Luxury items: Production, Consumption and the Roman Military

Organiser: Birgitta Hoffmann (Roman Gask Project)

It is well known that the Roman army was able to obtain craftsmen, who either as serving soldiers or as civilians working for the army were able to fulfil many of the Army’s needs. However, since the excavation at Castleford we know that fabricae were not only producing militarily essential material, but also ‘indulged’ in producing higher value items such as enameled vessels and metal spoons. At the same time, we have evidence that in the vicinity of Roman forts and especially surrounding the Roman legions the production of luxury items seems to have found a market, be it in the form of expensive figure gravestones and monuments such as at Chester or through the production of Ivory Carvings in Xanten and Mainz, or box combs and pyxides in Vindonissa.

Beyond the listing of the evidence in finds reports, it is worthwhile to query our beliefs about the provision of the Roman army. There was clearly a ready market for unusual object surrounding the Roman army. Are we to use the ideas of Free Market trading to explain the presence of these objects, or does the continued and guaranteed presence of members of the Roman elite create a setting much closer to the models surrounding the production of high value items in the Iron Age and Early Medieval settings, where a small elite is able to command the production of these items. Are there multiple models at play and are there changes in the course of 450 years of Roman presence in the Western Empire?

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