Classics Research Area: Roman Economy


The ancient economy has attracted the interest of scholars for some decades now. The production factors and resource needs that drove Greek colonization, the extraordinary intensification of agricultural exploitation and expansion towards marginal land observed in the Roman Empire, and the phenomenon of urbanization are only some of the phenomena that historical and archaeological investigations have brought to the forefront. The datasets that have recently become available with the increase in quantity and quality of archaeological investigations, have opened up new avenues of enquiry. In particular, they can shed new light on issues relating to growth and contraction, economic performance, labour, and exploitation of natural resources. In her own research and during her participation to the Oxford Roman Economy Project, Dr Marzano has gathered and analyzed various sets of archaeological data, which she combines with literary and epigraphic sources in order to investigate the Roman economy and its wider social context. 

Roman Villas

In her book on Roman elite villas, Dr Marzano reconstructs the social and economic function of elite villas in Italy from the Republican period to the late empire.

The analysis of the picture given in the literature and of the archaeological data highlighted the juxtaposition between the elite 'idea' of villa and the 'real' villas uncovered in excavations. While Latin writings emphasize the central role of agriculture as form of investment for the elite, she posited that archaeological data reveal a the wider range of productions in villas and the utilization of available natural resources, ranging from aquaculture to sulphur production. Her book also addresses important issues such as the type of labour, the question of the diffusion of the latifundia versus the disappearance of small and medium properties, and the extent to which the idea of crisis in Italian agriculture has influenced the interpretation of archaeological features as indication for demise and abandonment of villas.

She is continuing her work on villas with a volume co-edited with Prof. Metraux, from York University (Canada), which will gather the contributions of 30 distinguished scholars on recent interpretations and discoveries on Roman villas across the Mediterranean. In collaboration with Dr Prevosti of the Institut CatalĂ  d'Arqueologia ClĂ ssica (Spain), Dr Marzano is working on establishing a database of Roman villas in Spain, southern France, Central Italy and Campania. This database will be available on line and allow researchers to easily access data and compare sites, their features, and developments across these regions.

Roman Economy - Quantifications

An important element in addressing the question of economic performance is population size; however, for the ancient world we do not have sufficient data to reconstruct the population of the empire across time. An innovative approach used by Dr Marzano in the analysis of ancient urban systems of Hispania and Britannia applies Zipf's Law using city sizes as proxy for population size. The results showed how city and population growth, especially in Hispania, was affected by the diversion of capital and resources to Rome, thus indicating that the empire was what geographers call an interconnected dendritic system. These results might also further support an understanding of the Roman economy as more sophisticated than what suggested by scholars proposing a minimalist view.

Dr Marzano has also investigated forms of, and trends in, capital investment in the Roman world. Two of the largely exported agricultural products of the ancient world were wine and olive oil. Dr Marzano collected and analysed data from sites equipped with multiples presses in Gaul, Hispania and the Black Sea region. The results indicated how the spread of multi-press facilities for increased wine production in the Black Sea appears to be connected with the growth of fish salting factories in the same region. She interpreted this evidence as the result of new opportunities for regular shipments that the export of salted fish across the Mediterranean created. She also addressed the issue of wine and olive oil production in the case of Rome. It is well-known how this metropolis had to import food from the provinces in large quantities in order to support its population. Her study gives weight to the theory that the role of Rome's hinterland in the production of oil and wine, in addition to fresh products, was not negligible. In fact, Rome's hinterland has a similar number of surviving presses as Baetica in Spain, a region devoted to intensive olive oil production in antiquity. Dr Marzano's study has therefore highlighted how in regions with a high anthropic action the recovery rate of press sites from field survey is very low.

Transport, villas, capital investment, types of production are all lines of enquiry that relate to the fundamental issue of utilization and transformation of natural resources. Among these, the sea has always been an important resource for the ancient populations who had direct access to it. Dr Marzano current book project focuses on the exploitation of marine resources in the Roman Mediterranean, spanning from salt production to fishing, fish salting, and aquaculture. This study uses an innovative approach, combining modern scientific data and aquaculture techniques with the information drawn from the ancient sources, in order to ascertain the level of efficiency reached in antiquity and assess the economic importance of certain types of activities.

Trade Routes and Maritime Trade

Transport and its level of efficiency is an important issue in studies on ancient trade and in determining the nature of the ancient economy. Until the advent of railways and steam power in modern times, transport by sea, and by water generally, was a more efficient and less expensive way of moving bulk goods than over land. It has been long stated that in antiquity long distance maritime trade had its greatest limitation in the ancient sailing season, lasting from April to early November. Dr Marzano's research has connected faunal finds (Italian helix pomatia in hibernating status) from Roman settlements in the Egyptian Eastern desert to maritime winter shipments between Puteoli and Alexandria. This find is a nice illustration of how curious but apparently insignificant archaeological finds may shed light on wider historical issues. Furthermore, these finds are the first archaeological attestation of the production of luxury foods in villas (pastio villatica) exported outside Italy.

Things to do now

Contact us:

Page navigation

See also


Search Form

A-Z lists