Leidwanger, Justin. Roman Seas: A Maritime Archaeology of Eastern Mediterranean Economies. Oxford University Press, 2020. $85.00 USD. ISBN: 9780190083656, 336 pg.
By Haggai Olshanetsky
Justin Leidwanger, a historian and archaeologist, participated in many excavations in different parts of the Eastern Mediterranean Basin. His research focuses on maritime archaeology, commerce and traffic, especially during the Roman period. Due to his experience, and the fact that he co-edited the book Maritime Networks in the Ancient Mediterranean World, the current work Roman Seas is the expected next step of his. Roman Seas deals mainly with finds from Turkey and Cyprus, the main expertise of Leidwanger, and he uses them as a kind of a case study. He uses both shipwrecks and ports from those areas in order to understand and evaluate the trade routes and the connections between sites and places.
The book starts with a chapter that encompasses several things: an explanation of the idea behind the book and its methodology, an explanation of maritime economy (especially Roman) and the Cypric-Turkish case study. It is very clear in this chapter, and later on in the book, that the author is very aware of the limitations of the data and the research. This first chapter is a welcome and necessary opening to the book, which is followed by a second chapter that may be best described as an extensive introduction to sailing and maritime life in the Roman world. This is one of the most interesting and diverse chapters in the book, and would be of great interest to readers of all backgrounds, as it deals with not only common issues such as ship type, size and cargo, but also with winds and currents in the Mediterranean, and even how you would handle your ship according to these criteria. This leads onto the third chapter, which is an introduction to how one would model maritime dynamics and networks. It explains everything—regionalism, mobility, trade, travel times and how one would create a model according to the available data. The first three chapters, which make up half of the book, can be seen as a long introduction that Leidwanger’s research, the second half of the book, is based on.
The fourth chapter, which may be the most interesting for maritime archaeologists, does several things which may need to be explained. Its first part takes and analyses shipwreck data from the Mediterranean basin which was extracted from the different databases of discovered shipwrecks, which Leidwanger visualises in graphs. These graphs are a great tool for anyone dealing with the Roman and Early Byzantine periods, and easily indicate the differences between the Eastern and Western parts of the Mediterranean basin during the period. In addition, Leidwanger picked 67 ships from the area of Cyprus and Turkey, of which half of them did not appear in other existing databases, and analysed them in graphs and used them and their known cargo to create a model on the trade and social networks between the different areas. Furthermore, the last part of this chapter visualises the winds in the Mediterranean, and uses them to show and explain travel time according to the starting point of the ship. This is followed by an explanation of the trade and social networks and connections he sees through the time it took these ships to sail from place to place. This chapter not only allows us to better understand trade, maritime traffic and travel times, but also the cycles of rise and fall of trade in the Mediterranean basin.
The fifth chapter, unlike the previous one, deals with local economies using ports to understand the everyday life in their vicinity. One of the most interesting aspects of this chapter is that Leidwanger clearly points to the fact that there could have been, and must have been, ports other than the well-established ones of the big towns and cities. Small wooden docks or protected bays could be and were used to moor small boats and ships though in many cases evidence for such activity does not survive. Furthermore, in the different maps and through the main discussion in the chapter, he shows the enormous amount of ports and beaches which could have been used and their relation and distance from each other, as well as to the different settlements and communities which were situated further inland. The research he conducts in this chapter clearly presents that all settlements were built purposefully a few kilometres, and not more than 8 hours of travel inland, from a port or a suitable bay.
The last chapter both analyses the data and brings forth conclusions. It clearly highlights the fact that we need to look at trade in a different light, and that the movement of trade is circular with multiple places and ports, rather than running on one axis. Furthermore, it indicates that the decline in the east was not identical everywhere. For example, no societal decline can be seen in the 6th century A.D., despite the alleged impact of climate change and the Justinianic plague. On the other hand, in the 7th century it is clear that the Persian and Arab conquests brought different hardships to the area which impacted trade (p. 223). Leidwanger elaborates on the fact that his research is only preliminary and that there is still a long way to go, bringing forth various ideas and suggestions on how to develop this area of archaeology.
In general, this book adds a new interesting and important look regarding maritime trade and life in the Roman period. Yet this is, as Leidwanger points out, only a tentative work that should be the base for further research in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as in its other parts, which will allow us to get a broader and more corroborated picture. The book is more focused towards an academic audience, while the second and third chapters will be very useful also for some archaeological courses and for students. All in all, this book is a vital and worthy addition for any reader who is fascinated by the Roman Empire, ancient trade and marine archaeology.
Haggai Olshanetsky is a PhD candidate at Bar Ilan University, Israel. His doctoral thesis focuses on Jewish military service in the armies of the Hellenistic Kingdoms and the Roman Empire. From the same university, he holds two master degrees, one from the General History Department and another from the Land of Israel and Archaeology Department. He has diverse interests in Military Social and Economic history. He studies Jewish military service in antiquity and conducts research with Lev Cosijns from the University of Oxford on the social and economic change in the Eastern Mediterranean basin in the 6th-8th centuries.