Online Review: Book

Hispania and the Roman Mediterranean, AD 100–700: Ceramics and Trade

Paul Reynolds


Reviewed by J. Theodore Peña

Pp. xi + 372, figs. 30, tables 25, maps 12. Duckworth, London 2010. £50. ISBN 978-0-7156-3862-0 (cloth).

In this book, the author presents a review and interpretation of the pottery evidence from Hispania (the Iberian peninsula and the Balearic Islands) and finds of pottery of Hispanic origin recovered outside Hispania for the period ca. 100–700 C.E. His aims are to determine the geography of the various subregional economies within Hispania, evaluate Hispania's role in interregional exchange, and trace stability and change in both of these across the transition from the Roman to the Early Medieval world. Reynolds, who is Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats (ICREA) Research Professor at the University of Barcelona, is exceptionally well qualified—perhaps uniquely qualified—to carry out such an undertaking. He possesses more than three decades of experience conducting research on Roman and post-Roman pottery in Spain and at sites in several other parts of the Mediterranean, including Lepcis Magna, Butrint, Durres, Athens, Beirut, and Zeugma, and has previously authored several synthetic works of this kind varying in their geographical and chronological scope and in their length. Much of his discussion is driven by his evaluation of quantitative data sets for pottery assemblages (mostly counts of rims, bases, and handles) from various sites in Hispania and elsewhere in the territory embraced by the Roman empire that he has extracted from the literature.

The introduction consists of a brief exposition of the aims of the book, followed by short overviews of the development of Roman pottery studies since the 1970s, the geography of Hispania, and the history of Hispania in Roman Republican and Early Imperial times. Chapter 1 discusses the production and distribution within the Roman empire of the three main foodstuffs widely (if not exclusively) packaged in transport amphoras—olive oil, fish products, and wine—during the first–early third centuries, detailing the roles that Hispania and various other parts of the empire played in these undertakings. Chapter 2 examines the distribution of imported tablewares in Hispania (African Red Slip Ware, terra sigillata paléochrétienne grise) during the period from the early third to the sixth centuries and the production and distribution within Hispania of various classes of tableware (terra sigillata hispánica tardía, terra sigillata hispánica brillante, terra sigillata meridional, painted wares) that substituted for these wares in parts of the interior. Chapter 3 considers the production and distribution within the Roman empire and its successor states of oil, fish products, and wine, along with various kinds of pottery, including tablewares (African Red Slip Ware, Late Roman C Ware, Cypriot Red Slip Ware, Egyptian Red Slip Ware), cookwares (Tunisian, Aegean, Levantine, various western Mediterranean hand-built wares), and unguentaria, from the early third century to the middle of the sixth century, again highlighting the roles played by Hispania. Chapter 4 examines the evidence for these undertakings during the second half of the sixth and the seventh centuries. Chapter 5 presents Reynolds' conclusions, with a brief section regarding certain issues of methodology followed by a recapitulation of the main points presented in chapters 2–5. The back matter, which makes up more than half of the book, consists of maps, pottery profiles, tables, and charts presenting pottery assemblage data, notes, bibliography, and indices.

Reynolds' analysis of the pottery evidence focuses on issues such as differentials in access to extra-local pottery and foodstuffs associated with coastal and inland areas and the roles that the private sector, the Roman state, and, beginning in the fifth century, the church played in the extra-local distribution of pottery and foodstuffs. Reynolds also emphasizes the ways in which political events—such as the administrative reorganization of the Roman empire in the late third century, the establishment of the barbarian kingdoms in the West in the fifth century, and the Byzantine reconquest of Italy, Tunisia, and southeastern Spain in the mid sixth century—did and did not condition economic relations among different parts of the Mediterranean basin, the Black Sea littoral, and Atlantic Europe. The specific elements of Reynolds' reconstruction are too many and too complex to rehearse in a short review. Suffice it to say that while some are not the least bit surprising (e.g., the regular distribution of Tunisian tablewares and foodstuffs to Byzantine reconquest settlements in southeastern Spain), others are somewhat unexpected (e.g., the continued distribution of Gaza wine to settlements across the western Mediterranean in the decades following the Arab conquest of the Levant).

The remarkably detailed picture that Reynolds is able to construct with regard to the provenances of the tablewares, cookwares, and amphoras included in his data sets is a reflection of the achievements of Roman pottery studies over the past four decades and his impressive mastery of this highly complex material. The dating of pottery forms and pottery deposits remains somewhat problematic, however, with the result that it is, for example, frequently impossible to determine whether a particular form or deposit should be regarded as Late Vandal, Early Byzantine, or perhaps both. There is reason to believe that problems of this kind can be significantly reduced, if not eliminated, by the pooling of expertise and data sets among pottery specialists. Another source of difficulty in the interpretation of pottery evidence of the kind treated in this book is the problem of determining the one or more foodstuffs for which a particular class of amphora was regularly employed as packaging. This problem can only be reduced by the ongoing publication of additional examples of each class that preserve either remains of their content or a pitch lining (the latter to some extent indicative of content) and/or by programs of analysis aimed at the identification of content residues absorbed into the walls of amphoras.

The forcefulness of Reynolds' analysis is somewhat undercut by the less than rigorous organization of the book. It would have been helpful for both pottery specialists and nonspecialists alike, for example, had Reynolds included in his introductory chapter a section in which he laid out in a detailed and systematic fashion his methodology, establishing, in effect, the ground rules that he employed for assembling and interpreting his data. As it is, his comments on methodology are scattered throughout the endnotes and fail to address various significant considerations. Similarly, in order to gain a clear understanding of the basis for Reynolds' conjecture that the Kapitän 1 and 2 amphoras originated in the Black Sea rather than the Aegean—a point of considerable importance for his reconstruction of Mediterranean trade in the third and fourth centuries—it is necessary to look in at least three different places in the book. At times, Reynolds seems to lose sight of his subject—Hispania—devoting considerable space to the discussion of affairs in other parts of the Mediterranean, the Levant in particular, while leaving the situation in Hispania underexamined. By way of example, while note 272 presents a four-and-one-half-page sketch of the system for the state mobilization of foodstuffs for the supply of the military in the eastern part of the empire, Reynolds nowhere provides a similarly comprehensive description of the analogous system in Hispania.

Despite these problems, this book represents a valuable contribution to the literature on the Roman economy in that it brings together a vast amount of highly scattered information and presents a number of stimulating interpretations. It will surely inspire students of Roman pottery and the Roman economy to consider how they might undertake new research with a view to improving our understanding of one or more of the several important topics on which it touches.

J. Theodore Peña
Department of Classics and Graduate Group in Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology
The University of California, Berkeley
Berkeley, California 94720-2520


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