Roman Seas

Over the weekend, I read Justin Leidwanger’s new book, Roman Seas: A Maritime Archaeology of Eastern Mediterranean Economies (2020). It’s a pretty good book that brings ship wreck data to bear on long-standing questions of regional and inter-regional trade in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Leidwanger’s focus on the Cilician coast and Cyprus make the book particularly useful for my work on that island and it was gratifying to see the work that I did with David Pettegrew and Scott Moore cited in footnotes! While other can quibble with our interpretation of the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria, it’s harder to dismiss the data that our project produced and its contribution to the growing corpus of well-documented Late Roman sites in the Eastern Mediterranean and Levant. Leidwanger’s interest in similarly well-documented shipwrecks, including some that he documented himself, provides a offshore (or at very least near-shore) analog to expanding body of intensive survey data and well published (and quantifiable) excavation data from Cyprus, Cilicia, and the northeastern Levant. Whether this ever becomes “big data” of the kind that other social scientists have invested with such attention, remains hard to know especially considering the significant variation in methods and typologies across the region. That being said, there’s no doubt that evidence is piling up and almost begging for the kind of thoughtful interpretation offered in this book.

The book will reward some re-reading over the next few months and I try to come to terms with the scope of Leidwanger’s argument. For now, I’ll offer a few quick observations. 

The first few chapters of the book offers little new, but does provide a usual interpretative summary of the recent interest in regional analysis in the Eastern Mediterranean, the basic elements of Roman and Late Roman maritime technology, and the various ways in which terrestrial landscapes and maritime seascapes interact to produce distinct interpretative units. I have little doubt that these chapters will be see more than their share of citations among scholars interested in understanding the relationship between coastal sites, the sea, and connectivity. Leidwanger’s observations would be been very useful when I was muddling my way through my “Is Cyprus an Island?” paper last fall!

The heart of the book comes in the last 100 or so pages when Leidwanger introduces a corpus of 67 well documented shipwrecks from the Datça peninsula and the southern coast of Cyprus. These wrecks date to the Roman and Late Roman periods and appear to be representative of both a wider body of wrecks from well dated wrecks in the Eastern Mediterranean and present little to contradict trends in less carefully dated shipwreck sites in the same region.

This representative and relatively well documented assemblage of sites allows Leidwanger to produce a range of thoughtful arguments about regional and interregional connections. Leidwanger applies a two-level network analysis to these ships cargoes which largely consisted of amphora. One level of network analysis concentrates on the origins of the cargoes and the other incorporates the locations of the wrecks themselves. These two levels of analysis suggest shifts in the economic networks between the Romana and Late Roman period with the former centered on the Aegean and including greater connections to the Adriatic than the latter which centers on Cyprus and Cilicia and involves few ties to points further west. This coincides with Leidwangers interpretation of terrestrial finds from the central southern coast of Cyprus and the Datça peninsula in western Turkey and reinforces the idea that the links between the Eastern and Western Mediterranean weaken in the Late Roman period.

Leidwanger also contends that in the Late Roman period economic networks become more regional in general with smaller ships, smaller cargoes, and closer connections between ports. He argues that this reflects the increasingly “busy countryside” of Late Antiquity and the “gravitational pull” of larger regional centers and, in particular, the capital in Constantinople. The large-scale state influence over interregional exchange provided energy and connections to smaller-scale interregional exchange through processes that are not entirely clear.

I see no reason to disagree with Leidwanger’s arguments for Late Antique Cyprus. Indeed, the coastal site of Pyla-Koutsopetria seems to reached its peak economically during the 6th and early 7th century when imperial influence over large-scale exchange on Cyprus was at its peak. It is likewise intriguing to wonder whether the warehouses at the site of Dreamer’s Bay on the Akrotiri peninsula and at the site of Ay. Yiorgios-Peyias reflected the intensification of shorter distance regional trade or accommodations for longer distance interregional trade stimulated by the quaestura exercitus or the annona shipments to Constantinople. We argued that the massive quantity of Late Roman 1 amphora at Pyla-Koutsopetria may have reflected the use of this port as depot for the quaestura exercitus which did not necessarily flow through the major urban ports on Cyprus (e.g. Paphos, Salamis, or Kition). In our view, then, the long distance, administrative trade of the imperial command economy operated outside the typical routes of long-distance trade concentrated at major ports. This may reflect imperial efforts to develop unique infrastructure of warehouses and perhaps even agents and services designed to facilitate the movement of agricultural goods to the capital. 

This, of course, is all rather speculative on our part and does little to undermine Leidwanger’s broader observation that administrative trade on the interregional level shaped intraregional trade networks as ships acquired good at various ports on either their return journeys or as part of the process of moving good to regional entrepôts.

Leidwanger’s focus on transport amphora necessarily dictated his interest in agricultural goods. This undoubted constituted the bulk of ancient trade. It would be interesting, however, to compare, say, the distribution of Late Roman table wares in his case study regions. The persistence of African Red slip, for example, in certain areas of Cyprus well into Late Antiquity indicates that connections with the West were not entirely absent. It would have also been interesting to compare the relationship between economic zones and, say, ecclesiastic architecture to determine if the movement of bulk goods paralleled connections between construction crews, architects, or religious communities. If the connection between “microregions” often developed as forms of social insurance between communities whether other forms of social and cultural contact followed these routes and either made economic ties possible or reinforced them.

In short, Leidwanger’s book is a compelling body of evidence in support of a series of recent research questions focused on the relationships between Mediterranean “small places” over time. It’s a short, easy read that summarizes a good bit of specialized literature that might not be on every scholar’s regular reading list. It’s a good book and well worth the read.

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