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Finding the Medieval in Rome IV: Teaching with the Crypta Balbi

I mentioned a little while back that when I started in post at the University of Leeds I inherited a late antique survey module for first-year undergraduates which, indeed, I still run. That module has always ended with a class centred on the old ‘Pirenne thesis’, the work of the turn of the 19th/20th-century Belgian historian Henri Pirenne arguing that the Islamic conquests broke up the trade networks of the Mediterranean and that this, rather than any political epiphenomenon like when there were emperors where, was what really constituted the end of the Roman world.1 I use Pirenne as a lever to open up questions like how we determine the end of historical eras and how historians debate and evidence really large-scale arguments, and these days it works OK, but as I recounted in that post, I have always struggled to find a good primary source with which to teach it. The translation of an infamous and probably forged royal toll charter for the monastery of Corbie which I currently use is working OK, but what I initially wanted—and, as that post says, found doesn’t exist—was a clear but reasonably detailed account in English of the ceramic finds at the Crypta Balbi in Rome, largely because it was with those that someone first got through to me about me this stuff.2 So when I and my partner’s family actually went there in summer 2017, I did my best to equip myself with means to make my own teaching tool.

We should probably start with what the Crypta Balbi actually is.3 Firstly, it is not a crypt, which I realise may not be obvious. What it was was a theatre, built by one Balbus in the reign of Augustus (27 BC-AD 14), with a considerable attached building around a courtyard, which is the so-called Crypta.

Rceonstruction maquette of the Crypta Balbi in the Museo Nazionale Romano Crypta Balbi, Rome

Reconstrucion maquette of the Roman crypta, theatre visible behind the courtyard

The area caught fire in AD 80, however, and subsequently bits of the damaged complex served numerous different roles, including (ironically) a possible base of the Roman fire brigade, a monumental public latrine, grain distribution centre, temple and, most importantly, a substantial private house built over the lowest levels of the old crypta. By the fifth century, the complex had been hedged in by private housing and a new road along one edge, across from which a monastery of San Lorenzo was established.

Remains of a column from the Theatre of Balbus or the Crypta Balbi in the Museo Nazionale Crypta Balbi, Rome

Remains of a column from the Theatre of Balbus or the original Crypta Balbi

By the 6th century, though, skipping over quite a lot of imperial history, times had changed.4 Rome had been cut off from its tax spine by the Vandal conquest of Carthage in 439, the emperors now ruled either from Ravenna or Constantinople or both, and the old imperial capital had shrunk considerably. Coping with the new circumstances, we find that the occupants of the big house in this generation either sold off or converted parts of the complex for use as workshops and a public kitchen, and indeed in one small tragic place, a double infant burial. (What’s more tragic is that the poor kids’ skeletons are now on display in the Museo, one might think, but never mind that now.) Finally, in 618, there was an earthquake which substantially damaged the place and it seems to have gone out of use, after which some of its old outdoor space seems to have been taken over for use as a burial ground (and indeed possibly an outdoor space) for the monastery of San Lorenzo. That takes the story into the 9th century at least (when another earthquake damaged the ruins still further), and then whatever account I was trying to build from the signage stopped prompting me to take photographs.5

Stonework probably from the Monastero di San Lorenzo, in the Museo Nazionale Romano Crypta Balbi

Stonework probably from the Monastero di San Lorenzo. I really loved the inventive cross-design interlace on the piece at the right.

So how do you make a source out of this, Jonathan, you may justly ask, and the answer is that during all of this time, this place was piling up stuff in considerable quantities. The current Museo is pretty catholic (though not enough to rebury the children, ahaha not funny) about exactly where the stuff it displays came from in some cases, with material from the site being freely mixed in with other material from nearby, but at least the signage does actually make that clear, and the displays that result are pretty impressive.

The main display space of the Museo Nazionale Romano Crypta Balbi

The main display space of the Museo

Material culture display in the Museo Nazionale Romano Crypta Balbi, Rome

I mean, one could just set this single display, as long as one had the captions…

Display of material produced near the Crypta Balbi in the Museo Nazionale Romano Crypta Balbi, Rome

… except that you’d also want this display specifically of stuff made in the local workshops (or stuff like that stuff)…

Display of game board and personal items in the Museo Nazionale Romano Crypta Balbi, Rome

… and then how could you leave this out?

But when it comes to ceramics, they can afford to work off their own stock more equally, and the reason for this is that pretty much throughout the house’s four-century history, the occupants were dumping whatever ceramics broke, either into small rubbish pits in the rooms concerned, or into a huge big rubbish dump in their own basement (next, as it happens, to an old house Mithraeum which you can also visit).

The basement (and erstwhile ceramics dump) in the Museo Nazionale Romano Crypta Balbi, Rome

The famous basement dumping zone, now empty

Apsidal end of the erstwhile Mithraeum in the Museo Nazionale Romano Crypta Balbi, Rome

The apsidal end of the erstwhile Mithraeum

Ceramics retrieved from the erstwhile Mithraeum in the Museo Nazionale Romano Crypta Balbi, Rome

Ceramic remains from the Mithraeum

What that means, of course, is a massive, more or less stratigraphically laid down, deposition history of what ceramics a rich family in Rome could get hold of from the second to the seventh centuries. I mean, one presumes that what they were actually buying was oil, wine, honey, garum (a Worcester-sauce-like condiment) and so on, but since they bought it in amphorae and jugs, presumably alongside other stuff in more perishable containers, what we see is the ceramics. And they are quite a big deal in terms of assessing theses which argue the end of an economic trading system.

Ceramic assemblage display in the Museo Nazionale Romano Crypta Balbi, Rome

An illustrative display of ceramics, one of quite a few in the Museo and showing the kind of density of record we’re talking

You see, we (the collective late antique and early medieval Academy, I mean, not me specifically) are quite good at determining dates and origins of late Roman ceramics. This is partly because of the fact that some of them are actually marked…

Late Roman ceramics in the Museo Nazionale Romano Crypta Balbi, Rome

Late Roman ceramics, of which though I didn’t take photos to check, apparently—sorry—the upper register of African Red Slip stuff almost certainly bears hallmarks underneath

… but mainly because of the seminal work of a guy called John Hayes, and the huge edifice since built upon it, to compare piles and piles of the stuff from different places until it became clear which things were being made where and roughly when.6 And what that means is that you can turn a display like the one above into a display like the one below…

Ceramics displayed with an origin map in the Museo Nazionale Romano Crypta Balbi, Rome

Representative imported ceramics and an origins map

… and then match particular styles of amphora and so on…

Amphorae from the erstwhile kitchen in the Museo Nazionale Romano Crypta Balbi, Rome

Ceramics, mainly storage amphorae, from the erstwhile kitchen

Amphorae (Dressel type 27?) in the Museo Nazionale Crypta Balbi, Rome

Quite distinct amphorae (I think 3rd-century, from this Dressel chart where I see these as no. 27—but I don’t know how far that classification has changed, I admit)

… to particular points of origin, and make it clear that these people had access to really quite the spread of goods.

Distribution map of ceramic imports to the Crypta Balbi in the Museo Nazionale Romano Crypta Balbi, Rome

Distribution map by type, showing points of origin

That is, until they didn’t.

Comparative distribution maps of ceramic origins of material from the 5th and 8th centuries in the Museo Nazionale Romano Crypta Balbi, Rome

That map in its context, with a comparative one of the 8th-century situation below it

You see, around the beginning of the seventh century, we see a sharp shift. Imported ceramics pretty much cease to be found here, as indeed does coinage.

Coinage display in the Museo Nazionale Romano Crypta Balbi, Rome

Coinage display, running from 1st to 7th century and then stopping; the last small pile at the right is captioned just "illegibile" Yup, I’ve been there too, Signor Curatore…

It’s not that there’s nothing on site at all, it’s just much more local in origin.

8th-century ceramics in the Museo Nazionale Romano Crypta Balbi, Rome

8th-century ceramics, all from Lazio and points immediately south

Display of material culture from the 7th to 9th centuries of Roman history in the Museo Nazionale Romano Crypta Balbi, Rome

Display of various 7th- to 9th-century objects

Late Roman period belt buckles in the Museo Nazionale Romano Crypta Balbi, Rome

Fancy belt buckles, which as we all know only barbarians wore so must mean immigrants, right? Well, no, but nonetheless, they’re not like the dress fastenings of a time before

Now obviously the chronology of this works pretty well if you’re Henri Pirenne or wish him to have been right. At the beginning of the seventh century, the eastern Mediterranean went into a paroxysm of war, first between the Roman Empire and Sasanian Persia and then, still reeling, between both of those two separately and the new religious movement that was Islam, and by the middle of that century, Persia no longer existed, the Romans had lost about half of their territory and Islam ruled from the far eastern edges of Iran to about halfway along the North African coast.7 And lo, at the beginning of the seventh century the people in the Crypta Balbi stopped receiving imported ceramics. Even the signage in the Museo explains this in terms of the Islamic conquests.

Explanation of 8th-century stratigraphy from the site in the Museo Nazionale Romano Crypta Balbi, Rome

You can maybe read this yourself if you embiggen it, but in case not, the significant bit is four paragraphs up from the bottom, and says:

“Due to the spread of Arab domination over the ancient Roman provinces and the dismissal of the Byzantine officers from Rome, the mechanism of long distance trade stopped.”

So surely this is the time to say quod erat demonstrandum, Pirenne was right?8 Well, annoyingly for some perhaps, I’m going to say no, or at least, not from the site, and the reason may already be obvious to you. Remember how I said above that this place became part of the area used by the monastery of San Lorenzo after it went out of use, because of an earthquake? That earthquake happened in 618, in the middle of the war between Rome and Persia and sixteen years before Muhammad’s flight to Medina. Wanna bet the house going out of use has something to do with fancy smashed pottery no longer piling up in its basement? I’m not an archaeologist but I’m going to stick my neck out and say there’s probably a connection. And if what we’re actually seeing here, then, is not a strangling of imperial trade networks cancelling the availability of imported goods, but a sudden, abrupt and very singular collapse in demand at one site only, followed by a change of use and maybe ownership at some remove in time, then Pirenne’s is probably not the story this place tells.

Dispaly of medieval ceramics in the Museo Nazionale Romano Crypta Balbi, Rome

Medieval ceramics, waiting to tell their own story

Now, sadly, that also means I probably have to stop trying to make a teaching example out of it, even though others keep doing so.9 But it has made for a pretty good blog post, if I say so myself, and maybe that can be of use for others.


1. I gave these references last time but it can’t hurt to give them again: Henri Pirenne, Mohammed and Charlemagne, trans. Bernard Miall (London 1939) and for a recent historiographical update Bonnie Effros, “The Enduring Attraction of the Pirenne Thesis” in Speculum Vol. 92 (Cambridge MA 2017), pp. 184–208.

2. I’m not honestly sure when that was, either; I first really learnt about Pirenne when teaching, and I have a feeling that I owe my previous grip on the issue to Chris Wickham’s Trevelyan Lectures in Cambridge in 2003, which would be quite ironic given what Chris thinks of the Pirenne thesis (see his Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005), p. 821). But then, for all I now remember, if it was indeed Chris I first heard about it from, he may have been using exactly the argument about the Crypta Balbi that I develop below, in which case, sorry Chris…

3. In what follows I’m resting partly on the Museo’s signage, of which I was careful to take numerous photos, and Daniele Manacorda et al., Crypta Balbi: Museo nazionale romano. English edition, trans. Joanne Berry and Nigel Pollard (Milano 2000), pp. 7-27.

4. Weirdly, this period is hardly covered in Manacorda et al., Crypta Balbi; there’s some explanation of the general change in the city, pp. 50-78, but though that looks like a lot it’s mainly pictures and art history stressing that this was not a cultural descent into barbarism, and very little is said about any wider historiography. As will be seen below, this is at sharp variance with the actual museum signage and I wonder if there is some disagreement that explains why I mainly have to rely on it for what happened at the site in this period. Again, it is possible that Signor Dr Manacorda has seen the problem I see below with the Museo’s account, and has had to gloss round it.

5. Here, while the museum signage runs out, Manacorda and colleagues get going again, and Crypta Balbi, pp. 28-47 cover the period from the 9th century to the present day. It’s really just the period for which the site is mostly sited that’s not covered in the narrative…

6. John W. Hayes, Late Roman Pottery (London 1972); there is now a regular conference on Late Roman coarse wares that is where this stuff is happening, and some kind of starting resource here.

7. If this is not a familiar story to you, then the first few chapters of Mark Whittow, The Making of Orthodox Byzantium, 600–1025 (Basingstoke 1996), will sort you out.

8. The seminar paper to whose report that link goes now exists, posthumously alas, as Mark Whittow, “Pirenne, Muhammad, and Bohemond: Before Orientalism” in G. E. M. Lippiatt and Jessalynn L. Bird (edd.), Crusading Europe: Essays in Honour of Christopher Tyerman, Outremer: Studies in the Crusades and the Latin East 8 (Turnhout 2019), pp. 17–49, DOI: 10.1484/M.OUTREMER-EB.5.117314.

9. For example, Olof Brandt, “Interpreting the Archaeological Record” in Philip Rousseau (ed.), A Companion to Late Antiquity (Oxford 2009), pp. 156-169 at pp. 160-161, or Simon Loseby, “The Mediterranean Economy” in Paul Fouracre (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History volume I: c. 500‒c. 700 (Cambridge 2005), pp. 605–638 at p. 609.

One response to “Finding the Medieval in Rome IV: Teaching with the Crypta Balbi

  1. Excellent post. Really appreciate the effort you have put in. I have learned something about a period and place I am relatively unfamiliar with. Thank you.

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