Roman Bazaar or Market Economy? Explaining Tableware Distributions through Computational Modelling

By Brughmans, Tom; Poblome, Jeroen | Antiquity, April 2016 | Go to article overview

Roman Bazaar or Market Economy? Explaining Tableware Distributions through Computational Modelling


Brughmans, Tom, Poblome, Jeroen, Antiquity


Introduction

Ceramic tableware is one of the most common finds on Roman archaeological sites, and it lends itself to quantification. This study draws on the published evidence of Roman tableware from the Eastern Mediterranean to explore a particularly robust distribution pattern and understand the past social mechanisms that might have created it. The pattern under scrutiny here is the very wide distribution of four distinct wares: Eastern Sigillata A, B, C and D (abbreviated as ESA, ESB, ESC and ESD respectively). All four wares were produced and circulated in the Roman East between late Hellenistic times and c. AD 150, but only one ware maintained a supra-regional distribution for centuries: ESA.

Archaeologists have formulated many hypotheses to explain this distribution pattern: a dependency on state structures, the role of redistributive centres, consumption or 'pulling forces, commercial piggy-back' trade and a proximity to large-scale agricultural production (e.g. Abadie-Reynal 1989; Reynolds 1995; Lewit 2011; Bes 2015). A summary of these is provided by Philip Bes (2015), who argues that four mutually dependent factors may underpin the supra-regional distribution pattern of tablewares:

1. The symbiosis between an active urban hub and its productive hinterland.

2. The pulling forces exerted by important regional centres with political administrative, economic, religious and military functions, or a combination of these, such as Delos, Corinth and Alexandria.

3. Patterns of communication between people, resulting in interconnected places.

4. A political or other type of system that establishes or maintains these factors. Most scholars agree that a complex mix of mechanisms working on multiple levels was responsible for the differences in tableware distribution patterns, and have formulated these as descriptive conceptual models for explaining the functioning of Roman trade (e.g. Bes 2015). As there is no shortage of hypotheses, the key research aim in the study of tableware distribution processes should be to identify which of the factors, or combinations of factors, is best supported by the available evidence: to explore the middle ground, or 'grey zone', between more extreme hypotheses. The development of conceptual models has not, however, gone hand in hand with the adoption of methodological approaches that allow distinctions to be made between archaeological signatures for different scenarios (Davies 2005; Morris et al. 2007; although see Graham & Weingart 2015 for a notable exception).

Our contribution to this ongoing discussion evaluates conceptual models by combining an exploratory analysis of the published tableware evidence with computational modelling of hypothetical distribution mechanisms. The particular focus will be on evaluating aspects of two influential conceptual models: Peter Bang's (2008) 'Roman bazaar' and Peter Temin's (2013) 'Roman market economy'.

In Bang's model, the integration of markets around the empire was weak, meaning that traders had poor knowledge of prices and the availability of goods. Moreover, according to Bang's hypothesis, the flow of goods and commercial information was structured by the opportunistic and protectionist communities of traders. By contrast, in Temin's model, markets were more strongly integrated, and commercial information from one market was more easily accessible in other markets. The concept of social networks connecting commercial actors and enabling the flow of commercial information and goods is central to both scenarios. The social networks of traders are, however, incorporated very differently in both models: the influence of community structure on markets is emphasised in Bang's model, and in Temin's, emphasis is placed on the ability for information to pass among social contacts between markets more easily.

The potential role of social networks as a driving force in the Roman trade system can be explored by formalising Bang's and Temin's hypotheses, and determining what archaeological distribution patterns one would expect of them. …

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