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Learning to consume: consumption and consumerism in the Roman Empire

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Kevin Greene


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Roman archaeologists have been criticized for taking too much interest in the minutiae of specific projects and categories of material evidence instead of exploiting them to generate broader interpretations, while theoreticians have found prehistory 'a safer, more comfortable and purer world for archaeologists to play in'. This paper will attempt to address such criticisms by articulating some examples of Roman material culture into an investigation of consumption, making extensive use of the metaphorical terminology of Zygmunt Bauman. It will complement existing studies of consumption in Roman archaeology by asking whether any Roman consumption practices can be described as consumerism, an economic phenomenon which many historians consider to be a feature of the modern world, and the 18th c. in particular. The studies of material culture explored here (applied art, bead necklaces, pottery and lamps) would have to be extended in number, time and space to provide a definitive answer to this question. Much of the paper draws upon Romano–British archaeology, not only because of personal familiarity with the subject matter but also because the impact of an Empire may be particularly visible in its peripheral regions. Consideration of Roman consumption will be concluded by exploring its relationship to recent studies of identity and globalization.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Greene K

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Journal of Roman Archaeology

Year: 2008

Volume: 21

Pages: 64-82

Print publication date: 01/01/2009

ISSN (print): 1047-7594

Publisher: Journal of Roman Archeology