Ancient Roman trade is a subject of many facets particularly when we consider that ancient Rome is difficult to define in terms of time and extension: “Ancient Rome” lasted close to a millennium and the culture, society and world within it existed changed enormously. so too the extent of Ancient Rome ranged from a few villages on hilltops near the river Tiber across to an enormous empire. Rome alone grew to having over 1 million inhabitants.
Having set the above conditions it is evident that this essay will have to make a number of simplifications, give some ideas as to the fundamental mechanisms involved and point to areas of further investigation.
An ideal example to investigate is the wine trade, such as was active in cities such as Pompeii because it has left many examples and traces behind, ranging from references in literature through to inscriptions and entire farms, not to mention shiploads of amphoras along the coasts of countries it was exported to.
Before looking at the various details of such trade it is important to set some essential points:
i. The Roman economy
was essentially a competitive market economy, capitalistic in nature, although with many imperfections, for example the cost of transport over land was so high as to imply that some foreign bulk products such as wine imported from Spain could be cheaper than similar product produced 100km/100miles away.
It is worth noting that trade was bi-directional: Rome itself was often in need of imports of grain and wine for example to support the livelihood of the enormous population and these supplies wouldn’t necessarily come from other parts of Italy. There was, by-and-large, free trade with a single Roman currency throughout the empire. This fostered competition and enabled all sorts of exotic goods to be acquired from the most distant lands. A couple of interesting examples of Roman free trade and its effects are:
- Some Roman mosaics showing bowls of fruit containing pineapples: Pineapples don’t grow anywhere near Italy!
- When Pompeii was hit by the volcano there was a huge effect on the agricultural markets, two year’s worth of wine production were affected and hence so too was the price of wine which saw a sharp increase. The surge in demand for wine (or rather the sharp reduction in supply) meant that other land which was dedicated to grain and other foodstuffs was switched to wine, hence creating a temporary knock-on effect on food supplies and prices.
ii. The economic cycle which enabled intensive investment and trading was essentially built around military expansion and Roman slave labour
, a little like many western countries in the 14th-19th centuries. The mechanism was something like the following:
- Military campaigns brought land & wealth & slaves to those who had financed the campaigns (the patrician upper class families/the Roman state) and eventually make their way onto Rome’s markets. The land might be redistributed as retirement payment to the soldiers.
- Much of the wealth and booty would be redistributed to those who financed the campaigns, similarly to wealthy businessmen financing financial ventures and to some degree to the state and retiring soldiers (1.5 hectares each). Land distribution was a bone of contention with the plebeians who saw themselves fight the wars but gain little from them (see the Roman social wars and Gracchi brothers).
- Patricians spend the wealth on land and large holdings which they farm intensively by use of the cheap slaves which had been taken during the campaigns. The cost of a slave varied greatly , also in line with supply and availability. But on the whole we might consider the cost of a slave being similar to the cost of purchasing a motorbike or car nowadays (including the second hand market).
- People working with or for the Patricians would then ship and trade the produce into the provinces and along trade routes which are either hospitable or rendered hospitable by yet more military campaigns. frequently the merchants were well ahead of the military campaigns, a great example below is that of the wine trade in Gaul in exchange for slaves which actually came to an abrupt stop because of the military invasion of the region by Caesar.
- very much as we see in modern economies, this economic cycle generated a number of supporting trades such as pottery and Roman amphoras to carry the produce, infrastructure construction and shipbuilding to carry it to various markets where there might be strongest demand, not to mention the lucrative businesses of money lending and banking.
The above cycle came somewhat unstuck when the empire’s expansionist period came to an end around the 2nd century AD and hence reducing the flow of cheap slavery, forcing the landowning upper class to sell or break up their vast land into smaller tenancies which paid a regular tribute, similar to the the “tithes” in medieval Britain.
Trade and economy can also be said to be an expression of the people who make up society and of the relationship between these people. At the end of the day, a market economy is founded on entrepreneurs: individuals who have a particular drive to make something out of nothing, who are able to quantify risks, are operating in an environment which has suitable infrastructure and of course have access to finance. Rome was full of such examples, from both ends of the social pyramid and even including a number of the slaves. We can perceive something of this from a good number of funeral engravings, memorials and tomb stones, for example a tomb stone depicting an ancient Roman family wine trade.
An interesting example of the understanding for investment and liquidity is to be had from Cicero who suggested that if you were going to liquidate part of your capital it would be better to sell off your vineyards rather than woodland since timber could easily be sold in times of need, ie easier to liquidate if necessary.
The ancient Roman wine trade:
A quick look at the development of the mediterranean wine trade gives great insight into some of the factors
influencing Ancient Roman (wine)
trade: whilst the example taken is the product of wine, the factors affecting the trade are applicable to many if not all other items of commerce.
The Greeks were first to achieve mass production of wine for export which quickly made its way into southern and central Italy. However the Etruscans were also quick to start their own mass production for both internal consumption and export. From the end of the 7th Century BC the major Etruscancentres were Vulci and Caere in central Italy, not distant to the North of Rome which given their position enjoyed good demand from the Celtic north. It is the amphoras of easily identifiable shape which enable such commerce to be analised and tracked along the Tyrrhenian sea to Provence and Catalunia along the Rhine and into central Europe. This Italic production was also enjoyed by the Greek Marseilles where between the years 600 and 530BC Roman wine constituted some 90% of all wine imports.
A similar supply-demand mechanism is to be found with the increase in wine production in southern France which gradually enabled Etruscan imports to be limited.
During this period Rome was seeing a continuous growth in its fortunes. We shouldn’t forget that the Roman kings of the time were principally Etruscans with a clear view of international trade and access to the necessary information, yet wine production didn’t increase significantly: available farming land had to be dedicated to the growth of cereals to feed the population. This need was undone around the 3rd century BC when Rome managed to take control of Sicily – a true granary within the Mediterranean area – hence allowing farmland in central Italy to be dedicated to the growth of higher quality product.
It is of interest to note that conquest of Sicily involved direct confrontation with Carthage, which in turn was a great stimulus to Ancient Roman investment in naval skills, technology and infrastructure: essential to enabling flourishing international trade.
Dressel 1: Roman attitude to international commerce by sea was initially very cautious, we shouldn’t forget that the investments were made directly and at personal level by the Senatorial class and a single storm at sea could easily wipe out an entire year’s investment. During the 2nd century BC the situation changed dramatically when such risks were outweighed by the immense profitability and strong economic boom brought by increasing access to cheap slavery. This surge of export can be identified by the vast finds of “Dressel 1” type Roman amphoras.
Wine from central Italy and Campania flowed in copious quantities into Gaul, Spain, North Africa and central Europe. The Roman merchants were frequently well ahead of the military. Estimates suggest that during the course of one century some 40milion amphoras were exported to Gaul alone. This is reflected in the 60 or so sunk ships found with Dressel1 amphoras along the French coast.
Diodorus Siculus (Bibliotheca Universalis 5,36,1) suggests the Gauls were so thirsty for Roman wine that they would exchange an amphora of wine for a slave which clearly strengthened Roman dominance of wine production.
Beyond Dressel1 amphoras:
Caesar’s conquest of Gaul mid 1st C BC put an end to such lucrative slaves-for-wine Roman trade and enforced a more rational usage of agricultural land as had already happened in other regions of the budding empire. By the time of Augustus who followed Caesar to power, Rome’s population had reached more than 1M people and this necessarily implied importing food and wine from all parts of the empire, spurring the creation of yet more foreign production centres.
Economies of transport:
Whilst we can superficially take ancient Roman economy to be a market based capitalistic competitive approach. Roman technology and infrastructure weren’t so advanced as to enable a perfectly liquid economic mechanism: transport by sea was far cheaper than that over land and this generated some significant distortions: local Italian inland produce could economically travel some 100km and hence scarcely compete with the cheap imports from abroad. These dynamics particularly affected the production of wines intended for the mass markets: Italic wines were therefore forced to opt for quality/high value status which, so Galen tells us in the 2nd Century AC, foreign wine producers continued to attempted to forge and unsuccessfully replace.
Amphoras for wine transport were replaced by the Gaulish barrel, known as “cupa”, around the end of the 2nd century AD. Wooden containers had been well known for some 4 centuries already although the Roman merchants and consumers had long distrusted them as producing poisoning effects (Natural History bk 16). Nevertheless the barrel’s advantages in terms of cost and lightness outweighed any effects it might have in terms of reduced conservation of wine flavour and bouquet.
Shopping in Ancient Rome
Clearly, a fundamental mainstay of all economic and trade systems is the possibility of bring the produce to consumers and selling it. In Rome this was achieved through a well developed system of shops along streets as well as markets and dedicated “Forums“, so for example there would be a forum for meat (the Forum Boarium), a forum which had money lenders etc and of course a currency and coinage system to permit trading and lending. More is said about Shopping in Ancient Rome.
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