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The collaborations between historians, mathematicians, computer scientists and physicians helps to rebuilt the routes of the Roman Empire

From left to right: Iza Romanwska, from Barcelona Supercomputing Center; Professor José Remesal, and Bernardo Rondelli from SIRIS consultin company, during the press release to present the research study.

From left to right: Iza Romanwska, from Barcelona Supercomputing Center; Professor José Remesal, and Bernardo Rondelli from SIRIS consultin company, during the press release to present the research study.

Location of the objects with epigraphy that were included in the CEIPAC data base.

Location of the objects with epigraphy that were included in the CEIPAC data base.

Representation of a Roman boat.

Representation of a Roman boat.

Remains of amphorae in Monte Testaccio in Rome.

Remains of amphorae in Monte Testaccio in Rome.

13/06/2018

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A study carried out by historians, mathematicians, computer scientists and physicians - experts on complex networks, with the use of computer simulations, enabled them to reconstruct the commerce map of the Roman Empire. The study was carried out within the European project EPNet (Production and Distribution of Food during the Roman Empire: Economic and Political Dynamics). The study reveals that commerce at a continental scale, between the different Roman provinces, had important flows and the Atlantic was the main route to transport oil, preserved fish and wine that were produced in the Iberian Peninsula (Hispania Baetica and Tarraco provincial areas) to northern Europe, contrary to those theories that highlighted the importance of the River Rhone as their commerce route. These and other conclusions are now published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

 

In order to carry this research out, researchers used the database of the Classical Antiquity Studies on Provincial Interdependence Centre (CEIPAC) of the UB. This database gathers 43,000 archaeological records, specifically on amphora remains. These are considered the best indicators to study food commerce of Ancient Rome. They were present during the Empire and had some engravings with detailed information on the origin and the properties of the products; they would be the old version of the tags we find in food nowadays. The published study analyses this large database on amphorical epigraphy with methods from physics and computer science to compare the different theories on commerce during ancient times. Also, apart from CEIPAC, the other members of EPNet are from the research group PhysComp of the UB (coordinated by Albert Díaz Guilera), focused on the study of complex networks from a statistical physics perspective; the Barcelona Supercomputing Center (Xavier Rubio and Iza Romanowska), and SIRIS Academic consulting, expert on semantic models and knowledge management (Bernardo Rondelli).

The published article concludes, for example, that the distribution per provinces had a relevant role in the trade of foods or that geographically close provinces coincide in some things (amphorae with the same origin stamps), probably because of sharing the same trade routes. Also, provincial cities with important military emphasis are similar among them, which points out that those army units that were separated by thousands of kilometres had the same suppliers.

The results show some similarities regarding amphorical ephigraphy, between the provinces of the Rhine Gorge (Raetia, Germania Superior and Germania Inferior) with the Britannia and Belgica areas. However, there are not similarities among the provinces of Gaul. These differences suggest that those products coming from the Iberian Peninsula did not get to the north through the Rhone, crossing the Gaul, like some hypothesis had previously stated, but instead, amphorae were transported through the Atlantic.

“What we found relevant in our project is that we have used different disciplines so that hypothesis can be falsifiable”, says Professor Remesal. In the published article in Journal of Arhcaeological Science, it is mentioned that the applied method enabled researchers to overcome the complexity and existing distortions typical from fragmented information, such as archaeological remains. Although quantitative analysis and computer simulations have always been used to study older periods of time (to analyse prehistoric societies), the article points out there are possibilities to know more about Ancient Rome, the creator of the first European commerce complex network. For instance, it mentions the possibility to apply the new method to other products and different recipients of amphorae.

A future approach: Roman Open Data

Researchers from EPNet made a new progress with the creation of Roman Open Data, a set of databases with ontological-model data, typical in the latest advances in computer science, which enables communication between different information systems through a comprehensive conceptual scheme. In particular, Roman Open Data can gather up to forty databases of information on ancient history. At the moment, there are databases from CEIPAC, the University of Heidelberg on historical figures, and from the University of Southampton on the shape of amphorae .

At the moment, Roman Open Data has 43,000 reports with a total of a thousand data. A new European grant has been required to continue working on Roman Open Data, so that historians and archaeologists have a rich heritage of existing information in Europe, with a series of computer resources that help and promote new research studies.

Xavier Rubio-Campillo, Jean-Marc Montanier, Guillem Rull, Juan Manuel Bermúdez Lorenzo, Juan Moros Díaz, Jordi Pérez González, José Remesal Rodríguez «The ecology of Roman trade. Reconstructing provincial connectivity with similarity measures», Journal of Archaeological Science, April 2018, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2018.02.010

 

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