Maritime trade – Greeks and Romans


Roman 1st Century Merchant Ship.

The Greeks had traded across the Mediterranean in the Bronze Age, but the scale of Greek involvement in long-distance trade appears to have dramatically declined from c.1200 bc, in what scholars refer to as the Dark Age of Greek history, reviving only in the eighth century bc, when Greek traders are found alongside Phoenicians, Syrians, Etruscans and others at places like Al-Mina on the coast of Syria and Pithekoussai (Ischia) in the Bay of Naples. The renewed growth of Greek trade in the Mediterranean was stimulated by the development of numerous small, independent urban communities, similar to those of the Levant. These city-states traded freely by sea with each other and with the rest of the Mediterranean, encouraged by the relative ease with which goods and commodities could be moved between the numerous small bays and inlets which made natural harbours.

A great deal of the archaeological evidence of Greek and Roman trade is most obviously furnished by ceramic remains, such as painted vases and amphorae (storage jars), which indicate the presence of traders who were of Greek or Roman origin, or those who were in close contact with the Greeks and Romans. These ceramics do not necessarily represent the main items of trade. They may be containers for bulk commodities such as wine or fish sauce, or they may be goods of moderate value such as painted pottery, which accompanied luxury items, functioning partly as ballast.

Some places developed a speciality in particular products, for example glass from Egypt, fine textiles from Kos, oil from Athens, fish from the Black Sea, grain from Sicily. Specialized markets emerged, whether because of their location on trading routes or near to sources of supply and demand, or because of favourable political conditions. Thus Corinth was from early times a focus for overland and seaborne trade. Hellenistic Rhodes profited from her position between the Levant and the Aegean, and from her close links with Egypt, becoming a major grain market. Delos, which had the status of a free port after 166 bc, was a very important centre for the slave trade. Alexandria flourished under Ptolemaic and Roman rule as one of the main links between the trading networks of the Indian Ocean, Asia and the Mediterranean.

The movement of goods, commodities and slaves without exchange, whether through war, piracy, nonreciprocal gift-giving or tribute, was also an important aspect of ancient economic activity. Navies and pirates might occasionally interfere with the seaborne trade of the Mediterranean, but they rarely caused any long-term disruption. It was not in the interests of the inhabitants of the region to discourage merchants from carrying their cargoes from city to city. A substantial part of the Greek and Roman slave trade was supplied from prisoners of war, or the victims of piracy, and in the second and first centuries bc the Romans acquired large quantities of grain from their provinces of Sicily and Africa as tribute. Nevertheless, the economic world of the ancient Mediterranean can be characterized as one in which maritime trade was highly developed and, especially at the height of the Roman Empire, it was an integral part of Classical civilization.

Most coastal cities built commercial harbours with quayside facilities, including warehouses and offices for merchants and magistrates. Within a large city there might also be specialized marketplaces, such as the fish market at Athens or the slave market in Alexandria. The Romans were great civil engineers whose creative energies were channelled into both impressive and practical building projects. They even developed a form of concrete which would set underwater and this led to the creation of commercial harbours on a grand scale at places such as Leptis Magna on the Libyan coast, Caesarea in Palestine and Ostia, the port of Rome, at the mouth of the river Tiber. The easy movement of bulk goods by sea both encouraged and was encouraged by the proliferation of large-scale urban centres and the needs of a standing army in excess of 250,000 men. The city of Rome probably had a population of over one million in the first to fourth centuries ad. Its immediate agricultural hinterland was not capable of feeding it, however, and to sustain its inhabitants seafaring merchants imported grain, wine and other staples from Spain, Africa, France, Sardinia and Sicily and other parts of the Mediterranean.

Long-distance trade was mostly carried out on a small scale by professional traders who either received items directly from the producers, in return for money or other goods, or bought them from other merchants, and then passed them on to the consumers, again in return for payments in money or in kind. Much of this trade was speculative and traders might have to visit several places in the attempt to dispose of their cargoes. In literary sources the typical trader is a free person of moderate wealth who moves from one market to another, buying and selling a range of goods in varying quantities. He may also have his own ship, but many traders formed temporary partnerships with ship owners. Both the Greeks and the Romans had a strong social prejudice against traders, who were considered inferior in moral and social terms to landowners. The Romans attempted to legislate against a high level of involvement in maritime trade among their aristocracy, limiting the size of ships which senators could own. It seems that although such laws were aimed at maintaining the image of a ruling aristocracy which was above the petty affairs of merchants, in practice the wealthy landowners of the Roman Empire were heavily involved in maritime trade, operating through semi-independent middlemen. Roman shipping merchants formed associations for religious and social purposes and they were encouraged to pass their businesses on to their heirs by imperial authorities conscious of the need to maintain the flow of seaborne commerce.

In many parts of the ancient Mediterranean women’s involvement in trade was circumscribed by laws or customs which prevented or hindered them from carrying out large-scale transactions without male supervision. They are most often found trading food, small items of clothing and especially perfumes, which were considered appropriate goods for females. Women do occasionally feature in the documentary sources carrying out business on a larger scale, often through agents, especially from the third century bc onwards, when more women began to acquire independent wealth and so gained access to the economic activities which went with it. Slaves and freedmen too were often closely involved in maritime trade, both as assistants to free persons and as semi-independent agents. Some of the most fascinating accounts of trade disputes from the law-court speeches of Classical Athens involve slaves or former slaves. The Romans freed very large numbers of slaves who did, in some cases, make themselves very wealthy from commercial activities. One of the early ancient novels, by Petronius Arbiter, describes the fictional rise of Trimalchio, a freed slave who inherited enough from his former master to go into the shipping business:

To cut a long story short I built five ships, got a cargo of wine, worth its weight in gold in those days, and sent them to Rome. Every single ship was wrecked; you would think it was a put-up job. That’s the truth, I’m not making it up. In one day Neptune swooped thirty millions. Was I downhearted? No, I assure you, I felt the loss as if it was nothing. I built some more, bigger and better, more successful, and everybody said I was an intrepid fellow. You know, a big ship has a lot of staying power. Once again I shipped wine, bacon, beans, Capuan perfume, and slaves … There’s no delay when the gods are on to something. In one trip I rounded off a good ten million. I promptly bought up all my patron’s estates. I built a house, I bought slaves and livestock; whatever I touched grew like a honeycomb.

Trimalchio’s story is exaggerated for literary effect, but it vividly conveys the risk, excitement and potential for gain inherent in maritime trade for individual merchants. The scale of some aspects of maritime trade was larger in the heyday of the Roman Empire (31 bc– 400) than it had ever been before, as can be seen from the evidence of processing and distribution installations, discarded storage containers (amphorae) and wrecked merchant ships. Bulk cargoes of grain, wine, oil and other staples were taken in fleets of merchant ships between major collection and distribution points, for both state and private customers.

The trends outlined above for maritime trade were, in general terms, repeated in other parts of the world. The gradual growth of powerful states and stable, sophisticated economic systems encouraged maritime (and, of course, terrestrial) trade. By the middle of the first millennium ad most areas of what we call the Old World were linked in extensive trade networks, many of them maritime. While only the shipwrights, sailors and maritime traders were totally dependent upon seafaring for their livelihoods, it is true to say that maritime networks promoted and helped to maintain highly diverse social structures in which individuals and groups were able to specialize in economic, religious, military and cultural tasks. It is important to emphasize the role of staples in the expansion of this trade. A great deal of it was bulk cargoes of food, raw materials such as metals and timber, cloth, aromatics and spices which were so thoroughly embedded in the urban cultures of many places in Europe, the Mediterranean, the Near and Middle East, South and East Asia, that they can be considered part of the fabric of civilization.