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The Socio-Economics of Roman Storage: Agriculture, Trade, and Family

July 2021 (125.3)

Book Review

The Socio-Economics of Roman Storage: Agriculture, Trade, and Family

By Astrid Van Oyen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2020. Pp. 296. $110. ISBN 9781108495530 (cloth).

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In 2020, our world turned upside down. The new, poorly understood respiratory virus COVID-19 had spread through multiple countries. By March, several states in the United States issued stay-at-home orders to try to curb infection rates. Then, the panic buying began. COVID-19 tapped into primal desires and instincts to fulfill physiological needs. Households that could afford it stockpiled, filling their (multiple) refrigerators and pantries with food. The anxiety over having enough rice, pasta, water, and, strangely, toilet paper, was pervasive and drove people to hoard. Stockpiling—and, by extension, storage—became a strategy not only to manage risk, but also to manage social anxiety. 

Two millennia ago, households and communities in the ancient Mediterranean also commonly stockpiled, always preparing in case of a bad harvest, warfare, just about anything that could go wrong. But entrepreneurs also stored in hopes of turning a profit (just think of the people stockpiling hand sanitizer at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak to sell for exorbitant prices), and emperors could store grain for long periods to express their ability to bring security and resources to their citizens. Van Oyen’s book makes a timely and especially poignant contribution to our understanding of ancient storage practices and how they would make or break not only farmers but also empires. 

This book’s main premise is that storage is both universal and yet historical—that is, storage not only is different across time periods and places, it also shapes history. Most studies of storage, however, have focused on the practice of storage as either a risk buffer for farmers or as a source of wealth and power for empires. Moreover, they tend to focus on the institutions and actors involved or the storage structures; some might identify stored goods or quantify them. As a result, the “stuff” itself is often overlooked or, at best, treated as static and unchanging. What those studies miss—and what this study provides—is the revelation that goods and their value could change while in storage. Crops could rot. Grain could deteriorate, sprout, or get eaten by pests. Wine could age and increase in value or turn sour and dash a vintner’s hopes. Storage, in other words, has the potential to redefine things. Van Oyen’s aim, then, is to go beyond quantitative analysis to look at both the historical specificity of Roman storage and to increase its comparative potential, and she does so by taking a multiscalar, multiregional, and qualitative approach to a wide range of material.

The book is structured around a series of case studies that cut across different scales of storage, from farmer all the way to empire, and across time, from the first century BCE to the second century CE. Most of the case studies focus on central Italy and on agricultural goods (wine and especially grain). One (ch. 3) pivots to southern Gaul and northeast Iberia, while another takes a brief foray into elite household storage (ch. 4). The author engages productively and intensively on previously published materials, and each chapter offers fresh perspectives and interpretations.

Chapter 2 focuses on central Italian villas in the first century BCE and traces the development of villa storage structures. Against the backdrop of an expanding Mediterranean empire, the villa became a stage for the good citizen farmer to display surplus production. The author argues that frugalitas (storage as a risk buffer) and luxuria (storage for profit) were two sides of the same coin, and she convincingly shows how farmers, especially elite ones, could tap into both the traditional moral compass and new avenues for profit. The first century BCE witnessed an explosion of new storage facilities, with three main trends: diversification, disconnection, and monumentalization. Storage facilities became increasingly separate and distinct buildings on an estate; granaries were now freestanding structures and rooms were built for specific goods. Storage buildings were also disconnected from the residence, allowing more control and manipulation; many cisterns, for example, were no longer underground or part of the house, but separate, aboveground facilities built right next to places of use. Storage facilities also became monumentalized, as granaries and wine cellars were built at a grand scale. Taken together, these grander, distinct storage facilities displayed conspicuous production and enabled the estate owners to have greater control over not only the quantity of goods their estates could produce, but also the quality.

In chapter 3, the author leads us through southwest Gaul and northeast Iberia in the western Mediterranean, tracing the big changes from the Iron Age through Roman conquest. In the Iron Age, local farmers cultivated a wide range of cereals and typically stored them in large silos for future communal feasts and other purposes; silos were hermetically sealed and grain could be stored for potentially long periods of time, but once they were opened, the goods had to be consumed quickly. With the advent of Roman conquest came dramatic changes. By the mid first century BCE, the large grain silos were no longer in use, and a narrower range of cereals was cultivated. Grain storage was also transformed, as large granaries channeled bulk amounts of wheat to urban markets, facilitating taxation, control, and fast turnover of grain. Wine also became an important agricultural product. During the Iron Age, viticulture was limited, and early ceramic storage jars (dolia) were multipurpose vessels that stored different foods. Starting in the second century BCE in Iberia and the first century CE in southern Gaul, wine production reached new heights and, consequently, wineries were enlarged and massive dolia became receptacles for wine fermentation and storage, rivaling Italian estates. Van Oyen notes that new, Imperial-period storage practices did not overwrite previous traditions. Instead, many wineries were built on top of older silo fields, perhaps serving as a link to past behaviors.

Chapter 4 brings us back to central Italy, specifically to Pompeii and Herculaneum to look at elite household storage. This chapter differs from the others in that it looks at a variety of household goods, not just agricultural products. Working on the premise that households are dynamic, not static, and are constantly shuffling, Van Oyen aims to move beyond attempts to identify rooms by function to examine more closely the social relations therein. For example, the storage furniture found in atrium houses shows an effort to display strongboxes in more “public” areas of the house. In the same vein, screens, doors, and locks concealed things in cupboards and other storage furniture placed in more visible areas of the house, enhancing an unequal power and knowledge dynamic between, and among, residents and visitors of the house. One of the most important and interesting observations in this chapter is the combination of stuff and storage with the fluidity of the Roman house. The ability for rooms to function in multiple ways is an often-noted feature of Roman houses. The key to that ability, Van Oyen argues, is through storage, whereby objects in the houses could have many associations. As objects were brought in and out of circulation, sometimes serving the same purpose as before and sometimes functioning in a different capacity, a room could function as a ritual space at one moment and a dining area at another. 

In chapter 5, the perspective broadens to the empire by focusing on the warehouses at Rome’s two principal ports: Portus and Ostia. Although the material of this chapter has been well trodden, Van Oyen offers a novel discussion and interpretation of the warehouses. Rather than fall into the debate about whether they were owned and operated by “private” or “public” agents, she points out that this can be a moot point: the “state” regularly intercepted or worked alongside “private” individuals, and the transactions and relationships could be quite fluid. The author instead focuses on the architectural plans of the warehouses, demonstrating that there were differing priorities and rhythms of actions between Ostia and Portus. Portus’ “spine type” warehouses were isolated and highly standardized with rows of modular cells, allowing not only quick and controlled use, but also calculation. On the other hand, Ostia’s “courtyard” or “corridor type” warehouses were scattered throughout a densely populated city and linked to retail, but had extremely limited and controlled access. Ostian warehouses varied in size and storage use, relying on inspections and accounting to take stock. Van Oyen cautions against the use of these warehouses as a proxy for population estimates; instead, the seasonality of the sailing season and the yearlong demand for foods in the capital probably meant that the large zones of warehouses at the ports and capital itself duplicated storage facilities needed to accommodate the bottleneck of moving goods along the Tiber into the capital. 

Chapter 6 is the shortest but densest chapter. It brings together all the previous chapters and closes the gap between farmer and emperor. Van Oyen astutely notes that, unlike in other empires or kingdoms, Roman imperial palaces did not have storerooms; instead, the emperor’s “household” and palace extended to Portus. The emperor’s family was one among many households, but their reach was wider and their network more complex. All farmers were, by the early principate, imperial agents themselves. The imperial family could therefore switch roles between benevolent agent and predatory state, and all Roman citizens were both part of the emperor’s “family” and in competition with it. Van Oyen advocates for a kaleidoscopic model, which links together the different scales, actors, and concepts. 

The book is meticulously researched and referenced, highly theorized, and offers convincing arguments that build upon one another. The numerous architectural plans, images, and tables greatly aid the reader’s understanding of the rhythms, pacing, and movements through different storage facilities. Van Oyen’s writing is clear, and she helps the reader navigate through a diversity of material, archaeological sites, and theoretical approaches. The book will be of interest to not only scholars of ancient Rome but also archaeologists, historians, anthropologists, and others more broadly interested in storage, agriculture, empire, and archaeological theory (especially human–thing relations). The author should be congratulated for writing a book that offers so much food for thought that will inspire new avenues of research for years to come.

Caroline Cheung
Department of Classics
Princeton University

Book Review of The Socio-Economics of Roman Storage: Agriculture, Trade, and Family, by Astrid Van Oyen
Reviewed by Caroline Cheung
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 3 (July 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1253.Cheung

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