BMCR 2022.08.10

Food provisions for ancient Rome: a supply chain approach

, Food provisions for ancient Rome: a supply chain approach. Studies in Roman space and urbanism. Abingdon: Routledge, 2020. Pp. 240. ISBN 9780367143398 $128.00.


Paul James here applies modern techniques of analysis—specifically, supply chain management—to the ancient Roman food supply. In this book, James concentrates on grain above all, but he deals also with other foodstuffs (olive oil, wine, fish sauce, and fresh produce) as well as several non-food commodities (stone, timber, ceramics). James knows supply chain management well: as he tells us in the Introduction, he worked as a consultant in supply management for thirty years. Some years ago, he joined a study group that visited the ruins of ancient Ostia, Rome’s port city, and what he saw there aroused his curiosity: how did the Romans, in their pre-industrial world, manage to acquire, transport, and distribute enough food to satisfy the population of Rome? His response to this question—his description of the management of Rome’s supply chain—forms the substance of this unusual and interesting book.

Food Provisions consists of ten chapters organized in two main parts. Chapters 1 to 6 deal with factors that affected the level of demand for the commodity. Factors James treats include the nature of the product, diet, the technology of gristmills, loss, and waste. Chapters 7 to 10, the second main section, provide an “operating model” of the supply system; the model takes the form of a loosely constructed description of the grain supply system, with attention to the problems (“constraints”) faced by the Romans. These problems include the restricted length of the sailing season, the size of the population, the size and currents of the Tiber River, the capacities of the various ports, and many others.

Defining the topic. In his Introduction, James tells us that “A supply chain… is a series of linked operations involved in the production and distribution of a commodity.” People who read his book or this review in 2022 will have little trouble comprehending what is meant by a “supply chain,” and the parameters of the book are clear as well. James begins by assuming that there were roughly a million people resident in Rome, or somewhere between 600,000 and 1,200,000, with variations over time. He limits his inquiry, for the most part, to the period from the second century BC to the third AD, and to the geographical region of Rome and its immediate neighborhood, about twenty miles from the center of the city. His basic thesis is that securing food for the million residents of the city required a large and complex administrative structure. The purpose of his book is to explore and reveal that structure.

Sources. James acknowledges that we have few actual numbers or statistics that would be relevant to his subject—figures such as the average number of hours worked per day, or the number of ships docking per month, and so on—but he believes we can learn a great deal from the varied types of evidence we do have. These include texts, inscriptions, and papyri; archaeological excavations, especially of the last few decades; comparative materials, such as information from the Ottoman Empire (82 etc.) and early modern Austria (34); and his own visits to sites. James presents the information, or data, that he has gathered in a combination of text and tables and organizes them in a series of essays on various commodities and topics.

Tables. There are several dozen tables. For the most part, the information within them consists of lists and does not differ in type from the information conveyed in the text, and both text and table are likely to be built on specific numbers. Table 4.5, for example, on the “Net Demand for Wine,” consists of four columns, each of which presents population figures for Rome at one of four different hypothetical populations: 600,000, 800,000, 1,000,000, and 1,200,000. For each of those population levels, James provides figures for three levels of wine consumption: 145, 165, and 183 liters per person per year. These are hypothetical amounts. Then, using the acreage under vines today as comparative evidence, he calculates the amount of wine produced in the area around Rome and the net annual demand. He gives his reasons for the estimates in the accompanying text, but here, and in the case of James’s other tables, it is not always easy to determine the source of the figures and numbers, nor exactly what they are telling us. A statement on the conventions used in creating such tables, and on the ways they can be used, would be helpful.

The model. The last four chapters deal more directly with the supply chain model, and here we get a clear narrative of the steps involved in the production and distribution of a commodity, from source to consumer. At each stage, James introduces digressions that explain some of the details of the process, and how the several steps relate to one another. These include problems of loss and waste and other constraints. At the same time, these digressions provide useful mini-essays of various sorts, not least in the area of Roman technology. James includes, for example, an extended discussion of water- and animal-powered gristmills. (79-91)

A brief look at the section on “Coordination and Management of the Tiber” (179-91, with Figure 9.9) will help us identify the characteristic elements of James’s presentation. I paraphrase and condense from the book’s twelve pages. The premise for the estimates is that we must transport enough grain to feed a million residents. James begins this section by noting that the maintenance of the towpaths that ran beside the Tiber was crucial in order to make transport possible even in bad weather. If we are working with riverboats, we can set up a six-day cycle; more, and the river will become congested; fewer, and we waste space and energy. James assumes that navigation was possible 320 days a year. On the other 45 days, we can expect one or more of several constraints: bad weather, maintenance work in progress (“possibly scheduled once every two months”), holidays, accidents, or reduced flow in the summer. Alternatively, we Romans might use land transport, using the towpaths and oxcarts rather than riverboats. If we need to carry 100,000 tons of cargo to Rome over the course of 320 days, we will need 781 wagons, each carrying an average of 400 kilograms. (181)  It will take some 60 seconds to move each pair of oxen into position and get them started. James expands on each of these constraints, considering their impact on the whole supply chain and the Romans’ efforts to control them. Having assessed the problems and their impact, he asks, “…how did the administration manage the complexities of the situation?” (181) His guess is that the plan involved six-day weeks, with the seventh day left unscheduled and thus available for emergencies.

Abbreviated though it is, this summary of one of James’s sections illustrates at least two characteristics of Food Provisions as a whole. First, James is willing to incorporate many details, technical or otherwise. The text is peppered with numbers, calculations, and estimates. Second, James’s text reveals the surprising scale and complexity of the Roman supply system. That system, as James points out, dealt with enormous quantities of grain and other commodities, and involved extensive advance planning and coordination if it was to avoid congestion. The men in charge organized and scheduled sea-going ships, riverboats, oxen, men, and all manner of other equipment, when and where they were needed. As James notes in summary, the coordination of the many elements involved must have required the management of an “incredibly complex system”. (204)

I suspect that few readers will be willing to accept the figures that James gives us without further analysis and support. Too many of his figures, though not all, seem to be arbitrary estimates. On the other hand, the descriptions of processes, and of the interconnections between them, constitute useful reconstructions of Roman technology and infrastructure, and we must credit the supply chain approach with enabling us to assemble such reconstructions.

Caveat. A first encounter with the book is daunting. Interpreting the tables and graphs is something of a challenge. The prose is difficult, with words omitted, typos, and syntax that is sometimes strange. The text, with its many numbers and details, is hardly inviting. On the other hand, the bibliography is extensive, correct, and up-to-date. The book will be a useful starting point for further studies on particular points that it raises.