Agriculture was at the center of the Roman economy. Much of Roman trade, industry, and labor involved supplying food to the large cities within the empire, such as Alexandria and Rome, as well as to the Roman peasants in the countryside.
Most Romans were peasant farmers who tended their fields and raised their own food. The most popular crops were wheat, olives, grapes, and lentils*. Surplus goods were sold at markets or traded for other goods and supplies. Peasants also used surplus goods to pay their taxes. If they rented their land, the peasants paid the owner a portion of the crops they raised.
Supplying the large cities of the empire with food and other goods was a tremendous enterprise. The population of Rome by the end of the first century B.C. was about one million. Food was shipped to Rome from the provinces* around the Mediterranean Sea. Most foodstuffs were then transported from the port of Ostia, up the Tiber River by way of barges towed by mules, to Rome. Overland transportation was costly, and inland cities that lacked water transport could seldom support very large populations and, therefore, remained small.
* lentil round, flat, edible seed harvested from the pod of the lentil plant, similar to a bean or pea
* province overseas area controlled by Rome
Because of the rising demand of urban consumers for raw materials and luxury goods, many different occupations arose outside of agriculture. For example, Roman harbors required port officials, tugboat pilots, clerks, and laborers to load and unload ships. Roman tombstones, which often recorded the profession of the deceased, indicate that there were over 200 different occupations in Rome around A.D. 300. The educated and wealthy classes in Rome worked little themselves, leaving trade and the production of goods and services to others. Merchants handled trade between the cities in the far-flung empire, and some of them became quite wealthy. Slaves, who were often conquered peoples, worked in the mines and farmed the estates of the wealthy. Their lives were often cruel and short. The profits from the labors of these people went to their owners.
The construction of ships and the purchase of cargo required large sums of money, much of which was lent by landowners and other prominent citizens who had financial means. The Greeks had used coinage, which the Romans adopted for their empire. The government of Rome minted silver coins in huge amounts, using them to pay soldiers. Because coins were easy to carry from place to place, they were ideal for transacting business in the vast empire, and they gradually replaced barter* in the exchange of goods and services.
People also used coins to pay their taxes. Imperial* tax collectors gathered money from all parts of the empire—from large landowners and peasants alike. The emperors used this money to build grand monuments, maintain a standing army of about 300,000 soldiers, and to fortify the frontiers of the empire. The enormous wealth derived from taxation gave Rome great flexibility in running the empire. While some tax collectors enthusiastically taxed the public (and skimmed the excess to line their own pockets), some Roman emperors advised a more moderate view of taxation, realizing that excessive taxes caused extreme hardship. In the words of the emperor Tiberius, “It is the job of a good shepherd to shear the sheep, not to skin them alive.” (See also Agriculture, Roman; Banking; Crafts and Craftsmanship; Food and Drink; Insurance; Land: Ownership, Reform, and Use; Mining; Slavery; Taxation; Trade, Roman; Wars and Warfare, Roman.)
* barter exchange of goods and services without using money
* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire