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.
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
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.