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An overview on Ancient Trade Exchanges and Modern Economic Theories:
Towards a New Approach?
Dipartimento di Scienze Storiche e dei Beni Culturali, Università degli Studi di Siena, Italy
Submission: October 03, 2017; Published: November 13, 2017
*Corresponding author: Stefano Bertoldi, Dipartimento di Scienze Storiche e dei Beni Culturali, Università degli Studi di Siena, Via Roma, 56, 53100, Siena, Italy. Email: email@example.com
How to cite this article: Stefano B. An overview on Ancient Trade Exchanges and Modern Economic Theories: Towards a New Approach?. Glob J Arch
& Anthropol. 2017; 2(2): 555584. DOI: 10.19080/GJAA.2017.02.555584
This mini-review wants to investigate the possibility of approaching the archaeological data by applying modern economic models. In the case of Tuscany, from the roman imperial age to early middle age, we observe phenomena of the organization of commercial circuits, mainly directed towards large urban markets. In the late antiquity, with the productions of Red Engobe ware, we observe a disposition of industries that can be schematized through modern economic rules. With the VI century, there is a phenomenon of clustering of activities among industries, aimed at breaking down a real free market.
Keywords: Economic theory; Agglomeration of productions; Red engobe ware; Late antique economy; Trust theory; Clustering of activities
The degree of detail achieved by archeology, regarding the knowledge of trade in the imperial age and in the late antiquity, mainly thanks to the amphora and sigillata, has reached a level of absolute statistical reliability. The entire Mediterranean has been subjected to archaeological investigations, with research into cities, villas, rural settlements and farmers. In this panorama, Tuscany, at the center of the Italian peninsula, is certainly one of the areas with greater quantity and quality of data. The study of modern economic phenomena, especially in how they operate in space, has produced a lot of models that have created great debate, especially during the twentieth century. Weber’s theory of location of industries , the model of Christaller’s central places , the Losch model , the agglomeration models of markets, production and transport, are just a few examples of theories proposed for aproaching the landscape and the modern economy.
In Roman archeology, the most discussed economic theory is the “Bang’s bazaar” : the author argues that the system of the Roman market (and in general the ancient structured markets) can not be compared with modern ones, because they are similar to a bazaar. The bazaar is distinguished by the high uncertainty of information and the relative unpredictability of demand and supply.
Although fascinating, Bang’s theory does not seem to fit the reality of the archaeological data. In Tuscany, for example, between I and V century AD there are statistical trends in the diffusion of Mediterranean pottery: road infrastructures and, more often, waterways are used to get products from Tyrrhenian ports to the inlands. Each network, besides having a natural and/or artificial road, is always marked by the presence of one or more urban markets. The first case is the Arno Valley, in the north of the region, with the Portus Pisanus as port and the city of Pisa as first place for the sorting of goods. The second case is the Ombrone valley, in the south of the region: the main city (the equivalent of Pisa in the Arno Valley) is Roselle. A little further north, there was a road connecting the towns of Populonia and Siena: this infrastructure was used for trade, even during the Mearly middle ages. The genesis of such paths is, in my opinion, derived from the (unconscious) application of the value theory : in fact, moving beyond the threshold of a certain penetration area would lead to an increase in the cost of transport, making the goods too expensive. In each of these carriers, there was at least one big urban market: the population of cities made possible the existence of commercial flow.
In the study of landscape, it’s crucial to understand the
minimum area for the sustainability of a particular human
settlement. The macro economy and the globalized Roman
system, however, go exactly in the opposite direction to the
concept of sustainability: a perennially connected world shows
the characters of the unsustainable. Just the greatness of the
cities made them not sustainability for their territory; imports
were necessary for the supplying. This was the mechanism for
creating demand and consequently stimulating the supply.
The production of red engobe ware was developed from
the III century AD, but more intensely between the V and the
first half of the VII century,: these ceramics were imitations of
African red slip ware, a product of great success throughout the
Mediterranean . The phenomenon of imitating or otherwise
inspiring a particular object of success is widely known in all
The appearance of manufacturing centers of this kind of
pottery confirms the existence of a free-market circuits during
the imperial age: the consumer, who wasn’t obliged to choose
the product that monopolizes the market, used the “vote with
the wallet” weapon to influence industry choices. The principles
that move the red engobe ware market are the imitation of
a winning idea and the moving of industries close to the big
However, for apply economic models to antique productions
and trade flows must presuppose the presence of the free
market. The influence of Roman aristocracies on the economy,
through their political position, is a complex issue, but some
elements show that, at least in some periods, this event has
occurred. Some authors see behind the intense development of
exports of “sigillata italica” from Arezzo between the end of the
I century BC and early I century AD the fact that Mecenate was
born in the tuscan city .
A statistical anomaly can be identified in the third century,
when imports from Iberia increase, while African imports
are decreasing; the general trend shows that between I and V
century, with the exception of III, the iberian products decrease
until the disappearance from the Tuscan markets, while the
tunisian goods will come to monopolize them. The interpretation
of this statistic, which has also been observed in Rome, might be
the victory of Septimus Severus. In fact, the emperor proceeded
to purge the enemies and to the confiscation of their assets in
favor of the imperial private property (res privata). The severian
period accelerates imperial control processes on the supply of
Rome and the army .
During the III century there was an economic crisis, mainly
based on inflationary issues of the currency. Growing inflation
was blocked by limiting gold and silver extraction: the result was
to increase the purchasing power of the rich people, who had
the opportunity to tense high-value coins, while the category of
small owners became impoverished. Lo Cascio interprets the
crisis of the III century through the economic law of Gresham:
during the XVI century, the British banker argued that those
who control the market have the ability to pick only strong coins
with high intrinsic value and pay only with a weak coin whose
nominal value is much higher than the real one . For the
senatorial class it was extremely easy to influence the political
and economic life of the Empire; it is therefore possible that the
crisis has been triggered by the rich population.
Despite these examples of attempts to political influence
within economic and commercial systems, the complexity,
the size and the longevity of the Roman world, guaranteed a
substantial dominance of the free market.
The theory of “golden age of farmers”proposed by Wickham,
criticized for almost thirty years, creates also today lot of
discussion . The author’s opinion is that during the VI
century, the free farmers were the class who benefited most from
the big changes, especially because they no longer had to pay the
land tax. Although we can not fully accept this perspective, it is
certain that in the 6th century and during the Lombard reign,
fiscal pressure decreased, for the disorganisation of the State.
The Tuscan productions between VI and the first half of VIII
show the characters of (a) agglomeration of industries in a site
or territory, (b) organization of industries close to the markets,
(c) organization of industries close to road infrastructure and
waterways. The result was to turn companies from competitor
The tendency to form large urban areas could be seen as
attempting to create enormous (not self-sustainable) markets,
the result of a political and economic scheme.
The red engobe ware, at least until the 6th century, does not
replace the African red slip ware: it is imitation, of lower quality
and cost, for an alternative market segment. We are in the
presence of a kind of “Knowledge spillover”, which reproduces
innovation (or anyway the winning idea) and brings industries
closer to consumers to reduce costs.
The Tuscan productions that developed between late
antiquity and early middle ages, starting from the red engobe
ware, was not chaotic in space and show agglomeration
characters: these processes encouraged raw material obtaining,
reduce shipping costs to markets, and ultimately had the power
to influence demand and prices by increasing or decreasing the
supply (Home market effect). The result is a sort of clustering of
activities and the emergence of a trust system. With this method,
the companies controlled the free market during VI century.
Some examples of agglomeration are the productions of
Torraccia di Chiusi, San Genesio and the area of Grosseto: but
also the division into sectors of production of Miranduolo could
be an indication of the presence of a trust.
The spatial rules with which Mediterranean goods are
spread reveal the full awareness of markets and the economy
by producers and traders: the application of value theory in
conjunction with red engobe ware, show a small incidence of the
Finally, I think that we should approach the regularity of
the Roman and Late Antique businesses as complex system
characterized by spatial and economic settings. We can not
assert the direct application of modern economic theories, but
we can approach the archaeological data through some key
concepts, such as agglomeration, sustainability, value theory,
competition and partnership.