The Economic History Review

Extracting economics from Roman marble quarries†

Volume 70 Issue 1
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Pages: 52-78Authors: Leah E. Long
Published online: August 2, 2016DOI: 10.1111/ehr.12375

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Urbanization across the Roman Empire created a demand for building materials on an unprecedented scale. Quarrying was largely conducted by municipalities, institutions, or landed aristocrats, who owned or inherited the valuable land from which stone was extracted. By using principles of economics as a guide, and with greater coordination between theory and written and archaeological sources, this article examines the decision-making processes involved in opening a quarry. Theories of economic rationality, resource economics, and statistical methods are helpful for understanding the prices for marble recorded in Diocletian’s Edict, Roman jurists’ writings about exploitation on private land, and newly discovered quarries in the region of Aphrodisias, Turkey. Here it is argued that the exchange of local building stone took place in a competitive market where landowners actively tried to improve their financial situation, but did so at considerable risk. At Aphrodisias, examples of failed attempts exist alongside long-running and successful enterprises. Entrepreneurs there did not extract a homogeneous set of resources, but chose to target marbles with inconsistent physical properties at increasing distances from the city in response to greater demand and rising prices. Roman jurists, primarily interested in protecting property value, made landowners calculate whether potential profits earned from sales outweighed the degradation of land.