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Rome's Mediterranean Ports

Final Report Summary - ROMP (Rome's Mediterranean Ports)

Rome was connected to its Mediterranean provinces by commercial routes channelled through networks of ports. ROMP argues that these were not simply basins surrounded by moles, but rather, complex systems that included and combined a wide range of natural and artificial infrastructure and services. On this basis, the project reinterpreted their roles in the organization of maritime commerce of the first three centuries AD. Central to this is our web-based port resource, a structured synthesis of data from 32 project port sites to a common standard. It comprised a multi-relational database containing archaeological and geomorphological data, ancient sources, and was organized in terms of port installations, harbour systems and interfaces. It enables us to chart port development and gauge their maritime and terrestrial limits through time in new ways.

We focused upon four themes. The first concerns the layout of Roman ports. The vocabulary used by ancient writers to describe the character and properties of a range of ports was combined with geophysical surveys and analyses of deep sedimentary cores drilled in harbour basins at Portus, Puteoli, Utica, Tarraco, Baelo, Carthage, Piraeus, Ephesos, Kane and Pitane, revealing important evidence for harbour basin layout, depth and use, dredging episodes and the layout of residential and industrial areas. This highlights how far their topography enhanced their ability to handle commercial traffic and industrial activity. Our second theme concerned organization of port-based commercial activity. We have argued that ports were normally placed under city authority, and that there were significant transactional costs involved in port activity. A cross-reading of legal documents, inscriptions and iconography clarified our understanding of control procedures in terms of public (customs, police) and private law (weighing, measuring, treatment of cargoes given as surety), and shows how disputes were settled. Also, analysis of the structure of charter-parties informed us about procedures and time costs involved in loading and transport. Our third theme examined hierarchical relationships between entrepôts, lesser ports and anchorages. Studying the vocabulary of ancient texts and reinterpreting archaeological data has clarified our understanding of relationships between porti diffusi, ports stricto sensu, and connections between mooring areas, berthing and on shore activities. The term “port” was thus replaced by “port systems” (including harbour systems) and “port networks” as a better analytical frame for conceptualizing maritime activity: analytical models of regional “port systems” focused upon Rome, Tarraco, Narbo and Pergamon were developed. Our fourth issue looked at pan-Mediterranean inter-port commercial connections, and how far they can be understood as networks between individuals, ports and cities. The identification of certain inscriptions on merchandise as samples in particular has transformed our understanding of long-distance networking patterns that were based on sustainable mutual knowledge and some routine procedure in trading activity. The project also used written sources and archaeology to better comprehend roles played by agents of performers of trade at ports and in patterns of pan-Mediterranean networking.

ROMP’s inter-disciplinary approach takes port studies beyond the state of the art. It argues for a conceptual shift away from Roman ports as different sized polyfunctional nodes in favour of more diffuse multi-scalar systems that can be identified as “port systems” and broader “port networks”. These provide us with a more robust framework for explaining the complexities of the archaeological and textual evidence for commercial relationships of the Roman Mediterranean of the first three centuries AD. The “port-system” concept also has value in periods as diverse as the pre-Roman, Medieval and post-Medieval, and beyond the Mediterranean.