BMCR 2022.10.34

The Roman Peasant Project 2009-2014

, The Roman Peasant Project 2009-2014: excavating the Roman rural poor. University museum monograph, 154. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2020. Pp. xxvi, 753. ISBN 9781949057072. $120.00.


[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume is the rich and complex publication of an even richer and more complex project that aimed to ground-truth a sample of the smallest sites recovered by the field-survey carried out by Mariaelena Ghisleni for her doctoral thesis in the area of Cinigiano, an inland part of the territory of Etruscan and Roman Roselle, near the modern town of Grosseto in Tuscany. Directed by Kim Bowes along with Cam Grey, the main aim of the Roman Peasant Project was to discover farms that, by detailed recovery and analysis of the material culture and the paleobotanical and faunal materials, would give better information on the lives, welfare and habitus of the rural poor in the Roman period. Eight of the sites revealed by field survey were selected for excavation. The excavations were carried out expeditiously, in order to extract the maximum amount of information within the compass of a single season, but the standard of excavation was high and its documentation and publication exemplary. In particular, the extensive sampling for pollen and its analysis relate the sites to their landscapes and the uses that their inhabitants made of them.

The structure of the publication is limpid: the first volume contains the premises, on ambitions, methodology and context, followed by the site-by-site publication of each excavation. These are presented organically, with their stratigraphy followed by their finds and the paleobotanical and faunal material, with a brief conclusion as to the nature of the site that takes into account all of the information. The second volume contains the analyses of the data presented in the first. These include chapters on the distribution of habitation, agriculture and land use, diet and subsistence, production, markets and trade, architecture and recycling, landscape and mobility, as well as a long conclusive essay, ‘The Roman Peasant Reframed’ by Bowes and Cam Grey. This is followed by a series of appendices, of which the most unusual is a finds catalogue without a single illustration, and 20 pages dedicated to the measurements of nails, without further comment. Many of the chapters have multiple authors, and it is clear that the team was in constant communication. The impact of this beautifully presented project should be high, both for its methodology and for the speed and completeness of its publication.

Field survey has never claimed to be an exact science. The relationship between a scatter of pottery, tile and stones in the field and the site that underlies it is clearly opaque, and sometimes impossible to recover, as the depth of ploughing in Italian fields often goes below the foundations, leaving the archaeologist with only the dismembered bits. The eight sites excavated by the RPP confirm this, although far fewer of them were ‘farms’ than expected. The sites comprise:


1. Pievina
This is a site that was interpreted as a village during field survey. It was possible to excavate only about 21% of the area of the surface spread, and a small amount of the structures revealed by the magnetometry. A series of functional buildings, including a possible granary, a kiln and a cistern, were revealed, but nothing that could be interpreted as a habitation: this must lie beyond the excavated area. 2nd– 1st century BC occupation was followed by a long hiatus, but the site was reoccupied in the fourth century and further occupied in the fifth. Again, there was no sign of a house, although there was a large amount of cooking wares, and ARS from the late empire. Coins suggested continuous occupation, but this was not reflected in the pottery. Alone among the excavated sites Pievina was interpreted as a farm.

2. Case Nuove
The excavation revealed no domestic structures, but clear indications of a rather primitive press, which contents analysis identified as an oil press. A large, well-constructed cistern was also present. A treading floor indicates that grapes were processed on the same site. The site dates in the second half of the first century BC. The cistern went out of use in the late second century. A square pit was cut into the clay in the late-fourth – early fifth century, and backfilled with a fairly rich deposit of rubbish: its function is unclear. The site is interpreted as a ‘stand-alone production site’, probably used in common by smallholders in the area. Its abandonment coincides with the reconstruction of the nearby site at Santa Marta as a villa. The late antique use might indicate that it functioned in that period for the threshing and winnowing of the villa’s grain.

3. San Martino
San Martino is a small site, entirely excavated. The excavation revealed a square building with a beaten-earth floor, a hearth, and a single door, dating to the late-2nd – early 1st century BC. It was probably roofed with tiles. The botanical data, which shows the presence of fungi and parasite eggs associated with herbivore dung in the beaten earth floor, suggests that it was used as a stable, perhaps periodically.

4. Poggio dell’Amore
This site, a kilometre away from the last, was drastically ploughed-out, and only a single wall remained, with the ghost of a return. Although pottery was limited, it included cooking pots, and a couple of structures that suggested hearths. The pottery dates it from the Augustan period through the ‘70’s AD. Again, botanical indications of dung in the beaten-earth floors suggests to the authors that it represents ‘a small hut periodically used for animal stabling.’

5. Colle Massari
Excavation of off-site scatters produced a field drain, and some evidence that one of the the scatters was dumped from elsewhere. Their date is generically early 1st c. AD.

6. Podere Terrato
A more complex site, this building had four rooms, although four walls were preserved for only one of them. It is, however, highly eroded. It is suggested that two of the rooms were terraces for a kitchen and flower garden. The very minimal stratigraphy suggests a date between the Augustan period and the middle of the first century AD.

7. Podere Marzuolo
This site is the best-known of the group, due to publication and subsequent work by Van Oyen and others.[1] A large, carefully planned building, partially in opus reticulatum and covering over 1.5 hectares, the excavation revealed significant production of terra sigillata italica, both early, experimental forms and a later production stamped by ceramicists known from elsewhere in Tuscany. Although no residential quarters were found, mosaic tesserae indicate that these existed somewhere, perhaps the apartment of an overseer or manager. The pollen indicates extensive grain production, while both grape pips and vats suggest wine production as well. The site seems thus to include ‘urban’ investment, agricultural production and an artisan workshops. It was occupied between the early Augustan period and the third century AD, although the workshop production seems to be limited to the first century of its life.

8. Tombarelle
This site is a hill with a number of scatters, interpreted by the survey as a possible village. The four excavated scatters revealed a cistern, generically dated to the Roman period by its opus signinum lining, a cut filled by a dump dating from around 40 BC through the early Augustan period, another site consisting of apparently colluvial material ranging from late Augustan through Tiberian, and a late antique structure involving what was perhaps a drying floor for ceramic production testified to by numerous colour-coated wasters. Ceramic production is also suggested in the earlier phase of occupation by wasters and possible kiln spacers. The actual buildings that would have accompanied these processes were not found: it is suggested that they lie beneath the unexcavated scatters. This then was probably another farm, with an artisan component, although the domestic occupation was not excavated.


It is immediately striking that of the eight sites excavated only one, Pievina, was certainly identified as a farm. The others appear to the authors to have been annexes and farm-buildings of one kind or another, and this proportion is used throughout the volume for different purposes, but principally to show that while fewer of the ‘dots on the map’ were actually farms, and could be counted towards demographic or other sorts of estimates, farms in the late Republic and early empire were far more articulated than we have imagined. This, together with the remarkably detailed evidence for crop production, showing a three-field rotation between grain, legumes and pasture, leads them to define the agriculture practiced in this period as ‘intensive-extensive’. Far from being ignorant peasants, cut off from the practices of the Roman elite, the farmers practiced an agriculture that was different only in scale from that of the large estates. Crop rotation would have avoided prolonged fallow periods, keeping fields in use on an annual basis. They periodically used more or less distant outbuildings, robust structures for temporary use. Their material culture, too, was relatively impoverished but still elaborate, with many more forms of pottery, including fine wares, than it would have been had they been reduced to abject need.

The discovery that some of their sites (we can disagree about how many)[2] were not ‘small farms’ leads Bowes to suggest that 13% of those found on other surveys are equally dubious, as are demographic estimates based on them. This would be the case with the nearby Albegna Valley Survey, directed by Maria Grazia Celuzza and myself between 1978 and 1985.[3] This survey revealed over 1600 sites, over 1000 in sample transects. Using the latter, I estimated the population of the 1000 –odd square kilometres covered by the survey as follows:

Pop. by site type
Pop.min (*5.70)
Pop. max.
Farm/tomb 48 2.5 120 684 684
Farm 1 115 5 575 3300 3300
Farm 2 86 10 860 4902 4902
Village 9 40 360 2052
Village (9) 80 720 4104
Villae 65 30 1950 11115
Villae (65) 50 3250 18525

Total rural

22053 31515
Albegna Valley Survey population estimates


The site numbers are those found by the survey within the sample transects, which covered 17,5% of the total area of the project, thus they are multiplied by 5.70 to estimate the population. For each site type we estimated a certain number of people, in the ‘multiplier’ column. It will be seen that the smallest scatters, in the farm/tomb category (which indicates that we do not necessarily think they are farms) contribute only 2-3% to these totals. To reduce the population estimates by 13% we would have to eliminate all of the smaller farms as well. However, these are significantly larger than the sites in the Cinigiano survey, covering an average of 300 m2, and always characterized by significant tile scatters.

This raises an important issue The authors are very good about not claiming that their results should be applied more widely (except when they do), which is just as well, as there is no doubt that the area studied is very different from those on the central Tyrrhenian coast that have been the subject of various previous surveys. It seems a stretch to argue from these eight sites that ‘the majority of small sites found in Italian field surveys may very well represent more short-term structures, particularly in the late Republic through early empire.’ (507). In the far hinterland of the territory of Roselle, the occupation history of the area is also very different from that of the territories of the coastal cities: this is marginal land, only gradually occupied from the second century B.C. onwards. Indeed, it seems not impossible that the incremental occupation of these areas was a consequence of the large deductions of settlers to the neighbouring territories of Cosa, Saturnia and Heba, with previous, perhaps Etruscan, small-holders withdrawing into the hills and the marginal areas.[4] It is significant that one of their sites produced a stamped tile in Etruscan, recording a manufacturer called Lauχmes Ciarti. The letter forms suggest a date in the second century B.C. The mould for a terracotta head suggests that this, too, was a manufacturing site.

The area of Cinigiano seems to have been genuinely remote and marginal, although the fine analysis of communications within it, based on the stone sources for the building material, shows well-travelled routes, and the possibility of reaching the regional town, Roselle, in a day’s journey. It has very few of the substantial villas that characterize the coastal areas. An exception is the villa of Santa Marta, interpreted as a residence next to a possible mansio.[5] This sort of investment in less central areas has been seen before, but the site at Podere Marzuolo is something genuinely new. This large site measures over two hectares, and has been subject to new excavations, by Astrid Van Oyen and Rhodora Vennarucci since those of the RPP. At least some of its original structures were built in a rather irregular opus reticulatum, known in the immediate area only at Roselle, although several of the villas in the Albegna Valley were built in this technique. The use of opus reticulatum, together with the apparently regular plan, certainly suggests urban investment, but there is little sign, apart from a few stone tesserae and some window glass, of a luxury residence. Instead, at the beginning of the site some of its spaces may have been used for the manufacture of Italian sigillata of an experimental nature, dating perhaps to the early Augustan period. At a later period, but before a fire that dates to c. 50 AD, the collapse of a shelf shows stacks of Italian sigillata, with stamps that record three known potters, such as Umbricius, known from Pucci’s excavations at Torrita di Siena.[6] Here, at least initially, there seems to be deliberate investment in manufacturing, possibly carried out with a locatio-conductio rental contract. The status of the potters and their relationship to the owners remains mysterious. As the authors point out, there is nothing to recommend the site to a pottery manufactury, except perhaps for access to wood: neither its communications nor its clay and water resources are in any way exceptional. Indeed, the current excavators wonder if the later pottery was not simply brought in from elsewhere and stacked for sale, rather than manufactured on the spot.[7]

As it is, Podere Marzuolo represents a significant exception in the range of otherwise unexceptional peasant properties. That it was seasonally occupied I tend to doubt, but extra labour during the summer seems likely. By the middle of the first century AD it was certainly producing wheat and wine as well, and may have functioned as a market and distribution point for the surrounding territory, hosting periodic nundinae. This would be in line with other such structures, like Santa Marta, that offered the services for lodging and bathing outside the network of the official stationes.[8] Again, these offered an investor various ways to receive interest on his or her investment outside the narrow confines of the classical villa. It should be noted that the consumption patterns at the site of Podere Marzuolo are far more complex and elaborate than those of the smaller sites, resembling those of the elite site at Santa Marta rather than those of Pievina.

The thin scatter of sites revealed by the Cinigiano survey suggests that there was no Malthusian pressure on the landscape. The consistent, if patchy occupation of the territory appears to have petered out after the first century AD, with a few sites reoccupied in the fourth and early fifth centuries, including the original farm at Pievina and the pressing site at Case Nuove, now certainly within the confines of the Santa Marta estate. This might signify, again, a retreat from the coastal areas by those feeling threatened by banditry and whatever forces were moving up and down the via Aurelia, but there are still signs of a ‘normal’ circulation of goods in the presence of African Red Slip wares and some imported amphorae.

The chapters in the second volume are to a uniformly high standard. That on the architecture of the buildings – for which read building techniques – is particularly intriguing. It confirms the suspicion that earth on a stone foundation was the primary building material of the Roman countryside, either in the form of pisé or, perhaps, cob walling. But the study of the use and reuse of stone from various sources is new, as is the detailed information obtained from it for the elucidation of patterns of mobility and communication. The network by which the sites were articulated is also interesting, though I found Stephen Collins-Elliott’s chapter on Correspondence Analysis (450-465) very hard to understand (and conversations with colleagues show that I am not alone; figures 12.22 and 12.23 are particularly challenging). The chapter on diet and cooking is loving in its detail, putting together all of the evidence from pollen, bones, seeds and pottery to enhance our view of the peasant diet. This was far less carbohydrate-dependent that has sometimes been argued. A large variety of grains and legumes were certainly cultivated and consumed, although there is perhaps room to doubt that Triticum durum was a cultivar. This is based on the identification of a single grain of pollen, when, to my knowledge, there is as yet no certain identification of a seed from Roman Italy.[9] The animal bones point to a significant consumption of milk and cheese, and a sporadic one of meat – perhaps older, tougher animals whose long cooking by stewing in the abundant casseroles would have been far more common than roasting or grilling. Without a contemporary cemetery to assess nutrition at the skeletal level the question as to whether people were going hungry is impossible to answer with certainty, but the evidence detailed here points to a series of strategies to avoid famine. Imported finewares and a very few amphorae show access to markets, perhaps through pedlars or periodic markets at sites like Marzuolo. In the later period the pottery complex at the Pievina farm is very similar to a context at Roselle itself, so perhaps visits to the town became more common in that period.

The general picture, revealed by the Roman Peasant Project in its various facets, is that of a complex, collaborative society of peasants, who share production facilities and perhaps fields, and whose relationships spread out through the hilly countryside like a subtle, invisible net. The labour of the components of the peasant families would have been articulated in different ways throughout the year, and interwoven with that of their neighbours. The slave-run villas of the coast have nothing to do with this picture, which proposes an alternative, and certainly more attractive, form of social relations.

However, one form of agency appears to be missing from this picture of peasant collaboration and autonomous organization. This is that of the elite, or even the state. The villa/mansio at Santa Marta exists, and had an urban proprietor identified on a third-century fistula as Iunia Calliena.[10] That the tentacles of the senatorial aristocracy reached deep into the countryside is evident from this, as it is from the tiles at Podere Marzuolo, stamped with the name C. Decum(i)us. Tiles stamped by the same person (CIL XV 875, 976) are common near Rome, and it seems very likely that the initial investment in this property came from the same individual.[11] The idea that the site was in some way a product of peasant agency squares neither with the tiles nor with the building technique. That organization at Marzuolo was looser than on a slave-run villa seems probable, as is the suggestion that the potters may have periodically rented space or used – or even built – the kilns. But none of this implies an absence of further orders of control and management. Upland Etruria is not Upland Southeast Asia.[12] Were the peasants recovered by the survey really all smallholders, collaborating with each other without higher authority? Columella’s recommendation (R.R. 1.7) that distant properties, especially those cultivated with grain, be let rather than farmed directly, rings in one’s ears. Are the peasants in question not tenants? Perhaps, at the level of the peasant, it did not matter – except when the rent collector came around. Perhaps the obligation to pay rent led, in Hopkins’ formulation, to an obligation to commercialize.[13] Opinions will differ. In such a system, rather than the shared access to the production centre at Marzuolo, whose infrastructure, from kilns to presses, would have been available to all, we would see a system more like that of nineteenth century Tuscany, when estates were centred on a large fattoria where crops and tools were stored, and a blacksmith might be available for repairing the tools and shoeing the horses (just such a blacksmith’s shop was found at Marzuolo). A fattore oversaw the collection of in-kind rents, the apportioning of seed and tools, and the eventual sale of the produce. Here a procurator or vilicus would have lived at Marzuolo, while the owner, in some distant town, or indeed Rome itself, might visit the estate periodically. It is impossible to establish from the evidence from the project who actually owned the means of production, but the doubt persists.

What remains clear is just how much more we now know about this particular territory and what was cultivated there, how the inhabitants lived, and what they consumed and produced. The Roman Peasant Project shows just how far archaeological evidence can be pushed, especially in collaboration with archaeological scientists, and how much farther it goes when all the separate strands of evidence are combined, and considered together, rather than occupying catalogues at the end of a volume. The work is a milestone in the history of Roman agriculture in Italy.


Authors and Titles

PART I: Old Questions and New Data
1. Introduction: Inventing Roman Peasants. Kim Bowes
2. Methodologies. Antonia Arnoldus, Kim Bowes, Stephen Elliott, Cam Grey, Mariaelena Ghisleni, Michael MacKinnon, James Matheiu, Anna Mercuri, Marco Sfacteria and Emanuele Vaccaro
3. Land and Locale. Antonia Arnoldus, Kim Bowes, Cam Grey, Mariaelena Ghisleni and Eleonora Rattighieri
4. Pievina
5. Case Nuove
6. San Martino
7. Poggio dell’Amore
8. Colle Massari
9. Podere Terrato
10. Marzuolo
11. Tombarelle

PART II: A New Synthesis
12. Where Did Roman Peasants Live? Habitation and Distributed Habitation. Kim Bowes, Stephen Elliott and Cam Grey
13. Agriculture and Land Use. Antonia Arnoldus, Kim Bowes, Michael MacKinnon, Anna Mercuri, Eleonora Rattighieri and Rosella Rinaldi
14. Diet, Dining, and Subsistence. Kim Bowes, Michael MacKinnon, Anna Mercuri, Eleonora Rattighieri, Rosella Rinaldi and Emanuele Vaccaro
15. Non-Agricultural Production, Markets, and Trade. Kim Bowes, Emanuele Vaccaro, Stephen Elliott and Cam Grey
16. Architecture and Recycling. Kim Bowes
17. Mobility. Cam Grey and Antonia Arnoldus
18. Conclusions The Roman Peasant Reframed. Kim Bowes and Cam Grey
19. Appendices



[1] A. Van Oyen, ‘Innovation and Investment in the Roman Rural Economy through the Lens of Marzuolo (Tuscany Italy)’ Past & Present, Volume 248, I1, August 2020, 3–40.

[2] Initially identified as a rather poor farm, San Martino was reinterpreted as a stable after the botanical data showed fungi and parasites that indicated the presence of dung. It might be pointed out, though, that dung is a standard component of beaten-earth flooring in many parts of the world, serving to discourage bacteria and mosquitoes. The same evidence also meant that the site at Poggio dell’Amore was excluded, in spite of its hearths and cooking pots.

[3] A. Carandini, F. Cambi, M.-G. Celuzza and E. Fentress, eds., Paesaggi d’Etruria. Valle dell’Albegna, Valle D’Oro, Valle del Chiarone, Valle del Tafone. Rome 2002. For the demographic calculations, E. Fentress, ‘Peopling the Countryside: Roman Demography in the Albegna Valley and Jerba’ in A. Bowman and A. Wilson, edd. Quantifying the Roman Economy. Methods and Problems. Oxford 2009: 127-162.

[4] Mariagrazia Celuzza, ‘La romanizzazione: Etruschi e Romani fra 311 e 123 a.C.’ in A. Carandini et al., op.cit. in note 2, 103-113.

[5] Stefano Campana and Emanuele Vaccaro, ‘Santa Marta: A Roman Nodal Point in the Middle Ombrone (Southern Tuscany, Italy)’ in Alessandro Sebastiani and Carolina Megale, eds., Archaeological Landscapes of Roman Etruria. Research and Field Papers:. Turnhout, 2021: 49-66.

[6] Giuseppe Pucci 1992. La fornace di Umbricio Cordo. L’officina di un ceramista romana e il territorio di Torrita di Siena nell’antichità. Florence.

[7] Astrid Van Oyen, pers. com.

[8] For Santa Marta S. Campana and E. Vaccaro, ‘Santa Marta: a Roman Nodal Point in the Middle Ombrone Valley (Southern Tuscany, Italy). In S. Sebastiani,and C. Megale, eds., Archaeological Landscapes of Roman Etruria. Research and Field Papers. Archaeological and Historical Landscapes of Mediterranean Central Italy, I. Tournholt, 2021, 49-66.

[9] These can only be distinguished by their rachis fragments: the identification triticum aestivum/durum is common, but with no certain identification of Triticum durum until the Medieval period.

[10] Stefana Campana, Emanuele Vaccaro, and Alfredo Buonopane. 2019. ‘27. Santa Marta (Cinigiano, GR). I balnea presso il sito romano e tardoantico’, in M. Medri e A. Pizzo, edd., Le terme pubbliche nell’Italia romana (IIsecolo a.C – fine IV d.C.). Architettura, tecnologia e società Rome. 66–87.

[11] The current excavators make just this point: Astrid Van Oyen, Gijs W. Tol, and Rhodora G. Vennarucci 2021, ‘The Missing Link. A Nucleated Rural Centre at Podere Marzuolo (Cinigiano-Grosseto) in Alessandro Sebastiani and Carolina Megale, eds., Archaeological Landscapes of Roman Etruria. Research and Field Papers. Turnhout, 2021: 237-248. p. 241.

[12] James. C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Goverened. An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven, 2009.

[13] Keith Hopkins, ‘Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire (200 B.C.-A.D. 400)’ JRS 70, 1980, 101-125.