May 20, 2007

Material Culture

From Bryan Ward-Perkins' excellent work The Fall of Rome:

On the left bank of the Tiber in Rome, by one of the river ports by the ancient city, is a substantial hill some 50 metres high, Monte Testaccio--Pottery Mountain is a reasonable translation into English. It is made up entirely of broken oil amphorae, mainly of the second and third centuries AD and primarily from the province of Baetica in south-western Spain. It has been estimated that Monte Testaccio contains the remains of some 53 million amphorae, in which around six thousand million (6,000,000,000) litres of oil were imported into the city from overseas. Imports into imperial Rome were supported by the full might of the state and were therefore quite exceptional--but the size of operations at Monte Testaccio, and the productivity and the complex that lay behind them, nonetheless cannot fail to impress. This was a society with similarities to our own--moving goods on a gigantic scale, manufacturing high-quality containers to do so, and occasionally, as here, discarding them on delivery. Like us, the Romans enjoy the dubious distinction of creating a mountain of good quality rubbish.

Rubbish aside (and Ward-Perkins notes that we far outstrip the Romans), it's one of several passages that give an idea of the extent of Roman consumer culture, something he touches on elsewhere in the book, and the complex society required to support it.

Posted by Ideofact at May 20, 2007 09:55 PM