Economic Integration and Labor Organization in Roman Mining:
The Question of Capitalism
Many discussions about the possibility of capitalism in the Roman world revolve around evidence from one of two contexts: first, trade and markets in urban places and second, the accumulation of wealth through agriculture in suburban and rural environments. Absent from this story, but arguably integral to any debate about the Roman economy, is an analysis of extractive industries and industrial landscapes. While Roman mining and quarrying have long been studied in their own right from varied disciplinary perspectives, they are often left out of discussions of the nature and organization of the Roman economy. This is because – as Mattingly and Salmon have put it – they are exceptional activities, “clearly better interpreted as administrative or imperial enterprises than as a rational economic phenomena: cost was no part of the calculation.”1 The awe-inspiring scale of famous Roman extraction sites such as the gold mines of las Médulas in Spain or the granite quarries at Mons Claudianus in Egypt only reinforce this interpretation. However, the scholarly urge to exceptionalize extractive industries can obscure questions of how they were integrated with other facets of the Roman economy and (key here) the ways in which they exhibit tendencies that might be considered “capitalist.”
In an effort to integrate the study of Roman mining into larger debates about the nature of the Roman economy, this paper will explore two aspects of Roman mining economies. First, I will discuss the integration of Roman imperial mining with private industries. I will show that the imperial economy both relied upon and itself stimulated local and often privately-organized economic activity for the supply of equipment, the provision of food, and other services. Second, but relatedly, I will explore the extent to which mining depended upon free labor and the ways in which free and slave labor were integrated in the mining industry. This paper takes as a primary case study the Roman mines of the early imperial period located in the Iberian Pyrite Belt, which extended across southern Lusitania and western Baetica). There, copper, silver, and other metals were extracted at unprecedented scales to supply the Roman Empire with coveted ores. The mines of Riotinto (Huelva, Spain) and Vipasca (Aljustrel, Portugal) provide a wealth of archaeological and epigraphic evidence that sheds light on the organization of mining economies in this corner of the Roman Empire and which I will consider here.
This paper will not argue that Roman mining should be used as evidence for capitalism in the Roman world. Nevertheless, examining these specific aspects of mining – economic integration and labor organization – through the lens of capitalism can serve a valuable heuristic purpose. Not only does it allow mining economies to be integrated into larger theoretical debates about the nature of the Roman economy, but it also allows Roman mining to be brought into conversations about mining and global economies from a long-term perspective.
1 David J. Mattingly and John Salmon, “The Productive Past: Economies beyond Agriculture,” in Economies Beyond Agriculture in the Classical World, ed. David J. Mattingly and John Salmon (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), 3-14.
Coming Autumn 2019.