipwreck Data,” then delves into the dataset at the heart of this monograph, comprised of 67 shipwrecks. Some of these Leidwanger publishes for the first time, while he refines or corrects the data derived from others—no trivial contribution, considering that current shipwreck databases include only 186 Roman and Late Antique wrecks throughout the entire eastern Mediterranean (114). He subjects this evidence base to a novel combination of analyses, visualising geographical links based on cargo composition; using GIS analysis to model the rhythms and lengths of journeys; and comparing trends between the two study areas, the broader eastern Mediterranean and the Mediterranean as a whole. One of the key conclusions of this chapter is that in both study areas there were early Roman and Late Antique peaks in maritime activity separated by a distinct 3rd c. AD nadir, a specifically eastern Mediterranean phenomenon. Chapter five, “Ports and Everyday Economies,” then shifts the focus to the other half of the book’s evidence base, port sites. In this chapter Leidwanger takes a bottom-up approach, combining archaeological, topographical, and environmental evidence to map the full array of port sites in each study area, many of which have been little discussed in historical or archaeological literature. Using GIS analysis, he then integrates the data derived from these port sites with that of inland archaeological surveys and excavations to illuminate connections between the hinterlands that produced the agricultural commodities moved along seaways and the mariners that transported them. As he notes, this and other such regional port studies increasingly suggest that the majority of such facilities were quite small and rudimentary, and he concludes that the archaeological record “points toward a more intensive and active coastal landscape than is often recognized in studies of Roman maritime economies” (195).

Finally, chapter six, “Maritime Networks in the Roman East,” synthesises the book’s findings and situates them within broader economic, social, and political developments in the eastern Mediterranean. As Leidwanger notes, different agents, ships, commodities, and ports were involved in maritime activity in both southwestern Turkey and southern Cyprus during the early Roman and Late Antique booms. From the 2nd c. BC to the 2nd c. AD, the Aegean and Cyprus were strongly connected in economic terms, forming a zone of interaction integrated into some broader imperial networks but largely distinct from western Mediterranean economic networks. Following Constantinople’s designation as the imperial capital in the early 4th c. AD, however, the two study areas then became much more central to larger economic networks, with the emergence of interregional links with the Danube and Black Sea regions revealing the impact of top-down economic integration under Justinian in particular. Nonetheless, Leidwanger concludes that across the nine centuries covered, the majority of nautical activity in both southwestern Turkey and southern Cyprus was defined not by long-distance connections but by short but dense links. These persistent regional networks modulated the local impact of broader developments, resulting in uneven changes in economic growth, decline, integration, and disintegration across both study areas. One of the most notable trends that emerges from Leidwanger’s study of smaller port sites is that they were not necessarily subordinated to and oriented around larger regional harbours, as is often assumed in studies of ancient maritime connectivity; rather, smaller ports in the two study areas were in many respects distinct nodes in regional maritime networks. Another related conclusion is that changes in the frequency of maritime activity did not necessarily correlate with shifts in the average distance of seafaring connections. For instance, evidence for the continued transportation of luxury goods between major ports via imperial networks at the same time as intraregional maritime commerce diminished during the 3rd c. AD suggests that long-distance connections did not necessarily fluctuate in tandem with the regional economies of the eastern Mediterranean.

The end matter of this monograph is comprised of two appendices, one a catalogue of the shipwrecks studied, the other a comprehensive presentation of the wind patterns of southwestern Turkey and Cyprus; a copious bibliography; and a comprehensive index. The text is produced and copyedited to a high standard throughout.

This study makes two important contributions to the archaeology of Roman and Late Antique seafaring. First, it demonstrates the value of employing novel analytical and contextual approaches that “can bridge the low-resolution bulk data with the more limited but high-resolution data of individual cargos and ports” (225) to maximise the utility of regional evidence. In particular, estimating travel times with reference to wind patterns and visualising nautical connections based on the composition of cargos rather than reconstructed shipping routes allows Leidwanger to craft a more sophisticated examination of maritime connectivity than has been employed in much previous scholarship. The application of such innovative analytical techniques to shipwrecks, ports, and hinterland survey evidence in tandem offers a dynamic model for this sort of study. Second, it shifts away from the predominant mode of analysing ancient Mediterranean maritime networks, which mainly adopts a top-down, depersonalised perspective focused on urban centres, well-developed harbours, and long-distance seafaring, in favour of a bottom-up analysis rooted in non-urban contexts, local worlds, and individual experiences. As Leidwanger notes, most seafarers of the ancient Mediterranean could not easily have been categorised as simply merchants, fishermen, ferrymen, or the like, often engaging in multiple overlapping and complementary nautical activities. Comparative evidence suggests that these individuals would have operated within worlds whose bounds were rarely more than a few days’ sail, favouring routine activity, established relationships, and minimal investment and risk. Because these parochial mariners probably mostly frequented smaller, largely unregulated ports, they are likely to have been majorly underrepresented in our written sources, and thus shifting our focus to archaeological evidence of their maritime activity makes it possible to reconstruct the lived experiences of large swathes of the population of the Roman and Late Antique Mediterranean.

One of the only notable criticisms I have of Leidwanger’s approach is that while he is generally meticulous in laying out the pitfalls of interpreting the archaeological evidence studied, he devotes surprisingly little space to reflection on the difficulty of interpreting terrestrial archaeological material in economic terms. This is most conspicuous in chapter five, in which he frequently designates structures as workshops or other production facilities and ceramic debris as evidence for commerce without elaboration. I also found that his discussion of activity at small, remote ports does not adequately address a key factor that must have informed the frequency with which merchants made use of such landing spots: the risk that after investing time and effort in landing they might not have found any business nearby. As Leidwanger notes, many of these small ports could only have been accessed irregularly or seasonally, both by land and sea, due to their poor shelter, minimal infrastructure, and rough hinterlands. Thus, the stability of markets associated with larger ports might have made them more attractive even for small-time mariners, despite the associated hassles of increased regulation and competition. Nonetheless, these points detract little from the overall quality of the work.

Leidwanger ends his book with a brief but invigorating coda, “Further Journeys,” that envisions how the study of Mediterranean maritime archaeology might develop in the years to come. He identifies good candidates for similar multiscalar regional studies, including Israel, Sicily, and southern France, and notes that with the proliferation of scientific analyses of ceramics and the remains of the commodities conveyed within them we may soon obtain greater clarity on the origins and contents of cargos, especially for the Late Antique period, when amphora types became more homogeneous. He also notes that expanding the chronological scope to compare his regional findings both with earlier Hellenistic and later Medieval developments would make it possible to understand longue durée developments in pre-modern Mediterranean seafaring in more granular detail. Archaeologists and historians looking to undertake such studies would be hard pressed to find a better model for their research than this monograph.


[1] Braudel, F., The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, translated by S. Reynolds, New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1972; Horden, P., and N. Purcell, The Corrupting Sea: A study of Mediterranean history, Malden, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

[2] Parker, A. J., Ancient Shipwrecks of the Mediterranean & the Roman Provinces, Oxford: Tempus Reparatum, 1992.

[3] Broodbank, C., An Island Archaeology of the Early Cyclades, Cambridge: CUP, 2000; Tartaron, T. F., Maritime Networks in the Mycenaean World, Cambridge: CUP, 2013.