The Roman grain trade

Roman Merchant Ships

The grain trade was not simply a source of profit for Rome’s merchants. In 5 BC Augustus Caesar distributed grain to 320,000 male citizens; he proudly recorded this fact in a great public inscription commemorating his victories and achievements, for holding the favour of the Romans was as important as winning victories at sea and on land. The era of ‘bread and circuses’ was beginning, and cultivating the Roman People was an art many emperors well understood (baked bread was not in fact distributed until the third century AD, when Emperor Aurelian substituted bread for grain). By the end of the first century BC Rome controlled several of the most important sources of grain in the Mediterranean, those in Sicily, Sardinia and Africa that Pompey had been so careful to protect. One result may have been a decline in cultivation of grain in central Italy: in the late second century BC, the Roman tribune Tiberius Gracchus already complained that Etruria was now given over to great estates where landlords profited from their flocks, rather than from the soil. Rome no longer had to depend on the vagaries of the Italian climate for its food supply, but it was not easy to control Sicily and Sardinia from afar, as the conflict with the rebel commander Sextus Pompeius proved. More and more elaborate systems of exchange developed to make sure that grain and other goods flowed towards Rome. As Augustus transformed the city, and as great palaces rose on the Palatine hill, demand for luxury items – silks, perfumes, ivory from the Indian Ocean, fine Greek sculptures, glassware, chased metalwork from the eastern Mediterranean – burgeoned. Earlier, in 129 BC, Ptolemy VIII, king of Egypt, received a Roman delegation led by Scipio, conqueror of Carthage, and caused deep shock when he entertained his guests to lavish feasts dressed in a transparent tunic made of silk (probably from China), through which the Romans could see not just his portly frame but his genitals. But Scipio’s austerity was already unfashionable among the Roman nobility. Even the equally austere Cato the Elder (d. 149 BC) used to buy 2 per cent shares in shipping ventures, spreading his investments across a number of voyages, and he sent a favoured freedman, Quintio, on these voyages as his agent.

The period from the establishment of Delos as a free port (168–167 BC) to the second century AD saw a boom in maritime traffic. As has been seen, the problem of piracy diminished very significantly after 69 BC: journeys became safer. Interestingly, most of the largest ships (250 tons upwards) date from the second and first centuries BC, while the majority of vessels in all periods displaced less than 75 tons. Larger ships, carrying armed guards, were better able to defend themselves against pirates, even if they lacked the speed of the smaller vessels. As piracy declined, smaller ships became more popular. These small ships would have been able to carry about 1,500 amphorae at most, while the larger ships could carry 6,000 or more, and were not seriously rivalled in size until the late Middle Ages.32 The sheer uniformity of cargoes conveys a sense of the regular rhythms of trade: about half the ships carried a single type of cargo, whether wine, oil or grain. Bulk goods were moving in ever larger quantities across the Mediterranean. Coastal areas with access to ports could specialize in particular products for which their soil was well suited, leaving the regular supply of essential foodstuffs to visiting merchants. Their safety was guaranteed by the pax romana, the Roman peace that followed the suppression of piracy and the extension of Roman rule across the Mediterranean.

The little port of Cosa on a promontory off the Etruscan coastline provides impressive evidence for the movement of goods around the Mediterranean at this time. Its workshops turned out thousands of amphorae at the instigation of a noble family of the early imperial age, the Sestii, who made their town into a successful industrial centre. Amphorae from Cosa have been found in a wreck at Grand-Congloué near Marseilles: most of the 1,200 jars were stamped with the letters SES, the family’s mark. Another wreck lying underneath this one dates from 190–180 BC, and contained amphorae from Rhodes and elsewhere in the Aegean, as well as huge amounts of south Italian tableware on its way to southern Gaul or Spain. Items such as these could penetrate inland for great distances, though bulk foodstuffs tended to be consumed on or near the coasts, because of the difficulty and expense of transporting them inland, except by river. Water transport was immeasurably cheaper than land transport, a problem that, as will be seen, faced even a city such a short way from the sea as Rome.

Grain was the staple foodstuff, particularly the triticum durum, hard wheat, of Sicily, Sardinia, Africa and Egypt (hard wheats are drier than soft, so they keep better), though real connoisseurs preferred siligo, a soft wheat made from naked spelt. A bread-based diet only filled stomachs, and a companaticum (‘something-with-bread’) of cheese, fish or vegetables broadened the diet. Vegetables, unless pickled, did not travel well, but cheese, oil and wine found markets across the Mediterranean, while the transport by sea of salted meat was largely reserved for the Roman army. Increasingly popular was garum, the stinking sauce made of fish innards, which was poured into amphorae and traded across the Mediterranean. Excavations in Barcelona, close to the cathedral, have revealed a sizeable garum factory amid the buildings of a medium-sized imperial town. It took about ten days with a following wind to reach Alexandria from Rome, a distance of 1,000 miles; in unpleasant weather, the return journey could take six times as long, though shippers would hope for about three weeks. Navigation was strongly discouraged from mid-November to early March, and regarded as quite dangerous from mid-September to early November and from March to the end of May. This ‘close season’ was observed in some degree right through the Middle Ages as well.

A vivid account of a winter voyage that went wrong is provided by Paul of Tarsus in the Acts of the Apostles. Paul, a prisoner of the Romans, was placed on board an Alexandrian grain ship setting out for Italy from Myra, on the south coast of Anatolia; but it was very late in the sailing season, the ship was delayed by the winds, and by the time they were off Crete the seas had become dangerous. Rather than wintering in Crete, the captain was foolhardy enough to venture out into the stormy seas, on which his vessel was tossed for a miserable fortnight. The crew ‘lightened the ship and cast out the wheat into the sea’. The sailors managed to steer towards the island of Malta, beaching the ship, which, nevertheless, broke up. Paul says that the travellers were treated well by the ‘barbarians’ who inhabited the island; no one died, but Paul and everyone else became stuck on Malta for three months. Maltese tradition assumes that Paul used this time to convert the islanders, but Paul wrote of the Maltese as if they were credulous and primitive – he cured the governor’s sick father and was taken for a god by the natives. Once conditions at sea had improved, another ship from Alexandria that was wintering there took everyone off; he was then able to reach Syracuse, Reggio on the southern tip of Italy and, a day out from Reggio, the port of Puteoli in the Bay of Naples, to which the first grain ship had probably been bound all along; from there he headed towards Rome (and, according to Christian tradition, his eventual beheading).

Surprisingly, the Roman government did not create a state merchant fleet similar to the fleets of the medieval Venetian republic; most of the merchants who carried grain to Rome were private traders, even when they carried grain from the emperor’s own estates in Egypt and elsewhere. Around 200 AD, grain ships had an average displacement of 340 to 400 tons, enabling them to carry 50,000 modii or measures of grain (1 ton equals about 150 modii); a few ships reached 1,000 tons but there were also, as has been seen, innumerable smaller vessels plying the waters. Rome probably required about 40 million measures each year, so that 800 shiploads of average size needed to reach Rome between spring and autumn. In the first century AD, Josephus asserted that Africa provided enough grain for eight months of the year, and Egypt enough for four months. All this was more than enough to cover the 12,000,000 measures required for the free distribution of grain to 200,000 male citizens. Central North Africa had been supplying Rome ever since the end of the Second Punic War, and the short, quick journey to Italy was intrinsically safer than the long haul from Alexandria.


Weather and Sea around Sicily

Ancient Sicily is the boundary mark between the eastern and central Mediterranean. This boundary is not, however, a meteorological one, for, all round Sicily, winds generally blow from the west, becoming more and more regular during the sailing season, and blowing from west to northwest or even north between Sicily and Crete, from spring to late August. The real meteorological frontiers are in fact Sardinia and the Balearic archipelagos. Nevertheless, Sicily determines two straits: the strait of Messina and the Channel between Africa and Sicily, the latter being itself divided into 3 channels:

  • Malta Channel, north of a line drawn between Malta and Pantelleria,
  • Sicily Channel, between Pantelleria and Sicily
  • Pantelleria Channel between Pantelleria and Cape Bon

The strait of Messina is a very complex zone (Flesca 2002): violent, sudden and turbulent winds, along with strong, alternate tidal streams, whose directions change every six hours, make it not only a very complex and dangerous zone, but also an area whose crossing may need several stops in order to wait for better conditions. The myth of Charybdis and Scylla reminds us the fears it inspired. In fact, journeys bound both southwards and northward along the strait could hardly be sailed in a straight line, given the capricious character of winds and the change of direction of tidal streams. It could take several days to go from the so-called “Adriatic” (the sea south Messina) to the Tyrrhenian basin and vice-versa. Several calls were necessary, as shown by the end of Paul’s travel when the Apostle sailed, not on a small coaster, but on a grain-ship from Alexandria, which had wintered at Malta. Having left Malta it stopped first at Syracuse, then at Rhegium, before entering the Tyrrhenian, proceeding straight to Puteoli. Travelers often preferred to go by land between Syracuse and some port on the northern shores of Sicily. So did Apollonius of Tyana (Philostr. VA, V. 11; VIII. 15).

Though situated almost 40 nm east the direct line between Cape Bon and Cape Lilibeo, Pantelleria divides the Channel between Cape Bon and Cape Feto in two almost equal parts. In the main, this channel has the same orientation as the northwest prevailing winds, generating a reasonable current of half a knot to one knot, running eastwards, and getting stronger in Malta’s channel. This undoubtedly made the direct route fast and easy for ships sailing eastwards, but longer and more difficult for those sailing in the opposite direction, especially for ancient sailing ships. This was also true for oared vessels, whose ability for tacking was scarce. One can imagine how difficult a westward journey must have been when a ship whose speed, under good conditions could hardly reach 3 knots, had to face a 1 kn. current from the opposite direction. This plight is especially accentuated when one considers that the best angle one could achieve was about 60° from the wind (and actually much less given the drift). Furthermore, the square sail, even when transformed into a triangular one, made tacking a long and fastidious operation as the ship had to wear. The best solution would have been to sail southwards in order to reach the sheltered zones between Lesser Syrtis and Cape Bon, characterized by smooth summer sea-breezes blowing from the East.

Subjective geography and sea-routes

The way ancient writers used to describe those islands or how they inserted them in a series of sea-measurements gives a clear idea of some changes in their place in sea-routes, and in political sea-power. Islands, even those considered by ancient writers as “pelagic” ones (i.e. . those situated one day far or more from the mainland), such as Pantelleria, Malta and Gozo, were generally described apart from the mainland. However, after a certain stretch of land islands were supposed to fit with. The way they are described thus shows the subjective perception of their links with continents. Pantelleria, Malta, Gozo and Lampedusa are described by ps.-Skylax (111) with regard to Cape Bon, which is quite surprising as far as Malta, Gozo and Lampedusa are concerned, but is quite normal to who considers them as Punic islands, as ps.-Skylax did in the IVth century.

Diodorus Siculus (V. 12) chose to associate not only Malta and Gozo, but also Kerhennah, with Sicily, instead of Africa. This point of view is clearly an Italic one, and reflects the fall of these islands into Roman hands. On the other hand, Strabo, who uses at least three different sources, mentions the islands alternately as part of Sicily – the latter being considered as part of Italy (VI.2.11) -, or Africa (XVII.3.16). Later authors, writing after the Roman conquest, when these islands were made part of prouincia Sicilia, described them entirely with Sicily. In his overview of the Mediterranean, Strabo names Pantelleria, together with Aegimuros, as one of the islands “in front of Sicily and Libya” (II.5.19, C 123), but omits Malta, which found no place with respect to another land or the division of seas inherited from Eratosthenes. It seems that, by later times, Malta had no substantial existence in the Greek framework of the Mediterranean. According to Mela (II.7.120) and Pliny (III. 92), depending on the same lost unknown author, Gaulos, Melita and Cossura were circa Siciliam, but Africam uersus or in Africam uersae thus closer to Sicily, but on the way to Africa. Orosius (IV.8.5) names Lipara and Melita as insulae Siciliae nobiles. Some scholars (Silbermann) consider that according to Mela (II.7.120), Pliny (III.92), and Martianus Capella (VI. 648), all three islands were parts of the fretum Siculum. This is clearly true of Martianus Capella, but he probably misunderstood Mela, Pliny and their common source. According to Procopius (BV 1.14) Gaulus and Melita “marked the boundary between the Adriatic and Tuscan Seas”. For classical writers down to Pliny, “Adriatic” meant the whole sea between Peloponnesus and Sicily. The Maltese Archipelago had later reached the status of boundary-marker between the central Mediterranean system, and the west-Italian one, which then included Sicily.

Subjective geography thus shows that bridging one island with one continent or another relied much upon geopolitical considerations rather than upon Natural Landscape. It also reflects the reality of sea-routes. Pantelleria is almost always situated in respect of both Cape Bon or Kelybia (Aspis/ Clupea) and Lilybaeum.

Malta and Gozo were not considered by ancient writers as part of an archipelago. This is by no mean surprising: the same situation may be observed on other neighbouring city-islands such as Rhenea and Delos in the Cyclades. It is however of major interest to note that they belonged to a group of islands including Pantelleria, Gozo, Malta, Lampedusa and Kerkennah. In Silius Italicus, Malta appears before Cossyra, whose name, in contrast, occurs together with Gozo’s (XI. 272-274). A natural link between Pantelleria and Malta is also suggested by the naming of Malta immediately after Cossyrus, as situated further East away from Cape Bon, and by Strabo’s measurement (XVII.3.16) there was a very short distance between the two islands, that of 500 stadia. Editors have generally considered that the number is erroneous (it was probably closer to 1,500, equal to two days and one night at sea). This mistake may be traced to Strabo’s source, who considered, like Silius Italicus, that Pantelleria and the Maltese archipelago were close together. In turn this perception was probably due to the speed of the eastward route between the two points.

On the contrary, the three Islands mentioned by Diodorus (Malta, Gozo and Kerkennah) mark the westwards sea-route between Sicily and Africa through the so-called isole Pelagie. This is the exact route followed by Belisarius’ fleet[2] (Procop., BV 1.14), from Syracuse to Malta and Gozo, and thence, after a one day sail, on to Caput-Vada (Ras Kapudia), about 75° from the prevailing winds. Thence, ships sailing to Carthage had to follow the coastline and make for Cape Bon. This explains why Agathocles’ fleet needed 6 days (DS XX.6.3) (after leaving from Syracuse) before sighting Africa and landing, maybe at Cape Bon (Casson 1971: 295, n.108), but possibly at any other point along the eastern shores of modern Tunisia. It was already familiar to an Athenian such as Thucydides, who was able to estimate its normal duration. The abnormally high freight-rate from Carthage to Sicily in the Diocletian’s Prices Edict probably refers to the same route and to the same direction (Arnaud 2007), and shows that it was probably the normal route westwards.

A journey from Syracuse to Carthage may thus have lasted more than thrice the normal duration of the same journey in the reverse direction. The coasting part of the same route was probably followed by the Peloponnesian, sent off in the spring from Peloponnese in the merchantman, who arrived from Neapolis, in Libya, at Selinus in August. Thucydides considered Neapolis (= Nabeul) as “the nearest point to Sicily, which is only two days’ and a night’s voyage” to Selinus (Thc., VII.50.2). Pantelleria was just in the middle of this route and visible from Nabeul. Although Aspis/Clupea is geographically closer to Sicily, Neapolis is actually closer for a ship sailing from Lesser Syrtis.

By the mid-4th century, when Pantelleria was reaching a noteworthy place in trade-routes, as shown by the importance of the so-called “Pantellerian ware” ceramics (Massa 2002), the Expositio totius mundi et gentium lists Sicily (66), Cossora (67) and Sardinia (68), suggesting that they were part of a same route, maybe in a broader context characterised by the increasing importance of coasting, making Pantelleria a convenient relay.

It is thus clear that the islands organized, at least as landmarks, and possibly as commercial calls, relays or destinations, were the major sea-routes round Sicily. The unusual importance of Marettimo in the maritime itinerary within the Itinerarium Antonini as compared with Pantelleria suggests that it reflects the “direct” route between Carthage and Pozzuoli/Rome (Arnaud 2004).

It is otherwise noteworthy that, according to the Ancients, as early as Dicaearch, Rhodes, the southernmost capes of Peloponnesus, the Strait of Messina (fretum Siculum or, in Greek, simply “Porthmos”, “the Strait” par excellence), South of Sardinia, the Pillars of Herakles and Gades were distributed along the same parallel. The shape of Sicily was supposed to be roughly that of an equilateral triangle whose horizontal base was made of the shores between Cape Lilybaeum and Cape Pachynum, so that, for the Ancients, the shortest way from East to West did not run through the Sicily-Malta Channel, but through the Strait of Messina. This misconception is a direct consequence of the opinion held by the Greeks that the Straits of Messina provided a more convenient sailing route (fig. 2-3).

Changes in subjective geography indicate changes in perception of the importance of islands which reflect actual changes of their role and integration in maritime trade-routes: the emergence of Malta and Gozo as the boundary-mark between two systems, is probably the clearest sign of such changes that was impacted by Roman domination (Arnaud 2004).

[2] “And setting sail quickly they touched at the islands of Gaulus and Melita,[47] which mark the boundary between the Adriatic and Tuscan Seas. There a strong east wind arose for them, and on the following day it carried the ships to the point of Libya, at the place which the Romans call in their own tongue “Shoal’s Head.” For its name is “Caputvada,” and it is five days’ journey from Carthage for an unencumbered traveller”.


Clay frying-pan vessel with incised decoration of a ship. Found at Chalandriani on Syros island. Early cycladic II period (Keros-Syros culture, 2800-2300 BC)

The Cyclades, because of their central location to trade in the eastern Mediterranean, have a rich and long history. They are a part of the vast number of islands that constitute the Greek archipelago in the Aegean Sea. The name was originally used to indicate islands that formed a rough circle around the sacred island of Delos.

The Cyclades are comprised of around 220 islands, with the major ones being Amorgos, Anafi, Ándros, Antiparos, Delos, Ios, Kéa, Kimolos, Kynthos, Mílos, Mykonos, Náxos, Páros, Pholegandros, Serifos, Sifnos, Sikinos, Síros, Tínos, and Santorini (Thíra). While ancient maritime trade made the region important strategically and geographically, a reliable agricultural base made life on the Cyclades archipelago possible. The Cyclades may have been one of the earliest sites of the worship of the Mother Goddess cult, which became widespread throughout the eastern and western Mediterranean.

All Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures including ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and later on, Greece, would feature prominent goddesses. When the Minoan culture flourished in the islands from about 3000 to 1450 b.c.e., frescoes on the walls of the palace, excavated by the British archaeologist Arthur Evans, featured a bare-breasted goddess with snakes. Snakes figured in many of the Mother Goddess cults in antiquity and had its parallel in the story of Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden in the Old Testament. Settlement of the Cyclades was sporadic. The Phoenicians were most likely the first settlers, while around 1000 b.c.e. the island was inhabited by the Ionians. In the case of Síros, ancient ruins, statuettes, and skeletons indicate the island had been settled by the Bronze Age.

The very dispersion of the islands made seafaring a necessary part of survival, as islanders learned that they could gain by trading with—or raiding—other islands in the archipelago. It is in these early boats that one can find the beginnings of the oared galleys that would be a feature of Mediterranean warfare until the 18th century at least, when the Knights of Malta used huge galleys in their wars against the Barbary pirates. Cycladic ships were the prototypes with which ancient Greece would plant its colonies, beginning around the sixth century b.c.e., and with which Rome would become the mistress of the Mediterranean.

The Cycladic culture peaked during the Minoan period, which was brought to life by the work of Arthur Evans with his reconstruction of the royal palace at Knossos. The story of European civilization begins on the island of Crete with a civilization that probably thought of itself as Asian (in fact, Crete is closer to Asia than it is to Europe). Thus, the Cyclades and Cretan Minoan civilization provided the first known fusion of Western and Asiatic culture. With the rise of Alexander the Great around 320 b.c.e., this would become the great Hellenistic civilization, which Alexander’s armies would carry to the very frontiers of India.

Further reading: Bent, J. Theodore, ed. The Cyclades, or Life among the Insular Greeks. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2002; “Tinos.” Available online. URL: (November 2005); Warry, John. Warfare in the Classical World. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.

The Cheops ship

The Cheops ship, the oldest preserved ship from antiquity, was found in 1954 close to the Great Pyramid in Egypt. It is built almost entirely of imported cedar. The ship was clearly a ceremonial vessel, yet compression marks of rope show that it was definitely used in the water.

Dating from 2500 Be, the ‘shell-first’ design of the Cheops ship shows that the hull was shaped before the internal members were added. It has no keel, and the side planking is lashed with rope for security. Built as a ceremonial vessel, rope compression marks show that it was used on water. Two cabins stand on the ship’s deck, the two-roomed main one covered by a canopy for added coolness. The ship was equipped with oars plus steering oars. Contemporary Egyptian warships were of similar construction.


In 1954 two intact Egyptian ships were found at the foot of the Great Pyramid.

Around 2600 BC, during the Old Kingdom, the two planked ships were dismantled and buried in two pits, just outside the great pyramid of Pharaoh Cheops (Khufu). Each pit is 30 m long, carved in the rock and covered with a lid of large stone blocks.

Cheops 1 was assembled 1969-71 and is on public display at the Cheops pyramid outside Cairo, where a museum building was created for the ship in 1982.

The pit believed to contain the second ship, Cheops 2, is still not excavated, but there are plans to open the pit and assemble that ship in the future, when there is enough experience from the treatment of the first ship.

The pits were found intact and all pieces of the first ship carefully recovered. The ships are nowdays known as the “Cheops ships”, “Khufu ships”, “Solar ships” or “Cheops boats”. They may have been the private ships of the pharaoh, buried in the pyramid.

Length: 43.6m (143ft)

Beam: 5.7m (18ft 7in)

Depth: 1.45m (4ft 9in)

Displacement: 94t

Rigging: single mast

Complement: 12 plus officers



Phoenician Merchant Ship

The best navigators and shipbuilders of the ancient world in 1500 – 1000 years B. C. were Phoenicians who lived on the Eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The famous Libyan cedar, which covered slopes of their motherland, gave an excellent material for building of strong seafaring ships. The picture depicts a Phoenician merchant ship dated 1500 year B. C. This was a sufficiently capacious vessel with powerful posts and two stern oars. Twig gratings were strengthened along the boards of the ship to protect the deck cargo. The mast carried a square sail fastened to two curved yards of an Egyptian type. A large amphora made of burnt clay was erected on the stem to keep drinkable water. Phoenician helmsmen contributed to the navy science introducing separation of a horizon circle into 360 degrees and they composed reliable celestial reference-points for future generations of seafarers.