World History 1 111 - 7.3.1 Trade

Sea routes facilitated the movement of goods around the empire. Though the Romans built up a strong network of roads, shipping by sea was considerably less expensive. Thus, access to a seaport was crucial to trade. In Italy, there were several fine seaports, with the city of Rome’s port at Ostia being a notable example. Italy itself was the producer of goods that made their way around the Mediterranean. Most manufacturing occurred on a small scale, with shops and workshops often located next to homes. Higher-value goods did find their way to distant regions, and Italy dominated the western trade routes (Figure 7.10).

A map is shown with land highlighted beige and water highlighted blue. Europe is labelled in the north, Africa is labelled in the south, and Asia is labelled in the southeast. The Baltic Sea, the Gulf of Finland, Skagerrak, Kattegat, Vanern, Vattern, and the North Sea are labelled in the north of the map. The Atlantic Ocean, the Bay of Biscay, and the Strait of Gibraltar are labelled in the east. The Black Sea, the Sea of Azov, and the Caspian Sea are labelled in the east. The Tyrrhenian Sea, the Ionian Sea, the Aegean Sea, and the Dardanelles are labelled in the south of the map. Black dots litter the map indicating cities, with these labelled from west to east: Gades, New Carthage, Massilia, Carthage, Lepis Magna, Syracuse, Rome, Athens, and Tyre. Dashed lines crisscross the map connecting the cities and Sea routes crisscross the waters connecting the cities. “Main roads” are labelled with dotted red lines and “Main shipping routes” are labelled with dotted purple lines.
Figure 7.10 As this map demonstrates, the Romans were able to harness an extensive system of roads and waterways to import and export both practical and luxury goods. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

Italy was known for its ceramic, marble, and metal industries. Bronze goods such as cooking equipment and ceramic tableware known as red pottery were especially popular items. Red Samian pottery made its way to places around the Mediterranean and beyond, including Britain and India. Iron goods produced in Italy were exported to Germany and to the Danube region, while bronze goods, most notably from Capua, circulated in the northern reaches of the empire before workshops also developed there. These industries likewise relied on imports, including copper from mines in Spain and tin from Britain for making bronze.

Other Roman industries balanced their production with imported goods from foreign markets. Textiles such as wool and cloth were produced in Italy, while luxury items like linen came from Egypt. Several trading routes existed in addition to the famous Silk Roads. The monsoon-driven Indian Ocean network linked Asia and the Mediterranean and provided the Romans with silk from China and India and furs from the Baltic region. The eastern empire was known for its luxury goods, including purple dye, papyrus, and glass from Egypt and Syria. For a time, central Italy did manufacture and export glass products northward, until manufacturing in Gaul (present-day France) and Germany took over the majority of its production in the second century CE. Building supplies such as tiles, marble, and bricks were produced in Italy.

Agricultural goods were an important aspect of the Roman economy and trade networks. Grain-producing Egypt functioned as the empire’s breadbasket, and Italian farmers were therefore able to focus on other, higher-priced agricultural products including wine and olive oil. Wine was exported to markets all over the Mediterranean, including Greece and Gaul. Both wine and olive oil, as well as other goods, were usually shipped in amphorae. These large storage vases had two handles and a pointed end, which made them ideal for storing during shipment. They may have been tied together or placed on a rack when shipped by sea (Figure 7.11).

An earthenware object is shown on a gray background. It is long, round, and faded gray, white, and rust colored. The left end has a broken point, the middle is thicker, and the right side is thinner with a rounded, circular end and a handle visible on the front.
Figure 7.11 Amphorae (the plural of amphora) were large vessels essential for shipping liquid goods in the Mediterranean world. Their slender shape and pointed base made for easy storage whether they were placed upright in a ship’s hold or set in the soft ground. (credit: “Roman Amphora” by Mrs. Elvi Adamcak/Smithsonian, National Museum of Natural History, CC0)

The government’s official distribution of grain to the populace was called the annona and was especially important to Romans. It had begun in the second century BCE but took on new importance by the reign of Augustus. The emperor appointed the praefectus annonae, the prefect who oversaw the distribution process, governed the ports to which grain was shipped, and addressed any fraud in the market. The prefect and his staff also secured the grain supply from Egypt and other regions by signing contracts with various suppliers.

The Roman government was also generally concerned with controlling overseas trade. An elite class of shipowners known as the navicularii were compelled by the government to join groups known as collegia (corporations) so they could be easily supervised. For signing contracts to supply grain, these shipowners received benefits including exemption from other public service. By the third and fourth centuries CE, control of the navicularii had intensified, and signing contracts to supply the annona was compulsory.

The annona kept the populace fed but was also a political tool; the emperor hoped his generosity would endear him to the people. The distribution of grain was thus heavily tied to the personality of the emperor. For instance, like many emperors, Hadrian, who ruled from 138 to 161 CE, associated himself with the annona to create a positive image before the public (Figure 7.12).

An image of two old and faded coins is shown on a pink woven background. The coin on the left is round, gold with black shading on the right side and faded letters around the perimeter. A man’s face is carved in the middle, facing to the right, with a round head, large flat nose and thick neck. The coin on the right is gold and worn. Faded letters circle parts of the perimeter and a figure with wings is shown in the middle. The figure wears a cap, extends their arm out to the right, and appears to wear long robes. The letter “S” is shown on the left and the letter “C” is shown on the right.
Figure 7.12 On this coin issued by Hadrian, the emperor’s likeness is on one side (left); the other side portrays Annona, the representation of the grain supply, holding a cornucopia in one hand and grain ears in the other. In the background is the prow of a ship, likely a reference to the grain supply entering the city of Rome. (credit: “Vespasian Dupondius” by Guy de la Bedoyere/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax