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Article 8•
John H. D’Arms and the Economic Interests of the Roman Elite*

* Extrait de : A. Gallina Zevi et J.H. Humphrey, éd., Ostia, Cicero, Gamala, feasts, & the economy: papers in memory of John H. D’Arms. Atti della giornata di studio del 27 giugno 2002 al Castello di Ostia dedicata al ricordo di J. H. D’Arms with the addition of some papers from the Seminar in Commemoration of John H. D’Arms, JRA Suppl. Ser. 57, Portsmouth, R.I., 2004, 137-141.

John D’Arms was of course the authority on the Gulf of Naples in Roman times, and particularly the authority on Puteoli. And, in the research he has done on that region, he was above all a prosopographer. It is not an accident that he very often quotes Ronald Syme. And one has to emphasize that, in prosopographical matters, he was no less competent at inscriptions than with literary texts, no less competent with respect to the Principate than with respect to the Late Republic, – which is not so frequent among prosopographers.

For the most part focusing on the Gulf of Naples and chiefly resting on prosopography, his research had three main successive periods. In the first, he studied the aristocratic life, the “vita di villa” in the luxurious residences. We find that in several articles and in his first book, published in 19701. As he himself wrote, it was “a social and cultural study”. His objectives, he said, were “to identify the Romans who owned a coastal property in Campania and to account for their activities while in retreat”2.

Secondly, the economic aspects of the elite activities, the subject above all of his second book, published in 19813. As he writes in the very beginning, the book is devoted to “the attitudes and behavior concerning commerce and trade, and the relationship between attitudes and behavior”4.

At last, food habits, table manners, the social and cultural differences between the various kinds of meals. On that third research topic, which interested him a very long time, he could not work as much as on the other two, because of the demands of his positions as Dean in the University of Michigan, and as President of the American Council of the Learned Societies.

In this paper, I am going to speak of the economic interests of the members of the elite, the topic which kept him busy for ten years more or less, let us say between 1975 and 1985, and which is, I think, the best known part of his research. This topic, for me, is linked to a lot of personal memories, and this partly explains why I speak of it this evening, – not without emotion.

I met John D’Arms, for the first time, at the beginning of the seventies, I don’t recall the precise date. In our developing friendship Ettore Lepore was a link-man. Lepore had published a long and very shrewd review of Romans on the bay of Naples in the Parola del Passato, and he had friendly relations with John D’Arms5. There was Paavo Castrén, too, who was writing his book on Pompeii, Ordo populusque Pompeianus, or had just finished it6. I remember a Conference in which, during the breaks and after the sessions, we used to take walks together and to discuss a lot and we used to say that we were forming “la scuola di Lepore”. I think it was the Essen conference on Pompeii, which was organized by B. Andreae, took place in June 1973 and was published in 1975 (but I am not completely sure)7. The four of us were much concerned by the problem of the economic activities of the elite, Paavo Castrén because of his book, and I myself because of the tablets of Lucius Caecilius Jucundus8.

I do not remember all the scientific plans John D’Arms made at that period. In a paper published in 1974, he announces “a full scale study – currently in preparation – of the municipal gentry of Puteoli under the Empire”9. In the event, there were several papers, but no book. But at least from 1975, or even earlier, he began to plan Commerce and social standing. In the Preface, he says that he had been busy with that book for at least five years. And, in fact, in 1977 already he had published a paper which later on he inserted into the book10. In this paper the central thesis was already formulated.

At that moment, at the end of the 70s, our small group of friends dispersed, and John and I lost touch with each other. I had gone back to France, and, in 1978-1979, because of teaching duties at Strasbourg, I could not take part in the conferences on seaborne commerce which John organized in the American Academy. Castrén had flown back to Finland, before becoming the first director of the Finnish Institute in Athens, and he did not take part in the conferences either. Later on, John, having served as director of the American Academy in Rome, went back to Ann Arbor, as a Professor and then as a Dean in the University of Michigan.

I met him again in 1995, when I spent two months in Ann Arbor, and I gave a half-term seminar on instrumentum domesticum. John was still Dean, but, despite the burdens of administration, he often came to these seminars, and we had good exchanges. The following year, or perhaps in 1997, he came to Paris and delivered a brilliant lecture on public meals in Ostia at the time of Caesar.

As regards trade and the economic interests and behaviour of the Roman elites, John’s activity, while he was the Director of the American Academy, moved in two main directions.

On one hand, his second book, published in 1981. In addition, he organized several small conferences at the Academy, between November 1978 and April 1979, with a rather regular rhythm, two days in sequence each month; they were published in volume no. 36, 1980, of the Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome11. In all, there were six conferences, in twelve days, and, in addition to them, there was a debate with Moses I. Finley. That debate provided the first occasion for Italian historians and archaeologists to engage with Finley in public. The proceedings were not published. Several colleagues who have taken part in these seminars, for example Mary Boatwright, William Harris and Fausto Zevi, are present today. I think this series of meetings was very important from many points of view.

They constituted a dialogue between archaeologists on the one hand and historians and epigraphists on the other.

There were a few contributions from French scholars (Antoinette Hesnard, Patrice Pomey, Jean Rougé, André Tchernia), and others from elsewhere attended the sessions; but these conferences mainly constituted a dialogue between Italian and Anglo-American scholars.

John D’Arms’s concern was scholarly, and certainly not political; his main objective in my view was to bring into more fruitful contact the international community of classicists in Rome. Nevertheless the meetings were at the same time a dialogue between the members of Dialoghi di Archeologia and those who had no connections, or few connections, with this circle. One has to remember the Italian political life of that period, and the fact that, at that time, many Italian scholars in Rome were as engaged in current political life as in archaeology and ancient history.

The product of these discussions was the well-known volume of the Memoirs, which, more than twenty years later, remains one of the few fundamental books on Roman trade, and one that cannot be ignored by anyone interested in Roman trade. Its subject is not only the involvement of the elite in trade; it deals with every aspect of trade. The contributors are experts and they sometimes arrive at contrasting conclusions. So, it has been a great success.

In Commerce and social standing in Ancient Rome, John D’Arms presented his own vision of Roman trade and commerce, and of the involvement of the elite. His ideas have had a great influence, especially in Italy, even if not everyone is persuaded.

The focus of the book is the question of relations between the Romans’ attitudes and behaviour as regards economic activity, enrichment and above all trade. John states very clearly on the first page of the Preface that he is “offering a response to two questions: what were the predominant Roman attitudes towards commerce and trade in the late Republic and first two centuries of the Empire, and how did Roman conduct relate to them?”12.

The attitudes are moral ideas, values, collective opinions (for instance, the idea that trade is to be despised and is not worthy of the elite). Behaviour relates to the way the Romans conducted themselves in real life. D’Arms thought Finley had given too much importance to the attitudes, but that Rostovtzeff had not taken them sufficiently into account. He wrote that such attitudes of the Romans were “something more than a myth and something less than a norm”. And he added: “Values help to determine conventions, and these in turn fundamentally affect the substance of experience – in the commercial as well as in other spheres”13.

Among the seven chapters of the book, four are mainly devoted to the elite’s activities, two deal with freedmen; the remaining one, on life in villas (chapter 4), establishes a link with his first book.

I am not going to analyze the book in detail. I must confess that, when it was published, I was not convinced by several of its main conclusions. I thought that, for D’Arms, in spite of the sentences I have just quoted, the attitudes were much more a myth than a norm. It seemed to me that his first concern was to show that the senators, like all other strata of Roman society, were above all anxious to earn money, by any means14.

My ideas have partly changed. Certainly, if John was among us to-day, I would still have a few objections to raise. For instance, it seems to me that, arising out of the vigorous debates of those years, too much importance was attached to a few very dubious cases, for example to Caius Sempronius Rufus or to the Lucceii15. I would say to him too that all the economic sectors do not have to be considered together. The situation is very different from sector to sector.

But I am now convinced of the truth of two main conclusions that I did not accept very easily twenty years ago. First: the quantitative importance of those interventions of the members of the elite. I am now convinced that the elite’s income from non-agricultural activities were significant, even if the patrimonies of senators and knights, in their major part, consisted in lands and buildings. I was confirmed in this view by my investigations into the income of English and French nobles in early modern times, between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries. By comparison, it seemed to me that Roman senators raised higher levels of income from non-agricultural activities than did French nobles, and maybe even English peers.

But the challenge is to understand the process by which Romans drew income from these sources. In this matter one finds that D’Arms, if read with close attention, is generally very prudent. We discussed these matters in Ann Arbor. As I wrote in a paper published in 1985, my research on banking and finance led me to believe that an important part of these investments was carried out through loans. The peculium itself was a kind of loan16.

The second conclusion concerns social mobility. Between 1970 and 1975, while doing research on Pompeii, Castrén and I both assumed that the history of the Pompeian ordo decurionum was marked by several successive crises and that its renewal was not always a straightforward and peaceful process. In accordance with that idea, we leaned, or at least I leaned, towards the opinion that social mobility was very low17. Of course, everything is relative, and, as regards social mobility, it is very difficult to give figures. But I am now convinced that D’Arms is right to attach much importance to social mobility, and first because of demographic reasons. In the 80s, others have made a similar observation with regard to the Roman senate, notably Keith Hopkins and François Jacques18. The existence of mobility does not mean that there were no crises, and D’Arms never wrote that there were no crises. I still think there were very critical moments in the history of municipal elites such as that of Pompeii, particularly in connection with significant political events in Rome (the speech Pro Cluentio proves it, and there is some other evidence too). Secondly, Roman society was strongly hierarchical, and hierarchy does not exclude social mobility.

D’Arms was right therefore to emphasize the importance of elite’s investments outside agriculture, and of social mobility. Right or not, as regards the whole question of the elite’s economic activities, his conclusions have had, and still have, much influence, which confirms the interest of his book.

In the last part of my paper, I would like to add some more comments on other aspects of Commerce and social standing. Even if the focus of the book is clearly trade and commerce, I have found, when I read it again a few weeks ago, that its coverage is much broader than this.

The chapter on villas near the Gulf of Naples, which updates his first book and which brings us further thoughts on “la vita di villa”, is a very interesting effort to bring together the two apparently opposite tendencies of the Roman elite: on the one side the taste for pure luxury, conspicuous consumption, delectatio (sumptus; the character of the sumptuosus man); on the other, its interest in gain and enrichment (quaestus; the character of the quaestuosus man)19. The same chapter examines the relations between the large villas (some of which belonged to senators or knights) and the rest of the Gulf of Naples : the middle range cities, such as Pompeii ; the city of Naples, which had its own special character; and the port of Puteoli.

The chapter on the Augustales is devoted to the relations between the elite and the urban plebs, and it points to the existence of a privileged stratum within the urban plebs. So it helps explain the existence of social mobility, mobility which, at that period, was not insignificant in the Italian cities, as I said before20.

Then, the final pages, in which D’Arms quotes Braudel and Avrom Udovitch (who studied some aspects of the evidence of the Geniza from Cairo) suggest an opposition between two kinds of commercial life. In one, characteristic of medieval and modern Europe, “the merchant lived and breathed in a world of contracts, of partnerships, of agencies”. In the second, in Egypt, commercial associations were very informal, essentially bringing together merchants who were friends. And in his very last sentence, John D’Arms adds that, in his view, “Roman commercial association lay somewhere between these two extremes”21. Such an idea extends much beyond the question to know whether the senators were involved in commerce or no. In D’Arms’ books, there is a genuine and striking curiosity with regard to comparative history and anthropology.

One other issue is very much present in several chapters of the book: the problem of decline. On this, D’Arms is further from Rostovtzeff in his second book than in his first, where he had accepted Rostovtzeff’s conclusions. It is not the case any more. The argument of the second book however does not correspond with what many Italian archaeologists explained or still explain, that is that the decline of Italy began very early in the 1st century AD and was connected with some kind of general social crisis. D’Arms in contrast insisted on the vitality of the Campanian region, as late as the 2nd century AD and even the 4th century AD, in a paper published in 197222.

Another issue is linked to the decline: the question of the imperial influence, which he had already raised in the first book. What were the economic and social consequences of the expansion of imperial estates in Southern Campania, especially around the Gulf of Naples?

D’Arms’ book had broader objectives than to explore the elite’s attitudes and behaviour regarding trade. For he was interested in Roman social history as a whole. When one reads his books and his various papers again, it becomes evident that the main issue for him was social difference, social distance. It is for example conspicuous in an excellent paper, both elegant and profound, “Some social functions of the Roman communal meal”. On food habits, he wrote in that paper: “Far from being frivolous or trivial, the food habits of any society are fundamental aspects of culture, and so are socially expressive : they can be guides to social proximity and social distance ; to ritual fraternity and to status ; to political superiority and subordination”23.

As regards Rome, he was much concerned by the social distance between the highest Roman elite and municipal elites, – by the social distance between the highest Roman elite and the freedmen, – and between municipal elites and the urban plebes. I believe that, for him, the cultural distances between the various strata were enormous. In his first book, and in several papers too, like that of 1984, he places much stress on the hierarchies of distinction and culture. On the other hand, in his second book, all the distinctions seem to be diminished; in real life, they seem almost to disappear. For instance, he writes that, in cities like Ostia and Puteoli, the Augustales, who were freedmen, were alongside the municipal elite, rather than beneath it24. And that in the provinces there was a convergence between the dignity of senators and of local notables25. I suppose that these variations from one book to the other depended on the topic he was dealing with. Probably, according to him, economy, business, profits, enrichment, acted as links between the various strata, whereas they were strongly divided by culture, by values, by what he called attitudes. For him, economic activity and business were one factor which brought a measure of unity to Roman society: that at least is my reading of his work.

So, there is still much to extract from D’Arms’ books and papers, and not only on the issue: “Commerce and social standing”, “Senators’ involvement in commerce”. He surely deserves to be read again and revisited. In the process, we will be reliving the times that we spent with a very good friend.


  1. D’Arms 1970.
  2. D’Arms 1970, VIII.
  3. D’Arms 1981.
  4. D’Arms 1981, VII.
  5. See Lepore 1971.They had already met before the publication of D’Arms 1970; D’Arms speaks of Lepore in the Preface of the book, p. X.
  6. Castren 1983 (1st ed. 1975).
  7. Andreae & Kyrieleis, ed. 1975.
  8. Andreau 1974.
  9. D’Arms 1974, 500.
  10. D’Arms 1977.
  11. D’Arms & Kopff 1980.
  12. D’Arms 1981, VII.
  13. D’Arms 1981, 170.
  14. The “scuola di Lepore” was rapidly divided over such a topic; Lepore and I, we were much less far from Finley’s ideas than John D’Arms.
  15. In D’Arms 1981, Chapter 3 (“Senators and Commerce”), and especially 48-55 and 64.
  16. Andreau 1985c = 1997a, 3-45.
  17. Andreau 1973b.
  18. Hopkins 1983 and Jacques 1990.
  19. D’Arms 1981, 72-96.
  20. D’Arms 1981, 121-148 and 175-181.
  21. D’Arms 1981, 169-171.
  22. D’Arms 1972; see also D’Arms 1974.
  23. D’Arms 1984a, 327 and D’Arms 1984b.
  24. D’Arms 1981, 148.
  25. D’Arms 1981, 165.
ISBN html : 978-2-35613-373-1
Posté le 15/02/2021
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Comment citer

Andreau, Jean (2021) : “Article 8. John H. D’Arms and the Economic Interests of the Roman Elite”, in : Andreau, Jean, éd., avec la coll. de Le Guennec, Marie-Adeline, Martin, Stéphane, Économie de la Rome antique. Histoire et historiographie. Recueil d’articles de Jean Andreau, Pessac, Ausonius éditions, collection PrimaLun@ 4, 2021, 149-154, [En ligne] https://una-editions.fr/darms-roman-elite [consulté le 15 février 2021].

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