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Building the Atlantic Super-Seaway in the Roman Period

Greg Woolf

Institute of Classical Studies, London

This paper argues that the Roman period saw a transformation of the maritime infrastructure of Atlantic Europe, with consequences that extended well beyond the end of the political unification of the region.

The prehistoric societies of Europe’s oceanic coastlines—from modern day Portugal to the Netherlands, and including the British Isles—formed relationships with each other since the fourth millennium BCE. These relations were expressed in connected phenomena such as megalith building, rock art, and the exchanges of metalwork and ores that characterise the Atlantic Bronze Age. Information flowed easily along the seaways, and precious objects moved huge distances. Various forms of mobility were articulated by kinship, diplomacy and trade. Cunliffe’s Facing the Ocean (2001) provides a vivid recent account of this. Most maritime travel was, however, by small sewn-plank vessels propelled by oars (van der Noort 2011, Dunkley 2014).

The arrival of Roman expeditions at various points on the Atlantic seaboard changed all of this. Information about the Atlantic, reliable and unreliable, had been collected by authors of Greek and Latin texts from the third century BCE (Roller 2006). But it was the military expeditions of Caesar, Germanicus, Caius, and Claudius that culminated in a network of new routes in the North Sea and the Bay of Biscay as well as across the English Channel. Army supply explains the rationale for some of these routes but not all of them, and changes in maritime technology also opened up new opportunities for entrepreneurs, builders, and consumers.

Roman vessels were not the first sailing ships in these waters, but some were significantly larger in size than indigenous craft. Nevertheless there are analogies to be drawn with the consequences of the Mediterranean navigation revolutions discussed for a much earlier period by Broodbank in his Making of the Middle Sea (2013). The larger ocean going vessels of the Roman period permitted the transportation of objects in bulk for the first time—sometimes across the open sea—notably transporter amphorae and building stone. These vessels required larger and more elaborate harbour facilities than those used by the smaller craft employed for the exchanges of luxury goods in the late pre-Roman Iron Age.

This paper will look at the evidence for changes in scale in the early Roman period, on the basis of maritime technology and also the emerging network of ports built to accommodate larger vessels, mainly in estuaries like those of the Garonne, the Thames, the Humber, and the Rhine (cf. Morillo et al. 2016). A  recent conference at Nantes (Les ports romains dans l’arc atlantique et les eaux intérieures) revealed the extent of information becoming available for riverine/maritime installations that connected land and sea routes into integrated systems of the kind described for other regions by Adams 2007, Campbell 2012, and Laurence 1999.

This focus on infrastructure will allow improved understanding of the growing volume of evidence for Roman trade in bulk in the Atlantic, including papers such as Carreras and Morais 2012 on amphora-borne commodities; the calculations of Shäfer and Warnking on the relative costs of different routes to the garrisons on the Rhine (Shäfer 2016); and the arguments of Rubio-Campillo et al. 2018 for the importance of Atlantic trade routes based on amphora stamps.

Session/Panel Title

New Perspectives on the Atlantic Facade of the Roman World

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