Business in Ancient Rome
The Roman Empire, which extended across three continents and at least one-ninth of Earth’s circumference, ruled a quarter of the human population through the use of intricate politics, military domination, business and trade, and economic systems. The substantial relationships Rome was able to create were maintained primarily through transportation and trade as well as technologies that relied on energy generated by human and animal labor, winds, and ocean currents.
Through an impressive feat of massive conquest, the Roman Empire dominated the Mediterranean, Western Europe, North Africa, Asia Minor, and parts of Northern and Eastern Europe and had 50 to 90 million inhabitants. Ancient Roman civilization has left its mark on our society today and is often credited with contributing to modern law, politics, art, literature, engineering, architecture, warfare, language, religion, and society as a whole.
Rome, which is still considered to have been a leader and powerhouse in ancient business and commerce practices to this day, expanded international trade across four neighboring powers: the Parthian Empire, the Kushan Empire, the nomadic Xiongnu, and the Han Dynasty. Despite difficult travel conditions and a rather limited knowledge of geography, these trade relations were built during a time of impressive empire growth and expansion. With these connections, the spread of ideas, beliefs, and customs across continents welcomed a new era in the ancient world.
For the Romans, flourishing trade with outside nations was crucial to their internal business practices and economy and allowed for a higher standard of living and accessibility to more luxuries within the empire. The government also required large imports of grain and wine to support its tremendous population. While the Roman economy was essentially a competitive market (similar to our market today) and capitalistic in nature, and although this was during a time of immense financial growth, there were some notable weaknesses within their trade system, including the costs of transport relative to location. For instance, the cost of transport across land was typically much higher than that of shipments by sea, meaning that foreign products such as wine imported from Spain could be less expensive than wine produced only 100 miles away in Italy.
The Roman economy wasn’t all that different from economies today. The Roman government set wage and price controls to stem inflation and rising interest rates, and laws were even passed to subsidize grain in order to keep the prices affordable for its citizens, similar to how the U.S. government subsidizes the dairy industry today. There were also large markets in most Roman cities, and within them were the most important goods in the ancient civilized world, olive oil and wine, which were imported and exported throughout the empire.
Romans thrived off of their imports, with importers typically being the wealthiest citizens. Although the barter system was still used in Rome, the ancient Romans also implemented one of the world’s most developed coinage systems for its time. Coins made of copper, brass, bronze, silver, and gold were minted and circulated under strict regulations governing their weight, size, value, and composition.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Roman economy was their banking system, which was complex in nature and quite similar to modern-day banking, with an impressive use of credit and foreign exchanges. Temples, which were originally created to worship the ancient gods, developed a second purpose and became the first banks in ancient Rome, with priests acting as the bankers. These priests were responsible for keeping track of deposits, loaning money with interest, performing currency exchanges, and forgiving debt.
Though Rome was incredibly advanced for its time, it also had a strict class structure and bred a highly class-conscious society. Upper classes mostly consisted of men who served in the government or were part of the business class. Among the lower classes were the shield-makers, blacksmiths, and those who were experts in fortress engineering or aqueduct design. The slaves, who outnumbered freemen three to one, did nearly all of the labor and often worked the fields and mines, practiced medicine, tutored children, ran stores, and delivered mail. A typical household had one or two slaves, and those in higher classes had even more.
For more information about the ancient Roman Empire, look at these resources:
- The Geography of Transport Systems: Here, you’ll find a great map of Rome’s transport system and an article explaining the geographical characteristics and constraints of the Mediterranean basin.
- The Roman Slave Supply: This is a great resource that covers the problems, methods, and scale of the Roman slave supply.
- Economics, Money, and Trade in Ancient Rome: Read more about the economics in ancient Rome, including labor and slaves, the slave rebellion, business and industries, glass-making, sea trade, tourism, and loans.
- Roman Currency: Take a brief look at the monetary system of the ancient Roman world and its use of bronze, copper, metal, silver, and gold.
- All Roads Lead to Rome: Learn more about the importance of roads and the impact trade had on ancient Rome’s vast reign.
- A Market Economy in the Early Roman Empire (PDF): Discover how the early Roman Empire’s economy was primarily a market economy in this in-depth document.
- Eight Ways Roads Helped Rome Rule the Ancient World: Paved roads allowed Romans to transport goods and people more efficiently.
- How Did Geography Help Rome Rise to Power? Things like mountain ranges and a central location at the heart of the ancient world helped the Roman Empire to become a dominant civilization.
- The Roman Empire and Trade: This detailed resource provides an in-depth look at the Roman Empire and trade relationships.
- Trade Between the Romans and the Empires of Asia: This resource explains the trade relations between the Romans and Asia.
The Social Order of Rome: Learn details about ancient Roman society and its social strata on this site.
- In Ancient Rome, Lemons Were Only for the Rich: A detailed study of the spread of citrus fruit across Europe sheds light on aspects of Roman trade and culture.
- Ancient Rome: From Republic to Empire: Rome’s armies expanded the empire’s territory, but a strong economy helped it to thrive.
- A Model of the Roman World: Start exploring the Roman world through the Stanford Geospatial Network Model.
- Social Class and Public Display in Rome: This resource goes into depth about the ancient social class system used in Rome.
- The Exotic Animal Traffickers of Ancient Rome: Public spectacles that used exotic animals led to a high demand for importation of these creatures.
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