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.

Three Things Thursday: Survey Archaeology, Western Literature, and Poetry from a Former Student

My body is gallantly fighting off a cold the week, so I don’t quite have the energy for a long involved post. So, instead, I’ll offer a little “Three Thing Thursday” as I try to keep the balls in the area down the stretch run of the week.

First Thing.

A colleague shared this article with me over the weekend: Kimberly Bowes et al. “Peasant agricultural strategies in southern Tuscany: Convertible agriculture and the importance of pasture” from The Economic Integration of Rural Italy. Rural Communities in a Globalizing World, ed. G. Tol and T. de Haas. (Brill 2017): 165-194. The article uses examples from her Roman Peasant Project to explore the interplay rural land use and the interplay between pastoralism and more settled agriculture. This team of scholars excavates five sites known from intensive survey archaeology from small ceramic scatters. Two were small seasonal or short-duration “work huts” and combining the modest architecture with botanical, palynological, and faunal material collected from the excavations, they were able to suggest that these structures served land that was likely used as pasture. Pasture plays a key role in strategies associated with ley agriculture which allowed fields to go fallow for years in order to restore the soil and stabilize yields. These small structures (and the small ceramic scatters), then, which a survey might have suggested represented the intensification of conventional agriculture, may, in fact, represent a less intensive strategy associated with ley farming.

Among the more interesting observations from this article are a two sites identified by low-density artifact scatters which produced no structures, but did reveal field drains dating to antiquity and probably the Roman period. These field drains consisted of cobble filled trenches. This is exciting to me both because I was unaware that field drains were used in the Roman period, but more importantly, there is relatively few publications that discuss drain building practices in the Roman period. The use of cobbles to slow the flow of water and to prevent the drains from carving deep channels in the fields offers some evidence for why the builders of the “South Basilica” at Polis may have created a “French drain” on the uphill, south side of the church to keep the rush of water down a natural drainage from undercutting the south wall of the basilica. It’s not a perfect analogy but suggests that my argument may not be entirely wrong.

Second Thing.

I’ve been reading John Beck’s Dirty Wars: Landscape, Power, and Waste in Western American Literature (Nebraska 2009). I really like the book. Whatever it’s academic merits (and I’m not really qualified to judge that), it has intrigued me. Beck uses literature to explore the character of the post-war, Cold War Western landscape through an emphasis on Japanese internment, the militarization of the landscape (and the Mexican border), the use of the west as a dumping ground for toxic, nuclear, and otherwise unpleasant waste, and the almost simultaneous emergence of the suburban ideal (cf. J.B. Jackson’s “The Westward Moving House”). Beck makes clear that works like Cormack McCarthy’s Blood Meridian while situated in the past (in this case, the mid-19th century) nevertheless speak to the present situation in a Western landscape shaped by Cold War militarism and its consequences. Elsewhere he weaves together the critiques of Rebecca Solnit, Ellen Meloy, and Terry Tempest Williams which emphasize the role of industry in the refashioning of the Western landscape. While I am embarrassed not to know these works well, I can’t help but wondering whether they influenced somehow my own effort at a similar critique in my The Bakken: An Archaeology of An Industrial Landscape. Don’t be surprised to see these works appear in the ole bloggeroo over the next few weeks. Solnit and Meloy remain priorities for my weekend reading list.

One of the reasons that Beck has excited me so much is that he has pushed me from thinking about archaeology of the contemporary world as a historical and social scientific window onto the contemporary American experience, toward thinking about the archaeology of the contemporary world as a distinctly cultural engagement with late-20th and early-21st century American life. This isn’t meant to deprecate the important work done by people like Jason DeLeon or Shannon Lee Dowdy or Bill Rathje, but to reframe their interventions as much as part of a much larger current of cultural critique. Instead of archaeology treating the contemporary experience as the object of study, archaeology of the contemporary world is (or at, very least, represents) the American experience. If we prioritize the notion of contemporaneity and suggest that it subverts the most common forms of disciplinary and historical detachment, then it makes sense that we can’t study or locate archaeology outside of American culture in the present. This, of course, remains a work in progress.

Third Thing.

I’m very excited to redirect your attention to the North Dakota Quarterly blog this morning. The blog features a poem from Amalia Dillin. Our hardworking poetry editor, Paul Worley, selected this poem for publication without knowing that Amalia was one of my former students at UND where she majored, I think, in Classics but also took history classes. She’s put those classes (and a bunch of her own hard work) to good use as a writer. You can check out her stuff here (although it’s very different from her poem)!

Go read the poem, it’s pretty great and I think summarizes neatly the anxiety that many of use feel in our media saturated lives. 

Plague and the End of Antiquity

This weekend, I read Kyle Harper’s new-ish book on plague, climate change, and the end of the Roman Empire: The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire (Princeton 2017). I have to admit that I was skeptical before I read the book. The idea that plague contributed to the end of the Roman Empire isn’t particularly novel and the plagues of the 2nd and 3rd century have sometimes been clumsily associated with the rise of Christianity. Our growing understanding of ancient diseases and the physical condition of individuals and communities in Late Antiquity clearly has something to offer the historian, but linking the patchy evidence to Mediterranean wide geopolitics always seemed like a stretch. Finally, as readers of this blog probably discern, I’m intrigued by the recent “environmental turn” in Mediterranean archaeology, but also have lingering concerns that our interest in the ancient and modern climate has pushed us toward a new kind of environmental determinism

Despite this skepticism, Harper’s book was really good and compelling. First, this book is far from a single cause argument (as one might expect it would be considering Harper’s other work and reputation). The plague is set against a careful reading of climate change over the course of the first millennium and the political, economic, and demographic developments of the Roman world. Second, the plagues unleashed in the 2nd, 3rd, and 6th centuries were not simply more virulent versions of illnesses that had long existed in the human population, but new diseases – small pox and bubonic plague – whose impact on the Roman world depended upon both the political organization of the connected Mediterranean and the emergence of a more variable and challenging late Holocene climate regime. Finally, the book is really well written and, in turn, evocative and clearly argued, descriptive and analytical, illuminated by literary sources and grounded in archaeological evidence. 

I do wonder, though, whether framing the book as a conflict between humans and nature creates a view of the world that seems to challenge the books basic argument that the rise of the Roman mega-state was partly the result of the auspicious middle Holocene climate. It seems to me a more compelling way to discuss humans, climate, their environment, and the microbial world of bacteria and viruses that shaped the human experience in the ancient Mediterranean would be as deeply enmeshed and entangled. In fact, the helplessness articulated by so many ancient authors when faced with draught, plague, floods, and cold, speaks less to a view of existence as a battle with the forces of nature and more to an understanding of humans and nature as parallel manifestations the same cosmic and divine forces. The changes to the environment, the appearance of plagues, and unpredictable and unexpected weather formed part of the same universe that preserved the Roman Empire, the structured religion and belief, and that defined the physical health of individual bodies. For example, the end of the world was seen as the world growing old and drying out – quite literally with the arrival of droughts in some places – and it had a clear parallel in the view of old age that saw it as the drying out of the body.

That being said, the view of the human world as separate and in conflict with nature gave the book its tragic arc. Harper makes no attempt to hide his view that the Roman Empire was more than simply an administrative unit, but the fundamental framework for life in the first century Mediterranean. As a result, the collapse of the Roman state – particularly in the western Mediterranean, but ultimately in the east as well – marked more than just a political disruption, but a fundamental social and cultural one as well. The experience of individuals, then, paralleled the larger political narrative. This is compelling when the book documents the personal and community trauma associated with the plague.

It’s less compelling, though, in dealing with ragged edges of how communities experienced the Roman Mediterranean. For example, it’s become increasingly apparent that in the Eastern Mediterranean communities continued to enjoy connections that defied changing political boundaries. In other words, social and economic bonds persisted for centuries in some cases after the political life of the Roman Empire collapsed. It would appear, in these cases, that the Roman state – with its political, military, and economic challenges brought on by changes in the climate and plague – was more fragile than the centuries old social, religious, and cultural bonds between communities around the Mediterranean littoral. The persistence of these bonds played a key role in understanding the end of antiquity as a transformation rather than a decline or fall. 

This critique is, in the end, fairly minor and probably can be categorized as “I’d write a different book,” and shouldn’t detract from the larger value of this book. Works like this demonstrate the incredible potential of the environmental turn for revising even the most traditional narratives in our field. 

Reading Wednesday: The Domination of Pompeius

Syme disliked Pompeius “the Great,” and his father, Cn. Pompeius Strabo:

“Brutal, corrupt and perfidious, Strabo was believed to have procured the assassination of a consul. When he died of a natural but providential death the populace broke up his funeral. Strabo was a sinister character, ‘hated by heaven and by the nobility’ [hominem dis ac nobilitati pennvisum.], for good reasons. There were no words to  describe Cn. Pompeius the son.”

The third chapter of Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution describes the rise of Pompeius who for Syme anticipated the rise of Augustus and the end of the Roman Republic. Pompey’s efforts to secure the loyalty of the military, to secure the authority of the tribunate, and to move himself or his pandering allies into the consulate established his power at Rome whether he managed to endear himself to the nobiles or not. At first, the process did not go smoothly when Pompeius victoriously returned from the East and sough to secure land for his troops and Senate approval for his treaties. Syme’s description was brilliant (and eerily contemporary):

“By scandalous bribery he secured the election of the military man L. Afranius. The other place was won by Metellus Celer, who, to get support from Pompeius, stifled for the moment an insult to the honour of his family. [Pompeius had divorced Celer’s half-sister to marry Cato’s niece.] 

Everything went wrong. The consul Celer turned against Pompeius, and Afranius was a catastrophe, his only talent for civil life being the art of dancing.”

And: “The triumphal robe of Magnus seemed chill comfort in political defeat.”

Despite these setbacks and the efforts of his enemies, Pomeius’s managed to seize power and, when the Republic and the Senate was confronted by a cornered Caesar, he revealed to his enemies their dependency on his standing and his troops. This victory, however, came at great cost to both himself and the entire Republic. There’s a lot to chew on in this description:

“They might have known better Cato’s stubborn refusal to agree to the land bill for Pompeius’ veterans only led to worse evils and a subverting of the constitution. After long strife against the domination of Pompeius, Cato resolved to support a dictatorship, though anxiously shunning the name. Cato’s confidence in his own rectitude and insight derived secret strength from the antipathy which he felt for the person and character of Caesar. 

The influence and example of Cato spurred on the nobiles and accelerated war. Helped by the power, the prestige, and the illicit armies of Pompeius Magnus (stationed already on Italian soil or now being recruited for the government and on the plea of legitimacy), a faction in the Senate worked the constitution
against Caesar. The proconsul refused to yield.”

The end result is well known:

“To the bloodless but violent usurpations of 70 and 59 B.C. the logical end was armed conflict and despotism. As the soldiers were the proletariat of Italy, the revolution became social as well as political. The remedy was simple and drastic. For the health of the Roman People the dynasts had to go. Augustus completed the purge and created the New State.”

~

The short essay is part of my Reading The Roman Revolution at 80 project. It’s so awesome that I have two hashtags: #ReadingRomanRevolution and #ReadingRonaldat80. I explain the project here.

Reading The Roman Revolution II

The second chapter in Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution is pretty remarkable. In less than 20 pages he manages to describe the Roman political order in the final decades of the first century B.C. The chapter manages to be both dense in description and austere in its prose. It reminds me, at its best, of Miles Davis who played the right notes at the right time.

Syme summarizes (p. 11):

The political life of the Roman Republic was stamped and swayed, not by parties and programmes of a modern and parliamentary character, not by the ostensible opposition between Senate and People, Optimates and Populares, nobiles and novi homines, but by the strife for power, wealth, and glory.

This suits his method which is prosopographical. In this chapter, his understanding of the Roman state is less concerned with “constitutional” niceties, ancient precedents, abstract policies, or even in the uncoordinated play of factional rivalries as much as the pure expression of the ambition mediated by the dendritic reach of personal alliances.

This feels remarkably contemporary. 

Since Syme sees personal ambition as the driving force, his descriptions of individuals are crucial and appropriate vivid.

His description of Cicero could, with slight changes, apply to many a prominent politician of our own era: “M. Tullius Cicero, in the forefront by brilliance of oratory and industry as an advocate, pressed his candidature, championing popular causes but none that were hopeless or hostile to the interest of property and finance, and at the same time carefully soliciting the aid of young nobiles whose clientela carried many votes…”

Cato: “Upright and austere, a ferocious defender of his own class, a hard drinker and an astute politician, the authentic Cato, so far from being a visionary, claimed to be a realist of traditional Roman temper and tenacity, not inferior to the great ancestor whom he emulated almost to a parody, Cato the Censor. But it was not character and integrity only that gave Cato the primacy before consulars: he controlled a nexus of political alliances among the nobiles.”

He describes Pompey the Great in the chilling final sentence of the second chapter: “The young Pompeius, trecherous and merciless, had killed the husband of Servilia and the brother of Ahenobarbus. ‘Adulescentulus carnifex.'”

~

The short essay is part of my Reading The Roman Revolution at 80 project. It’s so awesome that I have two hashtags: #ReadingRomanRevolution and #ReadingTheRonald80. I explain the project here.
 

Reading Rendsday: Reading the Roman Revolution or Reading Ronald at 80

This year Ronald Syme’s Roman Revolution turns 80 years old. I want to re-read it.

This year I teach from 2-3:15. I’m not much of an afternoon person and I tend to leave my office at around 5. So there’s this gap between when I wrap up anything to do with my class and when I feel like I can quietly shuffle out of my office. In the past, I’ve used that gap to read an article or to read some material from North Dakota Quarterly or whatever. It’s been pretty unstructured. I like to think of that hour or so as a chance to do a little slow reading that differs a bit from my research reading, editing, or my frantic preparations to teach.  

This year, I’m going to structure it a bit with a project called “Reading The Roman Revolution.” Years ago, in my youth, I fancied myself a Roman historian and took seminars on the history of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire at Ohio State. We read The Roman Revolution, as almost any student of the ancient world should, and discussed its role in shaping contemporary views of the end of the Republic and the rise of Augustus. 

Mostly, though, I was enthralled by Syme’s prose and what felt to me to be a genuine hatred of Augustus and sorrow for the end of the Republic. As he notes in his preface:

Liberty or stable government: that was the question confronting the Romans themselves, and I have tried to answer it precisely in their fashion.

The design has imposed a pessimistic and truculent tone to the almost complete exclusion of gentler emotions… Δύναμις and Τύχη are the presiding divinities.

In Chapter I, he explains that his work will follow the example of the history of C. Asinius Pollio which “has perished, save for inconsiderably fragments or supposed borrowings in subsequent historians. None the less, the example of Pollio and the abundance of historical material … may encourage the attempt to record the story of the Roman Revolution and its sequel, the Prinicpate of Caesar Augustus, in a fashion that has now become unconventional, from the Republican and Antonian side.”

Anyone vaguely aware of the political situation in the U.S. will probably understand why reading TheRoman Revolution at this moment in history might be useful. Syme, of course, wrote it in the 1930s against the backdrop of the rise Mussolini and Hitler 

There is one thing, though, I don’t want to do this alone:

First, I don’t remember enough about Roman History to evaluate the historiographic consensus on Syme’s work in the 21st century, but that would be interesting to understand.

Second, my tendency will be to read The Roman Revolution with the figures of Constantine, Theodosius, and Justinian looking over my shoulders and grinning at the savvy and brashness of Augustus, while quietly critiquing his unfortunate lack of “real authority.”

Finally,  want to hear how other people read this book and whether other people find Syme’s view of Augustus as useful in the 21st century.   

My plan is to read a chapter a week (with a few weeks off here and there) and blog about them. If folks want in, I’m happy to share your words on my blog, if you want. Or, if you blog or tweet using the hashtag #ReadingRomanRevolution (which I think is better than #ReadingRonald80), I can link to your pages or tweets or whatever. 

I mean, this could be fun, right, and who knows, maybe something will come out of it that we can pitch to folks at The Digital Press?