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Background and issues at stake


The overall issue of ancient storehouses, from an angle closely linking historical questions to archaeological researches, has not been dealt with very much.

The only synthesis existing of this kind concerns the Roman period and it goes back to 1971. There is no current equivalent for the Greek world. It is the work of G. Rickman, Roman Granaries and Store Buildings. In this very dense book, Geoffrey Rickman had the merit of taking into account both archaeological aspects of built structures and all the historical questions brought up by civil and military storehouses of the Roman world: functions, ownership, personnel employed. In many ways, this book still serves as a starting-point for Romanists’ reflection. But concrete cases considered by the historian weren’t, at that time, the subject of any new investigation. Rickman just took the plans and information found in an often very old bibliography usually dating back to the first half of the twentieth century, even to the late nineteenth century. In fact, he could not review the set of data by himself. That is why his work, which has not been replaced since then, is now very poor even for the Roman world, both because of new discoveries made since that time and because of revisions that can be made now on the cases published in 1971.

La fresque de l'Isis Geminiana, IIe siècle - début IIIe siècle ap. J.-C.
The fresco of the Isis Geminiana, second century - early third century AD (Vatican Museum, sources Pomey 1997)

The lack of large warehouses for the Greek world was previously noted, and interpreted as a characteristic of just-in-time trade and corroborated in the textual sources by the terms of distribution freeze or shortages.

In fact, a careful analysis of epigraphic evidence brings us to form conclusions about the reality of storage practices, starting with those concerning grain which, in the Hellenistic period, could be bought wholesale in the context of public funding and redistributed, in various forms and by various proceedings, to citizens or a part of the population. Between wholesale and retail sale in markets or in shops, we must assume the presence of unloading and redistribution areas equipped with storage space or real warehouses. Several archaeological programmes have resulted in the identification of these structures, previously misidentified.

Indeed, despite noone having attempted, for the ancient times in general, a similar synthesis to G. Rickman, several teams are currently at work on themes related to the issue of ancient warehouses. For the Roman period we can mention, among others, in Gaul the French excavations of warehouses in Vienne, those of the horrea of Amiens or those of the horrea of Barzan, near Bordeaux; in Tingitana, the Italian-Moroccan excavations at Thamusida; in Cisalpine, the Slovenian excavations at Nauportus and the French-Italian excavations at Aquileia; in Lycia, the Austrian excavations resuming researches on the complex of Myra. In the Greek world, in Delos, some study programmes of the ancient coast (French School of Athens -EfA) took an interest in the seafront and have tackled the question of equipment in storehouses intended for redistribution trade; concurrently, the study of storage structures in the urban areas of Delos is the subject of an EfA’s study programme since 2006. In Asia Minor, the excavations at Sagalassos conducted by a team of the University of Leuven have resumed the study of the devices that could be meant for storage in the agora. In other cities, other buildings should be identified, through bibliographic research and field investigations. Some of these buildings, near the agora, seem to respond to a Pergamene urban model that was developed in the second century BC, but a careful examination of vestiges can narrow down the chronology and date back others to the late fourth or early third century, as is the case at Sagalassos. It seems in any case more and more evident that a better estimation of cities’ storage capacity would be a decisive factor in understanding their political and economic choices.

As for historians, the whole team who, in recent years, participated in the programme on "the supply of Mediterranean cities from Antiquity to modern times" (as part of the European programme RAMSES2) has on several occasions already raised the issues concerning network, functions and warehouse management of the Greco-Roman world without claiming to solve them, as part of a cross programme covering all Mediterranean societies of the Ancient Regime. At the University of Lille 3, a team of the HALMA laboratory, around J. Arce and B. Goffaux, intends to conduct an archaeological and historical investigation on ancient warehouses of the Iberian Peninsula. A similar project is under study at the University of Viterbo (La Tuscia), in Italy, under the conjoined supervision of F. De Romanis and C. Pavolini. There are enough converging questions to hope to achieve, within a reasonable time, substantial progress in our knowledge of these ancient storage systems intended for consumer centres and to attempt a collective summary of the results obtained.

Construction phases identified in the Grandi Horrea (Site plan: plotting I. Gismondi; DAO E. Bukowiecki - N. Monteix, IRAA - EFR)
Construction phases identified in the Grandi Horrea (Site plan: plotting I. Gismondi; DAO E. Bukowiecki - N. Monteix, IRAA - EFR)

Issues at stake

The scientific stakes of the project are important. The question of storage structures is at the heart of specialists’ discussions on the nature of the ancient economy. If we can no longer support the modernist positions, which were once those of Rostovtzeff for example, many reservations are held towards concepts close to the primitivist theory expressed more than 30 years ago by M. Finley. We find this question about warehouses: should we think that the medium-term and long-term storage, as it was for urban populations, could be created only by cities or later by the imperial administration? P. Erdkamp, in a recent book, opts for an affirmative answer. He believes that the storage of a certain size could only come from public powers (city magistrates, imperial officials) because it exceeded the forces of private enterprise and did not fit well with its mistrust concerning the economic risk taking. This "model" is based on an overall primitivist apprehension of ancient societies in which the importance of merchants and economically risky behaviour is minimized. Others, like A. Giardina, however, have shown that the Roman merchants were not so tightly foreign to risk taking as it has often been said.

This project intends to submit to a very careful scrutiny, crossing all possible sources, the idea that storage policy could be a mere question of public powers. Does such sharp line of demarcation between public and private answer a modern concept of these issues? It is not as easy to separate private interests from political offices in the world of cities. We must call into question the idea of a clear division between public storage (which would be the only one concerning populations of a certain size as urban people) and private storage (which would limit itself to individual needs).