BMCR 2024.02.29

Von Blüten und Krisen: eine wirtschaftsarchäologische Studie zum kaiserzeitlichen Südetrurien

, Von Blüten und Krisen: eine wirtschaftsarchäologische Studie zum kaiserzeitlichen Südetrurien. Archäologische Forschungen, 42. Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2023. Pp. 330. ISBN 9783752006643.

The book under review here, the revised version of the author’s Berlin PhD thesis, is a remarkable one, and for a number of reasons. The most important of these is its successful endeavor to present the archaeological evidence from a given region with all its specifics (in this case, southern Etruria with the proximity to Rome as one of the most important forming factors) in the light of historical economic theory to develop and present a new set of tools for understanding Roman economic history in general. Thus, the book’s title “Von Blüten und Krisen” (roughly: “Of Heydays and Crises”, an allusion to John Steinbeck) is revealed to be just a display of a long-lived but nevertheless misleading dualism that should be replaced by a much broader and—at the same time—more specified set of questions we should ask about the Roman economy. This of course is by no means a new observation, but the author pursues it in a very captivating and convincing way by taking southern Etruria as his region of interest from which to draw the quantitative evidence as well as an apt set of indicators for reaching conclusions that might in fact prove useful for many other kinds of research into the ancient economy.

The book’s aims are presented in an extremely short introduction of barely three pages, outlining the main goal as being a contribution to the reconstruction of the economic development in Roman Imperial times. For this, two historical traits are to be pursued at the same time: first, the general economic development of the epoch and second, trends in business activity in a micro perspective derived from an excellent in-detail analysis of the southern Etrurian economy. As a matter of course, establishing a useful set of conclusive indicators for both traits is a guiding theme of the whole book. The author has divided his work into three main parts. First, he presents some older models from the academic past for economic development in his period of interest. Second, he establishes his own approach to the analysis of regional economic phenomena (exclusively from archaeological data which he has gleaned from excavations and surveys in southern Etruria already published). Third and finally, he attempts a critical contextualization of this approach in order to arrive at a model showing the historical phases of ups and downs in the economy of his chosen region.

The section dealing with previous models for economic development in Roman antiquity presents a wide variety of scholars (and the pertaining ideologies) from Edward Gibbon to Michael I. Rostovtzeff, Moses I. Finley, the Italian ‘Scuola Gramsci’ to name just the most prominent ones. Touched upon more in passing than outlined in detail are even older models like Thomas R. Malthus and his ‘trap’ as well as today’s scholarship on the subject. Again, the sections and subsections are very short. They are, in fact, not meant to give a complete overview but rather to provide insights into these scholars’ view on the subject of crisis. This chapter quite baffles the reader. For its greater part, it addresses positions more than 50 years old, and this often with a textual undercurrent which seems to reflect some conflict between archaeology and history as academic disciplines which is often met in German scholarship. The usefulness for what follows in the main parts of the book in most cases remains doubtful.

After this overview the excellent centerpiece of the book comes as a pleasant surprise. In the second and third sections, the author provides a meticulous and extremely detailed analysis of what he perceives as the most important indicators of economic growth in the rural region under scrutiny. As such he exclusively takes archaeologically attested material which he categorizes and weighs against the properties of southern Etruria. The subsection on comparability and representativeness (pp. 81–90) is extremely diligent in exposing the possibilities as well as the limits of the chosen set of indicators.

In the presentation of the indicators the author has finally settled on, he covers all relevant economic sectors, agricultural and non-agricultural ones. Some of those are focused on productivity, such as presses and millstones, but remains of water management devices, harbor installations and traces of metalworks in rural areas are also included in the catalogue. Apart from the obvious usefulness of such installations as indicators for the ups and downs of economic development, the author makes some exciting observations about the production networks and patterns. These include determinants like the presence of ore findings (important for the pertaining industry) or the proximity to Rome (important for the question of the production of easily perishable goods). At the same time, it is one of the important observations that those patterns never indicate monoculture or one exclusive sector but the evidence points to a widely mixed economic structure. With regard to more specific questions such as the matter of predominance of the so-called Mediterranean triad over animal husbandry, the author makes use of all available data, such as palynological material from the Tiber valley project. Since such data are not available from every field survey and excavation project taken into account by him, he justly confines himself to a few case studies. With this limitation in mind, the book succeeds in establishing a concise set of indicators or proxies for developments both synchronic and diachronic. The actual results are multifaceted, and the author is always careful to keep the reader informed about the nature of his abstractions. One significant trend seems to be signified by a decline of almost all indicators for intensive agriculture from early to middle and late Imperial times.

Two major objections might arise regarding the general concept of this book. First, it might seem that the author is fighting yesterday’s battles in arguing for a highly differentiated view on the Roman economy. For many years now, scholars have departed from overall explanations and models and have pointed out the astounding degree of integration as well as aspects of regionality and seasonality, to mention just a few.[1] With the constantly increasing options for research provided by the natural sciences, recent studies have even shown that the economic framework of society could be very different with even just a few kilometers between reference points.[2] Second, it does not seem methodologically correct to choose (and consciously so, as is stated even in the text on the back of the book) a very well-researched region, and one in the Suburbium of city of Rome to boot, as a case study since such a selection tends to hide any number of mistakes when applying the results to other parts of the Roman world.

Both objections, though, do not apply, at least not fully. First, in making the observations in the first section, the author shows his awareness of the older models and his capability to make an educated selection and develop further what he has found in older scholarship, even if some of this section is completely irrelevant to his goals. Second, the chosen region is used only very rarely and in the most careful way as inspiring for studies of other regions. The author is always careful in pointing out such limitations of his method.

In conclusion, this very well-produced book, despite a sometimes unnecessarily complicated diction and the sketchiness of some of the short chapters already mentioned, is a pleasure to read. Apart from a methodologically sharp analysis of imperial southern Etruria, it will serve the student who seeks an introduction into some of the still powerful trends of the academic past in ancient history and for the scholar who will find a very much thought-provoking set of approaches to various aspects of the field of archaeology. To really develop a model of the economic development of Imperial Italy many more studies will be necessary, especially some dedicated to a close reading of literary and epigraphic sources and—probably even more important—to an application of everything the natural sciences have to offer. For this, the book presented here will be an ideal starting point.



[1] See, e.g., on regionality and P. Goodman, The Roman City and its Periphery: From Rome to Gaul, London 2007 as well as B. D. Shaw, Bringing in the Sheaves. Economy and Metaphor in the Roman World, Toronto 2013; on seasonality A. Lichtenberger/R. Raja (eds.), The Archaeology of Seasonality, Studies in Classical Archaeology 11, Turnhout 2021.

[2] See, e.g., K. Kilgrove/R. H. Tykot, Food for Rome. A stable isotope investigation of diet in the Imperial period (1st–3rd centuries AD), Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 32, 2013, 28–38.