BMCR 2022.02.19

The origins of the Roman economy: from the Iron Age to the early Republic in a Mediterranean perspective

, The origins of the Roman economy: from the Iron Age to the early Republic in a Mediterranean perspective. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. 469. ISBN 9781108478953 $140.00.

Over the past 15 years, the economy of the classical Mediterranean has been a productive field of study, witnessing two particularly important developments. First, stimulated by the ever-increasing amount of archaeological evidence, material culture has become an important proxy in quantitative approaches to economic development. Second, theories and models from different strands of economic research (geographical, behavioural, institutional) are now applied to re-assess the nature and performance of ancient economies.[1]

Within Roman archaeology, this re-assessment has focused primarily on the period between roughly the 2ndcentury BC and the 2nd century AD with much less attention devoted to the preceding phases of Rome’s economic history as it grew from a city state to a Mediterranean empire. Fortunately however, this situation is changing, and Gabriele Cifani’s The Origins of the Roman Economy is an important contribution in this respect aiming to “outline the economic history of Rome from the protohistoric phase until the end of the Latin War in 338 BC by employing a wide range of archaeological data.” (p.11/12).[2]

Cifani sketches this economic history in 18 chapters. Chapter 1 introduces a history of ideas on the early Roman economy and outlines some of the key issues and questions arising from such scholarship, while chapter 2 sketches the geographical context in which Rome developed. After this, chapters 3 to 17 present a diachronic overview of the main developments. One chapter is devoted to the Bronze Age, five chapters to the Iron Age, five chapters to the Archaic, and two chapters each to the 5th and 4th centuries. The main focus is clearly the Archaic period, to which c. 100 pages (c. 50% of the diachronic narrative) are devoted. Within the discussion of each period, there is a loose division between chapters focusing on archaeological data and chapters presenting literary and documentary sources and the interpretive reading of the combined textual and archaeological evidence. The book concludes with a two-and-a-half page epilogue, and is supported by appendices that present quantitative data on imported ceramics as well as zoological and palaeobotanical materials.

The main developments sketched by Cifani are as follows: the Late and Final Bronze Age (c. 1300 – 950 BC) witnessed a process of settlement nucleation and increasing articulation of social hierarchies (expressed in tomb construction and grave goods). Specialized artisanal production (ceramics, metalworking, working of amber, glass, ivory) arose, although especially in the Final Bronze there were still few imports into the region. Control over salt and metal resources enabled elites to re-affirm power in the face of population growth and the increasing importance of stockbreeding. Rome would already have taken a central place within the region, controlling the different routes along and across the lower Tiber and important lagoonal resources, especially salt.

In the Iron Age, especially the 8th century BC, selected settlements developed into unified centres, showing monumental construction works (such as the Palatine defensive wall and Domus Regia at Rome) and specialized metallurgic and ceramic workshops. There is some evidence for the rise of regional exchange, while extra-regional imports from Greece, the Near East and Egypt become numerous. This would suggest Rome became increasingly interwoven (and in Cifani’s view a crucial hub) within a large Mediterranean exchange network as well as the dominant polity within central Tyrrhenian Italy. Rome’s elites would increasingly obtain its wealth from trade and tolls.

Towards the end of the Iron Age (Latial phase IVB) and especially in the Archaic period (roughly the 6thcentury BC), regional exchange of ceramics increased, the first rectangular houses on stone foundations were built, and truly monumental public architecture developed (e.g., Rome’s city walls, the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus). These urban developments are mirrored in the countryside by increased resource exploitation (e.g., quarrying of stone and clay), the development of infrastructure (road cuts, drainage cuniculi), and a boom in rural settlement. These developments reflect an increased agricultural production that was primarily smallholder-based (implying private landholdings), but also included specialized wine and olive oil production by elite-run estates.

While the centrality of agriculture is portrayed clearly in the discussion of the early Roman calendar (chapter 12), trade played an increasingly large part in the economy, aided by the development of standards and international treaties. Trade became the domain of specialized traders and controlled by the state through emporia and fora, both closely bound to sanctuaries. Cifani envisages Archaic Rome as a domain state, which draws its income from not only taxes and tributes, but also its public properties and monopolies. The author also uses a ‘shotgun’ approach (based on written accounts, carrying capacity estimates, survey data, historical comparisons, military manpower estimates and the scale of Rome’s fortifications) to estimate the demographic dimensions of this period of economic expansion.

The 5th century by contrast was a period of turmoil, and archaeologically characterized by a decline in imports and construction works. In Cifani’s view, this situation reflects a phase in which the regional economy would not have been sufficient to maintain high population levels, and Malthusian checks thus followed. The shortage of land would thus also have been a main driver for early Roman expansion, including the conquest of Veii in 396 BC. At the same time, as suggested by the Foedus Cassianum and the Law of the Twelve Tables, Rome continued to dominate Latium, enhancing trade and regulating markets in the region. The conquest of Veii is seen as the starting point of a subsequent phase of recovery and expansion, which Cifani frames in Keynesian terms. Territorial expansion and the re-investment of its returns (e.g., in the military, infrastructural developments) with various social and economic reforms led to a further economic integration of Etruria, Latium and Campania, and the rise of Rome as a major Mediterranean trade power.

As emphasized in the epilogue, this diachronic narrative integrating recent archaeological evidence with views of early Roman social and political organization derived from written sources, convincingly deconstructs any ‘romantic and primitivist image of a pastoral archaic Latium’ (p. 233). Cifani points out the crucial role of the written sources, as the scope of archaeological evidence is limited and reconstructions based solely on such evidence would focus too narrowly on mechanisms of supply and demand. In his words, this would ‘emphasise modernizing explanations’ (p.235), to the neglect of the embeddedness of the economy, which was shaped as much by social processes, political decision making and other institutions. It is hard to disagree with these statements, which are in line with recent work that applies ideas from New Institutional Economics. The overall argument provides an interesting cyclical model of Rome’s early economic development (Archaic economic expansion followed by Malthusian checks and a renewed Keynesian expansion in the wake of Rome’s territorial expansion). While this model provides a plausible explanation for the observed development, the way quantitative approaches to archaeological evidence are used to support it leaves room for improvement. Let me illustrate this with two examples.

The first concerns the quantification of imported artefacts to argue for the importance of trade and the centrality of Rome as a trade hub within central Tyrrhenian Italy. The distribution of imported Cumaean and Pithecussan ceramics is used to support this hypothesis. However, as presented in appendix C, there are only nine such vessels; four from Rome, two from Satricum, two from Castel di Decima, and one from Lavinium (Caere is mentioned as another site with such ceramics, but not included in appendix C). With such a meager dataset – with likely biases in the publication of the archaeological record from different sites – it seems difficult to argue that the quantitative dominance of Rome is indeed meaningful. In fact, such a sparse distribution of imports could be equally if not better explained by cabotage trade rather than by redistribution through Rome, which also brings into question the (independent) role of Latial and Etruscan emporia. More generally, the fact that overseas trade is only identified on small numbers of items (27 Etruscan amphorae, 135 Etruscan vessels, 89 east Greek vessels, 25 Laconian vessels, 22 Phoenician amphorae, …) calls into question the volume and importance of overseas trade within the wider economy.[3] It would surely have been an important mechanism to sustain elite networks, but the bulk of exchange must have been in local and regionally produced goods – which are hardly considered. It is obviously challenging to understand such exchange systems archaeologically, but without a more robust quantitative basis to assess the volume of importation in relation to regional productions, quantitative analysis is not a particularly strong tool.

A second example concerns the author’s – commendable – attempts to estimate population figures for Archaic Rome. These include sophisticated carrying capacity calculations that revise conservative estimates of Rome’s population.[4] However, unlike other recent efforts along these lines, these complex calculations do not result in ranges of plausible values, but only in an absolute population estimate for Rome (c. 40,000 inhabitants). Such absolute estimates are vulnerable: by raising the average caloric requirements of a person from 2200 calories (which may indeed be on the low side), the carrying capacity of Rome’ hinterland significantly drops.[5] In principle, the shotgun-approach counters such limitations by providing multiple proxies to come to plausible population ranges. However, the author concludes that the lower Tiber Valley as a whole probably housed c. 70,000-100,000 inhabitants, without making clear how the different proxies feed into that estimate.

The book, which represents an extended version of a series of lectures, indeed reads more like a series of separate papers than a monograph. The introduction does little to highlight how the central aim is concretely achieved in the remainder of the study (e.g., why and how is the material ordered thematically, chronologically and by source?). The chapter about the geographic context provides crucial background to discussions of resource exploitation and landscape change, but does not really feed into sections dealing with these issues. Beyond re-iterating that the primitivist model of the early Roman economy cannot capture the complexity and developmental level of the early Roman economy, the epilogue does not satisfy as a substantial conclusion. This is unfortunate, as the arguments have important implications for debates on processes of state formation vis-à-vis elite agendas, and the importance of economic drivers in early Roman Imperialism.[6] Also, there is no introduction to the archaeology of the region or to specific sources and terms (e.g., The Twelve Tables); overview maps are lacking; and the figures do not always connect to the text. This makes Cifani’s book less accessible to non-experts.

These critical remarks are not to deny the importance of Cifani’s work: it draws on an impressive knowledge of both textual and archaeological sources, and introduces recent methodological innovations and theoretical perspectives in a synthetic treatment of early Rome’s economic development. It will surely form a reference point for scholarship on early Rome, also as a starting point for further work on its economy. I see two main lines along which such scholarship might develop: first, by further exploring the archaeological sources as an independent (quantitative) source; and second, by bridging the gap between Cifani’s Archaic economy and the Imperial economy on which so much scholarship has focused.


[1] See for example the proceedings of the 19th AIAC conference “Archaeology and Economy in the Ancient World”.

[2] Important earlier contributions: Smith, C., 1996. Early Rome and Latium. Economy and Society c. 1000 to 500 BC. Oxford; Nijboer, A. 1998. From household production to workshops. Archaeological evidence for economic transformations, pre-monetary exchange and urbanisation in central Italy from 800 to 400 BC. Groningen.

[3] One could argue that if trade was so prominent, a Malthusian explanation for 5th century decline becomes less plausible, as Rome would not have relied only on its hinterland for sustaining its population.

[4] Cf. Bradley, G. 2017. ‘The Rome of Tarquinius Superbus. Issues of Demography and Economy’, in P. Lulof and C. Smith (eds.) The Age of Tarquinius Superbus: Central Italy in the Late 6th Century. Leuven, 123-134.

[5] See Van Limbergen, D., 2020, Growing grapes in populous landscapes: demography, food, land and vine agroforestry in central Adriatic Italy, in Van Limbergen, D. et al. (eds), The Resilience of the Roman Empire. Oxford, 71-108.

[6] Cf. Terrenato, N., 2019. The Early Roman Expansion into Italy. Elite Negotiation and Family Agendas. Cambridge.