Trade played an important role in Rome’s political success and its domination of the ancient Mediterranean world. Trade stimulated the growth of towns and cities, helped maintain Roman armies, and contributed to a rise in living standards. It also created links between Rome and other cultures that encouraged an exchange of ideas and facilitated the spread of Roman culture. The development of Roman trade was shaped largely by three factors; the agricultural basis of Roman society, the establishment of a money-based economy, and the expansion of the empire.
Agricultural and Nonagricultural Trade. The vast majority of Romans were rural peasants whose primary occupation was producing their own food. An estimated 80 to 90 percent of the population during the Roman Empire was involved in agriculture. Most Romans who were not involved in agriculture spent the bulk of their income buying food. Agricultural products were thus the most important items produced, consumed, and traded in the Roman world.
Roman peasants generally grew more food than they needed for themselves. This meant that they had a small surplus to exchange in local markets for goods (such as tools, pots, and clothing) or for services (such as legal advice or religious rituals). Most of the surplus, however, went to the state in the form of taxes or to landowners as rent. This transfer of agricultural surplus- through trade, taxation, and rent—formed the basis of the Roman economy.
Despite the importance of agricultural trade, several factors limited its growth. One of the most crucial was a lack of technology, which severely limited agricultural productivity. Because human beings and animals alone supplied the energy required to grow and harvest crops, farmers could produce only a limited amount of food through their own labors. Moreover, their surplus was carried to markets in small carts pulled by oxen, donkeys, or mules. The transport of goods by such slow-moving animals hindered the easy exchange of goods. Although the Romans created an excellent and extensive system of roads, the transport of goods overland remained difficult and costly. As a result, the majority of trade products were transported by sea.
A second factor that hampered the growth of agricultural trade was that the basic foods—wheat, lentils*, olive oil, and wine—were produced in virtually every region of the Roman world. Most people consumed the local products and thus had little need for agricultural trade between regions. Surplus food generally went to the large cities that had difficulty feeding all their inhabitants. However, the slowness of getting food to the cities and the expense of this trade tended to limit it. Only a few individuals had enough wealth to become involved in such trade. Although the state had the necessary resources, it generally engaged in this type of trade only to relieve serious food shortages.
Grain and other food products were bulky and inexpensive. As a result, it was not very profitable to trade them. Other goods—including pottery, cloth, and luxury items—were of higher value and weighed much less. Trade in these and other highly prized items was very profitable. Trade in luxury goods flourished throughout the period of the Roman Empire as ships brought exotic spices and perfumes, precious gems and ivory, and fine textiles from Egypt, Africa, Arabia, India, and China.
Money and the Expansion of Empire. The development of a money- based economy was a crucial factor in the growth of Roman trade. In ancient times, most local trade was conducted through barter*. But this was impractical in the growing empire, where products had to be transported long distances and their value varied from place to place. By the 100s B.C., the use of coins had increased greatly. This use of coins enabled the Romans to establish fixed prices for goods, and it made trading over long distances much easier. Instead of hauling produce to distant markets to exchange for goods, farmers could sell it locally and use money to buy other products. Money thus allowed greater flexibility in buying and selling, which in turn helped stimulate trade.
The use of money also helped increase the volume and direction of trade. The state used tax revenues to support its armies of conquest. Slaves brought to Italy from conquered regions displaced many peasant farmers, who then migrated to the city of Rome or to Roman provinces*. Wealthy landowners used slave labor to produce greater surpluses, which then found a ready market among displaced peasants.
* lentil round, flat, edible seed harvested from the pod of the lentil plant, similar to a bean or pea
* barter exchange of goods and services without using money
Wealthy Roman landowners had a distaste for commercial activity and generally considered trade beneath their dignity. They often used middlemen called negotiators to handle the business of taking their crops to market. The landowner would sign a contract with the negotiator that guaranteed a certain return on his goods. Meanwhile, the negotiator had responsibility for organizing the trade and taking the risks involved. Because contracts often extended even to the actual gathering of a crop, many landowners never dealt at all with the crops that brought them great fortunes.
* province overseas area controlled by Rome
As the empire grew, Rome taxed rich provinces such as Spain and Gaul to maintain its armies, support the government, and pay for public games and entertainments. To pay these taxes, the provinces had to export more goods to other parts of the empire. As the empire expanded so did trade throughout the Roman world. It also brought Rome in contact with other cultures and states.
Roman Traders. Wealthy and powerful Romans often invested money in precious cargoes and financed trading activities. But they rarely took a direct role in trade. Instead, most trade was conducted by a separate merchant class, many of whose members came from the provinces. These merchants acted as intermediaries, negotiating deals and supervising the transport of goods. Among the hazards that investors and merchants had to worry about in trading activities were shipwreck and piracy.
The growth of trade enabled Rome to buy goods and services from all over the Mediterranean world. Roman ships carried cargoes of luxury items as well as wheat, wine, olive oil, wood, and metals. Advances in shipbuilding and sailing techniques enabled sailors to travel more safely across the open sea rather than hugging the coastline, thus reducing both the time and cost of overseas trade.
The scale of trade to Rome, the largest city in the empire, was enormous. But large-scale trade was not confined to Rome. Cities such as Alexandria, Antioch, and Carthage also had a large volume of trade, and they served as warehouses for goods awaiting shipment to Rome. While trade was dominated by the movement of goods between such cities, regional trade was important as well. Local markets played a vital role in the economic growth of the empire, and many products circulated widely within regions.
Large-scale trade continued through much of the imperial* period. In the A.D. 200s and A.D. 300s, however, decreases in the value of coinage dealt a serious blow to the trade in inexpensive products. At the same time, the trade in luxury goods came increasingly under the control of the state. The decline of Rome in the A.D. 400s led to a general decline in trade throughout the Roman world. After the fall of Rome, it took a thousand years for trade in the Mediterranean region to reach the levels it had attained at the height of Roman power. (See also Agriculture, Roman; Banking; Insurance; Labor; Land: Ownership, Reform, and Use; Markets; Money and Moneylending; Pottery, Roman; Ships and Shipbuilding; Slavery; Transportation and Travel; Working Classes.)
* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire