Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Blogging the Archaeology of Portus - Ostia/Ostend/Oslo/Hastingas - and the corpora naviculariorum

Not far from Rome stands the Monte Testaccio, a hill of potshards 35m high extending over a kilometre and composed of the remains of 53 million amphorae.  It is an enduring ceramic testament to Rome's trade throughout the empire and beyond.

Most of the potshards are from amphorae that carried wine, oil and fish sauce to the tables of Roman households.  DNA tracing also shows amphorae carried beans, nuts, ginger and juniper - sounds like a tasty hummous! Amphorae were designed and standardised to optimise transport by sea, hence the pointy bottom for stacking securely in a ship's hold.  The ships that carried these amphorae were also specially designed to optimise the storage of their valuable cargo and deliver cargo safely through storms to the Roman harbours at Ostia and Portus.  If the Romans were good at anything, it was repeatable systems for profitable commerce and taxation. 

Ostia is from the word mouth - os - and like a mouth could admit nourishment or poison, trade or foreign attack.  Portus, like os, has a duality - being either an opportunity or a vulnerability - e.g., fortune (one of many cognates) may be good or bad.  Ostia was the first Roman colony, established in the early Roman republic to control emigration and trade, to tax shipping and commerce.  Siting the port colony at the mouth of the fluvial port 20 miles from Rome removed the threat of foreigners from the city of Rome, while canals and roads carried goods to and from the city.  Self-administration as a republican colony encouraged emigration of skilled artisans, craftsmen and bankers, who made rules favouring their own prosperity and collectively ensured defense.  The via Hastiensis leads to Rome from the port of Hostis in the Tabula Peutingeriana.

The port model was repeated througout the empire as an efficient way to collect tribute and taxation.  Rome asked client kings to grant fluvial or island ports (e.g., Stockholm (literally 'collective defence'), Oslo, Ostend, Hastingas, Londinium, etc.) removed from the native tribal capital but near enough for efficient trade.  Each port was governed as a republican civitas of its burgesses, which might include skilled emigrants, under a common set of Roman legal principles.  Foreign businessmen, merchants and seamen could enjoy protection from the threat of inland tribes for the purpose of trade under a common set of laws from Constantinople to Dublin - having liberty of the port.  Jewish bankers could trade coin and write bills of exchange.  They could not pass out from the port inland without the leave of the inland lord - a pass port.

The harbours and warehouses at Ostia and Portus would be similarly designed for optimising the throughput of cargos from port to warehouse to market to city.  Given the reliance of Rome on imports of food and revenues from trade in all its forms, these ports, warehouses and markets were critical civil infrastructure.

I'm currently doing the MOOC on the Archaeology of Portus with the teams in charge of excavations at the ancient Roman port.  I'm hoping to understand the methods of archaeology and the interpretation of findings to better hone my ambitions for exploration of the Roman port in the Brede Valley.  I'm already recognising that much of what existed around ancient Rome also existed in Britain under the Romans and is still reflected in some civic institutions we cherish today.

I hope to blog some of what I learn and some of what I suspect as theory to create a record for further research when I have more leisure.  Consider this the first installment.

Today I started tracing the legal entities privileged with building, operating and taxing the ports.  The development of complex commercial legal principles for the promotion of Roman trade would influence the history of global capitalism in ways that continue to be controversial.

One of the important innovations was the corporation.  Roman law in the first century evolved to recognise some collegia (colleges or guilds) and societates publicanorum (public associations) as corpora (corporations).  The legal distinction was that corporations could contract with the state of Rome for supply of food, could survive the death or resignation of partners, and the shares could be traded and inherited as investments.  Our modern concepts of joint stock corporations and equity share ownership come directly from this legal innovation.

Because the corporation was such a powerful legal construct, the scope of the privilege was severely limited by the Roman senate.   Only collegia comprising the skippers of ships (not necessarily their owners), the bakers, those running mines, and perhaps undertakers were extended the privilege of corporate status.  These were all bodies that would need to contract long term with the state to justify high investment and the maintenance of high standards of quality control and/or hygiene.

The innovation of corportions for trade along sea routes was particularly important.  Ships are extremely expensive items with a high capital cost, and the threat of storms and pirates meant that they were at constant risk of loss.  Mutualising investment to raise capital and mutualising risk to share losses would greatly encourage trade by sea.  Systems to finance the capital costs of ships, ensure equitable allocation of trade routes and cargoes, mandate collective defense and mutual assistance were the key to widespread Roman trade.  Societates naviculariorum arose naturally in many small trading villages, and some evolved into collegia naviculariorum along trade routes.  Then after the 1st century some were recognised as corpora naviculariorum under contract to the state of Rome at the principal food trading ports under Roman dominion - including Ostia, Arles and Alexandria.

I am beginning to think that rights and privileges of collegia naviculariorum as practiced at the time of Julius Caesar's dominion in Gaul were the basis for the special privileges in favour of heritability of shares and against foreign military service and taxation of inheritance which distinguished the coastal Gauls around Normandy and the ports of London, Hastingas and York in Britain.  They may even have been the pattern for ports outside the Roman Empire as in Stockholm - a name which literally translates to 'mutual defence' and originally an island remote from the tribal capital.

The recognition of York, London and Hastingas as corporate ports under republican administration of their Roman veteran colonists and shipmen - and later the Roman Catholic Church - may have evolved from the earlier privileges accorded to merchant shipmen.  Hastingas may be special because it was administered from Gaul and then Normandy.  It may have been the colony of Roman veterans that Bede describes in the 5th century as the tribe of Latins.  A similar system of mutual defence and obligation in exchange for freedom from taxation would become the basis of the Cinque Ports Federation that Godwin and Harold forced on King Edward after they successfully rebelled against the king with the aid of shipmen and landed freemen in 1052.  William the Conqueror's 1066 charter for London assuring the burgesses - both French and English - that they would remain law-worthy (enjoying republican self-rule) and that their sons would inherit echoes the corporate privileges of ancient Roman port colonies.  For a time only men who owned ships in London were privileged to vote in its councils.  The same was true in other European ports, demonstrating the persistence of the collegia naviculariorum privilege in medieval corporate ports.

There is a tantalising line that is becoming traceable from 55 BC to 1066, and that line is a little clearer to me this week.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent information! Great research. Keep up the enlightening work!!