Archaeology of a Common Sailor? Sea and Seafaring people in the Imperial Rome

Publication Type:

Proceedings Article


SOMA 2005. Proceedings of the IX Symposium on Mediterranean Archaeology, Chieti (Italy), 24-26 February 2005, Archaeopress, Volume 1739, p.231--234 (2008)


978 1 4073 0181 5



ancient history, classical archaeology, maritime, rome, sea, seafaring


The issue of popular debate, whether the Romans were sea or land loving folk, is in its inherent scholarly impossibility an interesting question. For equally good reasons based on the Roman literature (e.g. Plut.vit. Pomp. 50 cmp. Sen. contr. 7.1.10), the Roman empire might be said to have been a maritime society, and a society of landlubbers as it was characterised by Chester G. Starr (Starr 1989). As such there is hardly any point of debating whether the Roman society was aligned or unaligned to the maritime sphere or not as the apparent state of affairs necessarily was a question of individuals and smaller scale societies within the romanness. In a more scholarly sense the question of willingness and eagerness to sail turns into a question of how the Mediterranean environment was perceived to allow both the landlubbers and the maritime culture to coexist under the overall title of the Roman society. Maritime attitudes and identities of the ancient literary upperclass has been under some scrutiny in the scholarly literature (e.g. Saint- Denis 1935, Siebert 1996), but conspicuously the common sailor has been remaining considerably silent in the accounts. Practical explanation for the directions of the earlier research is readily found in the available source material. Both literature and archaeological evidence provide more easily interpretable evidence on the intellectual and everyday life world of the ship-owners and the upperclass passengers than of the ordinary seamen. The purpose of this article is study the issue of ancient Roman social and cultural relationship with the Mediterranean sea as an environment, and seafaring as an activity bringing the man and the landscape together from an everyman point of view. The emphasis in the on discussing the basic question whether it is feasible or even possible to urge for an archaeological discussion on the mentalities and emotions of the common men. The scrutiny is based on an evaluation and re-evaluation of the the general character of archaeological finds and literary accounts describing common Roman seafarers their work. The literary mentions and accounts occasionally mentioning ordinary seamen do provide some basis for entering the physical and mental world of an ancient mariner, but, what I am intending to emphasise, is that without a careful consideration of the archaeological evidence, the general picture remains not only heavily biased, but also substantially alien to a what might be an insider view of an ordinary sailor.


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