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Rome, Portus and the Mediterranean

Rome, Portus and the Mediterranean

Edited by Simon Keay (Archaeological Monographs of the British School at Rome 21). Pp. xv + 439, figs. 158, color pls. 16, tables 35. The British School at Rome, London 2012. £90. ISBN 978-0-904152-65-4 (cloth).

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This is an important and timely book. Interest in and information about the seaborne commerce of the Roman empire is rapidly expanding. Recent innovations in deep-sea research have forced fundamental rethinking on the nature of maritime routes. Amphora, ceramic, and marble studies continue to enhance our understanding of key commodities. Synthetic works such as The Corrupting Sea (P. Horden and N. Purcell [London 2000]) have stimulated wide-ranging theoretical debates. This volume contributes to all those developing fields of research.

Keay, of the University of Southampton and the British School at Rome, is the organizer and general editor. As a researcher in the fields of Roman amphoras, Roman Iberia, and the Roman harbor system, he has made important contributions to many of the subfields covered in this work. He currently heads the two major investigations whose research stand at its core. The first is the Portus investigation, centered on the port system that supplied Rome.

Keay and his team have used a range of techniques from remote sensing to ceramics analysis to reconstruct the form and function of the poorly understood Claudian-Trajanic port complexes at Portus. Keay provides a useful introduction to those results and the larger issues they raise. One might have wished for more discussion of the innovative research strategies employed. However, they are available in other publications. In fact, the results obtained at and around Portus have forced a reevaluation of the total Ostia port world. No longer are Portus, Isola Sacra, and Ostia Antica considered as discrete entities, but as parts of an interconnected system. Remote sensing, as well as on-the-ground investigations, has provided much new information on structures and waterways that made possible the provisioning of Rome.

From the initial explication of Portus research, essays by Pensabene, Rizzo, and Aguilera Martin move to other issues of interconnection and supply at Ostia and Rome. Especially interesting and useful are the studies by Rizzo and Aguilera Martin on the organization of the harbor and Tiber traffic, a massive logistical operation that funneled the seaborne commerce into Rome.

The second section (“Ships and Navigation”) considers the realities of sailing in the Mediterranean in an era before steam power and navigational devices. The essay of Arnauld is especially insightful, with its review of ancient evidence and its feel for nautical realities in the age of the sail. Gambin considers the shaping geography of port location and island distribution, and Boetto explores the evidence for nautical movements and goods distributions provided by shipwrecks.

The middle group of essays consists of case studies focused on regions that had the most interactions with Portus. This is in some ways the work’s weakest section. Only two papers deal with Italy and Sicily. That on Sicily (Malfitana and Franco) summarizes the growing archaeological evidence for a province that was very prosperous in the Late Republic and Imperial period. The other (Augenti and Cirelli) discusses recent excavations at Classe, the port of Ravenna and a new “Portus” for the Late Imperial city. These essays are important, but their connection to Portus is limited.

The most substantial subsection centers on Roman Iberia. That is to be expected, since Keay has long conducted research there. The essays consider the port at Cadiz (Bernal Casasola), that at Seville (Garcia Vargas), and the Baetis River trade (Remesal Rodriguez) and its connection with Rome. Amphora studies play an important role in these essays. The last two papers look at the Iberian marble trade from internal (Beltran Fortes) and external (Gutierrez Garcia-Moreno and Roda de Llanza) perspectives. There is little general, synthetic discussion in the whole unit, which would have aided readers unfamiliar with the burgeoning archaeology of Roman Iberia. However, the chapters provide a good sense of the abundant, high-quality archaeological research being done in the cities of Spain, which is largely unknown to Anglophone readers.

The trade and port connections in the remaining empire receive more spotty coverage. North Africa was the region most closely linked with Rome. However, it receives only one designated article (Bonifay and Tchernia), which centers on the ceramic trade. No piece considers the marble trade from the North African perspective; however, much has been written recently on this topic, so another essay might have been considered repetitive. For the eastern empire, there is just one piece on the marble trade, centered around Ephesus and Smyrna (Barresi), one on Roman ceramics in Egypt (Tomber), and a very useful piece, although somewhat indirectly related to Ostia-Portus studies, on the Red Sea trade (Peacock).

In the final section (“Broader Issues”), Wilson, Schorle, and Rice provide a good study of commercial interconnectivity (integrating amphoras, ceramics, and port hierarchies) that highlights the complexity of Imperial-era trade processes. Poblome, Bes, and Willet present a detailed study of ceramic production and distribution at two centers in the Greek East. It calls attention to the importance of local and regional production but is well removed from the world of Portus. Morhange, Marinner, and Bony provide a study of coastal change along the French Mediterranean. The piece is useful, but it is not clear why it appears in the “Broader Issues” section. Earl, Issaken, Keay, Brughmans, and Potts conclude by considering various computational and modeling approaches that might prove useful to order and model the mass of data emerging from their research. It is suggestive, but very preliminary.

This is a “state of research” type of book. Indeed, the topic might have benefited from two publications, one on the more advanced Portus project and a second work that would present in more detail the results of the Mediterranean Ports Project. However, the present volume already makes clear the dynamic research scene surrounding Portus, what has recently been learned about Roman Mediterranean trade and transport, and how much we still have yet to learn. The recent syntheses by Horden, Purcell, Harris, and others are clearly going to be tested and challenged, and new syntheses will be required. In the meantime, Keay and his colleagues are to be complimented for presenting this fundamental research that is expanding our vision of the ancient world of commerce.

Stephen L. Dyson
Department of Classics
The University at Buffalo, the State University of New York

Book Review of Rome, Portus and the Mediterranean, edited by Simon Keay

Reviewed by Stephen L. Dyson

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 1 (January 2015)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1191.Dyson

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