I The Romans and Trade


Trade is an abomination: in violation of a decree by a wise god who wanted lands to be separated by water, it sends out impious ships across the seas.[1] Neither men nor trees were born to live on water; it is unnatural to make them do this, just as unnatural as it is to shun the light of day and move about under the ground in search of metals.[2] It is sheer greed that makes rash men run the risk of digging tunnels and braving winds and gales. They would be happier and would live longer if they acted in conformity with their natural state of self-sufficiency, requiring little to live by and being content only with what is necessary.

The sea is a source of corruption,[3] harbours are places of perdition, and seaports are exposed to grave dangers. For this, commerce and traders are to blame. Plato saw access to the sea as being the source of the profit motive, which he banned from his ideal city, austere and immutable. Aristotle said that some people fear the overpopulation of ports and the presence of foreigners, the strangers brought up under different laws. These consequences flow from commerce, which a host of traders pursue on the seas. Cicero, too, took the view that the speech and manners of foreigners that were imported along with goods were in danger of corrupting the national tradition; but he also deplored the ready availability of luxury items, the attraction of the open sea with the dreams and distant yearnings it puts into the hearts of men, the liking for trade and navigation taking precedence over a care for agriculture and preparation for war.4 Maritime cities, with their empire-building and economies based on trade, eventually come to grief: look at Athens. During the third Punic War, this example was used by the consul Censorinus to try to persuade the Carthaginians that, when the Romans demanded they abandon their city and build another one farther away from the sea, they were concerned only for the good of Carthage itself (this being the final ploy in a pretence of negotiation marked as never before by Roman dishonesty, treachery, and cynicism). If the Carthaginians were to do this, they would enjoy all the security accruing from agriculture and its untroubled labours, instead of relying on the sea, which is the site of hasty action (raxvepyia) and of riskiness.[4] Philostratus gives another example of the same kind in one of the arguments used by Apollonius of Tyana to persuade a young Spartan aristocrat to give up maritime trading with Carthage and Sicily: Sparta itself, when it became interested in seafaring instead of sticking to dry land, ran to ruination and decadence.[5]

My two previous paragraphs rehearse literary themes drawn from a common fund of myth and traditionalism. These themes originate in the idea of the golden age, when bounteous Nature supplied everything required by virtuous men, and in the principle that relying on others for one’s subsistence makes one dependent on them and so alienates one’s freedom.[6] In the minds of the Romans, these themes are linked to the mythic image of a past when, in Romulus’ days, two jugera of land (half a hectare) per person were deemed sufficient, when the messenger bringing to Cincinnatus the news of his appointment as dictator found him working, all sweaty and dusty, in his field of four jugera at the Vatican, and when, as late as the early third century bc, Manius Curius Dentatus stated that anyone who was not satisfied with seven jugera was a bad citizen.[7] These are recurrent themes in diatribes, tirelessly and often elegantly rehearsed not just by the poets[8] but also by the politicians, the agricultural writers, and the philosophers. Seneca uses the theme of self-sufficiency not as mere rhetorical ornamentation, but as an argument demonstrating that luxury is not a genuine good: ‘What need of commerce?... The foods which nature has placed in every region lie all about us, but men, just as if blind, pass these by and roam through every region, they cross the seas and at great cost excite their hunger when at little cost they might allay it’ (trans. J. W. Basore).[9] People entertained such ideas, far removed though they were from actual practice, rather as nowadays everybody complains of the wastefulness of consumer societies. It was known, however, that they were long since of no practical application.

Any town needs to be well supplied; and, in the pre-industrial era, no large city could be supplied except via the sea or a navigable river.[10] Against the risks from closeness to the sea, Aristotle sets the advantages: ‘Now it is not difficult to see that ...it is advantageous in respect of both security and supply of necessary commodities that the city and its territory should have access to the sea’ (trans. H. Rackham, adapted).12 Cicero follows in Aristotle’s footsteps;

and, after having developed his own version of the drawbacks of port cities, he gives a sentence to this substantial advantage: the possibility of bringing in by sea products from all peoples and of exporting wherever one wishes those from one’s own territory. This was why Romulus, no doubt foreseeing that Rome would become a super-city, established it ideally on the Tiber, where it could receive both products arriving by sea and those brought down from the hinterland.[11]

During the Empire, this super-city, the like of which the Mediterranean world would never see again until the twentieth century, is often estimated to have had a million inhabitants.[12] Urban centres of comparable magnitude did not arise in Western Europe until the end of the eighteenth century (London) and the middle of the nineteenth century (Paris). This comparison, however, is misleading, in that London and Paris stand at the centre of broad and very fertile sedimentary basins; and this could not be said of either the fertility or, especially, the extent of the Roman campagna.[13] The greater part of the goods that provided the wealth of the capital of the Roman Empire and made for its upkeep had to come in by sea. Such a statement necessarily implies that seaborne trade developed on a scale out of all proportion with what the Mediterranean had seen previously and which would probably not be surpassed in pre-industrial times. The moral diatribes counterpointed a rapid increase in commercial shipping starting in the third century BC, as is attested by the numbers of wrecks counted.[14]

Alongside the diatribes, the first century ad begins to see signs of wonderment at the networks that, thanks to Rome, now link different parts of the world, and at the number of vessels sailing into its harbours. In Varro, Columella, and Tacitus (through the words of Tiberius), the ideal of selfsufficiency can still be seen behind passages deploring the fact that Italy’s provisioning requires importation of wheat, wine, and oil, that the country ‘depends on external supplies and that the life of the Roman nation is tossed day after day at the uncertain mercy of wave and wind’ (trans. W. D. Hooper; rev. H. B. Ash).[15] Pliny, however, though he still speaks of seas ‘desecrated by traders’,[16] says at the start of the same book: ‘For who would not admit that, now that the world has been unified through the majesty of the Roman

Empire, life has been advanced by the interchange of commodities and by partnership in the blessings of peace, and that even things that had previously lain concealed have all now been established in general use?’ (trans. R Gummere, adapted).[17] There is nothing very surprising in the contrast between Pliny feeling admiration for this mode of globalization and yet having recourse to a literary commonplace. Manilius, during the reign of Tiberius, had already given traders credit for linking so many unknown lands through commerce.[18] Seneca, who had railed against seeking precious objects from far away, quotes a passage from the Georgies to explain that the different fruits of the earth have been distributed among different regions ‘in order that human beings may be constrained to traffic among themselves, each seeking something from his neighbour in his turn’ (trans. R. Gummere).[19] This is worlds away from a dichotomy that could be disbelieved in only on pain of sacrilege.

Rome, like all great capital cities, was where everything was to be found, where products were compared and judged.[20] Its port, Ostia, was founded as the welcoming point for riches and provisions arriving from the world over.[21] Lastly, in 143 or 144, Aelius Aristides countered the indignation expressed by Varro, Tiberius, and Columella on the day when he delivered, in Greek, the eulogy of Rome in the Athenaeum built some time before by Hadrian: it is the glory of Rome that it has as its farmlands ‘Egypt, Sicily, and all of Africa which is cultivated’; and it is another glory, of course, that the city receives the most precious goods from the whole world, from India, from Arabia Felix, from Babylon, and that in your port ‘the arrivals and departures of the ships never stop, so that one would express admiration not only for the harbour, but even for the sea’, that it can carry so many vessels (trans. C. Behr, adapted).[22] A similar fascination can be read from the anathemas of Revelations: Rome’s downfall and destruction are brought about by the insolence of traders whose fortune it has made and who have become the great of the earth.[23] Ten lines of the text give an astonishing inventory of goods imported into Rome: luxury goods first, gold, silver, precious stones, pearls, several kinds of fine fabrics, including silk, and their most expensive dyes, thuya wood, objects worked in ivory and precious woods, but also in bronze, iron, and marble, various perfumes and aromatics, and finally the indispensables of life[24]—namely, wine, oil, similago,[25] wheat, livestock and horses, and of course, bringing up the rear, slaves.[26] Two missing items are surprising: pepper, as luxury; salt fish, as daily necessity. But the principle of an inventory combining the most exotic things and the most everyday is one to note.

No serious scholar doubts the scale of commercial activity under the Roman Empire. Anyone who claims that Moses Finley restricted this activity to luxury goods has not read either what he says about Rome (‘a fabulous consumer of wine’[27]) or what he says about Lyons,[28] or the more frequently quoted passage in which he stresses that ‘the intrusion of genuine market (commercial) trade, on a considerable scale and over very great distances, into the Graeco-Roman world had a feedback effect on peasant markets and the rest to such a degree as to render the primitive models all but useless’.[29] Several authors have calculated the numbers of ships and investments required to keep Rome supplied.[30] My own estimates[31] lead me to the conclusion that the whole eighteenth- century French fleet would not have sufficed.

In recent years, two essential pieces of evidence have vastly increased the sums entailed in the trade in luxury goods, at any rate those from the Orient, such as precious stones, pearls, silk, ivory, and perfumes, which come foremost in the list in Revelations, and to which must be added pepper.

The verso of the Vienna papyrus G 40822 (SB XVIII 13167), first published in 1983 and the subject of several studies,[32] gives the tail end of an estimate of the prices of goods conveyed by a vessel named Hermapollon. It had come from India, with a cargo of Gangetic nard, ivory, and other items detailed in the missing columns, among which pepper must have figured prominently. The cargo altogether (or three-quarters of it, in the view of Dominic Rathbone, now confirmed by Federico Morelli) was worth 1,154 talents 2,852 drachmas silver, equal to nearly 7 million sesterces. This is a fortune equivalent, say, to that of a senator who was not of the richest class but who was well above the minimum property qualification of one million sesterces.

So this figure is an impressive one, as has several times been pointed out. But the figure derived from an Aramaic inscription from Palmyra, recently reinterpreted by De Romanis, reaches incredible proportions. Found inside a funerary tower, dating from later than the middle of the first century AD and probably before the middle of the second century, from the second line onward it gives the figures of a series of additions of sums of money, expressed first in drachmas, then in tetradrachms, then in talents. The final sum, 3,728 talents, 76 minas, 5 tetradrachms, 1 drachma, and 2 obols, amounts to almost 90 million sesterces. According to the first line, this sum represents the 25 per cent customs duty levied over a month. De Romanis leaves open the question of whether this sum represents the dutiable value of the merchandise or the total duty paid. If it is the latter, which references to the local lexicon make more plausible, then the value of goods arriving by caravan at Palmyra during the month in question would reach 350 million sesterces. This amounts to a good third of the budget of the Roman state, the equivalent of the exceptional fortunes of the first or second centuries ad, such as Seneca’s, for instance. Yet it must be accepted that there is an internal consistency in the additions and conversions that guarantee the accuracy of this interpretation.[33]

Such sums of money, even the lower of the two, are astounding. We must assume that what we are dealing with here is an exception, a record amount for the tax-farmer of the customs at Palmyra, and that this is the reason why it was engraved in his tomb. Despite this, the figures do make some sense. According to Pliny the Elder, imports from the East cost the Roman Empire 100 million sesterces a year, a sum that has inspired much discussion. Its reliability depends on the source, probably customs data, from which Pliny took his information, and on whether he based it on prices at Alexandria or on the true purchase prices in India, which would have been difficult to ascertain outside the world of the traders themselves and which were in any case much lower. In the fourteenth century, traders could buy a kilo of pepper for 1-2 grammes of silver in India; but in Alexandria it was worth 10-14 grammes of silver.[34] Whatever the case, Pliny’s figure is on the same scale as those mentioned in the Vienna papyrus and the Palmyra inscription.[35] The bulk of such goods ended up in Rome, contributing to a volume of trade that of necessity required the input of substantial capital. I shall come back to this later.

So let us not be too sceptical about the impression of the gigantic scale that we get from the calculations of tonnages and wealth required for the daily supply of food to Rome and for importing luxury goods. However, it should be remembered that all the examples I have given up till now relate only to consumption in the capital of the Empire and have nothing to say about what was happening elsewhere. Whatever is said about Rome is not said about the Empire or about the wider Roman economy.

In addition, the sheer amounts mobilized or paid over are not enough for us to define the nature of a commercial system or to state that it is similar to some other. Size is not everything. In recent years, the fashion for placing the Roman economy on a comparative scale devised for Europe between the fourteenth and the nineteenth centuries has obscured the fact that peculiar to it were many features that it would be most interesting to spell out and that cast doubt on any attempt to fit it into some exact slot of European economic development. All I propose to do here is ask three questions. Who controlled trade? To what extent did it flow through the whole of the Empire? What were the factors that set a commercial flow in motion?

  • [1] Horace, Carm. I. 3, 21-4. 2 Domergue (2008), 28-30.
  • [2] 3 Cf. the title of Horden and Purcell's well-known work, The Corrupting Sea (2000).
  • [3] 4 Plato, Lg. IV. 704-5; Aristotle, Pol. VII. 6,1 (1326b); Cicero, Rep. II. 5-9; Agr. II. 95.
  • [4] Appian, VIII (Lib.), 86-9. 2 Philostratus, VA IV. 32.
  • [5] 7 Oltramare (1926: 49-54). 4 Pliny, XVIII. 7, 18; Livy, III. 26, 9-10.
  • [6] 9 e.g., Propertius, I. 17, 13 ff.; II. 7, 26-38.
  • [7] 10 Seneca, Helv. X. 5. See many more examples in Giacchero (1980: 1097-1113).
  • [8] 11 Grantham (1997) qualifies this principle somewhat for wheat supply to towns in northern
  • [9] Europe but not for Mediterranean towns.
  • [10] 12 Aristotle, Pol. VII. 4 (1327a).
  • [11] Aristotle, Pol. VII. 6, 2 (1327a); Cicero, Rep. II. 10.
  • [12] The population of Istanbul had probably reached 600,000 by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Ozveren 2003: n. 5) and by 1900 was close to one million; in the westernMediterranean, the largest city in the late nineteenth century was Naples, with 600,000inhabitants.
  • [13] See Ch. 11; see also Morley (1996: 63-5 and passim).
  • [14] Parker (1992); van der Mersch (2001); Cibecchini (2008).
  • [15] Varro, R., II, praef., 3; Columella, I, praef., 20; Tacitus, Ann. III. 54.
  • [16] Pliny, XIV. 52: non maria plus temerata conferre mercatori, non in Rubrum litus Indicumvemerces petitas quam sedulum ruris larem.
  • [17] Pliny, XIV. 2. On this passage, see Nicolet (1988), 209-10.
  • [18] Manilius, Astr. 4, 169-70: orbisque orbi bona vendere posse/totque per ignotas eommereiajungere terras.
  • [19] Seneca, Ep. 87, 20-1 (cf. Vergil, G. I. 53-8). The same idea is in Philo, Leg. ad Gaium, 47.
  • [20] Pliny, XI. 240: ubi omnium gentium bona eomminus judieantur; Florus, I. 4,2; AeliusAristides, XXVI. 11; Galen, XIV. 24 (Kuhn).
  • [21] Florus, I. 1, 4: ut totius mundi opes et eommeatus illo velut maritimo urbis hospitioreeiperentur.
  • [22] Aelius Aristides, XXVI. 12-13.
  • [23] [ol] epnopoi oov rjoav ol peyiaraves r'qs yps (Revelations, 18:23).
  • [24] I borrow the distinction between the superfluous and the indispensables of life fromPolybius (IV. 38, 4), who actually includes in the latter category small livestock and slaves.The distinction made between necessaria and supervacua is a standard one (e.g. Seneca, Ep. 110,11). The list in Revelations coincides with and extends the list of goods that merchants from theEast showed, to no avail, to Verres to prove they were not soldiers of Sertorius: purple, incense,perfumes, linen cloths, precious stones, pearls, wines from Greece, Asian slaves (Cicero, Verr. 2.v.146).
  • [25] A refined flour made from hard wheat, on which see De Romanis (2003b) and p. 199.
  • [26] Revelations, 18:12-13.
  • [27] Finley (1985: 238, n. 24 = 1975b: 179, n. 24).
  • [28] He quotes Rostovtzeff (‘Lyons was not only the great clearing-house for the commerce incorn, wine, oil, and lumber; she was also one of the largest centres in the Empire for themanufacture and distribution of most of the articles consumed by Gaul, Germany and Britain’);and he adds: ‘This may be excessively exuberant, but there can be no dispute about the volumeand importance of the trade passing through such centres’ (1985: 59 = 1975b: 74). It should benoted that this passage from Rostovtzeff is the very one chosen by Morley (2007: 3) as anexample of modernism.
  • [29] Finley (1987: 37 = 1975a). For various people’s inability to understand and caricaturesintended to add to the controversy, see Bang (1998) and Saller (2002).
  • [30] Hopkins (1983); Rathbone (2003).
  • [31] See pp. 196-7.
  • [32] Latterly by De Romanis (1996a: 192-200; 1998); Rathbone (2000); and especially Morelli(2011). For earlier literature on the matter, see p. 238, n. 33.
  • [33] De Romanis (2004, 2006).
  • [34] See Braudel (1979: 357), who found this information in a book by W. Abel citingH. H. Mauruschat. I came across the reference to Braudel in a seminar given by DominicRathbone. In the light of these amounts, Braudel wonders whether ‘the economic impact ofluxury trade is not too easily underestimated’.
  • [35] See also pp. 238-42.
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