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Building Mid-Republican Rome

A book by Seth Bernard

Jason Morris reviews Seth Bernard’s Building Mid-Republican Rome: Labor, Architecture, and the Urban Economy, published in 2018.

Written by Jason C. Morris on

Seth Bernard has produced an ambitious book that will be of interest to historians working on the ancient Roman economy, architecture, technology, Roman imperialism, and the socio-political development of Republican Rome. The book purports to describe the physical and socioeconomic processes that contributed to the formation of the Republican city of Rome in the fourth and third centuries BC. In what follows, I first outline the structure of the book and then consider Bernard’s arguments in detail.

Structure of the book

The book consists of eight chapters, two appendices, a lengthy bibliography, and an index. Chapters One and Eight function as an introduction and conclusion to the work. Chapters Three through Seven form a more or less continuous chronological narrative of Rome’s socio-economic and structural development in the middle Republic, though Chapters Three and Four more or less function as separate entities while Chapters Five through Seven function as a whole unit.

Chapter Two stands out as something of an oddity. It is mostly a catalogue of the materials used for constructing monumental buildings, their sources, and the literary or material evidence for their use in the period under discussion. As such, it will be essential reading for anyone working on Roman mid-Republican architecture. At the same time, the chapter does not have any real argument of its own, and Bernard does not make direct reference to this chapter anywhere else in the text. One therefore cannot help but wonder if Chapter Two would have been better included as a third appendix.

Appendix One is a theoretical cost analysis of building ashlar masonry in volcanic tuff, and it forms part of Bernard’s argument in Chapter Four. By contrast, Appendix Two is a catalogue of monumental public building projects from the mid-Republican period and the evidence for their existence. This catalogue forms the evidentiary core for much of Bernard’s discussion.

In any work that combines as much literary and archaeological evidence as Bernard’s book does, a key issue that needs to be considered is the author’s theoretical methodology. Bernard sets out his methodology in Chapter One. Bernard contends that the Mid-Republican city of Rome was distinguished by its dense urban fabric, which was created through fundamental changes in the socioeconomic structures that transformed and allocated the economic gains of imperialism to monumental building projects in the fourth century BC. By placing this contention at the heart of his study, Bernard instantly situates his work in the field of urban studies, stating that he intends to use architecture and urbanism as a point of entry into a synthetic discussion of the city’s historical development (pp. 1-3, 23).

In adopting a synthetic methodology, Bernard rejects the strict use of what he terms the formalist and topographical approaches to architecture which scholars have used to study Rome’s monuments primarily in terms of their features and physical location (pp. 3-4, 11). He likewise does not align himself with either of the traditional schools of ancient economics and prefers to occupy a middle ground carved out by the principles of New Institutional Economics that sits between the structural approach of primitivist scholars and scholars who advocate a performance driven market economy (pp. 12-13). Finally, he also properly rejects the theoretical paradigms of romanization and hellenization.

Effects of the Gallic sack of Rome

Bernard begins his synthetic analysis in Chapter Three, where he investigates the effects of the Gallic sack of Rome, recorded by Livy, on the city and its economy. Bernard, through a skilled reading of Livy’s first decade, establishes that, while there are reasons to uphold specific elements of Livy’s account, the overarching narrative of sack, rebuilding, debt, and political collapse cannot be sustained (pp. 47-61). He goes on to note that if the sack of Rome did not cause economic and social dislocation at Rome, as Livy describes, then another source needs to be found for the persistent economic difficulties he contends are reflected in the limited monumental building found at Rome in the fifth and fourth centuries BC.

However, his contention is open to question. The literary and archaeological evidence he cites to support his contention that there was a general state of instability and socioeconomic transformation across the Italian peninsula in the late fifth century is open to other interpretations. Moreover, limited success in warfare and the absence of monumental building work at Rome for much of the fifth and fourth centuries hardly constitutes proof that economic stagnation plagued Rome in this period (p. 74).

Bernard derives much of the support for his argument from a study of Rome’s agrarian economy at the start of the fourth century. His interpretation however seems to depend upon Nathan Rosenstein’s agricultural model, and there are problems in using it to understand the cultivation of the ager Romanus and Roman settlement on the ager Veientanus.Show N. Rosenstein, Rome at War: Farms, Families, and Death in the Middle Republic (2004), pp. 69-72.

First, there are reasons to believe that Rosenstein underestimates the man-power needed to work a Roman farm, as he himself admits (p. 72). Next, Rosenstein and many other scholars, including Bernard, assumes that seven iugera were distributed to every holding on the ager Veientanus. This is something that is far from a proven fact.

Next, even assuming that seven iugera really were distributed to everyone, one cannot assume that the classic iugerum described by Varro in the first century BC was standardized by the start of the fourth (Var. RR. 1.10.2). Roman metrology was fluid and transitional in the Early Republic.

Lastly, Rosenstein’s model depends upon the assumption that the Romans consumed a diet of wheat, legumes, and some other vegetables cultivated in a small garden with comparatively little change in farming methods, patterns of land distribution, or the organization of labor from the start of the fifth century through the middle of the second.

While scholars rarely challenge that contention, archaeological evidence and the sources in the analytic tradition discussed by Saskia Roselaar and Okko Behrends, can be interpreted to argue that Rome slowly evolved from a pastoral economy which depended upon limited agriculture and trade across the Tiber in the eighth century to an agrarian economy where land-ownership held primacy in the second.Show S.T. Roselaar, Public Land in the Roman Republic: A Social and Economic History of Ager Publicus in Italy, 396-89 BC (2010), pp. 20-24; O. Behrends, “Die Gärten in der römischen Feldordnung. Zu den siedlungsgeschichtlichen Grundlagen des römischen Bodeneigentums”, in: C. Möller and E. Knobloch (eds.), In den Gefilden der römischen Feldmesser. Juristische, wissenschaftsgeschichtliche, historische und sprachliche Aspekte (2014), pp. 22-37; J.N. Hopkins,The Genesis of Roman Architecture (2016), pp. 20-38. As a consequence, agricultural production and land tenure needs to be considered far more fluid than Rosenstein’s model allows.

Bernard is probably on surer ground when he contends that the settlement of the ager Veientanus placed a strain on the available man-power and economic resources at Rome even though the city gained control of Veii’s human and material resources. He may also be correct that this drain on man-power contributed to a chronic problem with debt and the growing need for slave labor over the course of the fourth century. However, assuming he is correct, this strain on man-power along with other social changes ushered in by the war with Veii would explain limited building activity in the mid-Republican period far better than any economic downturn.

Construction of walls

In Chapter Four, Bernard is interested in exploring the extent to which the construction of the Republican walls contributed to the economic stagnation of the Roman economy. To do this, he models the effects of construction work for the eleven kilometre long structure on the Roman population. Bernard first establishes an approximate standard rate of work for both skilled and unskilled labor using comparative data derived from other pre-industrial construction projects.

To model the distribution of labor within his cost analysis, Bernard turns to a single passage of Diodorus Siculus, which describes the workforce assembled by Dionysius I to build part of the wall of Syracuse (Diod. Sic. 14.18.3– 8). His choice can be justified both in terms of our available sources and on the grounds that archaeological evidence suggest that the walls were originally laid out by technicians trained at Syracuse (pp. 91, 99-100). Drawing on evidence from Livy, Bernard further argues that the workforce used to construct the walls was drawn from a few highly paid technical specialists and Roman citizens who were conscripted for the job (pp. 106-108).

Finally, using all the evidence at his disposal, Bernard calculates that it took six point eight million person days to construct the wall (pp. 98-99). Dividing this sum, using a Roman population that numbered from seventy three to one hundred and fifty thousand people, Bernard estimates that each adult citizen had to contribute between one hundred and twenty three and two hundred and forty six days of labor to the project. Assuming that each adult was only available to work on the walls or fight for the city sixty days a year, as Bernard does, the wall could have still been finished in ten years.

Politics, building work, and finance

While Bernard’s reconstruction in Chapter Four does not prove that the burden of building the Republican wall disrupted Rome’s political cohesion by straining the labor supply to the breaking point (p. 117), the interconnection between politics, building work, and finance are a demonstrable theme of Chapters Five, Six, and Seven. Chapter Five looks at the large- scale reorganization of urban production in the hands of a new Roman political elite when the censorship was attached to monumental building projects and both coinage and written contracts came into regular use at the end of the fourth century. Chapter Six details the resulting growth of slave and free wage-labor in the city as seen from the wider viewpoint of urban production, and Chapter Seven looks at similar themes from the more focused perspective of building technology.

Here, in a rather roundabout way, Bernard argues that the Romans developed coinage as part of an internal civic dispute about two different conceptions of wealth, its attachment to political power, and a tangible connection between political power and craft production at Rome (pp. 141, 143, 145). For one group, wealth meant investment in land and the Roman agrarian economy that had financed building projects such as the Republican wall discussed in Chapters Three and Four. For others, wealth meant the development of craft production and trade.

For Bernard, coinage was adopted as a political instrument, an embodiment of the market- based exchanges that gave authority to a new group of Roman elites; as such, wealth became increasingly recognized within the Republican political system in the last quarter of the fourth century BC (p. 153). Interestingly enough, he feels that this political motivation for coinage led the Romans to develop two separate systems of coinage that served two different functions (pp. 145-148). Bernard plausibly argues that bronze coinage was introduced at Rome to facilitate small-scale local trade, while an older issue of Romano-Campanian silver coinage was developed by members of Rome’s elite for political purposes, including large-scale inter-state transactions (pp. 176-178).

This rise in the use of coinage provided a new functional context for contractual obligations, and more specifically, written contracts regulating large-scale transactions (pp. 154-157, 178, 181). Since building work was such a transaction, this compelled the Roman senate to adopt contracts and coinage as a means of financing public building projects (pp. 154-157, 178, 181). This in turn entailed establishing a magistracy to over-see both the contracts and public building projects. This also stimulated the senate to assign first the aediles and then the censors the task of managing Rome’s monumental buildings and public construction projects (pp. 125-126).

Bernard argues that two men, Gaius Maenius and Appius Claudius, in the period from 338 to 297 BC, initiated a slate of building projects, and both probably derived their political power from the urban plebs. Bernard pays particular attention to the activities of Appius Claudius, arguing that he sought the support of the Opes Urbana,or urban craftsmen and traders, to obtain political office, and then initiated the first multi-generational building program by constructing the Via Appia and Aqua Appia to benefit them (pp. 127-128, 136-139).

Bernard believes that much of the urban community of craftsmen and traders that Appius Claudius depended upon were new-comers to the city, and that this put both them and Claudius at odds with the landed senators who represented old money. To support this contention, Bernard devotes most of Chapter Six to demonstrating that, no matter how dependent the Romans were on slave labor, the city still needed free-born crafts people. Moreover, he argues that even as Rome’s imperial expansion brought slaves to Rome, Rome’s political and military success also drew to the city a multi-ethnic conglomerate of free-born craftsmen who wanted to market their skills (pp. 168-174, 188-192). The presence of these workers and crafts people stimulated population growth and the need for money, providing a context for Appius Claudius’ activities.

In addition to stimulating the rise of a labor market in the fourth and early third century, Bernard, in Chapter Seven, demonstrates the role that architects and builders played in the evolution of technology in the city’s building industry. He makes the argument that Republican building techniques speak to the evolving social relations of workers and to the training of the workforce responsible for construction. Bernard also makes the observation that changes in Republican building techniques and the technologies of ashlar masonry reflect developments in the course of Mid-Republican imperialism. As he puts it, every time Rome made a fresh conquest or came into contact with a new group of people, builders would come to work at Rome, bringing new techniques and materials to augment Rome’s construction industry (pp. 192, 199).

To illustrate his point, Bernard traces the changes in the use of Tuffo Giallo for building at Rome and the various sources for the changes he documents (pp. 199-214). As part of this technical discussion, he considers the training of architects and the social dynamics that influenced their activities.

Much of the discussion in Chapter Seven parallels or augments Bernard’s discussion of Roman building practices in Chapters Four and Five. This is particularly true of the methods used to build the Republican walls. Here, however, one gets the history, which, if applied in Chapter Four, would have provided some much needed depth to Bernard’s analysis. In particular, had he applied his historical methodology to a closer study of the defensive systems which predated the fourth century wall, he may have gained the perspective needed for him to not only prove his point, but to identify changes in Roman society that enabled the Romans to undertake such a monumental project.

While the study of Tuffo Giallo would have been less helpful in Bernard’s discussion of the Via Appia and Aqua Appia, his treatment of working methods would have added nuance to the discussion. But, even with such gradation, Bernard’s analysis of the Aqua Appia would still remain fundamentally flawed. He insists that the technology for a subterranean water conduit was developed in Italy (p. 135). Archaeologists have demonstrated that this technology passed from Iran, where it was first developed in the ninth century BC, to the peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean, and then on West.Show M.J.T. Lewis, Surveying Instruments of Greece and Rome (2001), pp. 17-18; R. Hahn, The Metaphysics of the Pythagorean Theorem: Thales, Pythagoras, Engineering, Diagrams, and the Construction of the Cosmos out of Right Triangles (2017), pp. 35-39, 138, 159-168.

Closing remarks

Bernard seems to be remarkably unfamiliar with ancient concepts of surveying and engineering that predate the mid-fourth century, particularly those outside the Graeco-Roman world. Perhaps this is the reason Bernard is unaware that the Greeks probably inherited a tradition of itinerant architects, surveyors, and doctors from the Near East as part of their early development in what we might term scientific thinking.Show  M.R. Bachvarova, From Hittite to Homer: The Anatolian Background of Ancient Greek Epic (2016), pp. 190-191, 200-203.

As a consequence, Bernard’s conclusion that ancient crafts people moved around freely and were paid for their services is less surprising than it might otherwise be. What needs further consideration are the circumstances under which they travelled in the period before the late fourth century, and the extent to which they did it. It is very possible that they only moved when they were invited by a host, and that they were paid in kind rather than cash. Such a situation would fit what Bernard has to say about the construction of Rome’s Republican walls. It, of course, does not say anything about their place at Rome or their impact on the early Republican agrarian economy. While Bernard set out to answer that question, he does not.

What Bernard has done is demonstrate a clear link between Roman politics, architecture, crafts people, and the economy in the late fourth century BC. He has also conclusively shown that crafts people played a large part in the transformation of the Roman economy in that period. More importantly, he has shown that those crafts people were free-born rather than slaves. Whether any of the trends he documents in the later fourth century date back to an earlier period remains unclear. Likewise, their relationship to the agrarian economy needs further study. In spite of this, Bernard has produced a useful, if flawed, work that will be of value to scholars of Republican Rome.