Abstract: Unearthing the Roman Poor


Most of what we know about the ancient Roman world pertains the rich. The great cities, splendid houses, poetry and literature were the product of Roman urban elites who comprised just 10% of the population.  The other 90% of Romans were poor, rural farmers; they appear only sporadically in historical sources, while archaeologists have been generally disinterested in finding and excavating their material remains.

This talk presents the first systematic archaeological work on the Roman rural poor. A project in rural Tuscany has been excavating the farms and work-sites of the Roman poor, trying to understand how they lived, what they ate, and how they interacted with their environment. The results suggest that our impression of these people as scratching a subsistence living from primitive agriculture, living and dying on the same patch of land and largely disconnected from the broader economy – is wrong. Instead we have revealed a surprisingly materially rich peasantry, eating off fine table-wares, using coined money, and traveling great distances to trade, gather building materials and farm distant fields.  The talk concludes by discussing the implication of these findings for our understanding of Roman history and society more generally.

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