Dispatching the dole: the seaborne transport of staples between Tunisia and Italy through literary and archaeological evidence
19 April 2023
The supply of food staples to a specific segment of Rome’s population—whose income or property were below a certain amount—was a prime concern in the late-Republican and imperial period, as it could earn vast numbers of votes and keep the potentially dangerous lower-class citizens at bay. Most of the subsidised foodstuffs were imported from Africa: the logistics of transporting the staples to Rome was extremely elaborate, but the efficient control of the food supply was a key to the control of Rome itself.
Despite the risks of seaborne transport, shipping goods by sea was much cheaper than by land. Ancient navigation rarely involved direct sailing on the open sea: ships and sailors were often constrained to coastal journeys. Sailing routes in the ancient Mediterranean have been compared to beaded strings, the beads being the manifold harbours and anchorages where ships could find shelter along their journeys. Building on the archaeological evidence of a group of maritime imperial villas on the coast of southern Etruria, and combining it with literary sources relevant to navigation routes in the central Mediterranean, the lecture will seek to reconstruct the logistics of the transport of the dole between Tunisia and Italy.
Alice Poletto (BSR)