II Scripta varia

Some updating will be found either in the footnotes or at the end of some of these chapters. Such additions are italicized inside square brackets [thus].

Dreams of Wealth, Loans, and Seaborne Trade

In the second century ad, Lucian devoted the bulk of a well-known dialogue, ‘The Ship: Or, the Wishes’, to the daydreams of the Athenian Adeimantos on being given a tour of a great ship carrying grain from Alexandria that had put in at Piraeus: if only he were the owner, how much better his position would be, what a pleasant life he would have! I think there is an enlightening comparison to be made between this text and another one, older and less well known, from Cicero’s Brutus, reporting a speech for the defence by the orator Crassus (140-91 bc). In responding to a charge of improper solicitation of a legacy, Crassus began by saying that the case was reminiscent of the story of a young dandy who, having found a swivel rowlock on the beach, got carried away by the notion of building it into a ship: ab adulescente delicato, qui in litore ambulans scalmum repperisset ob eamque rem aedificare navem concupivisset exorsus est (Brutus, 197).

It may be objected that the ship in question had oars, which means it was a warship. But some merchant ships, such as actuariae, had oars; and it is not clear to me why the adulescens delicatus would have wanted to build a fighting ship. It is obvious that Crassus is alluding to a well-known, proverbial story, presumably a sort of Latin or Greek antecedent of folk tales such as ‘The Little Ploughboy’ or La Fontaine’s fable La Laitiere et le pot de lait (‘The Milkmaid and the Jug of Milk’).

So I take this text as another indication that envious members of the lower classes saw ownership of a merchant ship as a good way of climbing fortune’s ladder. It is the way chosen by Trimalchio in Petronius’ famous novel: not content with the fine legacy left to him by his master, he decides to take his chance with maritime trading; and, after losing all his ships on the first voyage, he becomes fabulously rich on the second. Though it should certainly not be taken as reflecting reality, the Cena Trimalchionis is nonetheless, like any

First published in L’Exploitation de la mer de l’Antiquite a nos jours: VIe Rencontres internationales d’archeologie et d’histoire d’Antibes, 24-28 octobre 1985 (Valbonne, 1986: 123-9).

caricature, a good send-up of accepted ideas, in this case ideas about upward social mobility. The character of Trimalchio has been so frequently discussed by modern historians that his rise has become a fixture in our minds. It should be remembered that such ventures may just as often have ended in failure, as can be seen from a sad inscription found on the Via Salaria in Rome,[1] referring to a true story, as it happens. It recounts the fate of L. Licinius Nepos, whose life had given cause for complaint to no one:

He hoped to become rich through trading [negotiando], but was deceived by hope and by many friends, though he had deserved well of them. As his final dwelling place, he built this little structure on a narrow plot, reduced to investing in it more care than money... so that his bones and his ashes and those of his brother Caius might rest here, and to bear witness that he lived by hard work and with no security.[2]

The first problem with such texts, which have in common the dream, hope, or myth of enrichment via maritime trading, is the relation between owning ships and engaging in large-scale trade, in other words, between ship operators and traders. Some time ago Jean Rouge (1966:280) showed that, under the Empire, it was quite usual for traders to be shipowners. This was the dual role given by Petronius to Trimalchio; and I have assumed that the same idea had occurred to the young dandy in Brutus.[3]

This problem is a little more complicated in the case of Adeimantos. Initially (§13), he dreams that he owns the great ship that has put in at Piraeus and that he earns as much as its present owner (despotes), which he has been told is twelve Attic talents. Then (§18), he gets completely carried away by his imagination: ‘May the ship and all in her be mine—cargo, merchants, women, sailors, and every sweetest treasure in the world’ (trans. K. Kilburn). Even if this particular dream is now out of touch with reality, it shows that, in its initial phase, the character could see himself as despotes tou ploiou, different from the emporoi, that is, and that the whole shipload did not belong to him.

As for the profits he envied, the twelve Attic talents, this figure, though it should clearly not be taken as reliable evidence, is not entirely fanciful, and its place within the range of incomes at that time can be quite accurately evaluated. Calculated in weight of silver, twelve talents are the equivalent of 72,000 denarii, which was roughly the remuneration of the highest-paid equestrian procurators, the trecenarii. This represents a substantial income, being the same as that of the highest state administrators. However, it is not a fabulous sum, being definitely much less than the incomes of the wealthiest men of the time. Can we conclude that it is roughly equivalent to the earnings of a shipowner who is not a trader?

The problem is that it has been pointed out, in respect of periods that are much better documented, that trade brought in much more money than shipbuilding. Jacques Heers (1971: 230-3) observed years ago that, in fifteenth-century Genoa, many shipowners were in debt or bankrupt: ‘Running a ship was not at all lucrative.’ More recently, in 1979, W. Brulez, known to me only via H. W. Pleket (1983: 138), broadened the demonstration to include the entire West in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Brulez identifies only one exceptional case: some owners in the Hanseatic towns had high social standing, though he assumes they were owner-traders.

Can a text by Lucian support the idea that shipowners in the Roman world earned more money than their counterparts during the Renaissance, given all that this would imply about the high cost of transport, and so on? Whether the sum in question is accurate or not, there can be no doubt that the owner of the Isis enjoyed an enviable position. But the text is not clear enough to rule out the possibility that he was, like the wealthy Hanse townsmen, both an owner and a trader. Some of the shipboard space that he rented out to traders he may have kept aside for his own commercial operations; and, on other voyages, he may have reserved the Isis for his exclusive use. The evidence of this one text is too slight, and there are too many unambiguous cases of owner-traders, for us to exclude the possibility.

We can now move on to consider the second problem, which is a much greater one: how close to reality were such dreams of making a fortune through maritime trade?

Table 6.1 includes several texts from the late Republic and the Empire that illustrate ways of becoming wealthy: two of the categories—agriculture and navigare or negotiari—are practically omnipresent. The only texts in the table that I propose to discuss are the two that are at once the most unexpected and the most questionable. The Suetonius passage is included only on the strength of the list of gifts distributed to the public during Nero’s Ludi maximi: birds, vouchers for grain, gold, silver, pearls, paintings, slaves, trained wild animals, and so on., ‘and lastly, ships, buildings, and farms’. Those last three items on the list are separated from the rest by the word novissime, because they are of a different kind: they are ways of achieving wealth. This list sheds light on an enigmatic sentence in Sallust’s preface to De coniuratione Catilinae II. 7. Having divided human powers into physical and mental, he shows that, even for warfare, the mind is the more important. Then he adds: Quae homines arant, navigant, aedificant, virtuti omnia parent (‘Success in agriculture, navigation, and construction depends invariably upon mental excellence’) (trans. J. C. Rolfe, adapted). In other words, even to earn money

Table 6.1. The different sources of profit





Moneylending Buildings


Sallust, Cat.

Quae homines



II. 7




Maris et


Booty, delation,

I, Pr. 7-10


clienteles, public




Incerta fides

Fortuna maris; Incertior fides

Quaest. Nat.




IV, Pr. 7

vendendique lis

Seneca, Ep.

Ex merce



17, 10







Nero, XI. 4





Acting with power



of attorney,

IV. 2, 174


military life, gifts,

oratory, legacies


Agrum colere




XIV. 3, 5, 2



from agriculture, maritime trading, or property speculation, the main thing is to be clever.

We must now try to understand why, of the four most standard ways of making money (agriculture, letting out buildings, moneylending at interest, and maritime trading), it was the last one that inspired so many dreams. Two reasons come to mind: first, that it represented a double-or-quits deal in which (in the public mind, at any rate) one could win the jackpot with a single fortunate throw, like Trimalchio; and, secondly, there was a prohibition, of social rather than legal force,[4] which forbade senators—in other words, the wealthiest of the Romans—to engage in it overtly. So there was greater scope for men of more modest means to play a part; and it can probably be assumed, as we shall see, that it was also easier for people who wanted to get started in business to borrow money from those who had considerable reserves of capital but preferred not to engage directly in such matters.

In recent years, P. Veyne, K. Hopkins, H. W. Pleket, J. Andreau, and J. Rouge,[5] working from different sources, have all arrived at the conclusion that large sums of money deriving from the Roman elite served to finance trade, in particular maritime trade. The method adopted by Hopkins is the most original: with the aim of calculating the volume of foodstuffs required to keep Rome supplied, the number of ships needed to carry it, and the cost of building the vessels, he concludes:

The total capital value of ships involved in supplying the city of Rome alone probably equalled over 100 million HS, that is the minimum fortunes of 100 senators. The sums involved, especially in large ships, were so substantial that it was likely to have involved those Romans with substantial capital to invest and to put at risk. (Hopkins 1983: 102)

Rash and prone to inaccuracy as such computations may be, there is some chance that the total arrived at may give us a rough figure that we can work with. One well-known example, as early as the second century bc, of the elite’s involvement in financing maritime trading is Cato the Elder’s practice offenus nauticum (maritime loans) in his last years. How far, though, can one generalize?

On the one hand, there are many texts that show that, as well as agriculture and on the same footing, moneylending with interest was a constant practice among the most respectable and wealthy people. Seneca says so three times, speaking of general examples (Ep. 2, 6; 41, 7; 87, 6); and he, too, did it (Tacitus, Ann. XIV. 53 in fine), as would Pliny the Younger in his time (Ep. III. 19). One could easily quote other references.[6]

On the other hand, I would like to draw attention to a text by Seneca that has a bearing on this subject (Ep. 119, 1). He is speaking of a commonplace of Stoic rhetoric: the best way to become rich is to reduce one’s desires, since not desiring is tantamount to possessing. The text begins like this:

Docebo quomodo fieri dives celerrime possis... ad maximas te divitias compen- diaria ducam. Opus erit tamen tibi creditore: ut negotiari possis, aes alienum facias oportet (‘What I shall teach you is the ability to become rich as speedily as possible... I shall lead you by a short cut to the greatest riches. It will be necessary, however, for you to find a loan; in order to be able to do business you must contract a debt’) (trans. R. Gummere).[7]

A passage in John Chrysostom, recently quoted by Jean Rouge (1985: 173 n. 4), underscores this: the emporos who has suffered a shipwreck is not deterred; ‘after having borrowed’, he launches into new ventures. And I make no mention of the legal texts already referred to by Veyne (1979a: 279) and Rouge (1980).

Such references, clearly alluding to situations that were current and known to everybody, justify the conclusion that, in the Roman world, borrowing money so as to mount a seagoing trade entreprise was quite an ordinary occurrence.8

Many of the loans advanced by great landowners went to their peers—to finance their purchases of land, for example—to cities, or to clients, who rarely if ever repaid them. But, given that lending at interest was an everyday activity for great landowners and that borrowing was also normal among seagoing trade entreprises, it would be surprising if these two activities did not, at least from time to time, coincide. In addition to the instance of Cato, we know of precise examples of loans made by great personages that ended up financing commercial enterprises. They have been studied in particular by Jean Andreau:9 during the Republic, Cicero and Atticus were doing this via the intermediaries of Cluvius and Vestorius. Later, the Murecine tablets give evidence of emperors making loans via their slaves to traders.

Seneca’s letter goes on to give some indications about how the loans were contracted, through an intercessor, who stood warranty for the borrower, and proxenetae, brokers whose function it was to bring together candidates for loans and the holders of capital.

This was presumably the arrangement that gave rise in certain cases not just to the dreams but to hopes for acquisition of wealth like those entertained by the unfortunate L. Licinius Nepos of Ostia. However, clearly, loans were not made to just anybody; and finding someone to stand warranty was not open to everyone. The hardest part was getting started. It was a commonplace to say, as do Seneca (De brev. vitae, 20, 2; Ep. 101, 2) and Plutarch (Moralia, 787a), that it is more difficult to get out of poverty than to become very rich; and there is nothing surprising in that. It is also likely, however, that such loans were much influenced by patronage and amicitia; any unsupported individual presumably stood little chance of getting a loan. There was, on the other hand, a bias in favour of freedmen. When Trimalchio retired from business, he lent to freedmen (at least if we abide, as we should, by the manuscript readings). In addition, because of the procedures governing loans, freedmen could enjoy embark for purposes of trade, some state revenues that I might handle, and some merchandise that I might acquire’).

  • 8 On this, I am in agreement with H. Pavis d’Escurac (1977: 353), and J. D’Arms (1981: 104 ff), both of whom quote the text by Seneca.
  • 9 Andreau (1985b: 184 [1997, 85ff.]; cf. 1983: 12-13, 16 [1997: 99-118]).

much more independence than if they entered into associations with their patrons.[8]

My final point is this: these remarks enable us to clarify an important question. It is now certain that merchant shipping and trade were financed, at least in part, by money belonging to senators and the elite. What remains to be understood is how it was done: by loans with fixed rates, however high and risky they might be, as in the case of the fenus nauticum, or by direct involvement in enterprises, sharing their profits and their risks? Investing and lending are not quite synonymous. A lender does not form a company with a borrower; and scholars in this area are often confused. Rouge (1980: 293) warned about this misconception in his criticism of U. von Lfibtow, who, in connection with Cato, spoke of ‘a combination of a maritime loan and an association for long-distance seaborne commerce’. But it is a misconception that dies hard. One wonders why, for instance, in the same volume, E. Gabba (1980: 92), having properly stated that, for Cato, ‘mercatura was not pure and simple trade directly managed... but in his eyes was shipping loans organized by an enterprise run by someone else’, then speaks of compartecipazione? Is it right to say that Trimalchio ‘continues to dabble in occasional speculation, since he lends money at interest’ (Veyne, 1979a: 277)? My own view would be that, as Narducci (1984: 244) says, in lending at interest, Trimalchio is actually leaving the world of speculation behind. Conversely, what meaning can be found in a sentence like this, from M. Christol (1982, 8): ‘With his freedmen, he can now form associations; but at that point all financial responsibility disappears and the freedman acts as a screen’?

Lately, much scholarly energy has been expended in the search for instances where senators or great personages were involved, directly or via intermediaries, in seaborne commerce or in occasional commercial enterprises. Yet, very few concrete examples have been identified, none of which seems to me to be indubitable. This may be explained, as some say, by the fact that members of the elite preferred to say nothing about an activity seen as dishonourable. But, alongside this lack of examples, of debatable significance, there are signs that lending money to seaborne trade enterprises was indeed standard practice. Given the absence of other sources, we can only suppose that this was the channel through which the senatorial aristocracy’s money contributed to the financing of such enterprises.[9] This helps explain why commercial transport reached the proportions evidenced by archaeology, without, however, implying that Roman aristocrats were motivated, even surreptitiously, by a business mentality. Licinius Nepos’ inscription, expressing the regret that he had lived laboriose et non secure, hints at values different from those of traders, notably security, which members of the higher orders could not afford to ignore.

[The link I made between what Adeimantos heard a sailor say about the earnings of the owner of the Isis and the income of a procurator trecenarius is not enough for us to see this figure as reliable evidence. The matter of relations between ship operators and traders is still under discussion, having been reopened recently by Catherine Virlouvet and Michel Christol,[10] both of whom have observed that, of all the people identified on amphorae from Monte Testaccio whose social status is known from inscriptions on stone, P. Olitius Apollonius is the only shipowner alongside a sequence of mercatores, negotiatores, and diffusores. Virlouvet reminds us that the sum invested in the building of a ship was generally less than the cost of the cargo. The role of the trader thus presupposes a much greater financial base than that of the shipowner or charterer; and the importance of the world of ship operators should not be overstated. Christol sees two quite different stages in the career of Olitius, first when he was an owner, then, more profitably, when he became a trader. He thinks it unlikely that the man did both simultaneously.

Jean Rouge’s statement (1980: 280) that ‘it was utterly commonplace for a negotiator to own one or more ships, which put him in the category of the domini navium, the only difference being that they employed their own ships commercially’ was based on a single source, a passage from Tacitus’ Annals (XIII. 50-1) which says that Nero, having had to abandon his idea of abolishing all the vectigalia (indirect taxes) and thus becoming the benefactor of mankind, retained two or three of its intended measures, one of which was to exclude the value of ships in the provinces overseas from the assessment of a merchant’s property.[11] In fact, this reform would make sense only if many traders owned ships. We can, however, go into greater detail.

Some particular examples are supplied by texts, epigraphy, and underwater archaeology. In his In Verrem (2.v.154), Cicero announces that he will call as a witness P. Granius, a trader ofPuteoli, robbed of his ship and his merchandise by Verres. Virlouvet cites two wrecks in which were found an anchor and some items from the cargo, all stamped with the same name, as evidence that the trader, or one of the traders, who owned the cargo was also the shipowner.[12] In Rome, L. Scribonius Ianuarius was both a trader in wine and a shipowner in the Adriatic, a curator of that important corpus: a shipowning trader in a dominant position.[13] If I may allude to river traffic, the rich evidence from Lyons affords several examples of master boatmen on the Rhone or the Saone, or on both rivers (the shipowners of river traffic), who were also traders in muria, wine, oil (?), grain, and perfumes.[14] C. Apronius Raptor, a ship’s master on the Saone, a decurion at Trier, was the patron of the Lyons wine-traders: if he was not a wine-trader himself, which may not be certain, he was chosen by them because of his contacts in the trade and the influence he might be able to wield.[15]

There were three possibilities: shipowner; trader relying on ships owned by other people; or shipowning trader, carrying his own goods on his own ship and, when occasion arose, leasing space to other traders as well. Any of the three might well make common folk indulge in day-dreaming; but it seems they were most attracted by the third option, which was definitely the best. What is at issue is how common it was. An interesting document relevant to this point has recently become available: P. Bingen 77,[16] dating from the second century ad, records the arrival of eleven ships at Alexandria, with the names of their owners, the ports they had sailed from (or their home ports?), the nature of their cargoes, and the names of the owners of the cargo indicated by the words ‘carries on behalf of ’ (ayei followed by the dative). Two of the eleven ships arrived in ballast; on three of the other nine, the name of the owner of the cargo is replaced by the words ‘for the owner’. A third of the ships detailed in this document were thus in the possession of shipowning traders.

The finest series of inscriptions mentioning guilds of shipowners is the one in the Piazzale delle Corporazioni in Ostia. Twelve cellae belong to shipowners, with the word negotiantes added on only three occasions. Of their home ports, seven are in Africa, two in Sardinia, and three not mentioned. Some of these shipowners can be found, described as domini navium, in inscriptions on stone from Ostia, every one of them hailing from the same two regions, Sardinia and Africa.[17] Their main cargo was certainly grain; and a great many of their voyages must have been devoted to the transporting of tax grain from those annonary provinces. From this point of view, the cellae in the Piazzale delle Corporazioni can be seen as agencies for carriers seeking return cargoes; and it is understandable that shipowners should be more visible here than elsewhere.]

  • [1] CIL VI. 9659 = ILS 7519.
  • [2] This inscription is not always easy to interpret. For the first sentence, I have adopted theversion suggested by Dessau’s punctuation, which differs from that by H. Jordan (1880). [Nowsee Panciera and Zanker (1990).]
  • [3] [Another one to add is Gripusfrom Plautus’ Rudens (930-1): in the belief that he has found atreasure, he dreams of buying his freedom, setting himself up in style, and achieving great wealth‘by trading with big boats’.]
  • [4] In the text of the Lex Iulia given by Paulus (Sentences, Leyden fragment, 3) owning a boat inquaestum is forbidden to senators. In other words, they could not be shipowners. However, thereis nothing to show that they did not have the right to engage in trade, paying the naulum forgoods of theirs carried on a vessel that did not belong to them.
  • [5] Veyne (1979a); Hopkins (1983); Pleket (1983); Andreau (1985b); Rouge (1985).
  • [6] See Veyne (1961:, 239 [2001: 46, n. 54]) and Andreau (1978: 56), for the period ofthe Republic.
  • [7] The French and Italian translations by H. Noblot (Collection des universites de France) andM. Giacchero (1980) go even farther, saying respectively ‘any speculation requires calling upcapital’ and ‘in order to trade, one needs to incur debts’. That Seneca’s word negotiari meansessentially, as it often did, maritime trade is made clear in the reply by the interlocutor (§5):Circumspiciebam in quod me mare negotiaturus immitterem, quod publicum agitarem, quasarcesserem merces (‘I was already looking about to see some stretches of water on which I might
  • [8] On independent freedmen, see Garnsey (1981).
  • [9] In support of this, see Andreau (1983: 16 [1997: 113].
  • [10] Virlouvet (2004); Christol (2008: 290-1).
  • [11] Ne censibus negotiatorum naves adscriberentur tributumque pro illis penderent. Thearguments used by Sirks (1991a: 69), then by Erdkamp (2005: 245), do not strike me as strongenough to transform these negotiatores into shipowners servicing the annona.
  • [12] In the Dramont A wreck, dating from the middle of the first century bc and laden with Italianwine bound for Gaul, the name of Sextus Arrius appears on the anchor and on the stoppers of someof the amphorae (Hesnard and Gianfrotta 1989:402, 411). The Sud-Lavezzi 1 wreck was publishedby Liou and Domergue (1990): the lead ingots have a mark incised on the side (this is a trader’smark, the producer’s name being moulded on top of the ingot) in the name ofAp. Iunius Zethus, afreedman probably ofC. Ap. Iunius Silanus, a consul in ad 28, and the same name is engraved onan anchor (pp. 56-94).
  • [13] ILS 7277 (113 1, 9682).
  • [14] ILS 7028 (CIL XIII, 1966); ILS 7030 (CIL XIII. 1954); ILS 7031 (CIL XIII. 1966); CIL XIII. 1972; cf. Tran (2006: 103-4).
  • [15] ILS 7033 (CIL XIII. 1911); ‘active in euergetism towards the prestigious negotiatoresvinarii, Raptor was a personage of some eminence on the local scale’ (Tran 2006: 278).
  • [16] Heilporn (2000).
  • [17] ILS 339 (CIL XIV. 99): Domini navium Carthaginiensium ex Africa; ILS 6140 (CIL XIV. 4142): Domini navium Afrarum universarum, item Sardorum (sic).
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