Arts, Centre for Urban Network Evolutions (UrbNet), Aarhus University

Research field

Classical Archaeology

Research leader

Tom Brughmans

Associate Professor

Project title

MINERVA: Understanding the centuries-long functioning of the Roman economy

What is your project about?

MINERVA will explore how a massive integrated economy like the Roman Empire evolved over centuries, by combining archaeological ceramics and the Roman transport network in computational simulation experiments. At its peak the Roman Empire covered an area similar in size to the European Union, uniting almost 100 million inhabitants. But similarities do not end here: the different peoples, languages and religions within the Empire were united under a single political system with the Roman Emperor at its head, they used the same money, followed the same trade regulations, and were subject to the same legal system. Archaeologists uncover evidence that show the ups and downs of this bustling economy. Amphora containers, for example, were used for centuries to move vast quantities of necessities such as grain from Egypt or olive oil from Spain to the capital of Rome and everywhere else in the Empire. For centuries, the flow of goods and traders along the first European transport network went virtually uninterrupted, despite limited means of communication, and transport technology and infrastructure making sea and road voyages slow and dangerous. The material remains they left behind offer us a unique glimpse at how huge integrated economies can change and evolve over centuries. But understanding how these complex economic processes emerge from everyday behaviour of individual Romans is not a mean feat. To make this possible, this project combines state-of-the-art computer simulations, archaeological ceramics evidence, and a detailed model of the Roman road network for the first time.

How did you become interested in your particular field of research?

The study of the Roman empire is extremely rewarding. We can draw on a wealth of sources from ancient authors and inscriptions on grave stones, to the simple ceramic plates and cups that individuals used in their daily lives. But ever since my postgraduate studies in 2008, I’ve been struck by a disconnect in Roman studies between this mass of data and our confidence in theories about the Roman Empire. The long-term functioning of the Roman economy is a perfect example of this. A huge number of theories exist but none are ever formally tested against quantified data patterns in written or material sources. Rather than being daunted by this huge amount of work to be done in Roman Studies, I was always inspired by this potential: clearly this is a field that is ready for methodological change! And much of my work from my doctorate onwards has been driven by an urge to explore this potential.

What are the scientific challenges and perspectives in your project?

MINERVA addresses three challenges related to ceramics data, Roman roads and centuries-long simulations. First, what changes are visible over periods of centuries in the distribution and consumption of Roman plates, cups, bowls and containers? And what do they reveal about the long-term functioning of the Roman economy? MINERVA aims to quantitatively identify such patterns. Second, what was the structure of the Roman transport network through which such goods were distributed? We currently do not have a highly detained model of this network, and MINERVA aims to create this. And third, How does one simulate aspects of a large economy over a period of centuries? This has never been done before because for other large economies, like the integrated markets of the EU or the US, we simply do not have data for such long timespans. This will be an exciting challenge to explore that will benefit from collaboration with economic historians.

What is your estimate of the impact, which your project may have to society in the long term?

MINERVA offers a much-needed long-term perspective on our economies. It is motivated by the belief that lessons can be learned from the study of the Roman economy that offer a new perspective on past and present-day economic systems. How do large integrated economies behave over centuries? What migth the long-term evolution of present-day integrated economies be, and do we want to go there? If we want to answers such challenging new questions for other economies, then the Roman economy is our best bet at developing this perspective and roadtesting methodologies. MINERVA aims to do the necessary groundwork for enabling such future comparative studies in economics and economic history.

Which impact do you expect the Sapere Aude programme will have on your career as a researcher?

This Sapere Aude grant is a gamechanger for myself and for this experimental research line. It will enhance my project management and supervision experience, and allow me to develop proof-of-concepts studies for a challenging new research topic. This will position myself and future research projects based on these insights really competitively.

Background and personal life

I am a Belgian citizen from the city of Antwerp. I have been an academic nomad since 2008, when I moved to the United Kingdom to study computational archaeology, followed by research positions in Konstanz, Oxford and Barcelona (respectively in departments of Computer Science, Archaeology and Physics). In 2020 I moved to Denmark to take up a post as associate profesor in classical archaeology at the Centre for Urban Network Evolutions (UrbNet) at Aarhus University. This offers an ideal environment to pursue my digital humanities research intetrests.

City of your current residence


High school

Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe-College Antwerpen