Tuesday, September 30, 2014


Ben Russell, The Economics of the Roman Stone Trade. Oxford studies on the Roman economy. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xxi, 449. ISBN 9780199656394. $150.00.

Reviewed by Claire Holleran, The University of Exeter (c.holleran@exeter.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site


Russell's thought-provoking new study of the economics of the Roman stone trade in the first three centuries AD reassesses the evidence for the structure and organisation of this trade, tracing the production process from the quarry to the final consumer. Russell argues in particular against the influential model set out by Ward-Perkins, which maintains that the increased demand for decorative stone resulted in an industry organised along 'quasi-industrial' lines, with objects being carved in quarries in standardised forms and dimensions to stock. While Russell does not deny that some limited production-to-stock took place, he places much greater emphasis on the role of production-to-order in the Roman stone trade. The approach taken is archaeological, with Russell offering a reassessment of old data and careful examination of new data. This allows him to skilfully marshal an impressive range of evidence to make his case, resulting in a useful and important book, with a clear and consistent, yet nuanced, argument throughout.

Another central concern is the relationship between the imperial and non-imperial stone trade, and the focus is not solely on the trade in marble for large building projects, which Russell rightly views as atypical. He considers the use of stone for domestic construction, road building, and so on, as well as providing detailed discussions of the trade in stone sarcophagi and statuary. In this way, Russell highlights the diversity of practice in the Roman stone trade, although inevitably much of the discussion remains focused on the more long-distance movement in exotic and unusual stones, since the evidence is skewed towards this type of trade; there is simply less to say about the local movement that was the backbone of the stone trade.

Stone is, of course, durable, and working traces and geological properties can reveal something about both its manufacture and place of origin. An analysis of stone can, therefore, offer broader insights into the Roman economy, and Russell brings out the wider resonance of his study well, engaging with current debates about the nature and performance of the Roman economy. This contribution to broader debates is one of the real strengths of Russell's book, although, as he recognises, stone is in many ways a special case. While an analysis of stone movement can provide some insight into levels of connectivity in the Roman world, it is notable that in his study of shipwrecks, the vast majority were probably carrying only stone, and while we cannot account for any perishables that may have been on the ships, other non-perishable items are rarely present, suggesting that the movement of stone need not necessarily reflect any wider patterns of trade.

The book comprises eight substantial chapters, with an introduction and a section of further remarks. The short introduction places the study into context and sets out the intention to challenge the prevailing model of Ward-Perkins, and to assess Peacock's claim that the imperial stone trade lay 'outside of the normal orbit of trade in marble and decorative stones'. Chapter two examines the demand for stone in the Roman world, its chronological and regional development, and patterns of investment. Russell demonstrates that the demand for stone was both general and specific, with a widespread growth in the cumulative demand for stone of all types, in addition to a targeted and disproportionately high demand for decorative stones. While imperial building projects drove a proportion of the trade, and set many of the fashions in the use of decorative stones, the collective demand from non-imperial activity was much higher.

Chapter three considers the process of quarrying. Using the quarry database of the Oxford Roman Economy Project, which includes almost 800 sites, Russell demonstrates that there was a close correspondence between the distribution of quarries and cities.1 Most quarries were located as close as possible to the city that was their primary market, generally within 20-30 km, or a day's walk. Exemptions could, however, be made for material that was valuable enough to make its extraction profitable even if it were located in a remote or inaccessible place. The outlying quarries that were not found near cities, therefore, typically produced high-quality or unique materials. In practice, there was usually imperial involvement in these quarries, the most noticeable of which are those located in the Egyptian Eastern Desert, as the state had the resources to make the exploitation of these sites possible. The final trend that Russell notes in the distribution of quarries is the tendency for these to be located on the coast or close to a navigable river, a trend which is in part linked to the location of the cities that these quarries are intended to serve, but is primarily related to the need for accessibility. Russell also considers quarry ownership and administration here, highlighting the diversity of practice and drawing appropriate parallels with the structure and organisation of mining in the Roman world. Although much of our information about quarrying comes from the involvement of imperial officials at certain sites, he argues that these are actually anomalous, with the vast majority of quarries remaining in private or municipal ownership. Even within imperial quarries, there was no single model of exploitation, with choices made based on the requirements of a particular site; just as with mines, state involvement could be indirect or direct, using private contractors or state employees. At some sites, imperial and private quarrying took place side by side, making it difficult to draw a clear distinction between imperial and non-imperial exploitation.

Russell then turns his attention to stone transport, considering road, river, and sea transport. He explores a dataset of 82 shipwrecks, broadly datable to between the second and the fourth century AD, which reveal activity at every level. The vast majority of ships were carrying stone from a single source, and those with cargoes of stone from multiple sources appear to have been loaded at a single location, suggesting that most of these ships were involved in 'direct' or 'commissioned' trade. Chapter Five examines distribution patterns, focusing on which stones were used in which locations and why. Russell demonstrates the importance of taking into account the specific use of stone when considering distribution patterns, since it was considerably more difficult to move, say, a column than a veneer. Through a series of regional case studies exploring the use of stone in non-imperial architectural contexts, he demonstrates the dominance of local, and sometimes regional, distribution patterns, as well as the coastal focus of inter-regional distribution, best explained by the relative ease of importing stone to these locations. Indeed, the pattern of stone use at a particular site largely depended on its location, since inland sites rarely imported stone unless they were close to a navigable river. These sites still engaged with wider fashions, however, by finding local alternatives, using smaller amounts of imported stone for revetment or flooring, and reserving large architectural imported stones for prominent, high-status buildings. The chapter goes on to consider the varying distribution patterns of object types, especially sarcophagi and statuary, which outside the imperial context tended to move the greatest distances. Unlike Ward-Perkins, who maintains that the dominance of a particular stone in a location was due to supply lines and targeting by that particular producer, Russell places the emphasis on consumer choice and local fashions. He then explores imperial distribution patterns, which are described as 'self-consciously atypical' (pg. 184). He argues that the aim of imperial involvement was simply to guarantee sufficient supplies of prestigious building material for imperial building projects, and was never entirely divorced from the non-imperial stone trade. He does, however, concede that imperial involvement may have skewed the market (as it did other markets in the Roman world), since the emperor could draw on enormous reserves of manpower, and requisition animals and vehicles where needed.

As different types of object were valued, used, and purchased in different ways, Russell considers building materials, sarcophagi, and statuary in a series of separate chapters. The chapter on building materials re-examines Ward-Perkins' model of quarry-based production-to-stock, arguing that the data do not support this interpretation; the considerable quantities of partially-worked architectural elements that remain in quarries come in a range of sizes that point to diversity rather than standardisation. The emphasis is placed instead on production-to-order, with Russell making the case for a more responsive system in which most architectural elements were produced to meet specific customer demand. Any patterns in dimensions and forms – for example, the popularity of larger column shafts in multiples of 5 or 10 Roman feet – are said to reflect contemporary architectural practice and standardisation of demand, rather than standardisation of supply. Furthermore, the architectural elements abandoned in quarries were not unwanted stock items, but were rejected due to damage or flaws; any accumulations of stock at quarries or in centres of demand such as Rome are classed as largely unintentional.

In considering the sarcophagus trade, Russell again focuses on the issue of production-to-stock, arguing that despite the relatively constant demand for these items in the second and third centuries AD, production-to-order was still the dominant model, with most sarcophagi ordered during the lifetime of the intended occupant. That is not to deny that there was some production-to-stock, both intentional and unintentional, but this was not the norm. The roughed-out sarcophagi in quarries were not standard sizes, and do not, therefore, necessarily indicate production in anticipation of demand. The shipwreck data cited by Russell also suggests that sarcophagi were not standardised. Typically, the hollowing out and roughing out of sarcophagi was done at the quarry (reducing the weight by as much as half), with further finishing close to where it was originally intended to be used. The exceptions to this are Attic and Asiatic sarcophagi, which were specialist items aimed at the very highest end of the market; Attic sarcophagi in particular appear to have been largely exported from Athens in their final form. Even when it comes to the Attic, Asiatic, and Metropolitan producers of sarcophagi, Russell puts forward a production model based largely on clusters of independent workshops, rather than any quasi-industrial enterprises; division of labour was limited, since small workshops had to remain flexible, although it was possible to have multiple carvers working at once to increase the speed of production. With statue production also, production-to-stock is viewed as limited, with statues found at quarry sites showing even more variation than architectural elements or sarcophagi.

The book ends with some 'final remarks', reiterating the main arguments. The interaction between the imperial and non-imperial stone trade is emphasised, as is the fact that most quarries were small-scale enterprises, rooted in the local market and under private or municipal control. Markets were predominantly local, but even outside of the imperial sphere, there was movement of stone, particularly to areas close to the coast or navigable rivers. Furthermore, while the archaeological evidence indicates that certain objects in the Roman world were standardised and produced to stock (e.g. ceramics, glassware, bricks etc.), the same cannot be said for stone items; these may have been produced in large quantities, but individual workshops remained the norm and much was made to order. Fundamentally, in this important and timely reappraisal of the Roman stone trade, Russell argues that quarrying and production were much more responsive than the Ward-Perkins model allows, heavily determined by very specific patterns of consumer demand.


1.   Russell's doctoral thesis, on which this book is based, was undertaken as part of this project at Oxford. He also compiled the very useful quarry database, which is publically available on the project website.

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