Peter Candy is a Modern Law Review Scholar and PhD candidate enrolled in the School of Law at the University of Edinburgh. His research interests include the historical development of Roman law and the relationship between institutional change and economic development in the Roman world. Peter is also active on Twitter and runs his own blog.
The Satyricon of Petronius, probably produced during the reign of Nero (54 – 68 CE), is a lively piece of work. In one scene, the famous Cena Trimalchionis, we are introduced to a freedman, Trimalchio, who throws an extravagant dinner party in an effort to show off his inordinate wealth. His tastelessness and vulgarity are, of course, the butt of the joke. At one point, however, he regales his guests with the tale of how he made his fortune.
The story begins with Trimalchio’s arrival from Asia as a young man, having had the good fortune to inherit an enormous legacy from his former master. He then goes on to describe what he did with the money:
It must be remembered that this is a work of fiction. On the other hand, there is no doubt that it contains a kernel of truth: Trimalchio’s story, of the enormous risks and rewards associated with long-distance trade, accords with a weight of other evidence from the same period.
One source of evidence, that throws Trimalchio’s tale into sharp relief, are the shipwrecks that litter the Mediterranean seabed. Following the work of Anthony Parker, scholars associated with the Oxford Roman Economy Project have updated and refined a database of shipwrecks dating to between 1800 BCE and 1500 CE, sited in or near to the Mediterranean basin. The following graph shows their chronological distribution:
The interpretation of the data must be handled with some care. In particular, the pattern shown by the graph is underpinned by two fundamental assumptions. First, it is assumed that the probability of a ship becoming wrecked was the same in all periods. Clearly, however, this is a factor that depends on a number of variables, such as, inter alia, changes in climate, sailing routes, the propensity for winter sailing, and, perhaps above all, shipping technology. Second, it is assumed that the archaeological remains of wrecks are equally visible across all periods. Clearly this is not the case, and it is vital to acknowledge that the majority of known wrecks have only remained visible because their cargoes consisted of durable materials, such as clay (for amphorae) or stone. In contrast, any soft commodities that were freely transported (such as slaves), or contained in sacks or wooden barrels, have perished and are therefore not traceable in the archaeological record. The interpretation of the data becomes especially problematic once the transition in container preference from amphorae to barrels, which began in earnest from the first century CE, is factored in. It is likely, therefore, that the decline in the number of shipwrecks attributable to the second century CE and beyond is, in part, a reflection of changes in the use of containers. On the other hand, because this change in preference appears to have only become significant by the first century CE at the earliest, it does not affect our assessment of the rate of increase in the intensity of maritime traffic that occurred before this time (e.g., during the late Republic). Nevertheless, the shape of the graph is telling: the volume of maritime traffic traversing the Mediterranean increased rapidly in the second and first centuries BCE, reaching a peak in the first century of the Principate (when Trimalchio launched his fictional enterprise).
So far, we have concentrated on the growth of seaborne trade during the late Republic and early Principate, the intensity of which was probably not surpassed again until the early modern period. The question that I have set out to answer in light of this phenomenon is the following: Did the development of Roman maritime law contribute to the increase in the volume of maritime traffic during the mid- to late Republic? Turning to legal change, it is striking that the period during which Roman maritime law was most fully developed coincides precisely with the time during which the volume of maritime traffic was increasing at its greatest pace. In the last 150 years of the Republic alone, legal remedies concerning, inter alia, the structure of maritime businesses and the liability of shippers for goods in their charge were introduced. In addition, rules governing maritime loans (i.e., bottomry) and contribution in the event of jettison (the lex Rhodia de iactu) were interpreted into existing remedies by the jurists. Altogether, Roman maritime law was virtually fully developed by the beginning of the Principate.
This raises important questions. First, it is one thing to show chronological coincidence, but quite another to demonstrate causation. To what extent, then, was the development of Roman maritime law caused by, or a cause of, the increase in the volume of maritime traffic in the last few centuries BCE? Answering this question requires the application of a theoretical framework, which brings its own set of problems. In our case, the application of the New Institutionalism of Douglass North may provide some help: By reducing the cost of transacting, legal remedies are likely to have stimulated an increase in transactional activity. In other words, the development of Roman maritime law may have reduced the cost of conducting long-distance transactions, and so facilitated the increase in the volume of maritime traffic seen in the same period. If this is true, then the results of this research may lend further insights into broader questions, such as the contribution of institutional change to economic development in the ancient world, and the relationship between legal, economic, and social change in that environment over time.
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