Honourable Chancellor, his Excellency the ambassador of
Spain in Rome, ladies and gentlemen
I am honoured to represent on this occasion the Italian-Spanish group,
which is currently undertaking excavations and research on the Mount Testaccio, under the
direction of Prof. Blázquez Martínez. I would like to mention a text by Miguel de
Cervantes in his novel "The stained-glass graduate", the story of a student who
believed he was made of glass.
The character said: " What do you want from me, lads
stubborn as flies, filthy as bugs, daring as fleas ? Am I by chance the Mount Testaccio of
Rome, since you throw me so many sherds and tiles ?"
Cervantes, view of Mount Testaccio coincided with the Roman
popular tradition. For the Romans in Cervantes' times, Mount Testaccio was a rubbish dump
where all the amphorae coming from the provinces of the whole Roman Empire were thrown
away. These vessels carried the taxes of these provinces paid in kind. Therefore, this
refuse heap was a symbol of the pride and power of ancient Rome.
Perhaps, thanks to this conviction, the Mount has been
preserved since. According to the known documentation, it belonged to the Roman people
from ancient times and they defended it, even punishing whoever dared to remove sherds
from the Mount by sentencing them to be sent to the galleys.
The popular tradition was right only to some extent,
because the vessels found in the Mount had brought taxes in kind to Rome. However, most of
them came from only one province, Baetica, and contained only one produce, olive-oil.
Testaccio was a meeting point for the Roman people until
the last quarter of the XIXth century. In the Middle Ages, carnivals were held there.
Moreover, it was the venue for the via crucis due to its similarity to the hill
of Calvary. That is why there is a cross on the summit of the Mount. From the XVIth
century onwards, caves were excavated on its slopes to stock wine, because the Mount
maintained a particular freshness. The numerous cellars helped to preserve the merry
atmosphere of the place, holding festivals and romerie until the surroundings
were built in the late XIXth century.
Mte. Testaccio seen from its western side
Roman erudites knew that there were in Mount Testaccio
amphora handles stamped before firing. In the second half of the XIXth century, Father
Bruzza became interested in this material, creating his own collection as Marini did
When Mommsen decided to organise the Corpus
Inscriptionum Latinarum (CIL), he commissioned one of his students, Henrich Dressel,
to make a study of the Instrumentum Domesticum from Rome. Therefore, he was
responsible for studying Mount Testaccio and its stamps. Lucky enough, one day when the
rain took him by surprise while he was working at the Mount, he discovered that there were
painted inscriptions in black ink on some amphora sherds, inscriptions that Dressel
managed to read and decipher. From that day, Testaccio was no longer a rubbish dump but an
archive. An archive without shelves, without sections and in no apparent order
The deciphement of the painted inscription on amphorae
allowed Dressel to assure that the vessels came from Baetica (Spain).
Furthermore, the inscriptions included the amphora tare and content, personal names
interpreted by Dressel as the olive-oil owners, which we know today belong to traders and
transporters, and a complex fiscal control specifying a consular date.
Accordingly, this data made Mount Testaccio the largest
economic archive in the Roman Empire. One of its special features was the particular
information on the trade of one of the staples in the Mediterranean diet: olive-oil.
Dressel published his work in the volume XV of the CIL in the late XIXth century,
asserting that the forgotten amphora sherds from Mount Testaccio would shed some new light
on the knowledge of the Roman world. For many years, nobody cared about this archive.
However, Rodríguez Almeida published in 1972 a new work that made the Mount of current
importance. Simultaneously, M. Ponsich resumed the work that G.Bonsor, contemporaneously
to Dressel, had begun in Baetica.
The discovery by Dressel was a breakthrough
in studies of the Roman economy, but it did not become relevant until almost half century
after, when his researches in Rome were related to the ones undertaken by G.Bonsor in
Batik. The two works together made necessary an archaeological excavation at Mount
After a long preliminary, a joint team from the
Universities of Madrid and Barcelona collaborating with the Dipartamento de Scienze della
Terra from the University of Rome, took over the responsibility of excavating Mount
Visit to the excavation by Her Excellency the Ambassador
of Spain in Rome.
From left to right: Prof. J.Mª Blázquez Martínez (Univ. Madrid, the excavation
in the background Prof. B.Toro (Univ. di Roma, responsible for the archaeometric
research), Sr. C.Aragón (Cultural Attaché of Spain in Rome),
Sra. Rico Godoy (Ambassador), Prof. O.Grubessi (Univ. di Roma, responsible for the
Prof. J. Remesal (Univ. Barcelona, the excavation co-director).
Whatever newspaper you browse shows that today's world is
divided into people who have enough food resources and the ones who lack them. One of the main problems of the European Union is the control of the production
and distribution of food, internally and externally. Meanwhile, the third world countries,
for instance, purchase industrial products with their raw materials and agricultural
produce, determining directly the European agricultural policy
In this sense, the study of how the Roman Empire sorted out the problems of
supply is especially fascinating. The Roman Empire, which ruled over a wider area that the
one that today covers the European Union, defined a political unity, a high legislative
order - the Roman laws - an integrated economy and a lingua franca: Latin,
features that may now be the highes hopes of the European Union. It is inadequate
to compare the modern economic system with the ancient one, since there are at least two
elements which differentiate them: speed in communications and transport costs. With no
doubts it is interesting, for the average citizen, to understand how a cultural system,
from which we come, solved these problems with the hindrances of those times. Knowledge of
these historic facts, though they may not beside direct solutions to our present problems,
helps to provide understand and comprehend the determinant factors in our own history.
Augustus assessed perfectly the political importance held by the control of
the supply to the army and the city of Rome. That is why he set up the Praefectura
annonae, taking control of the grain production in Egypt as well as the olive-oil
production in Batik. Today as yesterday, the role of State in economic life is one of the
key elements in the evolution of political systems. Today as yesterday, decisions on
economic life are not chiefly economic, but political at heart.
Notwithstanding the fact that Dressel called the Testaccio amphora sherds
"petty epigraphy", the copious information that they provide has broken new
grounds in the study of the trade history and food production in the Roman Empire, the
kind of control the State exerted over the periphery and the political influence that the
periphery had in the development of the Roman State.
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