Institute of Archaeology


RAC/TRAC Session 22: Winners and Losers? Failure in the Roman World

Details of the RAC/TRAC Conference session 'Winners and Losers? Failure in the Roman World.'

Conference Sessions and Abstracts - Saturday 13 April 2024

22. Winners and Losers? Failure in the Roman World

Astrid Van Oyen – Radboud Universiteit
Emlyn Dodd – University of London

The Roman world was a high-risk environment, but this risk was not equally distributed. Different regions, periods, and socio-economic strata experienced risk, and thus success and failure, in different ways and to varying extents. Whereas macro-scale models assess the gross distribution of income or wealth, the topic of failure provides a lens to examine the lived experiences and consequences of such inequalities. Micro-histories of failure focused on one site, structure or enterprise can show how the narratives of growth that characterize the macro-economic study of the Late Republican and Early Imperial period smoothen out local histories. But failure can also be scaled up, to analyse communities, networks, or regions. Through failure, we can foreground a more nuanced understanding of social and economic dynamics, often revealing sequences of boom and bust, to put oscillations, turns, and frictions at the centre of the nascent Roman empire. Possible questions include:

  • how to identify failure archaeologically;
  • different analytical scales for the study of failure;
  • the unequal conditions and consequences of failure, between different groups, sites, or
  • communities (e.g. rural and urban);
  • the relation between failure and growth;
  • empirical and conceptual intersections between failure, resilience, and innovation

Session schedule 

Saturday 13 April (PM)              Room 1 - Elvin (Level 1)
14:00Session Introduction and Context (Astrid Van Oyen, Emlyn Dodd)
14:10Troubleshooting the Roman world of color: artisanal materials and the working knowledge of pigments (Hilary Becker)
14:30Acknowledging failure and resilience in ancient Roman design (Penelope J. E. Davies)
14:50Embodying Roman Failure: Bodies in Alliance in Rural Sardinia (Mauro Puddu)
15:30                                               BREAK
16:00Growth and failure of productive systems in the North African provinces (Lilia Palmieri)
16:20The restorative power of gardening collectives in post-earthquake Pompeii, AD 62-79 (Jess Venner)
16:40Between Boom and Doom: Rethinking Urban Change in Italy’s Middle Tiber Valley (Adeline Hoffelinck)


 Troubleshooting the Roman world of color: artisanal materials and the working knowledge of pigments 
Hilary Becker – Binghamton University

Faberius paid no doubt a large expense to have the walls of his peristyle painted with the cinnabar (mercury sulfide) but within 30 days his walls had turned black.  Vitruvius’ shared Faberius’ story to help others not mistake the same costly mistake.  Archaeometry coupled with ancient sources makes it possible to understand to what extent Roman artists were able to successfully work with their ancient colorants and also helps us to recognize where there were problems. The study of the production of colorants such as the principal blue colorant Egyptian blue provides of evidence of what ancient workmen knew from making and doing in their workshops. Both the review of the archaeological evidence from an ancient Egyptian blue workshop, as well as modern experimental archaeology producing this blue, both reveal what kinds of mistakes could be made in the course of production. Study of this evidence reveals that a variety of failures were possible including errors in proportions, product purity, firing time, etc. Such evidence also helps to reveal the number of variables that Egyptian blue producers had to navigate around every time they made produced this color in order avoid costly firing failures. When using materials, Roman artists were occasionally willing to collect and try out a new material to see if it might work as a colorant when painting. Such attempts could have failed, and in fact, there were materials that were tried, and based on the surviving evidence, were not used again, which may speak to a learning curve. The Roman craftsmen also had an incredible amount of knowledge regarding in what contexts the pigments on their palette could be used for painting.  For example, most artists knew when not to apply a pigment (such as malachite, or azurite, or cinnabar) in order to avoid material failure. Quantitative studies help document these examples in the painted archaeological record and reveal more about the working knowledge that Roman patrons and painters had to use their materials correctly, even while highlighting the occasional failures, such as that of Faberius.

 Acknowledging failure and resilience in ancient Roman design
Penelope J. E. Davies – The University of Texas at Austin

This paper explores structural failure and resilience in ancient Roman architecture and urbanism. Focusing on the centuries before the fire of 64 CE, it argues, perhaps surprisingly, that Romans faced constant architectural failure, which political authorities carefully managed. Architectural historians tend not to characterize failure recognition and resilient design as catalysts in the evolution of Roman architecture until the far-reaching building legislation Nero instigated to avoid future conflagration. Yet a slight shift in perspective on three familiar waves of architectural and urbanistic development suggests they were, in fact, a powerful force for change, alongside aesthetics, and closely intertwined with ideology. Tracing a progression in scale from an engineering definition of resilience (stability and robustness of individual buildings) to an ecological definition (long-term viability and nature of ecosystems), this paper concludes that, against this new continuum, Nero’s legislation delivers even more radical repercussions than are usually acknowledged. In turn, recognising Roman failure not only requires a more critical approach to the trajectory of Roman architecture, but also an interrogation of the role it serves in modern culture.

 Embodying Roman Failure: Bodies in Alliance in Rural Sardinia
Mauro Puddu – Università Ca’ Foscari Venezia

This paper focusses on the embodiment of - and reaction to - failure in the late Republican/early imperial rural Sardinia, with the intention to contribute to investigating “how to identify failure archaeologically”. Being one of the first provinces abducted by Rome to exploit its cultivable land that needed to be subtracted to Carthage, Sardinia offers a plethora of investments and potential failures. There are at least two possible scopes to detect failure: on one hand spaces of failure, sites with material signs of sudden interruption of productive activities; on the other hand, places of failure, such as the human body. This paper’s target are the signs of failure inscribed in the bodies of the women and men buried in the rural cemeteries nearby such sites of failure. Historically, Sardinia has often been interpreted as a passive resources provider, exploited by more active agents, such as Carthage, Rome, Spain, Italy, willing to fulfil designs of power, conquest, and unification. Defined by Cicero as “one of the three granaries of Rome”, Sardinia hosted communities that during the Roman period endured increasing demands of production and exploitation. The theoretical lens of failure provided by this session gives us a unique opportunity to investigate these communities as active agents that not only endured but also reacted to potential strategic failures. This paper focusses on funerary contexts of rural Sardinia set-up in the proximities of failing productive activities, aiming to highlight both short term and long-term embodied signs of reactions to failure: archaeologically investigated ritual elements standing out from regular funerary practices, and bio-archaeologically visible marks of malnutrition and overwork. By framing failure as the empires' failings towards its people, specifically the non-elite women and men caught between top-down economic strategies, this paper relies on Judith Butler’s Bodies in Alliance theory, where the human body is seen as the collective and active expression of refusal of socially and economically induced precariousness, a constant element of the Roman world.

Growth and failure of productive systems in the North African provinces
Lilia Palmieri - University of Milan

The North African provinces experience socio-economic ups and downs during the middle and late Roman imperial age and beyond and change dramatically in the process of defining a productive system only apparently unaltered over time. If the flow of African goods appears as a seamless continuum from the Mediterranean perspective, the production topography allows us to understand how one production decreases within a region not only in favour of another production, but also in favour of the same highly intensified production in another neighbouring region. This discontinuity generates different economic landscape models and consequently different social contexts. The paper focuses in particular on the network of structures related to olive oil production, fishing industry and pottery production as the main archaeological markers functional to the analysis of the productive system in the North African provinces and of the inter-regional and inter-Mediterranean routes of the African goods. This macro-scale comparative analysis aims to identify a growth-failure model in order to define the productive and commercial dynamics of the territories involved, revealing sequences of boom and crisis throughout the micro-histories of individual production units as part of the economy of a region at the centre of the Roman Empire.

The restorative power of gardening collectives in post-earthquake Pompeii, AD 62-79
Jess Venner – University of Birmingham

Community and knowledge sharing are key for ensuring the ‘bounce back’, or resilire, of an urban system following failure or crisis. In both modern and ancient urban centres throughout history, examples of horticultural collectives created in response to crises can be found, from the first Italian wine co-operatives created in Northern Italy post-WWI, to the communal groups supporting the huertas urbanas created in Havana, Cuba post-1989, and the community gardens constructed following the devastating earthquakes of 2010-11 in Christchurch, New Zealand. In ancient Pompeii, graffiti records the presence of collegial groups related to horticulture, including garlic-sellers, fruit-sellers, perfume-makers, grape-pickers, inn-keepers, cart drivers, and poultry-dealers, which leads to the question: what role did community play in the ‘success’ of Pompeii’s working gardens following the catastrophic earthquake of AD 62/3? While the effects of the earthquake of AD 62/3 meant that the majority were faced with lifestyle challenges, such as displacement from demolished or damaged properties or food and water shortages others, namely the (wealthy) landed, were in a position to create opportunity from failure. In the seventeen years that followed, at least thirty-two new agricultural gardens were created in Regions I and II in the space of demolished or damaged residential and commercial buildings. While this allowed the landed class to diversify and protect their income, social inequalities rising from local responses to ‘failure’ in terms of land development and rental, and access to water and trading networks, were inevitable. Using modern case studies of urban horticultural collectives as a comparison point, this paper will uncover evidence for garden-related community groups in Pompeii and consider how these groups may have tempered the effects of the social inequalities arising from failure in the town’s final seventeen years. It will also introduce the possibility of partial garden rental and reflect on the role of local collegia in horticultural government and innovation in Pompeii’s gardens. Through this novel exploration of garden-related collectives, this paper will position community groups as a crucial component not only of the town’s survival in its final years, but also of its success.

 Between Boom and Doom: Rethinking Urban Change in Italy’s Middle Tiber Valley
Adeline Hoffelinck – Radboud Universiteit

The Roman World encompassed a vast network of cities, each characterized by differences in size, infrastructure, functions, and, as is frequently implied or even explicitly argued, levels of success. Settlements in the Middle Tiber Valley, which were part of one of Italy’s most densely developed urban areas – Rome’s suburbium – underwent significant shifts in their success story during the transition from the Late Republic to the Early Empire. Once flourishing, towns in this Valley seemed to decline as they witnessed losses in physical size – some shrinking or even being entirely abandoned – as well as in their social and economic importance. Traditional narratives describe Rome’s suburban towns as failures, while recent frameworks favor a more moderate interpretation, suggesting that these towns evolved into symbolic centers. However, doesn’t this still qualify as a form of failure, considering that towns ultimately experienced a mere secondary, less successful, developmental trajectory? This paper reframes the story of urban success, failure, and repurposing in the Middle Tiber Valley by integrating both old and new archaeological data and introducing a novel conceptual toolbox inspired by community resilience theory. In doing so, I argue that current narratives on urban development in the Roman World should leave more room for alternate, and possibly thriving, futures between moments of urban boom and doom.