Large sunken jars at Caseggiato dei Doli, a wine storage facility in Ostia, one of the main ports of Rome. The facility dates to the second century.

New book chronicles complexities of Roman storage

Storage in the preindustrial world of ancient Rome was a factor that could make or break small farmers and giant empires alike, assistant professor of classics Astrid Van Oyen maintains in her new book, “The Socio-Economics of Roman Storage: Agriculture, Trade and Family.”

For the book, Van Oyen studied the archaeological remains of storerooms and warehouses at the ports of Ostia and Portus, silos in Gaul, houses in Pompeii and villas across the Italian peninsula. She considers questions of Roman material culture, physical survival and resource management; and how storage shaped the Roman Empire.

Her subject, Van Oyen writes, is literally “the stuff of socioeconomics: the objects on the move, the possessions protected, the crops rotting.”

For students of the Roman world, storage is “a topic that is at once at the core of survival and prone to envy, strife and competition; as a practice that is both grounded in the matter of economics and inhabiting the social imagination; as an acute concern for farmers and rulers alike.”

Taking a novel approach in materializing socioeconomics, Van Oyen weaves together threads from different case studies and argues that material goods and resources “should take center stage in many of the key debates regarding Roman socioeconomics, such as the tension between status display and commercial profit, or the interaction between public and private concerns,” she writes.

The book explores ancient storage practices in different contexts and “seeks to shed light on the variability of the invariable and to bring to the fore the unexpected in the study of the well-known” and is “itself the product of work across several intellectual contexts and their stores of knowledge.”

Topics include the supplies providing for the metropolis of Rome; storage as a register of future-making during and after conquest; a look at how empires scale up; storage’s material transformations, such as wine fermenting and grain degrading; storage as “a sensitive indicator of changing mentalities” and the anthropological links between agricultural and political entities – i.e., the scales of farmer and state.

Van Oyen had an interest in “material agency, and the idea that objects play a bigger part in shaping history than previously thought (or credited),” she said.

She began her research for the book during a Junior Research Fellowship at Homerton College of Cambridge University, and brought the book project with her in 2016 to Cornell, where they “found an immensely supportive home” in the Department of Classics in the College of Arts and Sciences, and among colleagues at the Cornell Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies (CIAMS).

“Cornell stimulated me to look increasingly beyond Roman archaeology and allowed my ideas to mature,” she writes, crediting faculty colleagues Kim Haines-Eitzen, Lori Khatchadourian and Sturt Manning for their support and feedback on the manuscript. She also acknowledged the collections and services in Olin Library, and the graduate students in her Roman Economy seminar, among others. She concluded her work for the book at the Stanford Humanities Center.

Van Oyen is an archaeologist whose research involves Roman Italy and its western provinces; the social, cultural and economic dimensions of empire; and craft production, storage and rural economies. Her other books include “How Things Make History: The Roman Empire and Its Terra Sigillata Pottery” (2016) and, as co-editor with Martin Pitts, “Materialising Roman Histories” (2017).

“Archaeology at Cornell is highly interdisciplinary, and in a refreshingly uncomplicated way,” she said, “through CIAMS, which brings together faculty and students from classics, anthropology, Near Eastern studies, and more.”

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Gillian Smith