The commerce of the Roman Empire was a major sector of the economy during the late Republic and throughout most of the imperial period. Fashions and trends in historiography and in popular culture have tended to neglect the economic basis of the empire in favor of the lingua franca of Latin and the exploits of the Roman legions. The language and the legions were supported by trade while being at the same time part of its backbone. Romans were businessmen and the longevity of their empire was due to their commercial trade.

Whereas in theory members of the Roman Senate and their sons were restricted when engaging in trade, the members of the Equestrian order were involved in businesses, despite their upper class values that laid the emphasis on military pursuits and leisure activities. Plebeians and freedmen held shop or manned stalls at markets while vast quantities of slaves did most of the hard work. The slaves were themselves also the subject of commercial transactions. Their high proportion in society (compared to that in Classical Greece), and the reality of runaways, the Servile Wars and minor uprisings, they gave a distinct flavor to Roman commerce.

The intricate, complex, and extensive accounting of Roman trade was conducted with counting boards and the Roman abacus. The abacus, using Roman numerals, was ideally suited to the counting of Roman currency and tallying of Roman measures.  


IThe Forum Cuppedinis in ancient Rome was a market which offered general goods. At least four other large markets specialized in specific goods such as cattle, wine, fish and herbs and vegetables, but the Roman forum drew the bulk of the traffic. All new cities, like Timgad, were laid out according to an orthogonal grid plan which facilitated transportation and commerce. The cities were connected by good roads. Navigable rivers were extensively used and some canals were dug but neither leaves such clear archaeology as roads and consequently they tend to be underestimated. A major mechanism for the expansion of trade was peace. All settlements, especially the smaller ones, could be located in economically rational positions. Before and after the Roman Empire, hilltop defensive positions were preferred for small settlements and piracy made coastal settlement particularly hazardous for all but the largest cities. 

By the 1st century, the provinces of the Roman Empire were trading huge volumes of commodities to one another by sea routes. There was an increasing tendency for specialization, particularly in manufacturing, agriculture and mining. Some provinces specialized in producing certain types of goods, such as grain in Egypt and North Africa and wine and olive oil in Italy, Hispania and Greece.

Knowledge of the Roman economy is extremely patchy. The vast bulk of traded goods, being agricultural, normally leave no direct archaeology. Very exceptionally, as at Berenice, there is evidence of long distance trade in pepper, almonds, hazelnuts, stone pine cones, walnuts, coconuts, apricots and peaches besides the more expected figs, raisins and dates (Cappers). The wine, olive oil and garum (fermented fish sauce) trades were exceptional in leaving amphorae behind. There is a single reference of the Syrian export of kipi stiff quince jam or marmalade to Rome.