The Archaeology of Poverty: How poor were Roman peasants? Did they get poorer?


Thursday, February 15, 2018, 5:30pm to 7:00pm


Tsai Auditorium, CGIS South, 1737 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA

Bowes Lecture PosterKimberly D. Bowes, Assoc. Professor of Classical Studies,
University of Pennsylvania

With comment by

Leslie Dossey (Associate Professor of History, Loyola University Chicago)
Orlando Patterson, John Cowles Professor of Sociology, Harvard University.

Prof. Kimberly D. Bowes discussed how models about the collapse of the Roman Empire have often been predicated on the idea of poverty: that the end of Roman domination meant the decline of a certain quality of life, or conversely that the end of Roman oppression spelled new liberties and wealth for the peasantry. These arguments take place against the backdrop of near total ignorance about the physical lives of Roman poor people, particularly its largest constituency, the rural peasantry. Prof Bowes presented findings from the Roman Peasant Project, an archaeological, environmental and historical investigation of Roman peasants in central Italy. It suggests that Italian Roman peasants had far more resources at their disposal than previously supposed, and that far from composing a separate part of the Roman economy, they were both integral to and dependent upon its dramatic cycles of boom and bust. The empire's end thus did bring massive changes, but of a different kind than "impoverishment" or "liberty" would suggest.

Kimberly BowesFocusing on the dwellings and activities of peasants, artisans and non-slave populations in rural areas, Prof. Bowes investigated the level of poverty that up to 80% of the Roman population (mostly peasants) endured, which she argues lived outside of the market economy that has been the focus of recent major works in Roman economic history. In a, Prof. Bowes and her team’s new approach investigates a population’s freedom to move, to forge new social and reciprocal bonds, and landscape management, in rural Etruria (Tuscany) from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE and analyzes pollen and geomagnetic prospection data.  Her team also conducted pollen analyses and broad surveys of the terrain through magnetic prospection. Ssites were used for very different purposes through the Republican and Imperial periods. Contrary to established assumptions, Roman peasants did not live in a single dwelling or space. Her team instead found distributed habitation, with spaces used for different purposes in different periods of time, resembling a “farm exploded in space.” The length of stay in each area was directly correlated with the time and seasonality of cereal cultivation, and indirectly correlated with the use of the land as pasture. The landscape changed according to how the site was being used by humans. Even within a small area, peasants diversified land use in different ecological pockets—including first evidence of crop rotation—shaping their landscape rather than being shaped by it. Populations moved from site to site according to the seasonal activity they pursued.

This has demographic implications, reducing the estimate of the number of people that lived in the Roman countryside and thus reducing Malthusian pressures on resources and the economy. Prof. Bowes’ findings also indicate that there was no unified Roman peasant experience. The evidence from her Tuscan excavations show very different modes of living than those found in Roman Gaul or Africa and mobility played a significant role. Her evidence shows that peasants moved large distances, recycling and moving building materials as they traveled. The ceramic findings show extraordinary homogeneity between peasant and elite sites. These patterns came to a halt in Late Antiquity, where mobility was reduced, but overall land usage, convertible agriculture, and access to consumer goods and markets remained the same.

Presented as part of the SoHP Lecture Series “What’s New in the Fall of the Roman Empire” Co-sponsored by SoHP, Department of the Classics, and the Standing Committee on Archaeology.