Monday, February 3, 2014

Fueling the Roman Empire

The Roman Empire, like any other super power, needed a reliable source of energy to fuel day-to-day activities and industry that were vital to the success of the Romans. Without fuel wood the Romans would not have been able to cook, heat their bath houses, fire ceramics and bricks, or make the lime that literally held the Roman infrastructure together. Hayden and my last article examines how this essential resource was managed so that fuel wood could supply the needs of the massive population.

Fuel wood powered the industries that made metal, ceramics, glass, and lime. Metal was used for weapons, tools, pipes, and even locks and keys. Ceramics included amphorae (the vessels used to transport wine and olive oil), roof tiles, and bricks, and was essential for trade and iconic Roman infrastructure like the aqueducts, the Roman forum, and the Colosseum. Glass was used for windows but was produced only in small quantities and served mostly as a status symbol. Lime, like I said above, was the cement that held everything together, like the mortar between bricks today. Based on each product’s uses and fuel wood required, the author presents this hierarchy for fuel wood consumption by industry during the Roman empire: (1) Metal, (2) ceramics, (3) lime and, (4) glass.

With such an important, complex industry, we might assume today that government intervention was required but extant documents show that government only intervened in the case of fuel wood for bathhouses but otherwise didn’t pay attention to fuel wood management. This means that the resource was managed only by small-scale in production to handle this important resource.

The following small scale adjustments were made: (1) locating industry near where the required resources was available and abundant, (2) cycling production seasonally to allow for regrowth of the resource and, (3) clustering of similar industries to allow for more effective distribution of a resource which includes the relocation of an industry if the resource required becomes to scarce.

The question of fuel-use has obvious implications for resource depletion and environmental issues but without more information about the regenerative ability of woodlands and the ecosystem-wide affects of fuel-wood use, we’re basically left with a blank. What we can say about Roman fuel-wood use is that a decline in fuel wood availability (if it existed) had nothing to do with the fall of the Roman Empire. Romans used fuel wood resources for over 600 years without a collapse in the resource. We cannot say if the resource would have lasted longer but regardless, the collapse of the empire was the ultimate mitigation of the resource by significantly reducing, if not eliminating in some areas, the need for fuel wood. 

Luxury in Ancient Rome: Scope, Timing and Enforcement of Sumptuary Laws

The last article that Eric and I reviewed was “Luxury in Ancient Rome: Scope, Timing and Enforcement of Sumptuary Laws.” One of the main things that this article focused on was how there were laws that limited the consumption on many different luxury goods. These laws were aimed at moralizing roman society, protecting family patrimonies, or restricting the political influence of the equestrian class. 

Some other examples of sumptuary laws could also be related to how there would be limits on gifts during certain festivals, regulating women's jewelry, and clothing that is worn and the use of chariots in the capital. These laws were explained by either religious activities, political campaigns, and demeanor of women. Other laws that were there to limit luxury are the restrictions of guests which are restricting the amount of people who can visit per day, restricting the acceptance of invitations from an individuals of low social standings. These restrictions were in place to stop newcomers from expanding their social political networks. 

Also there were restrictions on expenses for banquets, festivals, and certain types of food. For banquets the reason for why this rule was in place was to stop people from blowing all of their money that they have inherited. Then for foods this rule was only in place so that the wealth could limit the consumption of certain types of foods. This is explained through the government setting a price ceiling which caused a shortage of that certain type of food such as smoked meats. This made it so that it was unprofitable for traders to import such exotic goods. We saw many examples of luxuries in Rome such as the Colosseum which is a one of a kind good that boasts luxury. Another place that our group visited was Vatican, which was covered in gold and marble showing the wealth of the Vatican state.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Exploring Roman Churches from an Economic Perspective

Since day one of the trip I was anxiously awaiting our arrival to our final destination: Rome. I was excited to experience the bustle of a true European city, and to see landmarks I'd previously only seen in magazines and movies: like the Colosseum, and the Trevi Fountain, and the Vatican. My experience was in no way a disappointment. We were blessed with sun on our second day in Rome and were able to check off many bucket list items in one swoop on a walk together through the historical district.


The article Matt and I were assigned for Rome analyzed the Medieval Catholic Church from an economic perspective, looking at the powerful beast that was the Catholic Church from the year 1000 - 1500 as a monopoly instead of just a religious institution. It described the ways the church saught rent from its constituents, the most common being tithing and offerings, payment for sin forgiveness, and through the church's role in banning usury.

With this in mind, I spent my time wandering through the Vatican looking for ways that rent seeking exists in the church today that maybe were not accessible back then. Walking through the Vatican Museum, these were not hard to spot. The church, like any business, was taking full advantage of its ability to pull revenue from places other than its members. There was an entrance fee to the museum, and around every corner was a booth or full fledged souvenir shop. The Sistine Chapel (very underwhelming, by the way) was packed with guards waiting to pounce on any tourists brave enough to lift a phone or camera. It was obvious that Michelangelo's work was an asset they were unwilling to share freely. Whether you believe the church is in the business of collecting souls or cash, they are no stranger to collecting either.

This time in Italy has been a whirlwind experience I will never forget. I came into this trip apprehensive and unsure of what this month would hold, and left with new friends, an expanded worldview, and a plethora of great stories.  I cannot wait to come back and explore more of this captivating country.

Arrivederci, Italy!

Economics of Roman Concrete Buildings

Mortared Rubble Construction (aka concrete) can be seen as one of the greatest technical achievements of ancient Rome. The Roman concrete that was used back in early B.C did not consist of the same material that current day concrete is made of. It was made of local volcanic sand and pure high quality lime. Without this unique material, one could argue that these massively beautiful structures that we’ve seen throughout Italy, would not have existed.

Roman concrete was an economical substitute for ashlar masonry because the concrete was much cheaper and less dependent on highly skilled labor. The article that I read went into the small details of what it took to build these concrete stone walls and how that affected the economics of ancient Rome. These issues and topics were: the cost differences between different types of concrete, the relative cost of ashlar vs. concrete, and how the buildings were built and at what rate you could build them.


Examples of where this concrete brick was used are places like the ruins of Pompeii (especially the way the theater was built) and Ostia’s large baths.  It’s interesting to see that the Roman concrete was such a prominent economic factor back then. Because even in it’s fragile state today, these structures still have a huge impact on the economy of Italy. Tourists from all over the world come and pay to see these massive and outstanding structures to better understand our world’s history. Because of the high tourist traffic, some cities rely on tourists in order to stay afloat.

But, that’s not the only factor that effects the economy of Italy when it comes to these structures. The upkeep of maintaining the historical landmarks is also very taxing on the economy. When we went through Naples, we saw that there wasn’t enough funding to continue the restoration of the city that was below Naples. Who would have thought that these concrete structures from early B.C would still be impacting the economy of Italy in 2014? I know that this trip has opened my eyes to a lot of the economic issues that Italy undergoes on a yearly basis. –Amy Wooten


Thursday, January 30, 2014

Roman Grain Trade

For my final blog post, the article I read was about the organization of the grain trade in the early Roman Empire. The article begins by addressing the massive shortage of grain needed to feed the vast population of the Roman Empire. The population was predicted to be right around one million people and they estimate an average of 300 kg of wheat consumed per year per individual. Using these numbers we learn that not only could Rome not produce enough wheat for themselves, but if the entire country produced only wheat it still wouldn’t have been enough to feed Rome alone. The conclusion we draw from this is that Rome must have imported massive amounts to account for the deficit almost entirely by sea.

The main idea of this article is to discuss how they were able to overcome the severe informational issues relating to problems of adverse selection and moral hazard. Given the time period and the technology associated with it, merchants would have no idea if their shipments were successful or not until two to three weeks after either the accident or robbery occurred. The roman government succeeded in clearing pirates from the Mediterranean, essentially eliminating robbery from someone other than the agent, which leaves the bulk of the problem within trust between merchant and agent. This entails the problems associated with moral hazard in that the agent could just steal the load and never return. One interesting thing to note about the market system with the grain trade is that it was merchants.

The article then begins to get into the use of institutions and formal vs informal intervention. There were certain formal institutions in place such as the legal court system, which used fines and blacklisting as punishments. The formal institutions are rather self-explanatory as opposed to the informal institutions which are much more interesting. The article talks about a reputation based informal system where these merchants would for the most part converse with each other and discuss agents. Along the same lines, it was also a convenient way of using these networks to get word out if your agent stole your shipment and let other people look out for it.

The interesting thing about Rome is that they were one of the only civilizations to utilize this combination of both formal and informal institutions to regulate these informational problems. By blending the informal reputation based system with the formal legal based system, they were able to capture much more than those who relied only on one.


Veni Vidi Vici

Days two and three in Rome added a great deal of contrast to the first. Visiting the Forum and Colosseum in stunning weather rapidly shifted the groups perspective on the city. The immense size of the Colosseum was breathtaking. Ordered by emperor Nero, the amount of manpower needed to build this construct was unbelievable, and although Nero did not live to see it to completion, the 75,000 person capacity structure will forever be a legacy.

The public structures produced by the Romans have all been quite impressive, and funds from the government stimulated the economy much like they do today. Many workers were brought into employment throughout these massive builds, from manual labor to artists, which helped to distribute wealth.

That night the group adventured into the Roman nightlife, and two girls from our group even found themselves plunging into a fountain and checking one item off of their bucket list. After sleeping in the next morning, we found ourselves with a free day, and enjoyed the slow unstructured pace. We did some shopping for gifts and foodstuffs, visited the Spanish Stairs, and enjoyed a final group supper in Rome.

I now find myself on an unexpected adventure at the airport- after parting ways with the group who left on an earlier flight, I made my way with two others to my terminal where I discovered my flight had been canceled (Who would have thought snow in Atlanta). What was first surprise and slight distress turned to a great deal of enjoyment; my flight was reimbursed and through some convincing I was rebooked on a different airline. As a result, I will be arriving in Seattle 30 minutes earlier than expected, and can enjoy some relaxation in the meantime. 

For the last time from Europe,

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Salvation from the Sea: Roman Amphorae

Today we visited Monte Testaccio. At first glance, this appears to be nothing more than a grassy hill, except that there are broken fragments of clay pottery scattered upon it. Our guide revealed that this hill was once the equivalent of a land fill, where Romans deposited the fragments of old Amphorae, which were used to transport oil and wine. The fragments were carefully stacked until they formed this hill. Since then, soil has deposited and grass has grown on the hill, nearly disguising its intriguing past. 

Our article discusses the ancient amphorae in some detail, and analyzes trade patterns based on evidence from the amphorae. Ship wrecks were particularly useful in finding fragments of amphorae for analyzation. They indicated that Italy was dominant in the trade of goods with amphorae, particularly wine, in the middle of the second century BC to the end of the 1st century BC. The amphorae were shipped to both France and Britain, along the Rhone valley and across the Rhine. After the 1st century, Italian dominance in the markets began to diminish, which was marked by Italy's increased importation. Northern Italy differed from other regions as it was open to Greek imports from the Adriatic. 

Another interesting aspect of this article was its focus on the stamps found on the Amphorae. These stamps were often names or abbreviations, and some corresponded with Roman politicians at the time. Some believe this indicated a heavy involvement by these senators in the commerce of Amphorae. The article concludes, however, that these stamps more likely indicated the owners of the production equipment and land rather than the actual producers of the amphorae. The article notes that exploitation of the lower class amphorae producers, by the wealthier land owners was common place at the time and supported by the legal system. 

We compared the seemingly misleading labeling practice of the amphorae in which the land owners, rather than the producers, were marked on the pots with labeling practices today. We noted that misleading labeling is still commonplace, but often takes a different form. In the article, the wealthier more recognizable names were used on the amphorae, potentially as a marketing technique, whereas today bigger companies often hide their relationship with certain products by labeling them under the names of smaller companies they own. One example that was brought up was Fanta. Apparently, Fanta was started by Coca Cola to be marketed in Germany during World War II without any backlash. Bigger companies also hide their involvement with smaller companies in order to capture niche markets that are resistant to more mainstream penetration.