Roman Businesswomen. I: The case of the producers and distributors of garum in Pompeii

Roman Businesswomen. I: The case of the producers and distributors of garum in Pompeii

By Piotr Berdowski

Analecta Archaeologica Ressoviensia, Vol.3 (2008)

Introduction: This paper is intended to be a beginning of a series of texts about the economic activity of women in Rome. We still do not have a comprehensive monograph referring to the issue; however, one can find a number of contributory papers. During the last three decades, gender studies have been marked by a true explosion of works referring to different aspects of females’ life in antiquity and providing invaluable facts. The studies on the economic aspects of females’ activity in Greece and Rome have emerged as a relatively new field for researchers against the background of this knowledge. This state is in a way understandable and filling the gaps in our knowledge is a postulate which is urgent and at the same time difficult to complete. The substantial difficulty arises due to the state and character of the sources accessible for scholars. Much has been written about the sparseness of the evidence referring to Greek and Roman women; also it has been underlined that the few sources there are represent the male point of view. As rightly remarked by Neville Morley what we have is not ‘the real lives of real ancient women’ but rather ‘just representation and images of them’. Happily our analytical tools are progressively more and more advanced: the heuristic nature of the present methods does not at all resemble the older works, whose authors had a quite naive attitude to the source material.

The nature and the sparseness of the available evidence is one question, the other one concerns the fact that the sources are dispersed. This applies to all kinds of sources: narrative texts (these can be overcome relatively easily), inscriptions, papyri and archaeological objects. The research work consisting in finding texts which mention females may resemble, to some degree, the work of modern historians who burrow through the vast collections of the archives. More than once we came across females in the sources en passant reading tituli picti on amphorae, analyzing business contracts or letters written on papyri from Roman Egypt. Certainly one can meet women more frequently in the epitaphs, but also in this case the inscriptions quite rarely permit us to build a comprehensive picture. In the ensuing situation it is not surprising, that we still do not have a book on the economic activity of women in ancient Rome (it is worth mentioning that the business activity means here more than the production itself). The demand for this kind of book is still valid. In return we have a number of contributory works: either those on the economic activity of females in Roman Egypt, or a few papers on the involvement of women in the production of ceramic building materials, and textile products. Our knowledge on the legal conditions of the business activities of women is comparatively profound.

It seems that the method of small steps in achieving a more general picture of females’ involvement in the Roman economy is appropriate and still a great deal is to be done in individual fields. In my paper published in 2007 I formulated the postulate of systematic research on two levels: ‘The first, a more shallow level, should relate to the mechanisms of the engagement of females in a given sector of the economy. This postulate can be workable even with reference to those sectors which are characterized by meagre evidence. The second, deeper level, should refer to the detailed research organized around the given problem or region. In cases where the source material is more abundant we have a chance for quantitative findings’.

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