Innovation and Society in the Roman World

M. Flohr (2016), 'Innovation and Society in the Roman World', Oxford Handbooks Online. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935390.013.85

One of the most eye-catching tombs along the Via Appia stands some four miles outside the city, close to the Villa dei Quintili, on the east side of the road. Essentially, what remains of it is just an enormous mass of concrete, meticulously deprived of its stone facing at some point between antiquity and modernity. Its construction date is unknown, but to judge from its size and its use of concrete, it is probably early imperial, perhaps Julio–Claudian or Augustan. It is a large example of the monumental Roman tomb architecture that emerged in the late republic and of which the development cannot be seen apart from the development and spread of opus caementicium, which made it possible to construct larger, architectonically more daring monuments at a reasonable price, making them available to much larger groups of people—as the first miles of the Via Appia attest. Not far from the tomb is the point where there was, in antiquity, a good view from the Via Appia over two aqueduct bridges that were built to cross the plain between the Alban Hills and Rome. The lower of the two aqueduct bridges dates to the second century bc. It was built for the Aqua Marcia but had the Aqua Tepula and the Aqua Iulia superimposed on it later. It was made of tufa and had low, wide arches. The higher, more monumental aqueduct bridge stood out with its elegant, high arches in tufa. It was built between ad 38 and ad 52 and carried the Aqua Claudia and the Anio Novus. Critical to both aqueducts is the arch, an innovation that became increasingly widespread from the second century bc onward. At the time they were constructed, both aqueducts presented a clear innovation in hydraulic engineering: the Aqua Marcia was the first Roman aqueduct with such a long section above the ground, and the Aqua Claudia was unparalleled in its height. Obviously, the Via Appia itself also presented an innovation when it was constructed in the late fourth century bc in the way it was imposed on the landscape, running in an almost perfectly straight line between Rome and Terracina, with the exception of a short section near Ariccia, where it had to divert in order to successfully cross the southern part of the Alban Hills. What for modern viewers might look like a landscape of memory may very well have looked differently through Roman eyes: as an environment, the Via Appia, in the early imperial period, was not a romantic relic of a faraway past but a clear manifestation of Roman achievement. Especially in the first century ad, it was a landscape of innovation at least as much as a landscape of memory.

The Via Appia was no exception: Roman construction and engineering technology had a deep impact on landscapes throughout the Roman Empire. Indeed, in the very place where it started, Rome, the widespread application of the same new building technologies created private architecture of dimensions hitherto unknown, resulting in an urbanism of a completely new category. Outside Rome, increasingly advanced engineering enabled the Romans in the first centuryad to dig the tunnels and canals necessary to drain parts of the Fucine Lake, not only creating more agricultural land but also transforming the entire Fucine region, as indeed had been done before with the plain of Rieti and, earlier still, with the plain of Ariccia on the Via Appia in the Alban Hills. Perhaps the most dramatic impact of innovation on the landscape is to be found in Asturia in northwest Spain, where the Romans in gold mining applied a practice they called ruina montium, which meant that they exposed mountains to high quantities of water, leading to collapse and to the liberation of gold-rich sediments, which then could be further processed. The environmental effects of this practice are still clearly visible, especially at the site of Las Medulas.

In many places, and in many ways, the Roman world looked like no world had done before; and to a considerable extent, this was due to innovation—the emergence and spread of new ways of doing things. The present article highlights this societal impact of innovation in the Roman world, particularly focusing on the changes it brought to the direct living environment of people. After two introductory sections on the history of the debate about innovation in the Roman world and the wider culture of innovation in the late republican and early imperial periods, two key aspects of this will be discussed. Firstly, there were innovations in the manufacturing of everyday consumer goods that changed the material culture with which people throughout the Roman Empire surrounded themselves. Secondly, there is the emergence of advanced construction techniques that redefined the physical environment in which everyday life took place, in cities and, to some extent, the countryside. While the theme of innovation is, of course, broader than these two issues, other aspects have been covered rather well in recent contributions to the debate, as will be highlighted in the next section; and their omission does not affect the overall argument made here, which is that technological innovation was fundamental to the historical development of everyday life in the Roman world from the second century bc until well into the second century ad.

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Conference: Urban life and the built environment in the Roman world

Velleia, Forum: Columns and statue bases - looking from the Basilica towards the North end of the forum square (Photo: Miko Flohr [2016])

Gravensteen, Pieterskerkhof, Leiden, 7-9 December 2016

This conference builds upon recent and ongoing discourse in the study of Roman urbanism to explore the relation between architecture and society in the Roman world. While recent decades have seen spectacular developments in the theories and concepts that inform the study of Roman urbanism, not all spheres of urban life have profited equally, a lot of discourse has gravitated around a limited number of showcase sites (particularly Pompeii and Ostia), and there have been relatively few attempts to draw links with the world beyond Central Italy.

This conference focuses on four spheres of activities—religion, politics, commerce, and movement—and brings together specialists focusing on several parts of the Roman world, with a particular focus on the more densely urbanized regions in the Mediterranean. Approaches will vary between micro-scale and more wide-ranging, and issues on the agenda particularly include the identification of regional trends, and the impact of urban development on local communities.

Confirmed speakers include Touatia Amraoui, Marlis Arnhold, Eleanor Betts, Chris Dickenson, Elizabeth Fentress, Miko Flohr, Annette Haug, Patric-Alexander Kreuz, Simon Malmberg, Stephan Mols, Eric Moormann, Cristina Murer, Candace Rice, Amy Russell, Saskia Stevens, Christina Williamson, Andrew Wilson, and Sandra Zanella.

A full programme will be available soon; more information can be found on Attendance will be free of cost for all interested academics and students, but registration will be required in order for us to plan numbers. More information on registration will follow around October 1st.

Building Tabernae: emerging commercial landscapes in Roman Italy

Ostia, III 7, 3-4: Domus Fulminata - Tabernae surrounding the main entrance of this house just outside the city walls of Ostia (Photo: Miko Flohr [2012])

Building Tabernae is an NWO Veni Project based at the University of Leiden (2013-2017). The project focuses on urban commercial space in Roman Italy and deals with the impact of economic growth on urban communities in the late Republic and the Imperial period (200 BCE – 300 CE). It will investigate how favourable economic circumstances under the Roman Empire fostered the emergence of new and more ambitious forms of investment in commercial space, and it aims to understand how this transformed the physical and social fabric of the cities of the Italian peninsula. 

The project will use archaeological and textual evidence and belongs to the field of ancient history as much as it belongs to that of classical archaeology. Thematically, it operates on the interface of social and economic history and explores to which degree economic developments fostered social change. It specifically attempts to connect two highly vibrant debates: the debate about Roman urbanism and that about Roman economic life.

Both debates have seen significant development over the last decades. Discourse on Roman urbanism has moved away from the traditional emphasis on (monumental) architecture and urban planning towards studying urban landscapes in a more integrated manner (seminal is Laurence 1994). Discourse on Roman economic life has developed beyond the consumer city debate that dominated the field in the 1990s (e.g. Mattingly 1997; Erdkamp 2001), now focusing more and more on the social and spatial contexts of economic processes (Mouritsen 2001; Robinson 2005; Flohr 2007).

Yet, while these debates play a central role in Roman scholarship and thematically increasingly overlap, they interact only to a limited degree. Consequently, the relation between economic developments and developments in urbanism is not well-understood. This significantly impedes our understanding of Roman history. This project will contribute to filling this gap.


The World of the Fullo

M. Flohr (2013). The World of the Fullo. Work, economy and society in Roman Italy. Oxford Studies on the Roman Economy. Oxford University Press. Oxford. Hardcover, 424 Pages / 159 illus. 9.2 x 6.1 inches. ISBN: 9780199659357. £ 90,00 (here).

While research for a second book is already under way, my first monograph, the world of the fullo. Work, economy and Society in Roman Italy, came out May 31st (2013) at OUP. It is the final publication of the research I did while I was working on my dissertation at Radboud University Nijmegen. Most of the original thesis was written between early 2008 and late 2009, but the text was substantially revised in 2011, while I was in Oxford, and finalized in March 2012, when it was sent to OUP for publication. More details, and ordering info, are available on the OUP website. In the following paragraphs, I will briefly describe what the book is trying to do, and how the narrative of the book develops from chapter to chapter.


The World of the Fullo takes a detailed look at the fullers, craftsmen who dealt with high-quality garments, of Roman Italy. Analyzing the social and economic worlds in which the fullers lived and worked, it tells the story of their economic circumstances, the way they organized their workshops, the places where they worked in the city, and their everyday lives on the shop floor and beyond.

Through focusing on the lower segments of society, I uses everyday work as the major organizing principle of the narrative: the volume discusses the decisions taken by those responsible for the organization of work, and how these decisions subsequently had an impact on the social lives of people carrying out the work. It emphasizes how socio-economic differences between cities resulted in fundamentally different working lives for many of their people, and that not only were economic activities shaped by Roman society, they in turn played a key role in shaping it. 

Using an in-depth and qualitative analysis of material remains related to economic activities, with a combined study of epigraphic and literary records, this volume aims to contribute to current and future debates on the socio-economic history of urban communities in the Roman world. Yet, that is, obviously, for reviewers and future scholars to decide.