Ancient History & Civilisation


The peasants who tilled their fields around Rome were long oblivious to the fact that they were sandwiched in between two commercial peoples, the Etruscans and the Greek colonists. From the eighth century Etruria enjoyed an active trade with Greece and with some centre from which wares of Egyptian and Assyrian style were shipped to Italy. Fine gold and silver work to adorn the princely tombs at Caere and Praeneste was brought from the east in exchange for the copper of Tuscany and the iron of Elba. Gradually an Etruscan school of artists arose who found their inspiration in the imported models; previously the early Italian coppersmiths had only produced simple geometric designs, but now native Etruscans manufactured works of art for the home market and export. In the seventh century Corinthian wares dominated the Etruscan markets (and indeed the whole western Mediterranean) and Corinthian influence was paramount in Etruscan art. Early in the sixth century Attic pottery reached Etruria, and for the next hundred years Greek imports and influences so predominated that it is often impossible to distinguish Greek and Etruscan work, at any rate in the minor arts. Etruscan potters still manufactured bucchero ware, the black surface of which gives the appearance of metal; but Greek styles were increasingly popular, whether made by Etruscans or Greek settlers. The sixth century witnessed many other events of commercial importance: the Greek colonization of Massilia, the rise of Carthage, the subsequent alliance of Etruria and Carthage against the Greeks, the downfall of Greek competition in the west, the growth of the Punic policy of a mare clausum, and the Etruscan domination of Latium which temporarily swept the Romans into a world of trade and industry.

Reference has already been made to the spread of Etruscan and Greek civilization in Latium (see pp. 35ff.). Industry was doubtless stimulated in many cities, though it is not always possible to determine whether a given object is of native workmanship or imported. Praeneste, for instance, became an industrial centre; the gold fibula, which dates from about 600 and bears the earliest known Latin inscription (‘Manios made me for Numasios’), points to a local metal industry, while in the sixth century mirrors were manufactured there under Etruscan influence. Commerce passed along a land route from Etruria to Praeneste, while Greek and Phoenician wares entered Latium through the port of Satricum, which was in close touch with Cumae by sea; Greek imports for Falerii and southern Etruria probably passed up the Tiber through Rome. The temples of the seventh or sixth centuries at Velitrae, Ardea, and Satricum show clearly the development of industry and art in Latium. But the country’s lack of mineral wealth clipped the wings of commerce, for there was little with which Latium could pay for foreign wares. The skill of local metal workers may have formed a source of wealth, while pasturage would produce some hides, wool and swine for export, and parts of Latium grew timber. But it is unlikely that a surplus of grain could be grown for export or that trade became very flourishing except under Etruscan encouragement.

The relation of Rome to Italian commerce must remain somewhat obscure. The warrior’s tomb with chariot and armour on the Esquiline (p. 41) gives a tantalizing glimpse of the mid-seventh century, but the predominant preference of the Romans for incineration rather than inhumation, together with the continuous occupation of the site for so many centuries, has lessened the chance of the survival of gold or silver objects. However, with the coming of the Etruscans the villagers of Rome became the citizens of a rich and powerful city, and to a limited extent they must have shared in the wider life of their rulers. As we have seen, temples and other public buildings, equal to or surpassing those of other Latin cities, sprang up. Industry flourished, in the hands of both immigrant Etruscan workers and the native craftsmen whom they inspired. The tradition that there were eight labour guilds in the regal period (goldsmiths, carpenters, dyers, leather-workers, tanners, bronze-smiths, potters and flute-blowers) is reasonable, as it excludes those activities which still remained domestic, such as the weaving of clothing and the baking of bread, while the existence of guilds is mentioned in a clause of the Twelve Tables. It is uncertain how far these workers manufactured more than was required for the Rome market by the soldiers, farmers and householders or by the luxurious court of their overlords. But however the Romans paid for it, they undoubtedly imported large and increasing quantities of Greek pottery (pp. 54, 70). Further, her geographical position enabled her to control the trade in salt which was collected at the flats near Ostia and sold to the hill tribes, and also to levy dues on goods moving between Etruria and Campania. But the long-deferred recourse to the use of minted money, and the complete indifference shown towards commercial interests in the first treaty with Carthage, suggest that the primary interest of early Rome was not commerce. When Etruscan rule was withdrawn Rome was not completely cut off from the Greek culture of Campania, but the import of Greek vases gradually dwindled and the building activity of the early fifth century died down. By the mid-fifth century it was clear that Rome was reverting to a simpler state: agriculture and warfare rather than industry or commerce filled life. With the disappearance of court life industry naturally lagged: the Twelve Tables forbade extravagant funerals, and Etruscan luxury gave place to the simpler native usages. Some workmen may have found their employment gone and have swelled the ranks of the discontented plebeians, but even if their numbers were not large they will have increased the social difficulties of the time.

By c. 400 BC, after a period when Roman interests were largely domestic, she moved into the ken of Greek historians, and was soon described by Heracleides of Pontus as ‘a Greek city situated on the shore of the great sea’. In the course of the fourth century after the Gallic invasion Rome became a powerful city. The newly-built ‘Servian’ walls enclosed an area of about 1,060 acres, which was more than twice that of Capua and about five times that of Ardea; not all the enclosed area, however, may have been thickly populated. The construction of the wall involved much labour, as some five million cubic feet of cut stone must have been used. A few temples were built, but they were probably small.

At the same time military needs resulted in Rome’s intrusion both north and south into areas where Greek influence predominated. In Campania pottery was manufactured on Attic models, and the paintings of the fourth-century tombs at Paestum and Capua show the influence of Greek art. At Capua also Etruscan gold workers continued their trade. A successful pottery industry flourished at the Latin colony of Cales. At Praeneste a vigorous bronze industry is attested by the beautiful mirrors and boxes (cistae) engraved with scenes from Greek mythology and decorated with ornamental handles; perhaps the old Etruscan industry was in part carried on by Campanian-Greek workmen. In Etruria itself, where activity slackened on the downfall of their empire, artistic effort and Greek influence were renewed in the fourth century. The wall paintings might be more sombre, but many bronze statues (e.g. the Mars of Todi) and sarcophagi of real artistic merit were produced. After the fall of Veii, pottery was manufactured at and exported from Falerii, where two old temples were redecorated in Hellenistic style; two new temples adorned Volsinii. A pair of Panathenaic amphoras, dated 336, attest the spread of Attic influence at Caere.

Indirect contact with Greek art through direct relations with Etruria and Campania may have stimulated emulation by the Romans, but the evidence suggests that it was not extensive. A number of temples were built, especially after the great Samnite War. They were probably adorned with terracotta revetments and pediments like the contemporary Ecruscan temples, and some were decorated with paintings, but the artists may have been imported. Thus a military scene from a third (?)-century tomb on the Esquiline depicts negotiations between Q. Fabius and an enemy general, M. Fannius: perhaps an episode in the Samnite Wars. The buildings of Rome can scarcely have been less imposing than those of many of the towns that she conquered. One of the most beautiful boxes of the Praenestine type (the Ficorini cista) was made at Rome and bears a Latin inscription: ‘Novios Plautios med Romai fecid’ (‘Novius Plautius made me at Rome’). But this is not sufficient evidence to suggest widespread industry. The local pottery was not notable enough to export: transport was too dear. Cheap black Campanian ware is found in the Esquiline graves. The legislation of Appius Claudius implies the existence of a fairly large free industrial class at Rome, but this may have merely supplied weapons for the army, agricultural implements for the farmers and domestic furniture for the householder. If warfare stimulated industry, colonization checked it by draining the population. And still the Romans remained uninterested in commerce. When their treaty with Carthage was renewed in 348 they allowed the Carthaginians to extend the area of the mare clausum and left their own port open to foreign traders. About the same time a small fortress was established at the Tiber’s mouth at Ostia. The colony may have been designed to protect and facilitate commerce, but it equally well may have been a military post against sea raiders from Antium.6 The general inexperience of the Romans at sea before the First Punic War confirms the supposition that their main activities were directed landwards.

The Roman conquest of Italy secured for the citizens benefits which included commercium, but the conquest of the Mediterranean opened up vaster fields. The Romans, however, were content to step aside and leave commercial enterprise to the Greeks of southern Italy. The governing class did not seek fresh markets for the products of Italian industry. Provincial administration proved more profitable. Unfortunately we have little evidence of the progress of Roman industry in the third century. The wars with Carthage must have stimulated the production of arms and military equipment which were presumably supplied in the main by Rome and the municipal towns of central Italy. In Campania the production of pottery declined, but metal industries continued to prosper. In southern Italy Rome’s conquest weakened local industry and Hannibal’s invasion wrought untold damage: Tarentum never recovered its pristine prosperity. The towns of Etruria were more prosperous, though artistic inspiration declined. Mirrors, similar to those from Praeneste, were manufactured, and the increasing popularity of incineration encouraged the production of urns of alabaster, marble and travertine. In 205 Scipio received supplies of grain and timber from Caere, Volaterrae, Perusia and Clusium, cloth from Tarquinii, iron from Populonia and manufactured weapons from Arretium.

In the second century similar conditions prevailed. Romans of good family still left industry to the lower classes, but slave labour slowly tended to supplant free. Plautus refers to a large number of skilled workers: workers in gold, iron, wood and leather; makers of boxes, leather bottles, shoes, ropes and shields; dealers in wool and linen; carpenters, potters, dyers, fullers, millers, bakers, weavers. Cato’s list of agricultural implements required for his olive orchard and vineyard is both long and instructive. He also suggests the best shopping centres (de agr., 10f; 135): Rome for clothing, jars and bowls, heavy ploughs, yokes, locks, keys and baskets; Cales and Minturnae for iron agricultural implements; Venafrum for spades, ropes and tiles; Suessa for wagons and threshing sledges; Capua for light ploughs, bronze utensils, ropes and baskets; Pompeii and Nola for mills and olive crushers; Nola for bronze utensils. Pottery was still exported from Cales to central Italy, but the industry declined. The so-called Megarian ware made in southern Umbria was sold chiefly locally and in southern Etruria. The great slag heaps at Populonia near Elba indicate that an average of a hundred thousand tons of iron ore were treated each year during the last centuries of the Republic. Some of the pig-iron was forged on the spot and at Arretium; some was sent to Puteoli as the local timber supply decreased. Copper, tin, and lead also were mined in Etruria, but after Cato had organized the Spanish mines, Etruscan mining and metal working declined, though farming flourished and the slave-worked plantation system spread in Etruria.7 In general, the small shop system, which is revealed at Pompeii, prevailed. The shopkeeper generally made and sold his goods in the same small room.8 Cattle, fish and vegetables were sold in separate fora in Rome, while special market days were held every eighth day. A trader might hawk his wares around neighbouring towns, but the slowness and cost of transport precluded a far-flung trade in cheap goods. An ox team covered little more than ten miles a day and it has been reckoned that to haul an olive mill for twenty-five miles would add a sixth to the original cost of the mill. River transport would be used where possible, and the Roman roads which spread over Italy for military purposes served also commercial ends. Nevertheless trade in Italy, for the most part, remained local.

Overseas trade, especially with the east, increased in the second century, but it had little interest for Roman nobles or influence on Roman policy (p. 295). For instance, the Romans allowed Gades to grow fat on the Atlantic trade of the Carthaginians instead of claiming the legacy for themselves; similarly, no commercial treaty was struck with Masinissa. Ostia’s heyday was after Gracchan times, though a Roman tariff station was set up at Puteoli in 199. The Roman naval transport service was responsible for the transhipment of large quantities of grain, and the cost of freightage precluded a vigorous trade in ordinary commodities as grain, oil and wine. But the increasing demand for luxuries in Rome would promote trade, and the equites gradually became a Third Estate. Yet the aristocracy retained its vested interests in land, and ‘labour’ had no adequate political means of expressing its will.

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