While scholarly discourse on public and private in the Roman house usually puts a lot of emphasis on social, cultural and even political processes taking place in domestic contexts, it should not be overlooked that one of the key aspects of the relation between public and private in a house was the way in which it incorporated commercial activities: there is ample evidence that houses played a central role in many urban economies in the Roman world and a considerable proportion of urban retail and manufacturing took place within or in the direct environment of houses.
However, what is much less well-understood is to which extent, and in which way, the physical presence of retail and manufacturing in domestic contexts had an impact on the role of public and private in domestic space. To some extent, commercial spaces may be seen as ‘semi-public’ in the sense that, for business purposes, they may be penetrated by outsiders who were not members of a household, but this differs between shops and workshops, and it is not the whole story: the question is to which extent this also had consequences for the functioning of the rest of the house.
The last few years have seen a welcome development in debates about trade in the Roman world: rather than focusing solely on the sheer existence and nature of long distance maritime trade in bulk goods, there has been increasing interest in understanding the human factor, and more specifically, the way in which certain institutions and certain social structures facilitated trade over longer distances, and helped to overcome the deficiencies of information and control that inevitably emerge along long-distance and sea-born communication and transport routes. Examples include the epigraphic work by Nicolas Tran on port cities, and the recent book by Wim Broekaert, on navicularii and negotiantes. Indeed, one might want to see this development perhaps as the beginnings of a shift of emphasis—from studying trade flows to studying trade networks, and from the macro-scale to the micro scale—a development that also takes place in other branches of the debate on the Roman economy.
There is little need to emphasize the relevance of understanding social networks that were stretched over longer distances in discussing the cultural, political and economic dynamics of the Roman world. Yet, it may be relevant to emphasize that, from a perspective of economic history, two different issues are at stake. On a phenomenological level, and on the first place, there are the questions about how such networks operated and what role they plaid. In the second place, and on a historical level, there are the questions focusing on how these networks developed, and how they responded to changing circumstances. The recent focus in the debate on institutional analysis has meant that debate about networks in the Roman world has thus far mainly concentrated on the first category of questions, and has bothered less with how such networks developed over the centuries.
This paper will discuss one aspect of how the Roman Near East was, economically, connected to the rest of the Roman World. There are two sides to this connection. On the one hand, there are the Romans, who lived in the Near East while maintaining ties with Roman Italy and other places in the empire. On the other hand, there are those who swarmed out of the Near east as itinerant traders or to settle elsewhere in the Roman world, forming trading communities that remained strongly connected to the homeland. It is this second group of people, who happen to have left some clear traces in our evidence, that can best help us to understand the dynamics of Near Eastern trade with the rest of the Roman world: the geographic spread of people or communities of Near Eastern origin, including Syrians, Phoenicians, Nabataeans, and Jews, tells us something about not only trade routes but also about their core clientele.
The key story in Roman Economic History is, perhaps inevitably, the combination of apparently unprecedented levels of economic development and integration with a subsequent and apparently rather radical decline. The two big issues behind that story are, basically, where the development comes from, and where it goes. As Saller and, more recently, Scheidel have pointed out quite rightly, it is, in discussing these issues, no longer enough to just sum up evidence for unprecedented extraction, trade or production – few, at this point, would, I feel, disagree with the general idea that the Mediterranean and European economies of the late Hellenistic and Early Imperial periods easily surpassed anything that had preceded them in this part of the world. The real questions at stake are whether this was the result from extensive or intensive growth, and whether the growth eventually was terminated by, to use Scheidel’s words, ‘endogenous’ or ‘exogenous’ factors. The moment we start considering these questions, we are in contested territory, in the dark, and in the middle, surrounded by, on our left side, neo-primitivists claiming that the Roman Economy performed, per head of the population, only very marginally better than the Hellenistic economy, and that growth stopped because the Empire hit the Malthusian ceiling. On the right are the neo-modernists telling us that Roman growth was at least partially intensive, and that it was brought to a halt by plague, invasions and political turmoil – developments that the other side might easily set away as symptoms, rather than causes, of the decline. Neither side has, as we speak, found the key argument to settle the issue for the foreseeable future, and few of the datasets commonly used in the economy debate seem to be able to do so.
While few would doubt that there was a consistent pattern of migration from the Italian countryside to the city of Rome in the Republic as well as in the first centuries of the Empire, there is much less certainty when it comes to migration from the countryside to the other towns of Italy. As John Patterson pointed out, the evidence does not really allow us to choose definitively between a model in which ‘stepwise’ migration was the norm, as was the case in Early Modern Europe, and a model in which, as happened in Latin America in the late 20th century, peasants migrated directly to the ‘primate city’, skipping the smaller cities altogether. Yet, the issue is of, of course, of key importance when one is talking about urbanisation, migration and labour, and a more detailed understanding of the migratory patterns would not only add to our understanding of the social history of Roman Italy, but also to that of the individual cities of the peninsula.
One of the things that the collapse of the House of the Gladiators at Pompeii, again, made painfully clear is that excavated material remains have a life cycle too. At the very moment of their discovery, walls, floors and plaster are taken out of the stable environment that has protected them for so long, and they immediately resume doing what they had been doing before they were buried: suffering from wind, sun, rain, noise, pollution and vibrations. It is not said, of course, that their previous environment was completely hospitable and nice, but, generally speaking, architectural remains decay considerably more slowly underground than they do exposed to the banal reality of everyday.