BMCR 2022.10.51

Space, movement and the economy in Roman cities in Italy and beyond

, , Space, movement and the economy in Roman cities in Italy and beyond. Studies in Roman space and urbanism. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2021. Pp. 456. ISBN 9780367371562. $160.00.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]


This volume collects the proceedings of a conference held in September 2018, organized by the International Network ‘Structural Determinants of Economic Performance in the Roman World’, funded by the Research Foundation Flanders. Part of a series of conferences, this focused on the way in which the layout of urban spaces impacted the way goods and people moved, and how this impacted economic performance in the first three centuries AD.

The editors start their introduction by highlighting the importance of location in modern property sales: where a building is located in relation to markets, natural resources and transport networks is of fundamental importance for its value. Location is also important in situations of increasing growth and/or agglomeration of population, as any profitable business must be located near profitable markets. This volume focuses on four central themes: space (that is, location), movement of people and goods, economies, and cities, and specifically their relation to each other. In order to create an overarching explanatory framework, a well-functioning market economy is implied. However, whether such an economy in fact existed is not quite certain for the Roman world. This volume therefore intends to study whether the Roman economy functioned as a system of interlinked supra-regional markets, with efficient transport networks; and whether the agglomeration economies model also applied to Roman cities. Were urban space and movement affected and/or determined by economic considerations, and can the study of urban spaces and movements tell us anything about economic behaviour in antiquity? Does change in the urban (economic) space indicate change in economic life and prosperity? This volume aims to answer these questions with regard to the cities of the Roman imperial period.

It is clear that people create landscapes that reflect their society’s values, institutions and patterns of behaviour, but that this world view and behaviour are also reinforced through the urban landscape. Debates on the nature of the Roman economy—fundamentally whether there was a capitalist market economy or not—are often rather abstract. Therefore, this volume focuses on the local, on real market buildings and cityscapes, and what these can say about the nature of the Roman economy. Important to note is that we should avoid dualism between an economy dominated by political and administrative structures and a fully free market economy; all market places and public buildings wielded dual functions.

This book firstly focuses on the flow of movement. Chapter One considers how people, animals and goods moved through urban space and the amount of connectivity that existed between different parts of a city, and between cities, and between city and countryside. As this volume points out, the line between city and countryside is not clear, since many cities were in fact very small. Thus, small cities are far more typical for the Roman economy than the large ones that studies often focus on. A landscape with many small cities, in any case, is not less efficient economically than a landscape with a few large cities and many villages. While much of our research is based on Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ostia, it is increasingly clear that these were not representative for all Roman cities.

In the second article, Vermeulen highlights the regional perspective with regard to economic space and movement in the Roman world. In Roman Italy, about 500 cities can be identified. It is therefore important to explore how the spatial structures of Roman cities and the patterns of movement that took place in them influenced economic processes and developments, and vice versa. Cities should also be studied in the wider context of the roads and rivers they were located nearby. Moreover, the landscape surrounding the towns is a driver behind the formation of settlement patterns and socio-economic networks, and should therefore be studied in close connection with the cities. In the Republican period, for example, a shift in rural settlement patterns took place simultaneously with a cultural Romanization process (even if this term is not without problems). In any case, the shaping of Roman towns can be seen as reflecting the mind frame of the local elites and their perception of the religious and political ideas of Rome.

Part II focuses on the theme ‘spaces’. The first article, by Flohr, discusses commerce and urban space beyond Pompeii and Ostia. These towns are often seen as typical Roman towns, but, as Flohr argues, they were not typical at all. Flohr illustrates this by the development of tabernae: in Pompeii and Ostia, there were many such shops, but in other towns far fewer. This shows different economic developments, or at least a different expression of such developments in the urban landscape.

Leder-Slotman discusses market buildings in Asia Minor. Earlier scholarship assumed that so-called ‘market buildings’ were used for commercial purposes. She argues convincingly, however, that the evidence for commercial use of these buildings is not very strong. Instead, we should investigate their functions based on the role they played in each individual town.

Poblome and Willett investigate whether specific economic activities, such as craft production, impacted the development of Roman towns. Using Asia Minor, and specifically Sagalassos, as a case study, the authors conclude that economic activities were unable to really cause innovation in this region and that urbanization was limited by regional energy availability and carrying capacity, rather than the economic activities that existed.

In the next paper, Zuiderhoek studies the relationship between the civic landscape of a town and the economic structure of its society. He points out changes in the urban landscape in Asia Minor in the third century and connects these to changes in the local elites, such as the declining importance of the middle class. This meant that there was less need for the elites to connect with the middle classes through munificence. Thus, there was indeed a connection between the visible landscape and the underlying social developments.

Dickenson then takes us to the opposite end of the Roman Empire, discussing the forum/basilica complex in Britain. He argues, contrary to earlier scholarship, that their economic function was just as important as their political and civic functions, and that basilicas were not just used for political and religious gatherings, but also as market halls. In any case, they could be used for multiple purposes, even at the same time, and the presence of an impressive complex in any town was in itself a political statement by the local elites.

Next, Lepore and Silani take the Roman colony of Sena Gallica as an example to discuss the connection between urban space and economic activity. This paper is quite difficult to compare with the others, as it focuses on the Republican period rather than the Imperial. Colonisation is also a rather different process, with the sudden imposition of a new urban structure, than we have seen in the other case studies. We may conclude, in any case, that economic activities were quite important for the colony’s inhabitants, as shown by the archaeological evidence.

The last paper in this section, by Basso, focuses on Aquileia and its market spaces. The paper mainly offers a short overview of the various archaeological sites, but also raises some interesting questions, e.g. about how goods were moved from the river to the markets. This offers a transition to part III, focusing on ‘movement’.

First, Adeline Hoffelinck investigates whether the location of a <i>macellum</i> in a city affected the local traffic, using a large number of case studies. The central location of these buildings sometimes caused traffic complications in the city, although the buildings themselves were designed to provide easy access for goods.

Next, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill asks whether the layout of Roman cities promoted or inhibited commercial activity. He argues that Roman cities were more chaotic and less accessible to carts than is often thought, but goods could also be moved by pack animals or porters. Despite the often less than ideal layout, Roman cities were full of commercial activity, indicating the importance of trade for those who ruled the cities.

Devi Taelman then investigates the effect of transport on the distribution and trade of marble. Surprisingly, Taelman’s energyscape model shows that marble was often transported over long distances, usually over water, even if this was not cost-effective. Clearly, motivations such as fashion or ideology played a role in the distribution of marble, rather than only economic considerations.

Cristina Corsi further studies the layout of Roman towns and their connection to the economy of mobility. She shows that signs of the transport sector are visible in many places, e.g. ramps, stables et cetera, as well as in the locations of inns, which were used by travelers working in transport, and were located mostly in the business districts of towns.

The next paper, by Thomas Schattner, moves to Munigua in Spain, and investigates the movement of people and goods in the Guadalquivir Valley. The town saw incoming goods such as foods, construction materials and luxury goods, as many other towns, but held a special place as an exporter of copper and iron found in the nearby mines.

In the paper by Simon Malmberg, the subject is Rome’s role as a river port city. This paper, which presents a large body of new research, shows that port facilities were present along many stretches of the Tiber, making it one of the major ports of the Roman Empire.

The following paper by Simon Keay, Peter Campbell, Katherine Crawford and Maria del Carmen Moreno Escobar, focuses on Portus and the way in which ship and foot traffic was directed throughout the harbour. Traffic needed to be directed both from and to the sea and the Tiber, making the role of Portus as a transshipment location very complex. Moreover, the harbour also needed to register cargoes and collect taxes on them, further slowing down the movement of goods.

The volume closes with a summary of the main conclusions by Vermeulen and Zuiderhoek. From the papers, it is clear that the requirements of production, distribution and consumption had a strong impact on the shape of urban space and the structure of urban networks. Nevertheless, non-economic factors also played a role in determining the urban landscape, such as geographical factors, social and political relations, elite competition, euergetism, and fashions in architectural styles and building materials. In any case, future research should not use a strict dichotomy between economic and non-economic factors, since a wide variety of forces influenced Roman economic space and movement. Furthermore, towns should be studied in their regional context and the settlement and transport networks that shaped them. It is clear that Roman urban landscapes created their own forms of economic dynamisms that sustained a highly urbanized pre-modern empire for centuries.

This book offers a variety of interesting and valuable contributions to our knowledge of the Roman economy. It is especially noteworthy for its use of GIS and social network modelling in order to analyze economic activities and networks, showing the value of such approaches for our knowledge of the ancient world. The coherence of the volume as whole perhaps leaves something to be desired, as is often the case with conference volumes. Yet, the views from different parts of the Roman Empire offer valuable possibilities for comparison between regions. This shows that the Roman economy was vibrant and that economic considerations played a major role in the way cities were shaped, and thus in the daily life of most inhabitants of the Empire. It would be interesting if future research could focus on the countryside and its connection to economic networks as well—as stated in the volume, town and country were closely intertwined, and the countryside will have been impacted by similar developments as those analysed here.


Authors and Titles

Arjan Zuiderhoek and Frank Vermeulen, Introduction: space, movement and the economy in Roman cities

Frank Vermeulen, Economic space and movement between Roman towns, their suburbia and territories: the regional perspective

Miko Flohr, Beyond Pompeii and Ostia: commerce and urban space in Roman Italy

Dorien Leder-Slotman, Market buildings in Asia Minor: old assumptions and new starting points

Jeroen Poblome and Rinse Willet, Do economic activities impinge on Roman urban matrices in Asia Minor? A new style/function debate

Arjan Zuiderhoek, Elites and economic space in Roman Imperial Asia Minor

Christopher P. Dickenson, Making space for commerce in Roman Britain: reevaluating the nature and impact of the forum/basilica complex

Giuseppe Lepore and Michele Sisani, The Roman colony of Sena Gallica: urban space and economic activities

Patrizia Basso, Aquileia’s market spaces

Adeline Hoffelinck, Finding your way towards the <i>macellum</i>: the spatial organization of a Roman type of market building

Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, How open was the Roman city? Movement and impediments to movement in the street system

Devi Taelman, Transport and trade: an energy expenditure approach for the distribution of marble in Central Adriatic Italy in Roman times

Cristina Corsi, “This mule will ruin me”: the economy of mobility in Roman towns

Thomas G. Schattner, Munigua’s place in the operational chain: some considerations regarding the movement of people and goods and the division of labour in the lower Guadalquivir Valley during the Roman period

Simon Malmberg, Understanding Rome as a port city

Simon Keay, Peter Campbell, Katherine Crawford and Maria del Carmen Moreno Escobar, Space, accessibility and movement through the Portus Romae

Frank Vermeulen and Arjan Zuiderhoek, The economics of space and mobility in Roman urbanism