Late Roman Economy and Formation Processes

I’ve spent some quality time with the most recent volume of Late Antique Archaeology this past month in preparation for writing a short contribution with David Pettegrew on connectivity in the Late Roman eastern Mediterranean. We plan to compare the Late Roman assemblages produced by two survey projects:  Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Project and Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeology Project. An important component of both assemblages is Late Roman amphoras: EKAS produced substantial quantities of Late Roman 2 Amphora probably produced in the Argolid; PKAP produced quantities of Late Roman 1 Amphora produced both on Cyprus and in southern Cilicia. We hope to discuss how the concentrations of these common transport vessels reflected and complicated how we understand economic patterns in the Late Antiquity.

Over the past half-century two basic models for the Late Roman economy have emerged. The earlier models saw the state as the primary engine for trade in antiquity. More recently, however, scholars have argued that the core feature of ancient trade is small-scale interaction between microregions across the Mediterranean basin. While there is undoubtedly some truth in both models, the latter has substantially more favor among scholars at present and the volume dedicated to connectivity focuses on the kind of small-scale interregional exchange that created a network of social, economic, and even cultural connections that defined the ancient Mediterranean world. The classic question introduced to complicate our view of ancient connectivity is: if the ancient Mediterranean is defined by these small-scale connections, then why did the political, economic, social, and even cultural unity of the communities tied to the Middle Sea collapse with the fall of Roman political organization in Late Antiquity?

Figure4 18

This is where David and I want to introduce the complicating matter of formation process archaeology. The substantial assemblages of Late Roman amphora represent the accumulation of discard from two “nodes” within the Late Antique economic network. These two nodes, however, are particularly visible because of the substantial concentration of a class of transport vessel.

These transport vessels most likely served to transport supplies to imperial troops either stationed in the Balkans or around the Black Sea, or in the case of the Eastern Korinthia, working to refortify the massive Hexamilion Wall that ran the width of the Isthmus of Corinth or stationed in its eastern fortress near the sanctuary of Isthmia. The visibility of these two areas depends upon a kind of artifact associated with a kind of exchange. As David has noted the surface treatments associated with LR2 amphora make them highly diagnostic in the surface record. LR1s, in turn, have highly diagnostic, twisted, handles that make them stand out from a surface assemblage dominated by relatively undifferentiated body sherds. In other words, these amphora assemblages represent a visible kind of economic activity.

The impact of this visible type of economic activity on our understanding of Late Roman connectivity is complex. On the one hand, the kind of persistent, low-level, economic connections associated with most models of connectivity are unlikely to leave much evidence on the surface. The diverse and relatively small group of very diverse amphoras, for example, found upon the coasting vessel at Fig Tree Bay on Cyprus would have been deposited at numerous small harbors along its route. Moreover, the fluidity of the networks that characterized connectivity would have made the routes of caboteurs irregular and contingent on various economic situations throughout the network of relationships. This variability and the small-scale of this activity is unlikely to have created an archaeologically visible assemblage at any one point on these routes. More than this, overland trade in wine or olive oil may not have used amphoras at all further impairing the archaeological visibility of the kind of low-level connectivity characteristic of Mediterranean exchange patterns. Between ephemeral containers and variable, low-density scatters, the regular pattern of archaeological exchange characterizing connectivity will never be especially visible in the landscape.

In contrast, imperial provisioning requirements, fueled for example by the quaestura exercitus, would present exceptionally visible assemblages of material. The interesting thing, to me, is that the amphoras visible on the surface in the Korinthia and at Koutsopetria  are not what is being exchanged, but the containers in which exchange occurs. The material exchanged, olive oil and wine, are almost entirely invisible in the archaeological records on their own. The visibility of these two places reflects the presence of outlets for a region’s produce. The produce itself, however, leaves very little trace, and we have to assume that networks that integrated microregions across the Mediterranean functioned to bring goods from across a wide area to a particular site for large-scale export.

The collapse of these sites of large-scale export during the tumultuous 7th and 8th centuries did not make trade between microregions end, but it made it more contingent and less visible, as I have argued for this period on Cyprus. The absence of large accumulations of highly diagnostic artifact types in one place represent a return to our ability to recognize normal patterns of Mediterranean exchange as much as the disruption of this exchange. The decline of these sites both deprived archaeologists of visible monuments of exchange and ancient communities of a brief moment of economic stability within longstanding contingent networks.

One Comment

  1. I very much enjoyed your blog. I am working on a book-blog of my own, which can be seen at [one word], then clicking on either the “sample chapter” or “blog” buttons at the top. My Rube Goldberg contraption of a brain processes the world with an odd, well-caffeinated kind of logic: Why is there an inverse proportion between the size of the print and the importance of the message? History. Literature. Art. Science. Religion. I call this eccentric thinking the Theory of Irony and if your busy schedule permits, give a read, leave a comment or create a link. In any event, best of luck with your own endeavor.


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