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Atlantic Commerce and Social Mobility in Southwestern Iberia

Carlos F. Norena

University of California, Berkeley

This paper examines the recursive relationship between geography, commerce, wealth, and upward social mobility in southwestern Iberia, in the Roman imperial provinces of Baetica and Lusitania.

The paper begins at the epicenter of this corner of the Atlantic world, the city of Gades, which dominated the whole area around the Strait of Gibraltar (the “Circle of the Strait”). A well known passage in Strabo (3.5.3) makes explicit the connection between maritime commerce, the concentration of wealth in Gades, and the spread of equestrian status there and the promotion of its local elites into the imperial administration (Shaw 2006: 23-31). The argument draws on the latest evidence for ceramic workshops in southern Iberia, which produced the amphorae that carried Baetican olive oil up the Atlantic corridor to Britain and the Rhine delta (Carerras and Morais 2012: 431-33); for the major fish-salting facilities on the coast (Lagóstena et al. 2007; Currás 2017); and for what seems to be a burgeoning whaling industry around the southern Iberian peninsula in the Roman period (Bernal Casasola 2010). Together, this evidence highlights the distinctively Atlantic maritime resources and connectivities upon which the social power of Gades and its elites was based.

The paper then turns to the “ripple effects” of this nexus of commercial enrichment and political advancement further up the Lusitanian coast, in and around the estuary of the Tagus river. An overview of the historical geography of this microregion establishes the ecological parameters within which this process unfolded. Discussion focuses on a dossier of inscriptions recording the achievements of a successful equestrian family, the Cornelii Bocchi. We have four inscriptions (CIL 2.35, 2.2479, 2.5184, FE 60 [1999], no. 275)—two statue bases and two monumental plaques—referring to three generations of Cornelii Bocchi in the first century CE. All four texts record municipal honors for members of this family, and as such are interchangeable with countless other such dedications from the first two centuries CE (Morais 2010). The career patterns that can be reconstructed reveal, over the course of two generations, supralocal promotion into the Roman military administration and provincial imperial cult.

The specifically Atlantic dimension of this family’s ascent to provincial prominence is suggested by the find spots of these four inscriptions: Scallabis, Olisipo, and Salacia—all located in the port and harbor areas of the Tagus estuary—and Tróia, the site of the single largest fish-salting factory in the Roman empire. Given this spatial distribution, so the paper argues, the wealth of these Cornelii Bocchi surely came from commerce in general, and very likely from the exploitation of Atlantic maritime resources in particular. There are further hints of this family’s prominence in this sector of the Roman Atlantic. According to Pliny the Elder (NH 37.9.24), for example, yet another Cornelius Bocchus discovered (and presumably made a fortune through the extraction of) heavy rock-crystal from the Ammiensian mountains in Lusitania. And prosopography suggests that these Cornelii Bocchi were descendants of a freedman or family member of Bocchus I, king of Mauretania, enfranchised by L. Cornelius Sulla in the late second century BCE. The flowering of this family in the first century CE, in other words, stems from deep roots in this transcontintenal stretch of Rome’s Atlantic façade.

The paper concludes with a broader argument about the historical dynamics of this sector of the Roman Atlantic. It attempts to show, above all, that the incorporation of this Atlantic region into a Mediterranean empire catalyzed a process of imperial integration here that can be loosely paralleled elsewhere in the Roman world, but that was also structured, deeply, by the particular geographical features and resource set of this oceanic zone.

Session/Panel Title

New Perspectives on the Atlantic Facade of the Roman World

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