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Roman Futures between Farmer and Empire

Astrid Van Oyen

Cornell University

When asking how the inhabitants of the Roman world imagined the future, pride of place should be given to farming: not only was the vast majority of the Roman population engaged in farming, but with its principle of delayed return, farming was a quintessentially future-oriented practice. Yet the Roman world was also a world empire, controlling resources across the Mediterranean and beyond. Between farmer and empire, however, assumptions about Roman futurity become schizophrenic: from ad hoc risk buffering thinking about the next year at most, to evolutionary trajectories of state formation and the timelessness of Roma aeterna. This paper examines the future possibilities enacted by Roman storage practices in order to cut across the scales of farmer and empire. Its methodology foregrounds storage’s material transformations (e.g. wine fermenting; grain degrading) as actively shuffling social and economic possibilities.

The central case study examines practices of grain and wine storage before and after Roman conquest in the northwest Mediterranean (northeast Iberia and southwest Gaul). Late Iron Age societies in this area relied on grain storage in hermetically sealed subterranean silos to guard against unexpected shortages, and to fuel punctuated exchange with Mediterranean traders. Following Roman conquest, archaeology shows changes in settlement pattern, with the development of large estates increasingly focused on wine production for export and with new colonial foundations centralizing grain storage. Much ink has been spilled on who the agents of empire were – indigenous elites or Italian colonists – but consensus holds that an ‘Iron Age’ time of farming was replaced by an ‘imperial’ mode of resource exploitation and management. The past was gone, the future Roman – and imperial, or so it seems. But exactly how was this future articulated? Posing this question at once redistributes agency beyond a native/Roman or farmer/empire divide, and reveals a complex mosaic of continuity-in-change and change-in-continuity.

Instead of seeing the time of the farmer as cyclical or eternal stasis and the time of empire as a forward-looking modernity avant la lettre, empirical analysis of storage features finds resonances between the open-ended future enacted by Iron Age grain storage in silos and Roman-period wine storage in dolia: both techniques mobilized continuous material change (fermentation) or stasis (preservation) in order to increase responsiveness to sudden opportunities. In contrast, the Italian practice of above-ground grain storage, implemented in the new urban colonial network, preferred accountability and a continuous flow over maximization: grain stored through aeration was constantly accessible but did not preserve well. It thus resonated with empire-wide but locally sub-optimal strategies of taxation. Close attention to on-the-ground material practices, it is argued, is needed to diffract Roman future-making and illuminate more nuanced anticipations occupying the interstices between colonizer and colonized, and between farmer and empire.

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Roman Anticipations: Material Cognitive and Affective Histories of the Roman Future

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