The Roman Peasant Project, 2009-2014: excavating the Roman rural poor

Review by Luuk de Ligt

The two volumes that make up this publication present the results of the ambitious Roman Peasant Project co-directed by Kim Bowes and Cam Grey. Geographically, the focus of the book is on the region of Cinigiano, Grosseto province, in southern Tuscany. Chapters 4 to 11 provide detailed discussions of eight non-elite sites that were excavated in this area, thus almost doubling the number of Roman-Italian non-elite sites excavated to date. All of these sites were identified between 2006 and 2008, during a field survey and remote-sensing project carried out by Mariaelena Ghisleni. In her doctoral dissertation, Ghisleni classified rural sites according to a widely used system of classification distinguishing between villages, villas, large settlements, farms, houses, kilns, and off-site scatters. The excavation campaigns carried out between 2009 and 2014 revealed most of these classifications to be problematic. It is worth adding that Ghisleni joined the team of the Roman Peasant Project in 2009 and contributed to reaching this sobering conclusion.

One of the most surprising findings of the project is that only two of the eight sites that were targeted qualify as possible (!) ‘farms’. Inspired by this discovery, the authors argue that previous attempts to establish whether the peasants of Republican and Imperial Italy lived in single houses or in villages has distorted interpretations of rural settlement patterns. At least in the region of Cinigiano, non-elite rural dwellers seem to have spent a varying amount of time in a variety of places. Bowes and colleagues use the term ‘distributed habitation’ to describe this situation. Interestingly, investment in temporary or seasonal spaces for stabling, pressing, or industry seems to have peaked between the late 2nd century BC and the mid 1st century AD, suggesting that this period witnessed an ‘intensification’ of land use and agricultural production. However, at least in the project area, ‘intensification’ meant investment in areas that were used for cereal production, pasturing, and stock rearing rather than a switch to ‘high-value’ crops such as grapes or olives.

Chapters 13-15 examine patterns of land use, diets, non-agricultural production, and levels of market involvement. At all sites with substantial quantities of cereal pollen, fodder crops and legumes are also well represented, suggesting the widespread use of rotation schemes by non-elite rural dwellers. A detailed study of animal bones suggests that many poor or moderately well-off ‘peasants’ used cattle for ploughing, and that goats, sheep, pigs, and domestic fowl were slaughtered for consumption. Investment in drainage, sheds, and stables suggests that non-elite rural dwellers aimed not merely to cover subsistence needs but to produce surpluses. Ordinary people living in the project area bought large amounts of fine wares and at least some glass vessels. While most of the fine wares were produced within the project area, the glass items mostly came from production sites in the eastern Mediterranean. Finally, the discovery of 82 coins, 93% of which were low-value bronze alloys, confirms a substantial level of involvement in money-using markets.

Almost all of those buildings that were excavated had earthen walls standing on top of stone bases. Although only about 20 peasant houses and other rural non-elite buildings have been excavated in Roman Italy (if the buildings excavated by this project are included), the authors may well be right to suggest that this type of construction was the most common wall technology in rural Roman Italy.

The main drawback of the project is that only two possible ‘farms’ or ‘peasant houses’ belonging to the Republican or Roman Imperial periods were identified, only one of which (Podere Terrato) was excavated. That said, the predominance of various ‘spaces of production’ among the eight sites that were targeted remains an important warning for those who have tried to reconstruct long-term trends in rural settlement patterns based on field-walking campaigns, but without excavating any non-elite rural sites. Archaeologists and ancient historians interested in the non-elite rural dwellers that accounted for the majority of the population of Roman Republican and Imperial Italy will ignore this important volume at their peril.

The Roman Peasant Project, 2009-2014: excavating the Roman rural poor, Kim Bowes (ed), University of Pennsylvania Press, £96, ISBN 978-1949057072.