THE ECONOMY OF POMPEII

Edited by Miko Flohr and Andrew Wilson

OUP (2017) h/b 433pp £95 (ISBN 9780198786573)

This is the twelfth volume in the ‘Oxford Studies in the Roman Economy’ series, which began life under the general editorship of Alan Bowman and Andrew Wilson in 2009 with Quantifying the Roman Economy: Methods and Problems. The edited volumes, of which this is one, consist (to date) of papers produced at OXREP Conferences (Oxford Roman Economy Project), which began in 2006. The quality of these papers is very high, and the standard is maintained in this latest fascinating 14-paper volume.

G. De Simone calculates that the region round Vesuvius produced four times the amount of wine needed to meet local demand. On the other hand, some towns relied on external sources for fuel, grain and so on. He suggests that ‘degrees of dependence’ within a region would be a useful way to think about the agricultural economy: commerce depended on local producers specialising in and selling on profitable market crops, whether efficiently or not. M. Flohr finds evidence to suggest that many Pompeian households existed well above subsistence level: elite-style decoration, artistic and architectural, can be found in c. 30% of houses. Given that the hinterland was not overly productive, where did the money come from? Wine may be part of the answer; so too Pompeii’s harbour, serving trade into and out of Nuceria and Nola, as Strabo claims; and the presence of the Roman elite requiring high-level services in their villas dotted round the Bay of Naples.

N.M. Ray argues that the huge variations in types of metal, glass and pottery vessels to be found in different households of the same socio-economic status suggest that choice was wide and ‘consumerism’ a factor in Pompeii’s economy. E. Rowan shows that varieties of available food greatly increased over Pompeii’s lifetime, much of it imported, and (as remains in sewers show) considerable dietary diversity was enjoyed even by low and middling families: perhaps prices were driven down by this huge diversity. E. Lazer examines skeletal remains of the AD 79 explosion and concludes that the victims seem to have been pretty robust, many living to a good old age (as shown by age-related disorders in the bones).

E. Poehler uses a new model of the relationship between doors in a street and the connectivity of streets with each other and the main gates of Pompeii in an attempt to determine the amount of economic ‘traffic’ that any street would carry as people moved by the most efficient route from one point in the city to any other. This ‘composite plan of all potential movement at Pompeii’ gives one some idea of the potential business, and business potential, of any street (fact of the week: there are 3.25 million ‘paths’ through Pompeii, i.e. ways for any person to get from one point in Pompeii to any and every other point). N. Monteix feels that complete documentation of the original finds—the collation and synthesis of excavation archives, description of standing remains and detailed drawings—is needed before one can start drawing serious conclusions about Pompeii’s economic activity. D. Robinson finds evidence of the wealthy looking to increase their wealth and standing by developing their urban properties in a variety of socially and economically advantageous ways, adding and expanding rental accommodation, workshops, bars and so on, in the same way that farmers were encouraged to maximise their agricultural production. For example, outside the Herculaneum gate there is a single complex of fourteen tabernae—clearly an investment in commercial property.

D. Esposito finds that ‘mass production’ was the consequence of the way that painters’ workshops in Pompeii were organised. Some workshops, for example, concentrated on simple, standardized schemes; if the client wanted a figurative panel, he went to a different workshop. Between them all, they represented a pretty big business, run by contractors and serving a wide range of tastes and prices.

S.J.R. Ellis points out that some of the c. 33,000 coins found in Pompeii were recovered not from ‘natural’ places (as it were, under a shop counter) but from construction fills. But how did they get there in the first place? Probably swept up into refuse piles, which were then mined for construction materials (medieval Billingsgate in London had a waterfront built from city waste positively stuffed with coins). Conclusion: the number of Augustan coins found in such contexts in the Porta Stabia area indicate a retail boom in the Augustan era, and not rebuilding after the earthquake in the 60s. R. Hobbs uses coin finds from Pompeii to illustrate the links which the Bay of Naples enjoyed during the Republican period across the Mediterranean (e.g. Massalia). K. Verboven connects finds in Pompeii with the Sulpicii archive (describing financial transactions in Puteoli) to show that credit and various accounting methods actively substituted for coin transactions. W. Brockaert points out that, in the absence of a police force, contracts, however sophisticated under Roman law, could be enforced (if it came to it) only by private action. Using the Sulpicii archive, he shows that reputational control was an important way of overcoming the problem: a quick profit from refusing justified litigation was no way to build a reputation that guaranteed long-term commercial engagement.

In the final chapter W. Jongmann, author of the ground-breaking The Economy and Society of Pompeii (1988), responds to these papers.

The main conclusion that emerges is that Pompeii was not a town consisting of a small number of the very rich in contrast with otherwise struggling poor. Thanks to its connections across its hinterland and indeed the Mediterranean, Pompeii’s economy had been for some time a flourishing one before AD 79; and as a result, non-elite, though not exactly poor, households could aspire to accumulate a degree of wealth and elements of elite life-style. As Jongmann suggests, if there were (say) 100 men at the top of the elites (the decurionals), there would seem to be 400-500 houses of the type that would suit this sub-elite group, many of them probably owned by freedmen—a not insignificant number. These findings, however, could not necessarily be extrapolated over other Roman towns.

 

Peter Jones

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