New grant to study the centuries-long functioning of the Roman economy through ceramics, road networks and computational modelling

Soooooo happy I got awarded a Sapere Aude research leader grant by the Independent Research Fund Denmark. This is like a Danish starting grant, allowing early career researchers to pursue their research interests for four years under great conditions (roughly 6.2 million DKK: 800.000EUR). This will allow me to do what I think the study of the Roman economy really needs: quantitative identification and description of centuries-long patterns in ceramics data, creation of a high-detail Roman transport network, and formal evaluation of theories that could explain these data patterns. I simply can’t wait to get my teeth into this work! Especially because it’s a collaboration with the amazing Pau de Soto for Roman roads, Vinnie Nørskov for museology and outreach, Andrew Wilson for Roman economy studies, and Adéla Sobotkova for archaeological data analysis. More news about this project will follow (and read our announcement on the UrbNet and DFF websites), but here’s a short description of the project:

MINERVA will explore how a massive integrated economy like the Roman Empire evolved over centuries, by combining archaeological ceramics and the Roman transport network in computational simulation experiments. The project will run for four years from 2021, and will apply UrbNet’s relational perspecitve to the study of the Roman economy.


At its peak the Roman Empire covered an area similar in size to the European Union, uniting almost 100 million inhabitants. But similarities do not end here: the different peoples, languages and religions within the Empire were united under a single political system with the Roman Emperor at its head, they used the same money, followed the same trade regulations, and were subject to the same legal system. Archaeologists uncover evidence that show the ups and downs of this bustling economy. Amphora containers, for example, were used for centuries to move vast quantities of necessities such as grain from Egypt or olive oil from Spain to the capital of Rome and everywhere else in the Empire. For centuries, the flow of goods and traders along the first European transport network went virtually uninterrupted, despite limited means of communication, and transport technology and infrastructure making sea and road voyages slow and dangerous.


The material remains they left behind offer us a unique glimpse at how huge integrated economies can change and evolve over centuries. But understanding how these complex economic processes emerge from everyday behaviour of individual Romans is not a mean feat. To make this possible, this project combines state-of-the-art computer simulations, archaeological ceramics evidence, and a detailed model of the Roman road network for the first time.

MINERVA addresses three challenges related to ceramics data, Roman roads and centuries-long simulations. First, what changes are visible over periods of centuries in the distribution and consumption of Roman plates, cups, bowls and containers? And what do they reveal about the long-term functioning of the Roman economy? MINERVA aims to quantitatively identify such patterns. Second, what was the structure of the Roman transport network through which such goods were distributed? We currently do not have a highly detained model of this network, and MINERVA aims to create this. And third, How does one simulate aspects of a large economy over a period of centuries? This has never been done before because for other large economies, like the integrated markets of the EU or the US, we simply do not have data for such long timespans. This will be an exciting challenge to explore that will benefit from collaboration with economic historians.

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