Rome and the Mediterranean: Mare Nostrum

Rome and the Mediterranean: Mare Nostrum

The Mediterranean is at the heart ofroman history since the founding of Rome, and even more so when its imperialism developed. This allowed him to control in a few centuries the entire Mediterranean area, and to make what is commonly called the "Mare Nostrum", although the term is not so widely used in Latin sources, and primarily has a political and not a geographic meaning. However, from the 2nd century AD under the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the center of gravity of Roman Empire appears to have moved further north; Did this change the relationship between Rome and the Mediterranean, until the reign of Constantine?

A Mediterranean still vital for Rome?

Rome is less and less occupied by power, but the Mediterranean itself seems to be less at the center of Roman concerns, with a few regions excepted (like the East). The fault above all with the barbaric threats which weigh on the borders of Gaul, the Rhine and the Danube. But this does not have to be said to say that the Mediterranean is no longer important in the functioning and the life of Rome; it is even vital! It still concentrated most of the Roman trade at the beginning of the third century, and especially the supply of the heart (despite the remoteness of the emperors) of the Empire, Rome, totally depends on the transport of essential foodstuffs (such as wheat) by the Mediterranean. Did the situation evolve subsequently, in particular during the crisis of the 3rd century and then under the reign of Constantine?

Let's start by describing the geographical location of the Mediterranean. To quote Fernand Braudel: "the Mediterranean is not a sea, but a succession of liquid plains communicating with each other through more or less wide doors". He adds that it is "made up [...] of a series of compact mountainous peninsulas intersected by essential plains. "The Mediterranean area is therefore above all varied, in terms of relief but also in terms of climates depending on the region. The presence of the many peninsulas also explains the complexity and irregularity of the winds and currents. According to Mr. Reddé, this variety explains in part that the Roman, far from the feeling of "uniqueness" that one can find in the notion of Mare Nostrum, designates the Mediterranean with local criteria, speaking of Mare inferum (Tyrrhenian), superum (Adriatic), Africum,…

Also in the geographical area, the seasons are more or less favorable to navigation: according to the sailors of Antiquity, the Mediterranean only has two seasons, one good and one bad, but without forgetting that this distinction depends on the regions. Winter is therefore the bad season when the Romans use the term mare clausum (closed sea), do at best only cabotage and in any case no navigation on the high seas and large commercial expeditions. The good season begins in March with the feast of Navigium Isidis and lasts until November 11, to the most optimistic, and it is of course a time that is not without risk. As the crossings are then intra-Mediterranean, sailors have to face the variety of winds and currents, the alternations between calm seas and rough seas which depend on the regions, as we have mentioned above.

Roman navigation in the Mediterranean

The ships (of trade, we will see the military ships later) and the maritime ways, the distances covered interest us here. There are "symmetrical" and other "asymmetrical" hulls, according to Mr. Reddé, but most appeared to be round (thus rather symmetrical) and vessels with shallow draft had to be regularly ballasted in strong winds. The sail is most often square or rectangular; as for the number of masts it can go up to three in the 3rd century; finally, the rudder consists mainly of two large oars attached to either side of the hull at the rear. The most important with regard to merchant ships is obviously the tonnage, their carrying capacity: under the Empire, most ships revolve around 450 metric tons, but it is less and less rare it seems. to see ships weighing 1000 tonnes or more.

For navigation itself, the sailor can rely above all on the wind, which conditions his itineraries in the Mediterranean; moreover, it usually sails "dead reckoning" (despite knowing the stars or currents) when it is on the high seas, which can cause trips and crossings of varying duration ... On the other hand, when it is not not straying from the coast, the sailor is based on the “Periplus”, stories dating from the archaic period, where water points, pitfalls, dangers or possible shelters are listed. Knowing that no matter what, a short journey can usually escape piracy (which we will come back to in part three). All sea routes (like land routes) lead to Rome, more precisely its ports Pozzuoli, then Ostia and Portus (independent of Ostia in 313). Departing from the East, the busiest roads run from Egypt to Italy, passing either through Crete or Africa; still in the East, we have the road which goes from the North of the Aegean Sea to Corinth and the port of Lechaion via the isthmus, as well as the one which goes from Syria to Italy via Cyprus or Crete.

In the western Mediterranean, the roads pass through major ports such as Carthage, Cartagena, Arles, Marseille, etc. to reach Ostia, where roads also leave (and arrive) to the islands of Sardinia, Sicily and Corsica. M. Reddé takes specific examples to study these itineraries, stories like the “Stadiasm of the great sea”, of uncertain origin, and especially “The Antonin Route” dating from the 3rd century AD, which provides information on the maritime routes between Rome and Arles, that is to say cabotage, the most common process. The duration of the trips, as we have seen, depends a lot on the navigation conditions but it seems that we can say, for example, that it takes between 15 and 20 days to make Alexandria-Pozzuoli, 20 days Narbonne-Alexandria, 2 Africa days in Ostia. These are therefore relatively short journeys which are probably one of the factors of the intensity of trade in the Mediterranean.

Ports are of course the key points for maritime trade. They are generally of two types: the oldest are often located outside the cities (Ostia for Rome for example), the more recent in the city itself (like Alexandria). All are fitted out, with closed roadsteads and buildings intended for trade; thus, what is called a macellum in Ostia or Pozzuoli, or agora in the East, kinds of local markets intended to distribute the products brought by the maritime trade, so that they are diffused in the rest of the Empire. We are not going to mention all the ports but we can talk about Ostia, major port of Rome, still at the time we are studying, up to 313 and its specialization in the year which we will return to. It developed mainly under Claudius (41-54), then was enlarged under Trajan (98-117); its basin can accommodate 200 ships and is connected to the Tiber. It gradually replaced Pozzuoli, in particular from the 2nd century AD. JC. In addition to Ostia, the other important ports are mainly Alexandria and Carthage, because of their role in the delivery of wheat to Rome, then to Constantinople with regard to the former from the 4th century.

TheMare Nostrum is a general concept which does not correspond exactly to the reality of the time, especially at the geographical level, but which gives a fairly accurate idea of ​​thecontrol of the Mediterranean by the Romans. They know how to tame it, thanks to a substantial fleet (although this varies from time to time) and a large network of ports, all supported by a knowledge of the roads that dates back to well before the Empire. But this control has a goal, trade and especially the supply of Rome. It is also not total and even comes under different pressures as barbaric threats become clearer; the Roman navy then comes into play.

Products and trade in the Mediterranean

What is the nature of trade and goods flowing in the Roman Mediterranean, how trade is regulated and the importance of Annona to the life of the Empire?

The products that pass through the trade routes that we have described are wine, for example, which comes mainly from Catalonia, Gaul, but also from Rhodes and even from Asia Minor. It is also obviously present in Italy (mainly Campania). Spain exportsgarum (fish sauces), oil comes from Baetica or Africa, wheat from Egypt (or Africa too) and fabrics from Syria. Precious products most often transit through Alexandria, or even Carthage; they are silk, ivory, pearls, ... and in the 3rd century, they can come from India by the Red Sea. Likewise there is trade with the Persians and the Chinese through the ports of Syria. Finally, from distant Africa also come the wild animals destined forvenationes, slaves or even ivory.

However, let us dwell on the flagship trade products of that time, knowing that their quantity and quality are very often at the origin of the wealth and importance in trade of the provinces from which they originate. The wine first: present in Italy therefore, the grands crus are produced mainly in Campania; then, we see vineyards in the western provinces as far as southern Gaul, but also in Africa. For the wine trade, if the Italians were able to export and benefit from it in the beginnings of the Empire, they are gradually losing the advantage over the wines of Hispania and Gaul, with provincial wines soon representing the essential exchanges, even if Italian wine is still exported along the Danube, and the great vintages still originate from the peninsula.

The oil, then, mainly concerns Baetics and Africa and depends on the services of the annone (which we discuss next); it is exported not only to Rome where it is stored, but throughout the West, to Brittany and Germany. There is also an oil production in Syria, but which is less well known and of which it is not known if it is exported like that of Baetic and Africa. The oil is a product that is regularly distributed since the reign of Aurelian, daily. Wheat, finally, is the most important commodity, and by which we will then be able to talk about the annona: it is brought to Italy from Egypt and Africa, but also from Southern Gaul, Sicily and France. 'Spain. Egypt must avoid famine in Rome, and therefore deliver to it enough to last four months, which is equivalent to 20 millionmodii (172 million liters). The transport arrives in Portus from 313, between the 1er March and November 15, through the naviculars on which we must focus: they are private traders in charge of the annone, because it must be made clear now, Rome does not have a "state" merchant fleet.

The naviculars are often families (like theFadii de Narbonne), which have their own ships, and which are gathered incollega or somecorpora ; Jean Rougé spoke about them of "companies of capitalists". They transported the annona food at the emperor's request, and in exchange for benefits (such as the use of boats for their private activities): there was something for everyone. Trade in itself, relatively free before the 3rd century, is more and more controlled and regulated as the 4th century approaches: the Edict of the Maximum, in 301, gives us the price of transporting goods: 16 deniers by military bushel between Alexandria and Rome, 4 from Africa to Nicomedia, 20 from Syria to Spain. According to "Expositio Totius Mundi" (an anonymous source from the 4th century), trade is doing well in the Empire, but especially in the Eastern Mediterranean, while in the West it seems to be losing speed, despite the growth of the port. from Arles.

The annone

This service was created by Augustus, but it concerns Rome more than ever in our time, even if it has undergone changes. Its mission is to supply Rome with wheat, to avoid the famines that have regularly hit it in the past. It is a prefect called Annone, of equestrian rank, who is in charge. In a course, one can be prefect of the year before being prefect of Egypt or the praetorium, which shows the importance of this function. According to Pavis d´Escurac, the prefect of Annone is responsible for "gathering, transporting and storing the quotas of wheat essential to the needs of the entire capital". He has under Aurélienthe arca frumentaria and ofthe arca olearia, cash registers to enable it to be managed.

From the third century, annone concerns (in addition to wheat) oil, and is managed by an annone procurator and a freed procurator; at the same time, the ports responsible for the annona, Portus and Ostia above all, are brought under the control of a procurator of the two ports. The system was then simplified in the second half of the 3rd century. In the provinces, it is the provincial procurators who manage the annone, seconded to specialized granaries like those of Neapolis and Ad Mercurium in Alexandria. With the tetrarchy also appeared a prefect of the Annona of Africa who depended on the praetorian prefects, while the vicars of the dioceses also became responsible for the supply of wheat to Rome.

The organization of the navy

Roman military ships are galleys, inspired in part by the Greeks. They are therefore not round, but long and slender, intended to be fast and maneuverable. Another difference with merchant ships is that they are above all rowing ships, therefore with a substantial crew, and not dependent on the wind. The downside that these galleys do have, however, is a certain fragility on the high seas even if they did not hesitate to venture there. Their main difference with transport ships is of course their armament: the galleys are armed with different spurs responsible for smashing the enemy's hull, but also sometimes towers at the front and / or at the rear, and have an "artillery" made up of ballistae which launched either cannon balls or darts (sometimes inflamed). Finally, there are different types depending on their shape, size, number of decks or rowers, such as trières or polyremes.

These main warships, supported by auxiliary ships, are grouped together in military ports which are the main bases of the Roman fleet, while other "civilian" ports can accommodate it during movements in the Mediterranean. The main military ports are those of Ravenna and Misene, which are responsible for protecting the Italian peninsula with the so-called squadronsclassis pretoriae. They were founded by Augustus, Miseno in particular according to Tacitus and Suetonius, Ravenna having perhaps been used as a military port before the principate of Augustus. For Ravenna, Dion Cassius estimated that it could accommodate 250 ships, without specifying whether they were warships, the port not necessarily being intended solely for military use. For Misene, the date of installation may date from 12 BC, but its squadrons were transferred to Constantinople in 330.

The Roman fleet has of course many and varied missions, although for a long time the escort of merchant squadrons did not seem a priority for example.La Pax Romana led it for several centuries to carry out mainly "police" missions and not strictly military missions, Rome fully controlling its maritime space and having no enemy capable of raising a substantial fleet there. It then serves as a support to the land army, mainly taking care of its supplies. What then can be its other missions? With regard to trade and its control, can we say that the military navy had a role to play, especially with Annona? There were soldiers in the service of the Annona, even if they were rare, as in Ostia thecornicularius procuratoris annonae; but they were probably only detached, and not sailors.

The defense of the coasts could perhaps concern the Roman navy; it seems that under the principate the charge ofpraefectus orae maritimae, reserved for knights, but the magistrate apparently did not have a fleet under his command… So these are not missions that can be attributed to the Roman navy; on the other hand, it was useful, in times of peace, for the transport of officials, transforming itself into an escort during times of turmoil and less security like the one that concerns us. As we can see, it is quite difficult to define the missions and therefore the usefulness of the Roman navy, especially in times of peace. This is precisely what would seem to have weakened it, while the threats became more precise in the Mediterranean even in the third century; Did the Roman navy then react at this time and in what way? During this period, the fleet continues to be administered and "centralized" in the ports of Ravenna and Misene (which have a prefect), despite the difficulties; one can quote, to quote Mr. Reddé, the commander of the fleet of Misene in 258-260, which was called Mr. Cornelius Octavianus according to epigraphic sources. The Roman navy did not therefore disappear at the time of the crisis of the 3rd century, and it must then react to threats.

The navy in the face of threats

Until Valérien, the military navy was active, mainly in supporting ground troops and supplying supplies. Previously, the death of Trajan Decius in 251, on the Danube, was a turning point because it is by this axis that the Mediterranean is then threatened by the barbarians and its navy put to contribution, whereas it is the region where it is the weakest. In 267, the Pontic fleet had to give way to the Goths who could spill over into the Aegean Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean, going so far as to threaten Egypt! The prefect of this province confronts them off Cyprus in 270. During the reign of Probus, another episode shows that the navy no longer holds theMare Nostrum : Franks who left Pontus, steal ships and manage to cross the straits to plunder Sicily and Italy! They push as far as Gibraltar without having at a single moment to have to face a Roman fleet ... Piracy, on the other hand, is taking off again, as evidenced by a text by Ammien Marcellin (4th century); the Cilicians are specialists in the field, but this betrays above all the loss of control of certain populations by Rome.

However, the picture is not so bad for the Roman navy: except for the Frankish raid, the difficulties it encounters are mainly in the eastern Mediterranean, the West and therefore Rome being relatively spared; It is therefore more the naval system than the navy as a whole that is undermined. Subsequently, we witness an evolution with the reforms of Diocletian which affected (among others) the army and therefore the navy. According to a source from Justinian's day, the Roman navy had a strength of 45,562 under the Tetrarchy. But it was the Constantinian period that saw a real transformation in the Roman navy in the Mediterranean: Constantine used the navy for his reconquest of Italy in 312, while his rival Maxentius used it for Africa in 310-311 ; the Roman navy was therefore divided according to the very divisions the Empire suffered. The victory of Constantine makes the squadrons of Ravenna and Misene lose the title ofpraetoria, as they undergo purges for their support of Maxentius. Constantine reorganized the fleet, and transferred the important poles to Greece, then to Constantinople its new capital. This period therefore saw a change in the functioning of the fleet, after the barbaric threats and especially the civil war which followed the tetrarchy: creation of new squadrons, rebalancing in favor of the East and Constantinople, ... which led to the finding of a navy more fragmented and less massive, focused on defense and perhaps more able to face possible new barbaric threats like those of the second half of the 3rd century.

The Mediterranean therefore remained at the heart of the life of the Empire, despite a shift in its center of gravity to the North, due to the invasions and the emperor's remoteness from Rome. The Mediterranean was still Rome's main trading area during this time, and the Annona was just as important there. The changes only concerned certain sectors such as the management of the annona, increased control over trade following the Edict of 301, despite the conservation of naviculars, and especially the Roman navy which, after having had to face the barbarian invasions without being able to react, thus proving that it was no longer capable of ensuring the entire "Romanity" ofMare Nostrum, had to reform under the tetrarchy and Constantine.

This period is therefore above all a period of transition and adaptation of Rome to its maritime space, but which perhaps already heralds the end of theMare Nostrum.

Non-exhaustive bibliography

- Reddé,Mare Nostrum: the infrastructures, the device and the history of the military navy under the Roman Empire, Paris, Rome, 1986.

- Reddé, Golvin,Trips on the Roman Mediterranean, Actes Sud, Errance, Arles, 2005.

- Sartre-Tranoy,The ancient Mediterranean 4th century BC. JC- IIIè s AD. JC, Cursus collection, Paris 1990.

- Chastagnol,The political, social and economic evolution of the Roman world 284-363, Paris, Sedes, 1994.


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