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Roman trade

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The Roman abacus was based on its Babylonian prototype. This device allowed Roman arithmeticists to calculate much faster than before.
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Roman trade was the factor that guided the state economy of the late republic and early empire. It was trade that allowed the Roman state to survive on the political scene for so long, taking the economy out of crises.

When Senate members and their families were banned from interfering in trade, all business fell into the hands of the equites, a new political group. They dealt with all transactions and contracts. Another role was played by plebeians and freedmen who managed shops and a huge number of slaves who dealt with the hardest work, i.e. transporting products. Slaves themselves were an excellent trading commodity that made up most of Roman society over time. Slaves were employed in practically every area of ​​life, which meant that they played a large role in the Roman economy.

The Romans knew two types of, as we would call them today, “businessmen”: negotiatores and mercatores.
Negotiatores were part bankers because they gave loans for various purposes and sold enormous amounts of basic products. Similar functions were performed by argentarii, who accepted deposits, granted loans, exchanged money, sometimes conducted auctions for commission, and even cashed checks (prescriptio).
All submitted bills were counted using special abacuses, perfectly adapted to the Roman currency as well as weights and measures.
Mercatores were selling in stores, the so-called “open” and “closed”. In addition, they ran corner shops on the street. They were also present during war expeditions accompanying Roman soldiers. Legionnaires could buy food and clothes from them. The Mercatores were usually plebeians and liberators.

The Forum Romanum was a market offering all good things. In the capital itself, there were 4 other important fairs specializing in a specific industry, i.e. they sold specific products, such as beef, wine, fish, spices and vegetables. Cities from different parts of the empire offered specific provincial products that were exchanged with other cities.

The original severity of manners, so praised by Cato the Censor, began to retreat already in his time. The pioneers were those who, by definition, should be the guardians of Roman severity – the senators. The first luxury goods found their way to their homes in the form of spoils of war, for example from Greek cities in southern Italy, during the wars with Pyrrhus. Successive conquests meant successive waves of statues, jewels and, above all, Greek slaves – doctors, teachers, scholars, etc. The fashion for Greek culture aroused the taste for more. Soon, the grandsons of those who still cultivated the land themselves began to be one hundred percent townspeople. Since the wealth of the most powerful families was enormous on the Mediterranean scale, as early as the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE an influx of fancifully decorated robes, refined gems, statues, paintings, mosaics and mirrors began. Wild animals were brought from Africa and Asia, and almost all aristocrats began to breed rare species of fish. The fact of these moral changes worried conservatives, but since the censors themselves were generally rich, cultured masters, they did not enforce the severity of morals too severely. This had a positive effect on trade and craftsmanship, which flourished under these conditions and made Rome the world’s largest consumer of luxury goods.
People were brought to Rome:

  • from Spain – wine, olive oil, honey, salted fish, wax, tar, red dye obtained from crushed beetles and delicate fabrics;
  • from France – wine;
  • from Syria – materials and glassware;
  • from Greece – shoes;
  • from Arabia – incense;
  • from Africa and Asia – marble;
  • from the Baltic areas – amber;
  • from Babylonia – garments.

The most important factor, the importance of which began to grow in the middle of the second century BCE, was the need to meet the needs of a capital of one million people. The average Roman fed on bread baked from wheat that matured in North Africa, Sicily, Rhodes, and fished and dried fish near Gibraltar. He prepared dishes in North African olive oil in pans and pots made of copper mined in Spain, ate on covers fired in ceramic ovens in Gaul, drank Spanish and Gallic wines (although he had excellent domestic ones), and if he spilled his food on a toga, he cleaned it with special clay with Aegean islands.

A wealthy Roman wore Milesian wool or Egyptian linen, his wife dressed in silk from China, diamonds and pearls from India, and used cosmetics from southern Arabia. The dishes were seasoned with Indian pepper and Athenian honey; on African citrus tables, meals were served on Spanish silver covers and washed down with Sicilian wine poured from Syrian glass jugs. A rich Roman lived in a house whose walls were covered with colored marble mined in quarries of Asia Minor, among furnishings of Indian ebony or teak wood inlaid with African ivory, in rooms filled with statues brought from Greece.
Goods and luxuries from nearby Gaul and distant China poured into the capital, some to satisfy the needs of a million inhabitants, others – to satisfy the extravagance of patricians.

As the cities were connected by good roads, this allowed for quick and effective trade.
River trade was also chosen very often, especially if trade in them could be shorter compared to roads.

There were two major and important trade routes in the history of ancient Rome. The leading role until the Punic Wars was the route with Carthage, which brought enormous economic benefits.
After the relations were strained, the “silk route” with China began to play the dominant role and continued until the end of statehood. The route led from Xi’an, the former capital of China, through the valley of the Tarym River, along the northern edge of the Takla Makan Desert, Samarkand, Bukhara and Tashkent to the Caspian Sea, then through Turkey to the Black Sea. There was also the so-called southern road, through the southern edge of the Takla Makan desert, Pamir, Bactria, India and Syria.
From China, Rome mainly imported exotic turtle shells, rhinoceros horns and ivory.
There was also a trade route with India, for which the Roman Empire was the most important trading partner in the west. Jewels were brought from there.

Sea routes did not appear on a massive scale until the 1st century CE. This was due to the fact that the cost of transporting grain overland for 80 km and transporting it by ship to a port 2,000 km away was the same. Moreover, the transit time was significantly shorter than that of the land transport. For example, merchant ships traveled from Rome to Egypt in less than two weeks.

In order to increase the income from maritime trade, the Romans built a huge number of transport ships and coastal ports such as: Civitavecchia, Ostia, Portus, Leptis Magna and Caesarea Maritima. The port of Ostia, a town at the mouth of the Tiber 25 km from Rome, was full of officials controlling shipments, supervising loading and paying crews.

Most of the goods imported into the city of Rome were tributes or taxes from the provinces. On sea routes, mainly low-value products were transported in large quantities, i.e. grain and building materials. The most important thing was the grain trade. Had it not been brought in enormous numbers, the people of Rome would have starved to death. Every year, more than 400,000 tonnes of grain from Africa, Egypt and Sicily passed through Ostia and the port of Puteoli near Naples on the way to Rome. They specialized in the transport of various products: agricultural, manufacturing and mining.

Sea trade

A river ship, probably carrying barrels of wine.
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Throughout the span of ancient times, shipping has provided a unique opportunity to transport huge quantities of bulk products and heavy goods over long distances without the associated drastic increase in shipping costs. With all due respect to land transport, the use of the sea route for the transport of goods was: faster, more comfortable and safer, despite the wind and waves always waiting for opportunities to spoil something. The comparison of the size of the transported cargo also indicates sea transport: several hundred kilograms of cargo carried by a cart is in no way comparable with the hundreds of tons transported by a sea vessel. The speed of the ships ranged from 4 to 6 knots, which gave the daily mileage from 100 km (for journeys only during the day) to about 250 km (24-hour mileage with good wind). Pliny gives examples of really “express” journeys: 2 days for a trip from Ostia to Carthage (Africa), 6 days to Alexandria via the Strait of Messina, or 7 days from Gades to Ostia.

On the other hand, for example, Strabo gives an example of a trip from Spain to Italy that took 3 months. The supply of grain to Rome was an essential factor in maintaining the city’s enormous population. According to anonymous data – the annual food supplies (mainly from Egypt, whose supplies covered over 30% of the total demand) amounted to from 20 million modes (about 140,000 tons) to 60 million modes (approx. 420,000 tons). In the time of Nero, the arrival of the grain fleet from Alexandria (in July) became almost a national holiday. Merchant ships were escorted by warships and preceded by special ships announcing the arrival of a fleet that “freed” the people from the threat of starvation. Additionally, the fleet carried other food products: wine in huge quantities and oil used for food and lighting, as well as massage oil in the baths. Other products include: bars of iron, copper, lead and very valuable tin – used later in various ways, as well as wood. Finally, all kinds of luxury goods were transported (especially for the capital), rare animals for circuses, marbles from Africa and Asia, granites from Egypt and spices from the East. Liquid goods were transported in amphoras: wine from Catalonia, Crete, Rhodes and Asia, oil from Betitia and Africa, and special fish oil (garum) from Spain. The quantity of this type of commodity was just as great – hundreds of millions of vessels were in use.

The ports serving the city of Rome included Ostia and Pouzzoli. The annual number of ships calling at these ports was about 1,200-grain vessels, 100-150 large vessels carrying oil, at least twice as much with wine – not counting shipments of fish, marble, stones, wild animals and local transport. Taking all this into account, it can be assumed that about 7-10 large ships and a large number of boats and small coastal shipping vessels called each day at both ports. Taking into account the transhipment time of up to 10 days, up to several dozen – only large vessels – stood every day in both ports or on their roadsteads. Until the expansion of the Ostia port by Emperor Claudius, most of the large ships were unloaded at the port roadsteads (i.e. at anchorages). For these purposes, an entire fleet of smaller ships (about 100) was used, to which goods from larger ships were transhipped, and these in turn transported goods deep into a specific port. Each such operation was both dangerous and time-consuming – it took about 6-10 days. From the port of Ostia, ships were pulled along the banks of the Tiber by slaves or animals. This form of transport created a new type of vessel – barges (naves caudicariae) as a means of indirect river transport and for unloading larger vessels. The time-consuming forms of food supply described above increased the threat of hunger for the entire population of Rome, which was growing very quickly. Food reserves decreased, which made it necessary to service ships also in the winter season, which is dangerous for shipping. The actions of some rulers (the “bridge” built by Caligula required the immobilization of about 400 ships – which made it practically impossible to supply the capital with grain – in 39 CE) was the cause of the famine, which also dragged on for the next 2 years. It is all the more gracious to look at the actions of the next Emperor Claudius, thanks to which the port of Ostia became “a port in the full sense of the word”, providing the entire city with food supplies and a truly safe haven for ships.

Map showing the main trade links of the Roman Empire in 180 CE. Trade routes with foreign countries are marked in blue, and inside the country in orange.
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At the time of the Empire, Rome was already a great city with over a million people. It created an outlet of an unprecedented size that was not repeated in the western Mediterranean until the 19th century. The organization of the constant movement of various products over long distances created the need to build specialized ships with unique navigational characteristics in order to ensure the regular transportation of various consumer goods and food for the eternally insatiable Rome. Roman merchant ships experienced their heyday during the Empire. A huge variety of ship sizes and types was characteristic of this period: from small ships used for short and medium coastal voyages to huge (for those times) merchant ships. In addition, many fishing vessels and boats, support vessels and specialized units.

The variety of merchant ships went hand in hand with the variety of names – the ships had names such as: Corbita, Gaulus, Ponto, Cladivata etc., which changed depending on the place of launching or the shape of the hull. Despite the great variety, from a technical point of view, there must have been a certain classification of ships – also because, in a way, Rome’s influence over the entire Mediterranean region was enormous. After all, since then, the term Mare Nostrum (“our sea”) has been used, which was true in the times of the Empire. Thanks to the numerous iconography and shipwrecks, today we can tell a little more about their structure and shapes.

The shape of the hull, as far as we start discussing the topic, was symmetrical or asymmetrical. In the first case – the shape of the bow and stern – were identical, while in the second – the bow was generally lower. Often the stern ended with the so-called “swan neck” with the head pointing towards the beak and equipped with a hanging gallery. The bow, on the other hand, was often concave due to the presence of an underwater bulge, which, of course, on merchant ships did not function as a ram, but significantly improved the navigational properties of the hull. The sides of the hull rose slightly above the deck and then transformed into a small superstructure that served to protect the control system. The crew cabins were usually located at the stern and the helmsman’s place was on their roof. The steering system itself consisted of one or more side rudders (steering oars) connected by a system of ropes or beams. The ship’s maneuvers were controlled by acting on a special beam placed perpendicular to the deck (connected to the steering oars) – called Clavus. The whole system operated on the principle of a simple lever, which minimized the effort of the helmsman. Despite the fact that commercial galleys (mixed drive called Actuariae) were used quite often, most of the commercial vessels were sailing ships with one, two or even three masts. Square sails equipped with a system of ropes and blocks were not very grateful in sailing – they only tolerated sailing in a narrow range of winds blowing from the stern.

A small Roman merchant ship, immortalized in a stone.
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Some ships were equipped with a small triangular sail (the so-called Supparum) for easier maneuvering. In order to satisfy the various requirements of trade, the tonnage of ships also varied greatly. Vessels with a capacity of 10,000 years of grain (approx. 70 tons) were the smallest, the use of which for the transport of grain was profitable and the utility approved by the government granting the transport concessions. Most of the ships used in sea trade are vessels of 100 to 200 tons of capacity (their displacement is respectively about 150 to 300 tons, which corresponds to a length of 20 – 25 meters). Their size changed with the needs, reaching the size of about 300 to 400 tons of capacity and the size of up to 40 meters at the time of the birth of the Empire. Of course, there were also larger ones, such as the Muriophorio, which had a capacity of about 500 tons, which allowed the transport of 10,000 amphoras. To illustrate the technological effort of this period, suffice it to say that ships of a similar size reappeared in the Mediterranean Sea only 1500 years later.

When discussing the size of ships – the existence of “giant ships” cannot be ignored. Despite the fact that the 50-meter barrier was difficult to overcome for practical reasons (long, wooden ships could not withstand the hardships of the storms and broke) – in ancient times, ships were also built that often denied this fact. An example would be the famous Syracusia owned by Hiero II of Syracuse built for the transportation of grain. Due to its enormous size, it could only enter Alexandria (Egypt), where it was also given to Ptolemy III. Also, do not forget the huge ship built by Caligula (1,300 tons) to transport the obelisk, which was used after it sank, as a material for building a lighthouse in the port of Claudius (Ostia). Another example would be the Isis, a 1,200 tonne granary vessel that is one of the few great units of the Alexandrian grain fleet. In addition to the above, there were also non-cargo ships – it is known that there were two huge ships – palaces, each of which was 70 meters long. However, as already mentioned – the vast majority of ships did not exceed the size of 300 tons. Everything that the world needed at that time was transported under their decks, and above all the enormous Rome, whose citizens invariably liked all kinds of entertainment, in which “bread and games” were not at least the last.

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