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Counterfeit goods in the Roman commercial landscape
March 8, 2018
Amherst, MA United States
Sponsored by: Archaeological Institute of America
AIA Society: Western Massachusetts
Lecturer: Hilary Becker
The competition for natural resources and the desire to increase a shop’s revenue led some Roman merchants to engage in retail fraud. Papyri from Roman Egypt provide recipes with instructions on how to produce fake gemstones and pearls from crystals, as well as cheap ways to counterfeit “true” purple. There was similarly great fraud amongst other naturally sourced products ranging from aromatics, to pigments, to medicines.
But there were ways to negotiate such a treacherous commercial landscape. Ancient authors, such as Pliny the Elder, who knew full well the pitfalls of the market, offered methods for a purchaser to discern authentic natural sourced products (e.g. metals, pigments) from imposters. Archaeological evidence also indicates that the scrupulous producer or merchant, in turn, might be motivated to stamp or otherwise label his or her products in order to guarantee that their products are unadulterated. All of these circumstances suggest that for the wary consumer (caveat emptor), there was significant marketplace competition for his attention between trustworthy merchants and those merchants who should be avoided. This lecture provides insight into the potential pitfalls of the Roman supply industry that every consumer needed to know about and had to navigate.