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Jeremy Paterson, Professor Emeritus in ancient history, spoke at a recent meeting of the Border Archaeological Society on The Roman Economy: You Never Had It So Good.

By The Newsroom
Saturday, 21 May, 2016, 08:00

Jeremy, who has given annual talks at BAS for many years, began by saying that as a student at Oxford he had no idea what he was going to do with his life when one of his tutors arranged for him to go to Italy on a research fellowship. Jeremy wound up studying the Roman wine trade, an area that had not been researched much before, and was helped along by Jacques Costeau’s discovery of the aqualung. This enabled divers to discover numerous wrecks in the Mediterranean and researchers could analyse what these ships were carrying, where they had sailed from, and where they were sailing to.

Surprisingly, up until then scholars did not appreciate the extent of Roman economy. Many saw economics as a linear development, going from the primitive to its modern development. Jeremy was one of the researchers changing this idea.

He gave us an anecdote about a scholar who stood up at one of his talks and told him she disagreed with everything he said; he then told us that he was very glad to discover that Mary Beard has now come round to his way of thinking – witness her latest BBC series on Imperial Rome.

Starting with slides of olive oil amphorae now at a museum in Pula, Croatia, Jeremy told us how much the stamps on these storage vessels could tell us about the movement of the oil. Other amphorae contained wine: in fact, one could see from the shape of the amphora whether it was used for. An 18th century scholar catalogued many of these differences: shapes, type of stopper, stamps, etc.

The long “spike” at the bottom made them eminently stackable for transport by ship, even though this shape might not be as useful on land. We were also shown examples of amphorae stamped with SES, presumeably Sestius, a friend of Cicero’s, but with lids showing other stamps. Thousands of these have been found, showing that it a sizeable trade.

Laws were needed to regulate both the flow of wine and payment. Standards had to be adhered to and records had to be kept: all this employing potters, scribes, tasters, manufacturers, seasonal workers, quality controllers, etc.

In the 1970s, Moses Finlay, an American scholar at Cambridge, saw the Roman economy as primative. The proliferation of goods found far away from where they were produced, such as Baltic amber in Spain and Spanish olive oil in Croatia, were the result of tribute and gift-giving, rather than trade, and Finlay was not much interested in what archaeology could show.

Jeremy saw things as much more complicated, and gave as an example Monte Testaccio in Italy. Literally a man-made mountain of pottery, it contains millions of fragments of olive oil amphorae, which could only be used once. These containers came from the Guadalquivir valley in southern Spain. Some 20 production sites shipped 100,000 amphorae annually to Rome, where they were transferred to smaller jars.

Olive oil was used not only for food, but also for lighting and soap. Systems for weighing, stamping, controlling, transferring, etc, all had to be developed.

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Wheat was another example. Vast quantities were needed and came to Rome from Sicily, but Numidia, in present-day Algeria, was truly Rome’s breadbasket. We saw slides of the wonderfully preserved Roman town of Djémila/Cuicul.

Corn was shipped to Ostia, transferred to smaller vessels and then sent to Rome via a canal parallel to the Tiber, which could not be used as it silted up. About 5,000 vessels were needed for this. Archaeological investigations tell us how sophisticated and advanced the six-sided port of Ostia and its facilities were, for example the proliferation of horrea, “silos”, for the storage of corn.

The ruins of Pompeii also reveal much. Jeremy told us about the career of Aulus Umbricius Scaurus, who built a house on Pompeii’s outskirts, which was quite large even by Pompeiian standards. Scaurus had a mosaic put down showing one of his jars containing garum, the ubiquitous fish paste consumed by the Romans. His business was huge.

Also in Pompeii we see the careers of bankers and money lenders – the house of Caecilius Jucundus, a banker, has a money lending table and gives us invaluable information about the use of banking to facilitate trade. Jucundus would set up deals: he would lend the money to the seller, give it to the buyer, and take a cut for himself.

Other evidence found, such as tablets and archives, shows us the complexity of systems used, anything but primitive.

Graphs showing a peak in wrecks in the Mediterranean during the imperial era, from 220BC to 200AD, is given by Jeremy as evidence of the increased trade and travel at the time.

Another fascinating piece of evidence are ice borings from Greenland, showing peaks of lead pollution from the same era.

A social system also developed. Jeremy believes many of the emperors were actually benevolent autocrats and cites an example from Pliny that Trajan gave freebies to orphan children so that they wouldn’t have to live off the state.

In conclusion, Jeremy says that Roman economy was much more complex than hitherto believed, and that not only the rich were better off. The break-up of the Roman Empire meant the break-up of this economy, and it would be 1,000 years before things started recovering.