Category Archives: Writing it up

A Clustered Empire? Mapping Roman Urbanism (II)

Last week I wrote about my big data map of Roman Urban culture, for which I used architecture and inscriptions, and which, I argued, returned an image of the Roman world that was, to some extent, rooted in historical reality – there are biases and distortions, but the overall picture seems reliable to me to the extent that regions where a lot of places have returned relevant evidence in antiquity also were rather densely urbanized and relatively wealthy, whereas the regions that are empty on the map – with one notable exception – also appear to have been relatively empty in antiquity. The exception, as ever, is Egypt.

By relatively empty I do not necessarily mean desolate or poor. Take, for example, Tripolitania, which is almost completely empty on the map (see below), whereas it is well known to have been a major exporter of agricultural products, particularly olive oil and grain – the remains of farmsteads and ocasionally very large oil press sites are well known. Yet for some reason, this expressed itself in only three urban centres: Sabratha, Oea, and Lepcis Magna. The same is true for Cyrenaica, which only developed a few cities. Both regions have been intensively explored, but they markedly contrast with Africa Proconsularis and Numidia further to the west, where the concentration of cities is incomparably higher. Apparently, something prevented cities from developing in great numbers in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. Continue reading A Clustered Empire? Mapping Roman Urbanism (II)

A map of urban culture in the Roman world (I)

This map (click on it for a full version) is, to some extent, an accident. It is not really a core product of the Building Tabernae project, but it comes from a desire to give the project a better context and to make it a bit easier for me to legitimize my decision to limit the primary focus of the project to Roman Italy: how does Italy relate to the rest of the Roman world, and what does that mean for the wider significance of a study focusing on urban commercial investment in this part of the Roman world? To some extent, I think I have found that answer, but it resulted in a by-product that I didn’t really expect, and that has significantly enriched my view of the Roman world – both in terms of the questions that I would tend to ask, and the answers that I would imagine to get. Continue reading A map of urban culture in the Roman world (I)

Commerce and the senses: everyday work and the Roman urban landscape #RACTRAC16

This is the full text of the conference paper that I wrote for the session on ‘Sensing Rome’ at the Roman Archaeology Conference in Rome, 19 March 2016. 

There is no doubt that sensory perceptions are fundamental to our understanding of urban landscapes – present and historical – and, as the other papers have already made clear, movement is a central component of the urban sensory experience. If we want to understand what Roman urban landscapes ‘were like’, the smells, sounds, sights and feels that one could encounter whilst moving through the city cannot be left out of the picture, nor – it has to be added –is their position in the daily or seasonal rhythm, or indeed their place in town: the sensory encounters in the outskirts of town may be fundamentally different from those of the city centre, and the summer experience may be dramatically different from the winter experience – not only in terms of perceptions to be encountered, but also in the sheer number of encounters, because of varying patterns in movement. It is also true that sensory experiences matter to people in motion: encountered unexpectedly, they may contribute to spontaneous, in-motion decision-making, such as the maybe often half-conscious decision to look where the sound or smell perceived is actually coming from, or the much more conscious decision to halt. Alternatively, people, on their way from a random point A to a random point B, may adapt their journey because of expected sensory encounters—those that are to be avoided, or, perhaps more often those that are to be sought after.

Pompeii – bakery VI 2, 6

This paper discusses sensory experiences related to commerce, focusing particularly on the urban landscape of Pompeii, where the evidence for retail and manufacturing is most explicit. Commercial processes have of course the potential to contribute all kinds of sights, smells and sounds to urban sensescapes, particularly when activities take place in locations with close links to public space, and even more so if that public space attracted a lot of people in motion because it was central to the urban movement network, or because it was close to a highly frequented destination. Depending on its position in the urban landscape, commerce may have a larger or a smaller impact on the urban sensory experience, though it is of course essential to distinguish between the hours of the day in which commerce took place, and those hours in which it generally did not. Obviously, this paper will be mostly preoccupied with the commercially most viable hours of the day, but it should be noted that the sensory impact of commerce may extend beyond these: closed shops can make a visual impact, too, and while inactivity suggests a certain degree of silence, some of the smells may hang around for quite some time after the working day is over, particularly when not all of the waste has been cleaned up—if there is literary evidence suggesting shop holders could leave empty amphorae in front of their shop on the street, they may have left other stuff as well. Continue reading Commerce and the senses: everyday work and the Roman urban landscape #RACTRAC16

Dirty Romans and their parasites

It surely is a good frame. I mean, isn’t it ironic that those Romans, so well-known for their innovations in sanitation, for their aqueducts, their toilets and their baths, actually turned out to have been a major factor in spreading diseases? Paradoxes always are good frames, especially when marketing research: contrary to what has always been believed, research has now indubitably proven that two and two actually makes up four, and while we have long admired the Romans for their hygiene, they actually facilitated the spread of all kinds of parasites, some of which we can even associate with the bubonic plague!

In all honesty, it also seriously was a very good idea to investigate the impact of the Roman world on the spread of parasites, and the resulting picture, in very general terms, is, I think, significant: that the Roman empire led to the spread of all kinds of parasites – perhaps more than we can see in the archaeology – is a hugely relevant fact, and it is very useful that this is now actually backed up by real, archaeological evidence, so that we are not completely dependent on models. Indeed, it an important issue highlighted by Piers Mitchell’s work on parasites is that part of the history of the Roman empire also concerns health and disease, in a way that goes beyond the major epidemics and medical literature.

Still, the whole hurricane of publicity about those ‘dirty Romans’ that brought parasites rather than health felt a bit misleading, and to some extent this is also true for the original research paper on which all the publicity was based. The point is: we know that Romans did not have the scientific understanding of bacteria, viruses and parasites that we have, and we know that their standards of hygiene were below what is common in modern, healthy environments. We know that diseases could thrive in Roman cities. We have known all of this for a long time, too. Indeed, to some extent, the Romans, too, may have been well aware of their own imperfection, as they were burying their loved ones suddenly taken away by an unexpected grim reaper. Anyone still expecting, in 2015, Roman practices to meet modern standards has missed quite a bit of recent literature. Alex Scobie. Walter Scheidel.

Yet more importantly, unhealthy sanitary installations do not usually travel big distances. People, however, sometimes do, and in the Roman world they did so more often, and over larger distances than ever before. If there is one Roman innovation that can be blamed for facilitating the spread of disease beyond the shores of the Mediterranean, it is not baths but roads. If there is one bad Roman habit that did not help it was not the practice of using human faeces as fertilizer, but that of living in cities – though in fact, most cities outside the immediate environment of the Mediterranean were relatively small. Diseases spread through integration, and with the increasing density of the network of roads and cities in the Mediterranean and in large parts of Europe, humans started to circulate, and so did germs, and parasites.

In other words: the observations done by Mitchell perfectly match the scenario that could be expected beforehand. This is why they are so important: they confirm, rather than contradict, an important hypothesis, and in doing so enrich our view of the impact of Roman conquest on the Mediterranean and Europe. Perhaps, this makes the story a bit less exciting to some, but it does make it immensely more valuable to the scholarly community. Empires, even in the preindustrial world, unify disease regimes, and it is now clear that we can actually see that in the archaeological evidence.

The only thing we can say about the quality of Roman toilets and baths is that they were insufficiently hygienic to prevent the spread of parasites and disease. They may, however, have made things a bit better than they would have been had the Romans not invested in public baths and toilets. For toilets, it may be argued that even bad toilets are better than having faeces and urine all over the street; for baths, the extent to which they actually were detrimental to health depends on the way they were used, including the length of bathing, and the frequency with which the water was refreshed.  The Romans were no stranger in their own world, and while they did not do scientific knowledge in our sense of the world, there is a lot of literary evidence that on many issues they had built up an impressive amount of practical knowledge that helped them to make good decisions.

Yes, you read that correctly – the text on the image says ‘cacator cave malum’. – ‘shitter, watch out!’ . At least, some inhabitants of Pompeii kind of  understood that shitting everywhere was no good. 

Merchants under the temple

It must have been quite an effort to construct the forum of Carsulae. Carsulae is a strange place: it was situated along the Via Flaminia, precisely at the point where it crosses the watershed between two tributaries of the Tiber – the Nera on the south and the Naja on the north. Coming from Rome and Narni, the Via Flaminia ascends into the city, reaching its highest point just before the Arco di San Damiano, which was the north entrance to the city. From there, it begins a descent through the necropolis towards the north.  The ascent was pretty steep. Worse, the Via Flaminia ran through a depression, and was surrounded by slopes rather than by the flat plain needed to construct a forum square. In other words: to build the forum, it was necessary to construct a terrace.

The forum of Carsulae
The forum of Carsulae seen from northeast. The Via Flaminia runs in front of the wall

The forum was constructed in the Augustan period, on the west side of the Via Flaminia, with a basilica on the east side. The level chosen for the terrace was such that the street and the forum met on the far north side of the forum, so that the two monumental temples on the south of the forum towered over the Via Flaminia. In this area (shown on the picture here), the height difference between the forum and the street was about five meters, and staircases were constructed to allow an easy passage for pedestrians. Yet the situation also created commercial opportunities. These were promptly acted upon by the designers of the forum: in the terrace that supported the temples, three tabernae were carved out. Obviously, this was about the best possible commercial location in town: directly on one of the major roads through the Italian peninsula, in the heart of the city.

Forum Shops
View on the three shops from the northeast. The temple is in the background. In front, the monumental entrance to the forum.

We do not know for what kinds of businesses these tabernae were used in the three centuries of their existence, but it is highly likely that they were publicly owned, and brought in money for the local authorities in the form of vectigalia. The use rights of the shops could be traded between indivdual people. It is likely that the use rights in this location were extremely expensive, which limited the range of businesses that could be made profitable here. Evidence from other cities suggests that this could make it difficult for those involved in food retail and most forms of manufacturing, but we do not know enough of the urban landscape of Carsulae to be sure that this also was the case here.

It does not matter much. What matters is that here, like in so many cities, those involved in designing public buildings were keen to construct tabernae if they saw an opportunity, even directly (and visibly) underneath monumental temples on the forum. Apparently, and contrary to what some classical scholars have suggested in the past, Roman authorities saw little spatial tension between grand urban monuments and everyday urban commerce.

Rome: commerce, business and the imperial fora

Rome’s imperial fora – dazzling in their grotesque monumentality – are often primarily thought of as symbols of imperial power and political legitimation. Obviously, this is not without reason. The language used, the stories told and the symbols visualized can easily be linked with the continuous discourse through which Roman emperors managed their public image – a discourse with which the archaeologists and historians writing about these places are thoroughly familiar: especially since Zanker’s work on Augustus and the power of images, it is tempting to look at the material remains of these fora simply as political monuments, built primarily to convey a message that we might even consider ‘propagandistic’.

Why were these fora actually built?

Indeed, this is the picture that dominates the handbooks and archaeological guides, and it is the message that is conveyed, on an everyday basis, to tourists and students as they gaze at the podium of the temple of Mars Ultor or at the Column of Trajan. It is, however, a very partial and reductionist view of the imperial fora, and one that suggests a misleading answer to the key question to be asked about these monuments: why on earth did several Roman emperors, often at politically rather sensitive moments, decide to buy up and tear down entire blocks right in the heart of the imperial capital and use the vacated area to build these hugely monumental fora? I mean, it does not a priori seem a hugely promising propaganda strategy to deprive several hundreds of people of their homes or shops and turn the core of the city into a major building yard for several years just to tell the people and the senate that you are a the best possible ruler. It is unlikely that ‘conveying an imperial message’ was enough to legitimize these major urbanistic interventions. Indeed, it is much more likely that these fora were conceived to satisfy practical needs of the city, and that their builders simply seized the opportunity and used the platform provided by these building projects to tell the world their story of imperial virtues: the message was epiphenomenal to the structure. Continue reading Rome: commerce, business and the imperial fora

Piketty in Pompeii? On measuring inequality in a Roman city

This is kind of a spin-off result from the Building Tabernae project (as it is based on the general database), but I thought it would be relevant to blog about it here anyway. Can we measure socioeconomic inequality in a Roman city? For sure, it is possible to see it: when you walk through the streets of an excavated Roman town, it is hard not to notice how houses differ in size and in wealth, and how traditional Roman-style atrium-houses were just the upper half of a domestic spectrum that includes several types of habitable units on a very small scale, such as tabernae and rental apartments. The question is whether we can translate this visible inequality into something that can be measured, and whether the measurements we can then take actually may mean something, historically. The answer, in both cases, I think, should be a qualified yes. It is possible to reconstruct Gini-coëfficients for Pompeii, and it is possible to give them a historical meaning. The latter, though, is a bit more complex than the former, and will require more work.

Continue reading Piketty in Pompeii? On measuring inequality in a Roman city

Forma Urbis: Costruire Tabernae

In a letter to Atticus dated 18 april 44 BC, Cicero writes his friend that two of his shops in Puteoli had collapsed, and that he is planning to rebuild the property in a way that allows him to make even more money out of it. It is one of the very few references to a phenomenon that is likely to have been widespread in the cities of Roman Italy: investment in, and ownership of commercial facilities by the elite.

Commercial space was a defining element of the landscape of Roman cities, and the quintessential commercial facility in the Roman world was the taberna – a large room with a wide opening onto the street to maximize opportunities for interaction between inside and outside. Never an independent building itself, the taberna features only marginally in studies of Roman architecture and urbanism, and few scholars have studied the taberna as a socioeconomic phenomenon. Continue reading Forma Urbis: Costruire Tabernae