Communities of Practice in Late Antique Roman North Africa

One the best things about being a sabbatiquol is getting a chance to make a dent in my backlog of reading. This week, I pushed on through Leslie Dossey’s Peasant and Empire in Christian North Africa (Berkeley 2010). I am only 5 years late!

As you might guess, I read the book as I am collecting my thoughts and citation for a short article with David Pettegrew comparing evidence for connectivity in the Eastern Corinthia (via EKAS data) and the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus (via PKAP data).  David and I will, more or less, follow current trends in discussions of Late Roman trade, but trying to find the fine line between older arguments that recognize most ancient economic activity as state sponsored and more recent arguments that see the economic structure of the ancient world outlined in a series of relationships between interdependent, but relatively autonomous microregions. Juxtaposing these two understandings, of course, implies more of a dichotomy than actually exists. As I argued last week, there is an issue of visibility that complicates matters. Economic activity that took place at a scale sufficiently large to be visible was likely mediated by the state. In fact, most of our typologies of ceramics – particularly transport amphora from Late Antiquity – focus on vessels used for the distribution of agricultural goods on a very large scale. In fact, the scale alone the massive quantities of highly visible Late Roman amphoras compromises an romantic (and frankly silly) notion of an economy powered exclusively by small scale cabboteurs carrying a few amphoras from each port of call.  

Dossey’s book sets out one way to understand the relationship between individual communities and large-scale trade in the Mediterranean by arguing that indigenous communities (i.e. communities of not fully Romanized “peasants” in imperial North Africa) acquired growing access the diagnostic Late Roman material over the course of Late Antiquity. This access reflected both change in the status of peasants and, more importantly, the change in consumption patterns. The access peasants had to material associated in earlier periods with Roman or thoroughly Romanized populations of North Africa reflected decisions on the part of the Roman policy and peasant communities. The Roman and Romanized populations depended upon, the consumption of red slip pottery, as a marker of distinction and elite status during the initial centuries of Roman rule in North Africa. This occurred because the Romans undermined the traditional land tenure, village settlement structure, and production patterns in the region and drew peasants onto larger estates where the Romans could exert considerably more control over peasant consumption patterns through social pressures and the increasingly monetized nature of the Roman economy that focused on production for urban elites and export.

For Dossey, then, Roman rule led not to depopulation – as some have argued – but the collapse of an identifiable rural signature for the non-Roman population. The “reappearance” of the rural population in Late Antiquity occurred not because peasants began to reoccupy the countryside, as some have argued, but because of the breakdown of Roman social, economic, and – at least during the 3rd century – political organization. This breakdown had an economic impact in that it motivated the redevelopment of rural industry as it sought to fill the gap left by the larger disrupted economic relationships. The development of rural industry and the breakdown of traditional social and political order also created space for changes in peasant consumption. Not only did peasants have greater access to material, but they also took the opportunity to subvert weakening social pressure by adopting increasingly Roman habits.

While she doesn’t articulate it specifically in this way, Dossey describes Roman and Late Roman consumption patterns (and attendant archaeological visibility) in North Africa as a function of communities of practice. I’ve been messing with these ideas over the last year or so as a way to understand variation in Late Roman ceramic assemblages across the island of Cyprus. Our site at Pyla-Koutsopetria, for example, showed a far greater variety of imported fine wares than, say, the site of Polis-Chrysochous on the western side of the island. Both sites showed signs of 6th century economic prosperity, but it manifest in substantially different assemblages of pottery. 

The idea that assemblages are not exclusively representative of access to materials, but also represent decisions by communities adds a level of complexity to my own tendency toward systemic arguments. Both the Eastern Corinthia and Pyla-Koutsopetria are areas that show significant engagement with the economic power of the Late Roman state. At the same time, both areas show distinct assemblages of table and fine ware that hint at the workings of communities there.  

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