Tuesday, May 15, 2012


A Supertanker Loaded With Oil Crosses the Ocean

Hello My Friend and Welcome. 
In our industrialized world a constant flow of oil is required to meet increasing demand. The appetite of the United States for oil is unprecedented in human history a recent newspaper headline said. Perhaps. 
The world, it seems, runs on oil. Our lifestyle and economic processes have become so oil dependent that it’s unthinkable to imagine life without it. And when a powerful nation’s demand for oil outstrips its supply, importing additional supplies seems to be the only viable solution. Like all trade goods oil flows from the haves to have-nots and, given the distances involved, most often moves by ship. 
Many in the United States are rightly concerned by our increasing dependence upon foreign oil. A recent study blamed rising oil imports for our widening trade deficit. The United States is the largest oil importer in the world and much of this oil comes from the Middle East, an politically unstable region.

However, this post is not about the United States’ appetite for petroleum. Rather, we’re going back in time nearly two millennia to examine another time when another nation was equally dependent upon foreign oil coming from, among other places, the Middle East. Today we’ll examine the elaborate system of oil importation Rome developed to meet their population’s insatiable demand for…Olive Oil.
The Roman World used olive oil for cooking and fueling their lamps, as a cleaning agent in their baths, as an emollient for grooming and conditioning the skin and hair, as well as a healing balm. Researchers have been examining a dump in Rome hidden beneath earth and grass. Nearly a mile in circumference and known as the Monte Testaccio, it been found to contain a 150-foot high mountain of broken amphorae. Though it’s been covered over for centuries, at one time someone clearly knew what was there. Its name is a combination of the Latin testa and the Italian cocci, both of which mean potshard.
Digging into the Mountain of Shards
During the Middle Ages vintners in Rome discovered that the interior of Monte Testaccio remained remarkably cool throughout the year and dug caves into the mountain to store and age their wines. Some imagined it to be the site where debris was dumped following the great fire of Rome during Nero’s rule. Others guessed that the shards were from discarded funerary urns that had once filled columbaria along the nearby Via Ostiense. Regardless, the area provided a seemingly unlimited supply of tiles to patch roofs and souvenirs for tourists.

Only in the last 100 years was it finally recognized for what it was, a dump dating back to the reign of Caesar Augustus. But even then, the amphorae were imagined to have contained wine. Archeologists have only recently unraveled the process behind how this vast mountain of shards was formed. Their digs discovered that a wall of amphorae filled with pieces from other broken amphorae was built to contain the growing mound of shards. When they reached the top of the wall, a new wall was added and the process repeated. The ancient Romans periodically swathed the entire thing in a coating of lime to control the smell of rancid oil.
The importation of olive oil, food products, metals and other essentials began early in Augustus’ reign. Keep in mind that Octavian, later to be known as Augustus, began his reign in 31BC. He was only the second ruler of the nascient Roman Empire which his predecessor, Julius Caesar, founded a mere thirteen years earlier.
The Intact Neck of a Dressel 20 Amphora

The majority of the amphorae found at Monte Testaccio came from the Roman province of Hispania (modern Spain and Portugal) and are of a style archaeologically known as a Dressel 20. The remainder came from what we now call the Middle East. A Dressel 20 is a squat, round amphora that resists tipping. They would have been ideally suited to riding in a ship’s cargo hold. Imagine rows of ships docking in the Roman harbor of Portus, each one filled with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of these amphorae. Shipwrecks have been discovered in the region with full loads of Dressel 20’s.

From the ships, these large amphorae would have been transported to Imperial warehouses where the oil was transferred into smaller containers for distribution throughout the city. The empties were probably taken to Monte Testaccio by mule and discarded. Like New York City, which temporarily suspended its plastic bottle recycling program due to high cost, Rome undoubtedly found it cheaper to throw away the empties rather than recycle them.
Moving the oil in amphora provided a system of inventory control and checks and balances. Their unglazed clay surface is easy to write on. In addition to incised codes put on before firing, many show tituli picti—words, names and numbers used to track their movement through the distribution channels.  

Augustus understood that to remain in power he must have the support of the army and the plebians, the ordinary man in the street. The population of First Century Rome ranged somewhere between 600,000 to a 1,000,000 people. He bought their loyalty with a welfare system that fed the poor, and controlled the price of grain and oil for everyone else. A century later, the Roman poet and satirist, Juvenal, penned his famous line about the Roman emperors buying tranquility with “bread and circuses.”  
This system of growing, harvesting, pressing and distribution seems to have operated in a uniquely Roman way. Unlike other empires that became heavily bureaucratic or depended upon great trade routes, Rome utilized a system of small suppliers who were well controlled and monitored. Proof again that individual initiative is always more efficient than centralized planning. 

On Thursday we’ll add our monthly link to the Christian Writer’s Blog Chain. This month’s key word is nurture. 

Until then, we wish you Peace and Blessings. 

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