From Rome to Byzantium: Trade and Continuity in the First Millennium AD
This free book provides a detailed overview of trading activity in the Roman and Byzantine Mediterranean, grounded in recent archaeological research. It is argued in what follows that while state-sponsored trading was undoubtedly important in both eras, 'free trading' led by consumer tastes and competition over prices must have played a significant role too. It is also contended that the so-called 'Dark Ages' of the seventh and eighth centuries saw more continuity with the Roman past in terms of both commercial activity and urban life than is often admitted.
As such, the Byzantine economic and urban revival of the ninth century needs to be at least partly seen in the context of the 'legacy of Rome' and cannot be considered an entirely unrelated phenomenon, as it sometimes is.
Approaches to Roman Trade
The role and character of trade within the Roman economy has long been a topic of much controversy. Certainly there can be no question that pottery, wine and other goods were somehow carried across the Mediterranean, as we cannot explain the archaeological evidence recovered from surface survey and excavations in any other way: artefacts indicative of such trade are found on a significant proportion of Roman-era settlement sites. The mechanics and nature of this transportation are, however, very much open to debate, as is the importance and frequency of such wide-ranging contacts. The present chapter offers a brief overview of this debate, looking in some detail at the character of Roman trading activity from the Republican era through to Late Antiquity and asking what the pattern of this trading indicates about the shifting currents of prosperity.
A consideration of the latter question emerges naturally from the discussion of the archaeological evidence for trade; however, on the former matter — the nature of the trading — some background is perhaps needed before we can proceed. On this opinion has been frequently split into two main schools representing, to a large degree, the differing approaches to trade and the economy of the economic historian and the archaeologist, with the views of the former acting as the basis for the modern debate, against which the latter have reacted. The viewpoint of the economic historian — often termed the ‘new orthodoxy’ — has been prominently championed by A. H. M. Jones and Sir Moses Finley amongst others. It takes as its starting point references in the classical authors to the economy and derives from them a picture of the Roman economic landscape in which the empire was self-sufficient, with each farm, district and/or region growing and making nearly all that it needed.
The main basis of all wealth is thus considered to be agriculture and the vast majority of the population was concerned with the growing of food.
This concept obviously has little room for inter-regional trade — or, indeed, non-local manufacturing — as anything other than small-scale and insignificant to the economy as a whole, dealing mainly with prestige goods for the elites as
transport costs were too high for anything but the carriage of luxury items.
What evidence there is for the transport of goods is, as such, not generally seen as ‘free’ trade but rather as part of either the state redistributive mechanisms associated with the annona (the tax-in-kind that was used to feed and supply Rome) and the lines of military supply, or as the result of elites moving goods between estates or gifting them to other members of the elite.
This model of trade is, of course, one largely derived from historical and literary sources, not archaeology. This does raise some methodological issues, as the texts being used to construct this ‘new orthodoxy’ are often political or philosophical works, which only make mention of economic matters in passing. As such, it is certainly open to question whether their lack of interest in, and knowledge of, trading (and other matters, such as technological innovation) is a reflection of the economic realities, as seems to be assumed by the ‘new orthodoxy’, or a result of the concerns of the authors and audiences of these texts; such documents were, after all, written both by and for the status quo-favouring elites. If we had texts composed by other social groups they might paint a very different picture of the Roman economy and technological innovation.
One way to try and circumvent these worries is, of course, to make use of non-literary sources as a means of illustrating and developing the historical material. Keith Hopkins has, for example, offered a slight modification of the ‘new orthodoxy’ involving the application of archaeological data from coins and shipwrecks, arguing that a model can be produced which suggests that Roman taxation of the provinces from the second century BC through to the second century AD stimulated a degree of inter-regional trading, as the provinces had to sell their surpluses to Italy in order to obtain the coin needed to pay the taxes. In other words, central taxation led to all Roman citizens, from peasants upwards, being increasingly drawn into an integrated Roman economy.