The Economy of Ancient Rome

The Economy of Ancient Rome

The Economy and Trade of Ancient Rome For all of its major accomplishments, Ancient Rome never developed a complex economy. The Roman economy was main...

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The Economy and Trade of Ancient Rome For all of its major accomplishments, Ancient Rome never developed a complex economy. The Roman economy was mainly concerned with feeding the vast number of citizens and soldiers who lived throughout the Mediterranean region. Therefore, agriculture and trade dominated the economy, supplemented by small-scale industry. The farmers in Italy grew grains, olives, and grapes. Olive oil and wine were some of Italy's leading exports. However, Roman farming methods were fairly primitive and not very productive. Roman farms produced few crops and required many people to do the work. Farmers were also heavily taxed. The emperors forced farmers to donate most of their surplus grain to the government as a tax so they could distribute it free to poor citizens. While this made the emperors popular with the masses, it left the farmers with little to sell for a profit. It also left no incentive for farmers to increase productivity, since more product equaled more taxes. As a result, farmers didn't raise enough food for all Rome's citizens, and they had little money to spend and contribute to the local economy. Roman citizens depended upon the large volume of trade throughout the Roman Empire. Providing enough grain for all its people was a constant challenge that the emperor took very seriously. The leading imports were grains, because they formed the backbone of the Roman diet. Wheat, barley, and corn were needed by civilians and the thousands of soldiers stationed throughout the Empire. Grains were imported from Egypt, Sicily, Tunisia and other areas around the Mediterranean. Shippers were required to take the grain directly to Ostia, the official port of Rome. Penalties for stopping along the way included deportation or even execution. In Ostia the grain was weighed, checked for quality, and then sent up the river on barges to Rome, where it would be repacked for distribution throughout the Empire. Although foods dominated the trading industry, there was also a vast exchange of other goods from all parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa. As the young Roman Empire prospered, so grew the demand for luxury items only obtainable from distant lands. Items such as silks from China, cotton and spices from India, ostrich products and ivory from Africa, and mysterious blonde slaves from Germany found their way to Rome via a vast network of trade routes. Trade routes were established on land and sea. The roads built by the Ancient Romans are one of their lasting achievements, and many are still in use today. These ancient highways were not built with trading in mind, however. They were originally built to help swiftly transport huge numbers of soldiers in times of war. They were also intended to carry news from one region of the Empire to another as quickly as possible. Even the best roads had to contend with bandits and poor weather. Transporting goods by land was slow and expensive. Large loads in wagons and carriages were pulled by lumbering oxen. Horses were faster, but they could only pull light carriages or be ridden. Caravans of camels or donkeys carried loaded baskets called panniers. Some goods were hauled by slaves, who provided cheap labor. Trade by land was only profitable if goods were going short distances or if the cargo was small, expensive luxury items. Most heavy, bulky, large-volume goods, such as food, wine, oil, and building supplies, were shipped by water. Waterways provided cheap and easy access to all parts of the Mediterranean. Travel was fast if the winds were favorable, but they were also unpredictable and often dangerous. At times the winds stopped, stranding cargo and crew. Ship captains lacked accurate charts and navigational equipment. Therefore, they stayed close to the coastline to navigate, and many vessels were shipwrecked. Archaeologists have found many sunken ships laden with trade goods that offer valuable clues about the lives of people of the Roman Empire. Rome lived off its imports, and importers were among the wealthiest citizens of the Empire. Many traded goods for goods in a barter system, while others used the silver coins minted by each emperor. In fact, the trade network became so vast that silver Roman coins could be found as far east as India. Far behind agriculture and trade in importance to Ancient Rome was its industry. The largest was mining. Greece and northern Italy provided marble for the grand building projects commissioned by the emperors. From Spain and Africa came the gold and silver to mint coins and create jewelry, while mines in Britain produced lead and tin for making weapons. Within Italian communities, small-scale manufacturing plants turned out pottery, glassware, weapons, tools, and textiles.