Amphorae – Roman Containerization
Johan and Andre Willers
19 March 2008
Roman ships and stevedoring was standardized to use large amphorae as containers .
When the containers were cheap to manufacture , they were smashed at the destination and used as reinforcing in Roman concrete constructions (cf Roman houses . ) The rough curvilinear shape of amphorae fragments in a concrete matrix gives a better compression-strength than steel reinforcing .
It was the lack of commercially viable lifts that limited the height of Roman apartments , not the strength of materials . (Cf walk-up flats in New York circa 1800’s)
Literally millions of tones of olive oil , grain , wine , garum , cement , metals (small iron ingots ) , charcoal etc was shipped in the late Republican and Empire period . The Globalization period of Rome . Equally , millions of tons of amphorae .
Production specialized in the regions most suitable for a certain product .
Olive oil : Iberia , North Africa .
Grain : Egypt and North Africa .
Wine : Italy and France .
Garum : initially everywhere , but later on the Lowlands of Holland .
Cement from Egypt and Italy .
Metals and charcoal were strategic materials for manufacturing weapons and armour . Initially the smithies and armouries were in Italy , but later in the Empire shifted them to the northern provinces of Gaul . This was closer to the iron deposits in Germany and still available forests for charcoal . But charcoal was still imported on a large scale to the cities of the Roman Empire for fuel .
Amphorae : where the right clay and sufficient fuel (wood) was available . Like aluminium in modern times , or charcoal in any time , ceramics is condensed energy . An amphora transported from North Africa to Rome represented a certain amount of wood burnt .
For instance , Italian hills were deforested to plant vines as the most profitable cash-crop (on the latifundiae). This wine was exported at a huge mark-up . Charcoal was then imported . Hence the deforestation of North Africa , Levant , Turkey and France .
Note the effect on history : with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire circa 500 – 600 AD , wine-trading routes to the West collapsed , mainly due to piracy . Byzantium kept the eastern trade routes relatively pirate-free . Desperate wine-producers in Italy dumped their wine in the Middle East , especially Arabia . This flood of cheap wine caused a wave of drunkenness in the Middle-East , resulting in Mohammed’s stricture against “the fruit of the vine” . Beer and kumiss were not affected , as the low alcohol concentration was essential as sterilization agent of water.
Alcohol Concentrations .
Wine can be made to about 14% alcohol per volume . Strong beer is about 5% . Medieval beer and wine was about 2%-3% . A modern spirit with a mixer (25 ml spirit with 175 ml mixer) is about 6% alcohol .A wine drinker imbibes a drink that is 2 to 3 times as potent as that of a spirit drinker .
Hence the Symposium Master that controlled the mixing of wine and water in a krater in ancient Greece . Only barbarians drank wine neat .
Humans can drink 2% alcohol solutions indefinitely .Indeed , present stress-management techniques recommend some alcohol .
Over 1 500 years of rigorous selection in the West might have made alcohol de-rigeur on a neuronal level .
Forget Prozac ! Drink 1% – 2% watered wine .
Very little . 1% of 200 ml (a glass) is 2 ml . At 50% alcohol concentration , this means that about a teaspoonful(5 ml or 10 drops) of vodka per glass will give about 1.25 % alcohol concentration . This will get metabolized almost immediately , but not before tripping some neurochemical switches . Serotonin and dopamine springs to mind . Remember the evolutionary background . Western genetic neuronal systems have evolved to get antsy if there are no alcohol switches being activated . The amount of alcohol does not matter , but the transient concentration does .
Now do you see why so many patent medicines in alcohol solutions have been so effective for anxiety .
In medieval times , western Europeans who did not drink mild beer died of water-borne diseases . Note the uneven distribution of alcohol-tolerance genes between East and West . The East had tea for thousands of years . This required boiling of water , giving a measure of protection against water-borne diseases .
One would expect this from evolutionary grounds , since there is no reason for homonins to develop a tolerance of alcohol ( a systemic poison) in the wild state .
Ho! Ho! Ho!
Some commentators have advanced the theory that the caffeine stimulation of coffee and tea led to the advances of the industrial revolution in the west . It seems more likely that reduction in alcohol intake plus the better nutrition from grain previously used for brewing would have a bigger effect . This last effect is not negligible . To produce a 2% alcohol beer , about 15% – 20 % of the grain/barley crop would be needed . This would have had significant effect on child nutrition and subsequent brain development .
Not to mention the civilization-wide withdrawal effect !
The Hubbert effect.
Hubbert was an American oil-man who used his technique to predict the peak of US oil production . He did his prediction in the early 1950’s . He predicted a peak in 1972.
This happened . The methodology has been extrapolated to any non-renewable resource .
Essentially , you graph annual production (y-axis) against sum of production-to-date (x-axis) .
For oil and coal this has given a straight-line graph over periods of about 150 years . In other words , a fair degree of confidence in the extrapolation of the straight line .
It means that easily exploitable deposits are used first , then more difficult and costly and so forth until it becomes too difficult and costly to continue . It seems to be insensitive to any technological advances .
The essential point is that any finite resource in the ancient world had to follow this pattern . The clay to make amphorae was one such resource .
The Romans used this resource as if there was no tomorrow .Eventually , the easy resources were exhausted and only a few places manufactured increasingly expensive amphorae . Eventually they ran out . When the trading routes broke down , charcoal could not be imported anymore to fire the amphora kilns . The workers dispersed and the skills were lost and never re-established .
Barrels replaced amphorae , but they could never replace amphorae , since they were expensive , difficult to make and of limited storage .
The Garum Catastrophe .
Garum was a fermented fish sauce that contained essential fats and amino-acids normally found in meat . Normal Romans ate very little meat . But with the disappearance of amphorae , garum disappeared . (Oak barrels gave a funny taste and let in oxygen ) . Only the Dutch persevered , (eg “garing”) , eventually evolving into the herring trade . But that took a whopping 600 years .
The effect was deficiency diseases on top of all the other disasters .
Note the Roman Catholic fishy Friday attempt to compensate .