The Romans and calculators: discuss! (debate published in Antiquity)

What are the limits of using computational modelling for understanding the Roman past? Where do such formal approaches fit in the existing theoretical context of Roman studies? These are the questions we debate in a discussion piece published today in Antiquity; a reply to Astrid Van Oyen’s critical and constructive discussion of our previous computational modelling work also published in Antiquity.

In our original work we argued that computational modelling should become more commonly used in the study of the Roman economy, because it holds the potential of overcoming the current deadlock in Roman macroeconomic debates by formally expressing and comparing the many interesting conflicting descriptive models, simulating their predicted behaviour (in terms of distributions of goods and prices) and comparing these simulations with archaeological data such as distributions of ceramics.

Astrid Van Oyen wrote an elaborate discussion piece, reviewing the beneficial and challenging aspects of this kind of work. She usefully and correctly places the potential of this method within current Roman economic debates, arguing for the timeliness of the approach. However, most of Van Oyen’s piece is concerned with problematising three aspects of the approach, asking whether these pose problems, and constructively thinking through possible alternatives:

  1. Can formalist modelling yield primitivist results?
  2. Do the big archaeological datasets of ceramics necessarily have to be interpreted in light of the flow of commodities?
  3. Is it possible to consider heterogeneity in agent behaviour?

In our reply, we answer the first question with a firm “yes”. We find the link commonly drawn between primitivist theories and substantivist methods on the one hand, and modernist theories and formalist methods on the other, an unhelpful and unnecessary byproduct of common practice in Roman economy studies. We argue we have shown in our own work that primitivist ideas can be formally explored (agents with limited information, the effects of social network structures), and that much more of this kind of work is necessary.

We find this debate hugely important and constructive, because we have argued that Roman economy studies is stuck in a deadlock due to a number of issues:

  1. Many models use different and sometimes ill-defined concepts to describe the complexities of the Roman economy, making them difficult to compare.
  2. The concepts used often lack specifications as to how they may be explored using data, i.e. what sort of patterns would be expected as the outcome of hypothetical processes.
  3. Consequently, the development of these conceptual models has not gone hand in hand with the development of approaches to represent, compare and (where possible) validate them formally.
  4. The role of archaeological data in testing conceptual models, although increasingly recognised, deserves greater attention, as it is the only source of information on the functioning and performance of the Roman economy that can be used for quantitative validation of complex computational and conceptual models.

Brughmans and Poblome 2016. Antiquity.

We sincerely hope that together we can position computational modelling in its rightful place in Roman studies to constructively contribute to ongoing substantive debates. We have argued that in order for this to happen, a few things are necessary:

authors of conceptual models should:

(a) clearly define the concepts used and discuss exactly how these differ from the concepts used by others,

(b) make explicit how these concepts can be represented as data,

(c) describe the expected behaviour of the system using the defined concepts,

(d) describe the expected data patterns resulting from this behaviour, and

(e) define how (if at all) archaeological and historical sources can be used as reflections or proxies of these expected data patterns.

Brughmans and Poblome 2016 5.6

Want to know more? Have a look at discussion through the links below:

Our original paper in Antiquity
Van Oyen’s discussion
Our reply


Complex Systems and Change, session at Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference

Calton-Hill-2-CAMWe invite papers for a session on complexity science/advanced data analysis/formal modelling at the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference (TRAC, Edinburgh, 12-14 April 2018). Please find the abstract below. This is a double session, the first part ‘Exploring Complex Systems’ will focus on finding patters, defining relationships and exploring past complexity, while the second part ‘Understanding Change’ will showcase applications of formal methods to understand social and economic processes and change.

To submit an abstract (300 words), please complete the submission template available here:

and send it to .
Deadline: 6 October 2018.
If you would like to discuss your paper before submitting, please feel free to contact us (see cc).

Tom Brughmans, John W. Hanson, Matthew J. Mandich, Iza Romanowska, Xavier Rubio-Campillo

Call for papers, session at Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, Edinburgh 12-14 April 2018:

Formal Approaches to Complexity in Roman Archaeology: Exploring Complex Systems and Understanding Change

Part 1: Exploring Complex Systems
Part 2: Understanding Change

Session Organisers: Tom Brughmans (University of Oxford) – John W. Hanson (University of Colorado) – Matthew J. Mandich (University of Leicester) – Iza Romanowska (Barcelona Supercomputing Center) – Xavier Rubio-Campillo (University of Edinburgh)

In recent years archaeologists have increasingly employed innovative approaches used for the study of complex systems to better interpret and model the social, political, and economic structures and interactions of past societies. However, for the majority of Roman archaeologists these approaches remain elusive as a comprehensive review and evaluation is lacking, especially regarding their application in Roman archaeology.

In brief, a complex system is made up of many interacting parts (‘components’ or ‘agents’) which form a whole that is more than the sum of its parts – i.e. the interactions of these parts lead to emergent behaviors or outcomes that cannot be (easily) predicted by examining the parts individually. While such systems are characterized by their unpredictable, adaptive, and/or non-linear nature, they are (often) self-organising and governed by observable rules that can be analysed via various methods. For example, many past phenomena, such as urbanism or the functioning of the Roman economy, are complex systems composed of multiple interacting elements and driven by the diverse processes acting upon individuals inhabiting the ancient world. Thus, they can be explored using the approaches and methods of complexity science.

The study of complex systems has primarily been undertaken in contemporary settings, in disciplines such as physics, ecology, medicine, and economics. Yet, as the complex nature of ancient civilizations and their similarity to present-day  systems is being steadily realized through ongoing analysis, survey, and excavation, archaeologists have now begun to use methods such as scaling studies (e.g. settlement scaling theory), agent-based modeling, and network analyses to approach this complexity. Since these methodologies are designed to examine the interactions and feedback between components within complex systems empirically, they can provide new ways of looking at old data and old problems to supply novel conclusions. However, such methods have only been applied sporadically in ancient settings, and even less so in a Roman context or using Roman archaeological data.
Thus, in this two part session we aim to bring these methods, and the Roman archaeologists using them, together by offering a critical review of the theoretical and empirical developments within the study of past complex systems and their interplay with existing ideas, before investigating how we might capitalize on the new opportunities afforded by them in the future. Part I of this session, ‘exploring complex systems’, is concerned with examining and unraveling the underlying structures present in the archaeological record using the formal tools provided by the complex systems framework. Part II, ‘understanding change’, will focus on applications exploring the dynamics of change that generated the patterns observed in existing evidence. In particular, we invite contributions using formal methods including computational modelling and simulation, GIS, and network analyses, as well as diverse theoretical approaches to better understand ancient complex systems.

The limits of the Roman limes

poster-conference-finding-the-limits-2017Roman studies are all over network science! In particular the team behind the ‘Finding the limits of the Limes’ project at the VU Amsterdam. They’ve been doing some really cool network analyses of Roman socio-economic and transport networks. Next month they will be hosting a major conference. The program is available on the project website, and it includes a whole session on networks. A few seats are still available so don’t hesitate to sign up and attend.

Where? VU Amsterdam

When? 26-27 January 2017

Register here.

Preliminary programme

Thursday 26 Jan 2017, 09:30 – 17:30

Welcome and opening lectures
Nico Roymans (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam): Setting the scene: characterising Batavian society at the edge of empire in the Dutch river area
Philip Verhagen (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam): Modelling the cultural landscape of the Dutch Roman Limes: approach, results and prospects

Session 1: Modelling subsistence economy
Session keynote: Wim Jongman (University of Groningen): What did the Romans ever do for us?
Jamie Joyce (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam): Simulating the Roman farm
Tilman Baum (University of Basel): Models of Land-use in the Neolithic Pile-Dwellings of the Northwestern Pre-Alpine Forelands (4400-2400 BC)
Antoni Martín i OIiveras (University of Barcelona): The economy of Roman wine. Productive landscapes, archaeological data, quantification and modelling. Case Study Research: “Regio Laeetana-Hispania Citerior Tarraconensis” (1st century BC-3th century AD)
Tyler Franconi (University of Oxford): Cultivating change: Roman agricultural production and soil erosion in the Thames River basin
Maurice de Kleijn (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam):Simulating land-use for the Lower Rhine-Meuse delta in the Roman period
Eli Weaverdyck (University of California, Berkeley): Farmers and Forts in Moesia Inferior: Modelling agricultural strategies on the Lower Danubian Frontier

Session 2: Modelling demography
Session keynote: Isabelle Séguy (Institut National des Études Démographiques, Paris)
Philip Verhagen (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam): From population dynamics to settlement patterns. Linking archaeological data to demographic models of the Dutch limes.
Wim De Clercq (University of Ghent): The Disastrous Effects of the Roman Occupation!? Population dynamics and rural development on the fringes of the Roman Empire: theories and models.
Chris Green (University of Oxford): Modelling evidence densities: past population variation or modern structuring affordances? The case of England from the Iron Age to the early medieval period.
Antonin Nüsslein (École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris): A different vision of ancient settlement dynamics: creation and application of a model of evolution of theAntique habitat of the Plateau Lorrain

Friday 27 Jan 2017 09:30 – 17:30

Session 3: Modelling transport
Session keynote: Dimitrij Mlekuž (University of Ljubljana): The archaeology of movement
Mark Groenhuijzen (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam): Diverse movement in a dynamic environment: modelling local transport in the Dutch part of the Roman limes
Rowin van Lanen (University of Utrecht/Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands):Shopping for wood during the first millennium AD: modelling Roman and early-medieval long-distance transport routes in the Netherlands using a multi-proxy approach
César Parcero-Oubiña (INCIPIT, Santiago de Compostela): Postdicting Roman Roads in the NW Iberian Peninsula
Katherine Crawford (University of Southampton): Walking Between Gods and Mortals: reconsidering the movement of Roman religious processions

Session 4: Modelling socio-economic networks
Session keynote: Tom Brughmans (University of Konstanz): Network science in Roman studies: the potential and challenges
Mark Groenhuijzen (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam): Possibilities and challenges in the use of networks to study socio-economic relations in the Dutch part of the Roman limes
Pau de Soto (Universidade Nova de Lisboa): Network analysis to model and analyse Roman transport and mobility
Angelo Castrorao Barba (University of Palermo), Stefano Bertoldi (University of Pisa), Gabriele Castiglia (Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology): Multi-scalar approach to long-term dynamics, spatial relations and economic networks of the Roman secondary settlements in Italy: towards a model?

Final discussion

Postdoc Barcelona social simulation and Roman economy

bscThis position might be of interest to those with some strong computer science skills. The roman EPnet project is fantastic and allows you to work with some great network scientists to study the Roman economy. And Barcelona is not a bad place to live either 🙂

Apply here.

Social Simulation – Senior Postdoctoral Researcher – R3 – Established Researcher
Monday, 15 August, 2016


About BSC

BSC-CNS (Barcelona Supercomputing Center – Centro Nacional de Supercomputación) is the National Supercomputing Facility in Spain and manages MareNostrum, one of the most powerful supercomputers in Europe. The mission of BSC-CNS is to investigate, develop and manage information technology in order to facilitate scientific progress. With this aim, special dedication has been taken to areas such as Computer Sciences, Life Sciences, Earth Sciences and Computational Applications in Science and Engineering

Look at the BSC experience:

BSC-CNS YouTube Channel

BSC-CNS Corporate Video

Let’s stay connected with BSC Folks!


Context and Mission of the role

The Social Simulation group from the Computer Applications & Engineering Department at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center is offering a postdoc position on Computer Science available in the ERC-project “EPNet. Production and Distribution of Food during the Roman Empire: Economic and Political Dynamics” ( The project involves an exciting opportunity to work in an interdisciplinary project aimed to explore the use of computer simulation in the study of human behavior.

The candidate would contribute to the creation of new social simulation paradigms through research and development of Pandora, a new open-source Agent-Based Modelling framework, currently being developed at BSC: Also, have to be interested in the use of mathematical techniques in social sciences. Specifically in the use of statistical modeling, artificial intelligence and game theory to model social phenomena.



  • Integration in the development team that is creating and maintaining the Pandora framework.
  • Full responsibility on statistical analysis of archaeological data.
  • Development of computer simulations designed to explore trade dynamics and cultural evolution.
  • Supervision of PhD Students



  • Education
  •  PhD in Applied Mathematics or Computer Science


  • Knowledge and professional experience
  • C/C++ and Python programming languages
  • MPI/OpenMP protocols
  • GNU/Linux
  • Advanced Statistics
  • Experience with agent based models and Bayesian statistics
  • Experience in the use of simulation applied to archeological research and cultural modeling will be highly valuated. Especially if it is applied to archeological sites of the Roman empire



In order to be successful in this role the candidate should have:

  • Excellent written and verbal communication skills in English
  • Able to have a conversation in Spanish
  • Ability to work in a professional environment within a multidisciplinary and international team
  • Knowledge of design principals to improve visual communication of data. Knowledge of design software (e.g. Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign) will be valued



  • The position will be located at BSC within the CASE department in collaboration with the specific program coordinator
  • A competitive salary will be provided, matched to the cost of living in Barcelona, depending on the value of the candidate
  • Duration of the contract: temporary
  • Starting date: asap


Applications Procedure

All applications must be done through the BSC website including:

  1. Motivation letter and a statement of interest, including two recommendation letters or contacts
  2. A full CV including contact details


Diversity and Equal Opportunity Employment

BSC-CNS is an equal opportunity employer committed to diversity and inclusion. We are pleased to consider all qualified applicants for employment without regard to race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, age, disability or any other basis protected by applicable state or local law

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