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Paradigm Shifts in Archaic Rome’s ‘Social Life of Things’

Cristiano Viglietti

One of the most enduring commonplaces about archaic Rome claims that until the third century BCE, the social and economic life of the city was characterized by a sort of unchanging “primitive” material simplicity (e.g. Mommsen 1866; Bang 2012). However, recent archaeological discoveries  have shown that throughout the archaic age remarkable shifts in the material life of the Romans occurred (Smith 1996). In this paper, I show that these shifts can be connected to – and, in a sense, conveyed – complex changes also in the Romans’ “cultural models” vis-à-vis the perception and classification of material things (Menichetti 1994; Smith 2006).

As of the second half of the eighth century, burials in Latium and central Italy demonstrate an impressive increase in the quantity of grave goods displayed. Also the “quality” of goods changes, in the sense that, contrary to the past, they are relatively often imported not only from bordering areas, but also from Greece and most of the eastern Mediterranean. Local products tend to imitate imported items, too (Smith 1998). This form of conspicuous consumption is to be understood as a new and characteristic trait of the burgeoning competitive aristocracies of the early urban phase in central Italy (Fulminante 2014). Thanks to recent innovations in production and circulation, for the first time local aristocrats were able to assert their social superiority in terms of their possession, utilization, and destruction of prestige (and sometimes exotic) goods, obtained either through pre-monetary exchanges or gift circulation among peers (Cornell 1995).

At the end of the seventh century BCE, a shift can be recognized again in burials, where grave goods diminish and then, as of c. 580 BCE, practically disappear in the area ruled by Rome (Bartoloni et al. 2009). The same is not detectable in other areas of central Italy (with the partial exception of Veii), so this must be understood as a choice of the Romans. The archaeological evidence can be understood in the context of a sumptuary norm – put into writing only later, with the Twelve Tables – aimed at restraining private aristocratic funerals, and the relevant extravagant expenses and material consumption (Colonna 1977). This relates, on the public level, to the origins of public buildings in stone (the regia, temples) often decorated by terracotta slabs or statues, and other works like walls, pavements, sewers, and drain systems (Cifani 2008). On the private level, then, stone houses appear both in the city (in some cases of impressive size), while small and medium-size farms show up in the countryside. This shift in the uses of wealth is to be interpreted as embedded in the constitutional reforms that entailed an identification between status and the publicly recognized steady possession and preservation of private, visible and durable properties in the city and in the ager (Capogrossi Colognesi 2012).

The fifth and early fourth centuries are poorer in terms of archaeological evidence in Rome, but alongside certain continuities – such as the persistent absence of grave goods – some interesting changes in the perception and usage of material objects are recognizable. Just as the countryside is more systematically populated, and effectively exploited, the earliest villas also appear around 500 BCE (Carandini et al. 2006). This evidence accounts for the growing role of self-production and self-consumption, which goes hand-in-hand with a decrease of imports of prestige goods. In the fifth century BCE, few new public and private buildings appear, architectural terracotta and statues – which formerly exalted the role of the king and some aristocrats by matching them with mythical figures – die out (Torelli 1997), while the art of restoring and re-adapting older buildings blossoms. This testifies to a society founded on the balance among aristocratic families now supposed to cooperate within a more isonomic state where rank more clearly corresponds to farming possessions, and the capacity to maintain them over time through changing political and social circumstances (Viglietti 2014).

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The Anthropology of Roman Culture: Models, History, Society

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