Divergent Economies in the Roman World. Holistic views on habitual and aberrant practices, ca. 300 BC–AD 300

International conference & book project organized and edited by Dimitri Van Limbergen, Devi Taelman & Adeline Hoffelinck

Ghent, November 19–21, 2020
An initiative of MARU, HARG & SDEP at Ghent University

Recent decades have witnessed a significant progress in our understanding of the Roman economy. The inclusion of archaeological data and modern economic theory into the debate has essentially refocused the discussion from making sense of a limited number of textual data to handling and analysing an ever growing amount of archaeological and documentary evidence in a systematic way. Despite this paradigm shift having opened up new horizons for the study of the Roman economy in terms of structure, scale and performance, it still has left the discipline predominantly concerned with those major economic activities that are well-represented in the archaeological record and/or whose traces can more readily be turned into (quantifiable) proxy-data. To a certain extent, this has maintained a bias in research towards macro-scale economic processes such as long-distance trade (e.g. wine, olive oil, fish sauce, terra sigillata, stone) and large-scale or omnipresent practices (e.g. villa farming, industrial pottery production, mining & quarrying, monumental building). There is no denying that the results so achieved have fundamentally increased our ability to capture the unique character and complexity of the Roman (state) economy compared to other pre-industrial societies. On the other hand, it may be argued that this has also led to a rather one-sided and thus unbalanced view of an economic system that in reality was much more diverse.

Diverse in the first place in terms of scale, as the many smaller-scale and place-based economies that so easily fall under the archaeo-historical radar were often those activities that provided the basic goods and services for everyday life. These activities were perhaps not boosting overall economic performance, but were nevertheless essential to the functioning of Roman society on a daily basis.
Diverse also in terms of nature, as in our efforts to model the economy of the ancient world, we sometimes tend to forget that not everyone did the same thing everywhere. Activities differed according to the environment people lived in, and to the market(s) they were intended for. This gave rise to a variety of economic microcosms (e.g. mountain, wetland and desert areas), and to numerous niche markets for food, materials and artefacts. While often diverging from what was commonly or widely practiced, such activities frequently involved significant financial and/or infrastructural input, and a great degree of specialization (in skills and resources). They so represent confined but highly developed sections of the ancient economy.

Diverse as well in terms of actors and attitudes, as we should not automatically consider modi operandi as customized standard to the ‘adult Roman male’, but rather as shaped by age, gender, status or historical-cultural background. Grasping the multifaceted nature of the Roman economy also means incorporating this polyperspectivity into the debate.

Finally, diverse – or elastic – in our approaches, as we should be wary of trying to fit every aspect of the Roman economy into the (structural and theoretical) models that we (perhaps unconsciously) have come to assume.
Despite of their fundamental importance for creating more balanced – and thus more accurate – views of the ancient economy, such ‘divergent’ activities and perspectives play little role in current scholarly debate. Therefore, with this conference, we would like to focus on precisely those features of the Roman economy that were either so habitual, aberrant or unique at the time that they became less traceable in text and archaeology, and as a consequence remained largely under-explored in contemporary scholarship.

We aim to approach this topic from a variety of angles, with papers particularly – but not exclusively – addressing the following themes:

  • exigent and/or distinct landscapes of exploitation and production
  • unconventional loci of production in town and country (e.g. non-standard rooms, buildings or spatial arrangements)
  • habitual retail activities aimed at local or regional customers
  • niche products (food & non-food), artisanal crafts and specific-purpose artefacts
  • unusual actors, attitudes and perspectives in the economy (e.g. the role of women and children, or of native and border communities)

We invite speakers to reflect on one or several of these themes, either through specific case studies from within the Roman world, or by wider theoretical and methodological reflection. We especially welcome proposals that use holistic and/or trans-disciplinary approaches. This conference preferably wants to draw data from the Late Republican and Imperial periods.

The aim is to publish this conference as a wide-ranging but coherent book with a major publisher. Those who wish to contribute a chapter (ca. 6000 words) are requested to send us an outline of ca. 500 words before April 1st, 2020. A first draft or working paper is expected by November 1st, 2020. The papers will be circulated to all participants before the start of the conference in Ghent on November 19-21, 2020.

For further inquiry, please contact dimitri.vanlimbergen@ugent.be; devi.taelman@ugent.be or adeline.hoffelinck@ugent.be

Paper proposals can be submitted to dimitri.vanlimbergen@ugent.be

Organizing entities at Ghent University

  • MARU (Mediterranean Archaeology Research Unit), Department of Archaeology
  • HARG (Historical Archaeology Research Group), Department of Archaeology
  • SDEP Scientific Research Network (Structural Determinants of Economic Performance in the Roman World), Department of Ancient History