Short URL for this page:
The student of the history of modern democracies, who has to explain many constitutional changes by reference to the desires of labor, capital, importers and exporters, producers and consumers, finds Roman history strangely devoid of such explanations. And he suspects that the historian of Rome is old‑fashioned when he continues to connect politics with individuals and parliaments. But industry at this time played no such rôle in affairs of state at Rome that one can justifiably seek an "economic interpretation" of historical events. It is entirely sound to write the history from Sulla to Augustus as a story of a strife between ambitious political leaders and groups of leaders. Tariffs and strikes and capitalistic monopolies, which are in general concomitants and results of modern democracy, have no serious part in the story of Rome. The old nobles of Rome were, to be sure, interested materially in the success of senatorial rule, which often prompted well-ordered expansion. That has been recognized. But they were never "captains of industry" or commerce, and they cared little for these. The equites went a little further in that they invested not only in land but also in provincial tax‑gathering and in provincial money-lending which entailed landholding. But they concerned themselves very seldom with industrial questions. As for the laboring man, he was usually a slave who had no way of making his voice heard in the Forum. Commerce continued to be largely in the hands of the shippers of Egypt, Syria, Asia, Greece, and to some extent of South Italians. They had secured open seas, free trade, and protection from Rome without the asking, for the very p376 reason that the Senate had cared too little about trade to think of restricting it or controlling its channels. Industry was partly controlled by provincials, partly by Campanian and Etruscan manufacturers who had no standing in Roman society, but more largely by petty shop-keepers to whom it never occurred to ask favors of the government. We have, therefore, usually found it best to omit economic arguments from the story of the political changes at Rome. But it is now necessary to consider what were the methods of production and of distribution and to see how far capital and factory organization entered into them.
The artisan-shops of Pompeii. If we survey an ordinary block of dwellings and shops at Pompeii — the only ancient Roman town left us for first‑hand examination — we find something like this: the residences are in the center, the streets are lined with small shops. These shops, though badly looted, usually show traces of display-counters in front for the sale of wares, and a work bench, forge or furnace in the rear for the making of such wares. That reveals the system. These are combination workshops and sales-rooms of petty specialists and craftsmen who made and sold their own articles: cutlery, locks and keys, baskets, shoes, harness and what not. As yet we have not come upon what we may call a large factory, or wholesaler's warehouse. Pompeii at first glance gives one the impression of a medieval gild-town concerned largely in what has been called "town economy."
That is the first impression, and, to a large extent, it is a true one. Such town economy is fairly representative of more than half of the machinery of production in Augustus' day. However, we must modify this picture by a more careful scrutiny of articles of trade found in European museums, articles that bear trademarks and makers' stamps, and we shall then find that even at Pompeii wholesale trade in factory-made goods had made considerable inroads. p377 Probably further excavations near the harbor will reveal the ruins of warehouses and factories.
Methods of production: pottery. The ordinary tableware of Augustus' day was a red‑glazed pottery figured in low relief, called Arretine ware. Most of it came from Arretium and Puteoli. One at Arretium had a mixing basin of 10,000 gallons capacity. Most of the decorated pieces bear the name of the maker so that we can identify the products of the different factories. Hence we know that the ware which is scattered over all the Mediterranean except the South-East, i.e., a territory of over 1000 miles, came from a few centers. What were the forces that made for centralized factory production? Not a patented trade-process nor a copyrighted trademark; for those things were not yet known.
However, the requisite fine clay was not to be found everywhere; the secret of the delicate red glaze was probably guarded as well as it could be; the furnaces, though not elaborate, called for the concentration of men skilled at the potter's wheel, and, above all, the necessity of having highly skilled and presumably expensive artists to make the designs suggested the advisability of minimizing overhead expense of the designers by producing on as large a scale as possible.
Here then we have a true factory, producing for "international" trade.
Glass-ware. The same tendency may be noticed in the glass trade, after the blowpipe was discovered. Glass paste, especially variegated colored glass, had been made everywhere for hundreds of years before Augustus' day. Clear glass was, however, difficult to produce when the glass paste had to be poured into molds; for a separate mold had to be made for each article, and the particles of the mold were apt to adhere to the glass on the inside. Strabo saysa the invention that made clear glass cheap — one cent p378 per article — was new in his day. The inventors were apparently some Syrian glassmakers of Sidon, who were so proud of their work that they had their names molded on their articles. Now, glass articles with the names of Neikon and Artas are found from Sidon to Spain. Here then we seem to have a factory system based upon an invention that doubtless was well guarded.
Metal-ware. Why was there no steel trust? Not only the Greeks and Romans but the barbarians of Spain and the Alps made as well-tempered steel blades as we have to‑day. The reason for the failure to concentrate lay in the failure to find a cheap method of mass production. Individual smiths at home-made forges could make as good articles as anyone. What was needed was a blast-furnace with a powerful valved bellows that would keep a constant blast going, so as to melt the ore thoroughly. That was discovered a trifle too late, in fact not till the 4th century A.D. Had the secret of making cast-iron been discovered a little earlier Roman industry might have been revolutionized.
Concentration there was to some extent. Diodorus writing in Vergil's day tells usb that Puteoli near Naples had captured a large part of the iron-trade of the world. The ore came from the island of Elba and was there smelted down as far as could be "into a spongy mass," he says. Then manufacturers near the great harbor of Puteoli bought this crude pig‑iron, gathered numerous skilled smiths who worked it into all the forms of arms and implements needed.
Here is concentration of industry, but hardly a real factory; for the smiths were after all doing only what individuals elsewhere could do. The only advantage of the system was that by this concentration large orders could be executed speedily, and large orders were sometimes placed at short notice, especially in arms and armor. We may suppose that the trade drifted from Etruria, where the ore was p379 found, to Puteoli, because wood was plentiful there, the harbor was good, and most ships that resorted to Italy put in there.
What Diodorus says, finds interesting confirmation at Pompeii — just across the bay from Puteoli. Despite the small-shop system that we have noticed at Pompeii, we do find retail hardware stores there without benches and forges. Apparently the producers of Puteoli could supply retailers nearby more cheaply than could the city's own smiths. However, we must not suppose that the individual smith was generally driven out by this competition. The Roman dedicatory and sepulchral inscriptions erected by individual smiths, cutlers, swordmakers, shieldmakers, etc., are very numerous.
We find then that the favorable location of Puteoli made for concentration of a simple kind; but the lack of a labor-saving invention retarded the growth of a factory system.
The manufacturers of copper and bronze utensils on the other hand seems to have developed a real factory system, partly because large-scale production was possible in foundries, partly because artistic skill of a high grade was called for in conjunction with the work. Wine containers, cups, ladles, and table-ware of artistic shapes and beautifully patterned were used in large quantities. Hence it was necessary to gather under one roof men of diverse training: furnace‑men, molders, smiths who forged, carved, polished, and worked in repoussé. For a long time it has been noticed that Roman ware found in Scotland and Sweden often bears the same firm names as that usually unearthed at Pompeii, and recently it has been pointed out that these are names frequently found on Capuan inscriptions. It will be remembered that Cato and Pliny call Capua the best market for bronze ware, and that medieval church bells were first produced at Capua.
Considering the extensive distribution of this fine Capuan bronze-ware we may safely say that very large factories p380 employing hundreds of men must have existed there, and it was the existence of these large foundries that made it possible for Roman artists to have their numerous bronze works of art, especially the magnificent equestrian statues, cast in Italy.
What has been said of bronze ware applies also to silver plate. At one time it was customary to attribute the fine pieces of the Hildesheim and Boscoreale treasures to Alexandrian artists, but there is good reason for supposing that large silverware factories near the bay of Naples must have the credit for much of this exquisite work.
Brick-factories. Finally, we may notice an industry in which, at a somewhat later day, concentration was in part due to an accident. Modern economists class brickmaking as an industry in which, because of the facility of the process and of the weight of the article in transportation, a monopoly is not apt to arise. At Rome, however, the brickyards practically all came into the possession of the estate of Marcus Aurelius, inherited through his mother and grandmother from Domitius Afer and his sons who seem to have profited by the building boom which arose after the great fire of Nero. The facts are never thus baldly stated, but what we know is that before the fire brick was little used for building, that a few brick stamps bearing Afer's name occur before the fire, that after the fire almost every building of importance contains some stamps from his yards, and during the next three generations, the family, by purchase, inheritance, and intermarriage with other yard-owners, procured virtually a control of the industry in the city. But this is a very special case. It may be, of course, that Afer happened at the time of need to own the alluvial strip of the Tiber above the Mulvian bridge where the best brick soil existed.
We may now turn to some industries where centralization was for some reason obstructed.
Clothing. The ordinary clothing was generally made in p381 Italy from homegrown wool, other fabrics were generally imported. During the Empire silk cloth was carried over by caravans from the far East and seems often to have been unraveled and respun. Fine linen was produced in quantities by the Ptolemaic state factories of Egypt which Augustus inherited, and home-spun linen was also imported from Spanish centers. In Asia Minor, whence we still draw so many handwoven rugs, there was much scattered production of finely woven and embroidered fabrics. At Rome the staple cloth was wool, and a large part of the raw wool came from sheep pasturing over all the mountains of Italy.
But there were no cloth factories in Italy, not even handicraftsmen in gilds of spinners or weavers. The reason seems to be that spinning and weaving could be done most cheaply by using the unoccupied time of household slaves. Slaves were very numerous in every household of wealth, and since fashion dictated that each slave should have a particular assignment as chambermaid, hairdresser, waitress, holder of the fan, keeper of the cosmetics, etc., it was as well to have an additional task that might keep them out of mischief when not otherwise engaged. All woolen cloth was therefore made as an inexpensive by‑product and it was obviously not profitable for a manufacturer to attempt to compete with such cheap production.
But there are still unsolved problems concerning the industry. Who distributed the wool, and where was the woven cloth disposed of? Homespun, right off the loom, was not worn by the average Roman. The oil must be boiled, stamped, and washed out; there was need of carding and clipping, bleaching and dyeing.
In England, as we know, when the cloth industry began to develop, either the wool-grower, or the weaver, or the fuller, assumed the rôle of organizer and directed the article from household to household till it was ready for p382 the market, where the drapers of Blackwell Hall took in hand the task of distribution.
We have signs of something of the same kind at Pompeii. There about the time of Augustus several fulleries were established by renting or buying old residences and fitting them up with elaborate vats, tanks, and dyeing tubs. These served, of course, in part as laundries and dyeing shops for the city — the lack of soap made ordinary washing a difficult process — but they were too elaborate for just this. Furthermore at the side of the forum there is a spacious hall given to the fullers, according to an inscription still there. The building is a hall for sales-booths like Blackwell Hall, of medieval London. It would seem, therefore, that the fullers were the entreprisers in the business. Very likely they bought the raw wool that came down from the mountains, distributed it at the households where spinning and weaving was done, then after cleaning, bleaching and dyeing the stuff marketed it at their hall. And this is apparently a common procedure in many other towns to judge from inscriptions which speak of fullers' halls.
The rest of the clothing trade was probably simple. A man's toga, for instance, was worn almost in the shape in which it came off the loom. A few stitches and some clasps sufficed for the tailoring. We know, of course, of tailors' shops, but slaves in the household, or, in the family of the poor, the housewife herself, usually finished the garment.
Water pipes. We may take one more example to illustrate the conservatism of much of Rome's industry. In the manufacture of leadpipes,º for the elaborate system of water-mains generally laid by the householder, a large-scale production somehow did not emerge, despite the fact that large quantities in standard sizes were frequently needed. Here we get our information partly from Frontinus' business-like account of the water supply of Rome, but mainly from the stamps upon the pipes which indicate their owner and maker. In general, the imperial water-bureau provided for p383 the main aqueducts of Rome and for the distribution of water to all public places, that is, to the imperial palaces, to the public baths and gardens, and to a large number of free public fountains whence the poor carried their water. In Frontinus' day the bureau owned some seven hundred slaves to do the requisite work, a part of which consisted in making and laying the lead pipes of the public service; indeed such pipes usually bear the name of the maker besides those of the water commissioner and the emperor.
At Rome the larger number of pipes, however, was contracted for by private individuals who had secured water rights, a group that included most of the well-to‑do of the city. Such pipes were quite regularly stamped with the owner's name in order to afford ready identification in case of repairs — for often several lines lay parallel to each other under the pavement. Usually the maker also took this occasion to have his own name recorded. Now these names reveal some singular circumstances. From the great mass of material recovered and the numerous names recorded, it does not appear that any one firm secured large contracts or tried to build up a stock for large orders, although certain standard sizes were in demand. A maker's name in fact very seldom recurs in two widely separated regions of the city, and furthermore when a contract was large it was apparently divided among several plumbers. Moreover, it is clear that the names stamped upon the pipes were almost invariably a part of the original mold, which indicates that the pipe was made to order and that no stock was accumulated. The system in vogue, therefore, was this: small shop-owners with a few slaves, with no large capital, and with few facilities, took the orders when they came, bought the metal, melted it and rolled it into plates which were cut into the requisite strips and soldered into pipes, and finally they laid and connected these. That is to say, the plumber was also the maker of the pipe. Why this time-consuming system was conserved it is difficult to understand. It would p384 seem that the inertia of this industry is simply an illustration of how tenaciously the small-shop system conserved itself against obvious economic inducements toward centralization — a phenomenon too well known and recognized to need further illustration.
Food. In the production of food a rather primitive system generally prevailed, since the Romans then lived on vegetables far more than now. The central open markets were daily filled by farmers of the neighborhood, and the fruit and meat stalls nearby were also to a great extent supplied by the producer. Even the wine and oil were usually brought down to the retailer by the farmers in small quantities, as we can see by examining the marks on the wine casks. But, of course, Rome needed some middlemen both because it had outgrown the power of production of its vicinity and because the wealthy demanded the finest wines of the East.
Baking was seldom done in the household at Pompeii, the difficulty of getting fuel and of having the grain ground into flour may be the reasons. Bakeries with a capacity of three or four thousand loaves daily are found in many regions of the city.
The factory versus the artisan shop. We seem then to find in Italy an industrial system which in many respects resembles that of early nineteenth-century New England, where the native artisans of inland towns not yet connected by steam power produced most of the articles needed by each town. However, many of the Roman cities were now growing large and the number of wealthy men who demanded and could pay for luxuries and delicacies far exceeded that of our early republic. To gratify such men an extensive commerce had long existed, and in some lines of production industries aiming at a wide market had already arisen.
The forces that worked in favor of large-scale and monopolistic production differed but little from those of a p385 similar tendency to‑day. The possession of a new device for glass blowing seems to explain the success of the Sidonian glass-makers; the accumulation of skilled workmen and artistic designers at places providing a desirable clay enabled the Arretine potters to capture for that ware the trade of half the world; and similarly the possession of good recipes gained a wide market for certain food specialties. The production of silver and bronze ware tended to concentrate, partly because a combination of many highly trained molders, designers and engravers was required, partly because the expensive raw product demanded capital. The same is true of many kinds of furniture that required skill in working expensive woods, metals, and marble. The extension of the fulleries and tanneries illustrates how mass production was encouraged when chemical preparations and apparatus not easily procured by the public were required. In wholesale breadmaking the centripetal forces were the desire to save labor and space, the increasing cost of fuel, and the difficulty of procuring flour in the home. To some extent certain towns specialized in iron ware. Here doubtless the problem of fuel reckoned in the account, and it may also be assumed that the irregularity of the demand for arms and armor, and the seasonal suspense of the trade in farm implements, discouraged individuals who had not sufficient capital to wait for the market; ordinary cutlery which found a steadier sale was doubtless produced to a considerable extent in small shops. Finally the behavior of the brick monopoly at Rome illustrates the chance aid that an industry might receive from such an accident as the great fire which threw enormous contracts in the way of a few men who happened to have ready the facilities for production when needed.
A genuine factory system did not, of course, fully develop in all of these lines, but division of labor and the employment of some labor-saving machinery and technical processes were present in the production of silver and p386 bronze ware, pottery, glassware, furniture, brick and of some table delicacies; while in most of these wares there is evident a capitalistic production having a world-wide trade in view.
Certain centrifugal forces, on the other hand, were still very strong. With the slow transportation of that day perishable goods could hardly pass from town to town. With the concomitant cost of transportation heavy articles of low value like cheap earthenware could not advantageously be shipped. Lack of patent laws must also have retarded concentration, since new processes quickly became the property of any rival. The heaviest drag upon industry, however, must have been the all‑dominating slave system. The abundance of slaves enabled fastidious householders to have everything possible done in their own houses in accordance with their personal tastes. Among the slaves of Statilius Taurus, the magnificent friend of Augustus, we find trained artisans engaged not only in performing extravagant personal services but in making articles that the industries of Rome might well have supplied: smiths, fullers, tailors, spinners, weavers, shoemakers, masons, cabinet makers, carpenters, workers in marble, and others. This was hardly a condition calculated to help the marketing of factory-made goods. Moreover, a plentiful supply of cheap labor discouraged a demand for new labor-saving devices which might have created new products for a potential market, and might also have tended toward the accumulation of expensive tools and trade secrets to the benefit of industrial concentration. For instance, the invention of a valve in the bellows used in iron furnaces to create a continuous blast, an improvement that any intelligent and interested free workman might have conceived, would have revolutionized the iron industry by making smelting and casting possible on a large scale. But the slaves who performed the work were not expected to bring quick interest to their tasks. Finally, the general disrespect for industry, due p387 partly, of course, to a conservative devotion to land, found in all aristocratic societies, but indelibly fixed by the association of industry with slavery, turned aside the capital and the intelligence of strong Romans which might otherwise have flowed into industrial development. It now seems a fair conclusion that Roman industry had reached as high a degree of advancement in Augustus' day as it was likely to do so long as slavery persisted.
Labor. The laboring men in Italy were largely slaves and ex‑slaves. In the factories, potteries, and brickyards spoken of above, the signatures of the factory managers reveal the fact that these were generally freedmen, a fact which in turn implies that the workmen were slaves. Farm managers were regularly slaves, hence in general the farm laborers also. We happen to have thousands of names of the servants who worked in large urban households, names rescued from the common burial grounds of such households, and these too prove to be names of slaves. In Cicero's voluminous correspondence there are many casual references to all kinds of servants, including secretaries, tutors, librarians, stenographers, and even literary assistants: they all prove to be slaves or ex‑slaves. Finally, we happen to have on inscriptions many membership lists of labor gilds, especially of the gilds of carpenters and shipbuilders. Since slaves were not admitted to many of these gilds, few servile names appear on these lists, but after all the members seldom appear to be Romans of the old stock; most of them are freedmen who had once been slaves, or men whose parents were slaves. Since this is the situation we can well understand why wages were low at Rome and why there never were any labor strikes during the five centuries that we happen to know best. If the freedmen in a factory should strike for shorter hours or higher wages they would immediately be replaced by slaves, and have to face hunger.
The situation in the individual artisan shops was somewhat better. Cabinet-makers, cutlers, smiths and the like, p388 who rented small shops and produced for immediate sale a few specialties by their own labor, were to some extent Latins and Romans of the old race, but even here slaves and freedmen of foreign stock preponderated. Well-to‑do Romans who owned rows of shops often fitted these up and placed in them skilled slaves to manage and work for them as agents, or again owners of many slaves would by way of rewarding the diligent "set them up in business" either gratuitously or on a percentage basis.
The conditions of slaves varied greatly. In the old simple days when slaves were few, they were treated much like "farm-hands" in western America. But that was now seldom the case on large plantations, in mines, and factories, where slaves seldom came into personal contact with their owners. The managers, themselves slaves and freedmen, bent on gaining their master's gratitude by means of large profits, were often cruel. In such places there were no "maximum hours," and the lash and chain were not infrequently used on the unruly. Yet where personal contact was possible we find evidence of the old customs. There was of course little race prejudice to complicate the problem, since most slaves were indistinguishable from citizens in appearance, and the practice of liberal manumission continued. The custom also of rewarding diligent slaves by equipping them in shops on a percentage base gave remarkable opportunities for economic freedom; and the employment of slaves as secretaries and trusted business agents placed such people in positions where they could acquire both freedom and property.
Measured merely in economic terms, the freeborn laborer had a more precarious life than many slaves and freedmen. He had less opportunity to reach the sympathy and support of a rich patron. He had no access to positions of trust, since these fell to loyal slaves, well-trained and long known. The free laborer had no master from whom to get funds for shop-keeping, and he did not fit in well with a troop of p389 slaves either on the farm or in the household where discipline must be uniform. In factories, in mines, or at the docks he might perhaps find work if he asked no more than the daily cost of a slave, which seldom exceeded fifteen cents a day. A slave drudge could usually be bought for less than two hundred dollars, that is, about twenty dollars per year, capitalized and insured. His annual keep would come to twenty or thirty more, including the price of two tunics, a pair of shoes, some twelve or fifteen bushels of wheat, some table leavings in the form of oil, wine and vegetables, and a straw cot in the slave barracks. On the assumption that his job was temporary and therefore did not incur any expense in idle seasons, the free man might ask for a trifle more than this, but only a trifle.
Was it possible for a man to live on such a pittance? If he could have work constantly he might, since in buying the ordinary food the purchasing power of money was then about three times that of our own currency in 1910 (to take a year of normal values). And the government, recognizing the fact that work was not always to be had, kept him at least from starving but distributing grain to the poor. The poor man's list of necessities, however, had to be cut down to the lowest point. He needed fifteen bushels of wheat each year at about 75 cents a bushel. He ate no meat, or only when the priests on holidays gave meat away after a sacrifice. He needed one cent's worth of oil per day and as much wine; a small portion of vegetables cost about as much; a pound of cheese, reckoned then at about seven cents, sufficed for several days. These were the usual articles of his menu. He needed only about two tunics a year, the wool for which cost a dollar. Half a dollar sufficed for a pair of sandals which he seldom wore. In his own room in the tenement house (which cost him little more than $15 or $20 per year) he had no fire except for cooking. The state supplied amusements on holidays free of charge, and there were free public baths, where he went p390 chiefly to meet his friends. If he was out of work the state also supplied his grain. It was, therefore, possible for him to live, and also to have a family if his wife would spin and weave. But it was a precarious life, and it is not surprising that unpropertied Romans migrated to the provinces, or took to brigandage, or joined the army.
Collegia or gilds. The laborers of every craft, whether working in factories, or independently in their own small shops, had their gilds. Since these had been used for political purposes Caesar had suppressed them, and thereafter they were allowed to form again only if they were able to secure a state charter by proving that their purpose was useful. Thus in Augustus' day and later the collegia grew up under new forms, their purpose being mainly to give burial aid to the poor and provide a slight sum to the family of the deceased. This was an exceedingly important factor in the life of the laborers, since few were able to save any money out of their meager wages. Such a society would build a hall with niches for hundreds of funeral urns, provide for the cremation of the deceased, and procure a suitable urn and a small slab of marble with his name inscribed upon it. The cost of the whole would amount to but a few dollars. It is probable also that the social feature contributed not a little to its popularity. For the members were permitted to meet once a month over wine and sandwiches, but not oftener. The following lines taken from the "regulations and by‑laws" of such an organization will afford some insight into their purposes, and although the inscriptionc dates a century later than Augustus, it fairly represents conditions in the earlier gilds also.
"It is unanimously voted that whoever wishes to enter this society shall pay an initiation fee of one hundred sesterces (about three dollars at this time) and an amphora of wine, and monthly dues of three cents.
"If a member in full standing dies there shall be drawn for his account three hundred sesterces, one‑sixth of which shall be p391 divided among the attendants at the funeral. The funeral procession shall go on foot.
"Any member who commits suicide shall not be buried by the society.
"If any member who is a slave shall become free he shall provide the society with an amphora of good wine.
"If an officer elected in due order does not give a dinner to the members he shall be fined one dollar. The officers are each to furnish for such dinners an amphora of good wine, two cents worth of bread, four sardines for each member, and provide for the service.
'If any member causes a disturbance by changing his seat he shall be fined twelve cents; if anyone insults another member the fine shall be thirty-five cents; if he abuses the presiding officer the fine shall be sixty cents."
Capital. Roman law was not fond of joint-stock companies and corporations. It liked the idea of personal responsibility and personal liability. Business corporations that may be called real joint-stock companies in the modern sense were allowed only in the public service, in tax‑gathering, in contracts for public works and the like. By such companies partes and particulae, corresponding roughly to stocks, were issued. In other businesses, although Roman law permitted partnerships freely, they were partnerships of unlimited liability. When a partnership was caught defaulting, both or either one of the partners could be sued to the full extent, and if one was thus sued he could have recourse to the courts to recover a fair share from the other. Partnerships of unlimited liability, therefore, existed in all forms of business, but needless to say these seldom sufficed for larger enterprises. Banks cannot usually accumulate large funds when all the capital must come from one person or from a simple partnership plus such amounts as the partners can borrow on their own credit. Furthermore, business enterprises based upon such partnerships could seldom grow through several generations, since they dissolved as a matter of course upon the withdrawal or p392 death of one partner. Accordingly, we can well understand that powerful banks did not arise, and also that few large business corporations arose to require the services of large discounting institutions. This does not imply that Roman business enterprise was checked primarily by the law, for other, perhaps more important, checks existed. But it is true that the corporation law was not adapted to the modern scale of business.
In Augustus' day, however, many large bankers were doing an extensive business. They received deposits on current accounts on which they paid interest. They did some discounting. They bought and sold real estate on their own account, and as agents for others. Their exchange departments were also important. They often kept expert business agents at the disposal of customers, particularly men versed in provincial investments, who traveled far and wide abroad. They acted as agents and formed temporary partnerships for the granting of large loans to foreign cities, states, and potentates. Finally, they usually had a chain of affiliations in the important eastern centers of commerce in order to facilitate the passing of bills and to provide Roman travelers and officials with letters of credit. All of these things could be and were done then as now, though not by any means on the same scale. Syndicate banking, now so important, was then unnecessary, since large corporations could not be formed, and the deposits which now give the banks such power, because of their volume, could hardly have been large owing to the lack of protection for depositors. Hence men who accumulated some capital were much more apt to ask the banks to find a borrower or a real estate investment for it than to leave it at the bank on deposit.
The surplus capital of Romans, as we have noticed, had for centuries followed the expanding armies inland. Time and again, when the population of the city became dense and again, when the population of the city became dense and there were signs of a drift toward the sea or toward p393 commercial outlets, a new advance on the border had required military colonization, and the familiar call of the land, which Romans were accustomed to heed, turned men inland once more. When in the second century B.C., however, Rome's armies went beyond Italy, annexing Spain, Africa, Southern Gaul and parts of Asia, the settler did not follow with the same alacrity. Land beyond the sea did not seem to offer a congenial home to the average Roman, and even Gracchus found little support for foreign colonies.
In Italy, however, Roman wealth must have expanded rapidly in those days. It has been estimated that the land in Italy thrown under Roman cultivation by the expropriations of the Punic war and by the seizure of the Po valley doubled the former acreage, making the total of ager Romanus •over fourteen million acres, which at the very modest price of fifty dollars per •jugerum, usually given for unimproved land, totals almost a billion dollars in soil value alone. This would indicate a high per capita property rating for the 320,000 citizens of Gracchus' day. When we remember that large land-holding was already the rule we may be sure that there were many thousand Romans who were well-to‑do.
Ready capital may, however, have been scarce. The typical farmer seldom went to the bank; the turnover of money is exceedingly slow in agriculture; the strong box in the tablinum could take care of any surplus until the owner found another neighboring patch of land in which to invest. Later this process of land investment extended into the provinces. The surplus wealth of the average Roman always lay easiest that found its resting place quickly in some form of real estate. Cicero's properties were mainly in farm and city holdings, Atticus had large estates in Epirus and Italy, Varro in Campania and Apulia, Caesar's prefects, men like Labienus and Mamurra, who were enriched by booty, at once invested in land. Cicero's civil suits usually had to do with titles to land in Gaul or Etruria or p394 Lucania, and his letters of recommendation are full of references to large estates in Greece, Sicily, and Asia.
This real estate investment in the provinces had been facilitated especially by the activities of the Roman tax‑gathering companies. The agents of these firms looked about for profitable opportunities for themselves and for Roman clients. And favorable occasions were numerous. Greeks and Asiatics harassed by war, poorly protected by their own none too trustworthy courts, often reckless in the conduct of business, were everywhere on the point of bankruptcy, and they were frequently helped over the precipice by these agents who were ready to find bargains, to foreclose mortgages and to take possession. For the agents knew well that with the coming of Roman rule the border would be safeguarded, radical revolutions suppressed, and property rights conserved in the courts. Hence, they thought, property ought to rise in value, and it did. On the eastern mortgages, too, they could get two or three or even five times as high a rate of interest as at Rome, because business risks had been so perilous in times past that the rate of interest was high. We hear much of these negotiatores in Cicero's day and later. It is an interesting commentary on the trend of Roman investment that the word actually changed its meaning during the Augustan period. In Cicero's day a negotiator was a Roman who lent money mostly on real estate mortgages in the provinces. In the language of Tacitus the negotiator is not a money lender and real estate speculator, but a merchant. The secret of this semantic change is that business opportunities had changed. Under Roman rule and Roman courts the risks of the land owners had lessened. Caesar and Augustus had withdrawn most of the publicans, hence the economic system was stabilized, the interest rate had fallen, and land speculation was less lucrative. The Romans who remained in the East stayed to trade. Here is a case where the history of a word tells an important story in economic history.
p395 Commerce was now to some extent falling into the hands of Romans, as this fact implies. We unfortunately have not very much information about the practical machinery of shipping. Perhaps the best picture of what shippers had to contend with is to be found in the story of St. Paul's journey to Rome as given in the twenty-eighth chapter of the Acts. It is the tale of a painfully slow journey with several transfers from one ship to another, of having to winter in harbor because of storms, and finally of a dangerous shipwreck.
It is to be noticed that all three of the ships that St. Paul had to employ on this journey were Greek, not Roman. This is not an accident. The Romans still owned but few ships. The misfortunes in his case seem not to have been unusual. The truth is that without a compass ships had to hug the shore when the weather was not clear, and sailing close to shore meant running the risk of dashing on rocks whenever a wind arose. The frequency of wrecks was by no means due to poorly built or small boats. The ordinary freighter was then of two or three hundred tons, as large therefore as those that carried our early Salem skippers to India and China.d
The sea‑farers. The Greek merchants, like our skippers of colonial days, had usually been independent shipowners, sometimes even shipbuilders. They "tramped" from port to port with whatever cargo seemed to promise best profits. They employed their own capital, or sums borrowed at high maritime rates; they personally conducted the buying and selling of their cargoes, and when the season neared its end they found, if possible, a desirable cargo for the home port, whither they repaired to await the return of the spring sun. Of course, they also "rented space," as they called it, to merchants who filled orders for foreign consignees, but this was considered a minor part of their business. "Packet boats" with regular schedules or prescribed routes seem to have been unusual. When a trader grew wealthy he was p396 apt to acquire more boats in which he placed trusted agents to do the same kind of business for him. Since, however, these agents had less discretion than the owner, and generally had to be advised what courses to take and in what articles to trade, the growth of such shipping houses tended somewhat to reduce tramp-trading in favor of more regular packet shipping. But progress along these lines did not continue far in Greece.
In Cicero's day the irregular service pictured by the Greek writers apparently still prevailed, especially in eastern waters, where Greeks and Orientals seem to have dominated the seas. The interesting mariner's guidebook of the Neronian era, called the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, implies that the merchant trader of the old type dominated the Arabian, Persian, and Indian trade. From the decree of the Emperor Claudius, designed to encourage the importation of grain to Rome, one infers that shipbuilders, shipowners, and grain merchants were sometimes identical, and the ubiquitous Trimalchio is pictured as a merchant who built his own ships.
When, however, the Romans began to build ships and invest in foreign trade a more regular system made some headway. The writers of the Empire usually assume that the owners of vessels (exercitores) employ shipmasters (navicularii) who transport goods for, or, as they call it, "rent space to" importers and exporters (mercatores) very much as is generally done to‑day. They even assume that ships often have regular routes, engage in a definite line of business, and that some, like those running between Brundisium and Dyrrhachium, specialize in a regular passenger service.
This advanced specialization and organization of the business was to be expected from the conditions prevailing at Rome. When timber became scarce in certain centers of industry and orders had to be placed at more favored ones, shipbuilding naturally specialized. Merchants who p397 grew wealthy in trade and extended their business far and wide had to employ agents and super-cargoes to supervise a part of it. And this tended to create import and export firms that directed the course of commerce from a main office. When, moreover, the emperors undertook to encourage and ensure shipping with the grain-producing provinces in order to make certain of Rome's food supply, organized schedules were established to so many important points that shipping companies could depend upon the service and conduct their business from their offices.
A study of Puteoli, Italy's chief port, the town at which St. Paul landed, is illuminating from several points of view. The reason why Eastern freighters preferred this port •(150 miles from Rome) to Ostia, Rome's own harbor at the Tiber mouth, is obvious. Here, if anywhere, return cargoes could be got — in Puteoli's iron, earthenware and sulphur, and Capua's bronze ware. Rome was not a center of industry. Furthermore, Puteoli's proximity to Naples, a Greek town of old commercial traditions, made it possible to find crews and shipbuilders and also business agents for connections with the Oriental cities.
Puteoli soon acquired a semi-Oriental appearance because the traders of all the great Eastern seaports established colonies there. Such foreign colonies rented particular docks and warehouses, took possession of a separate quarter of the town, erected their own temples and had their own cemeteries. In the second century A.D. the "station" of the Tyrians at Puteoli was still paying annual rentals and dues to the amount of 100,000 denarii (then about $10,000), although the colony was "then far smaller than formerly." The colonies of Beirut, of the Nabataeans and of other peoples had temples of their own at this port; the people of Baalbek had a cemetery of •four acres; and dedicatory inscriptions erected by natives of Asiatic cities are very numerous.
We need not here follow the vicissitudes of commerce p398 through the Empire. Suffice it to say that when Claudius dredged out a good harbor at Ostia and built jetties to keep the Tiber mouth clear, Puteoli lost much of its shipping and especially its grain trade. However, the lack of return cargoes at Ostia still prevented that new harbor from monopolizing all the shipping. Many boats preferred to make port at Puteoli and send the goods bound Romewards by road or by small coasting vessels.
Exports and imports. The trade of Italy was, of course, very unevenly balanced; even Puteoli in the best days of Campanian industry could never fill the ships that came in loaded. Latium exported very little. Italian wines went eastward through Egypt, according to the Periplus cited above, but these were doubtless Calenian and Falernian wines carried cheaply as ballast. The Alban varieties could not compete with the numerous good Greek brands. Latium began to export some olive oil in Cicero's day, but this did not last long. In the Empire when Rome had learned the value of this article, very large quantities were imported from Spain and Africa. No manufactured articles of importance seem to have gone from Latium; in the long lists of goods enumerated in the Periplus Rome is not even mentioned. Campania exported chiefly iron and bronze ware, some pottery, wine, olive oil, and Capuan ointments. The rich Po valley exported wine, pitch, lumber, grain, pork, wool and cloth, chiefly to Rome, and jars that contained Venetian and Istrian products have been found far up in the valleys of the Tyrol. Arretine pottery, as we have seen, also found a market all over the western provinces until in the early Empire the branch potteries of Gaul captured the trade of the mother firms. That completes the list of important Italian exports. Needless to say, in such circumstances, Italy could not sustain an equilibrium of trade. Her ledgers balanced only because of the large credit accounts on provincial real estate investments and the constant inflow of tribute. Even then the government found p399 the outflow of currency disturbing and had to resort to desperate measures to keep it at home. We are reminded of recent governmental orders by the law which Gabinius had passed in 67 B.C. forbidding provincials to borrow money at Rome, and by the effort that Cicero made in his consulship to have custom officials at Puteoli seize all silver and gold that was being taken out of the country. Such measures were, of course, futile in the long run. Pliny, a century later, informs us that at least five million dollars per year went to China, India and Arabia for articles of luxury.
The principal imports, aside from grain, originated in the East. The provinces of Asia and Pontus supplied some grain, salt fish, timber, dried fruit, precious stones, wine, and the tapestries, draperies, and rugs for which Anatolia is still famous. Syria sent much glassware from factories in Sidon and the famous purple dyes and cloths for which Tyre was noted. The linens of Byblus and Beirut and the cedar of the Lebanons were also highly prized at Rome. In times of peace northern Syria tapped the caravan trade of Parthia, whose merchants brought Chinese silk and Indian cotton, pearls, ivory, and spices. To Gaza in the south came the Nabataean caravans bringing Arabian incense, spices, myrrh, and precious stones. The state factories of Egypt exported much fine cloth, glass and paper, and Alexandrian merchants sent out Ethiopian ivory, beasts for the games, and black slaves, besides transporting from the harbors of the Red Sea all the products of India and Arabia. This eastern sea trade received a great impetus from Augustus, who, contrary to Roman traditions, adopted for Egypt the mercantilistic policy of the Ptolemies, so far improving upon it that the shipping of the harbor at Myos Hormos, on the Red Sea, quickly tripled and quadrupled.
From the West came fewer finished articles, but more raw materials. Marseilles, then an independent Greek city controlling the trade of the Rhone, brought down metals, hides, rough wool, salt meat, cheese, slaves and amber p400 from the north in return for Italian iron, bronze, earthenware and the fine handiwork of the east. Her traders also brought tin from the British Isles by way of the Rhone and Seine. Further west the Roman colony of Narbo established a new road by way of the Gironde for traders who went in search of British tin, and tapped the mines of Aquitania. From northern Spain came rich stores of metals and also finished products made of the excellent Spanish steel. The central portions produced good fabrics of wool and linen, and the south an ever increasing quantity of olive oil, wine, wheat, salt pork, fish, and leather.
The machinery of distribution. Despite this great amount of trade the machinery of transportation is so far from showing uniformity that we can hardly expect well organized systems of salesmanship and distribution. In general we may assume that every harbor had a wholesale market where buyer and seller might meet. But the use of this market varied according to time and place. In the period when commerce was mostly of the "tramp" class, the condition which in fact created these market-places, the incoming merchant unloaded whatever wares he thought he might sell, and displayed them in the market while his ship stood at anchor. At the same market he could look over the wares of his competitors, buying and taking on board what seemed to promise good profits elsewhere. To the same market came of course the small shopkeepers of the town to buy stock for their retail trade. In this system, which still prevailed to some extent in Caesar's day, middlemen, buyers and salesmen were not essential. But there was an advanced stage of trade, already noticed at Puteoli, which also dispensed with middlemen to a certain extent. The Tyrian exporters, for instance, did not sail the seas with their cargoes, but rented warehouses and dock space at Puteoli, where their countrymen, agents or partners, received consignments, presumably displaying and selling their wares to retailers, in their local offices. They had a p401 similar statio at Rome, to which their Puteolan agents sent out such parts of the consignments as were destined for that city. Puteolianº inscriptions prove that this system was used by many eastern cities. Indeed, the Italian agora at Delos is apparently an instance of occidentals adopting the same system, and the stationes of Ostia were apparently erected by the Roman government for analogous purposes. With the development of the shipping business and the growth of exporting firms that operated from land, there doubtless also arose commission houses at the ports of entry, though we are not explicitly informed about them.
Of a developed system of salesmanship there is little trace, probably because there were few large factories such as now send out salesmen and "drummers," and the general existence of market places created by a more primitive system generally brought the product to the buyer with sufficient success. There is, however, an indication that some factories did not have to bring their goods to the market place. At the potteries of Auvergne there have been found large invoices of goods that are thought to refer to orders placed by wholesale pottery merchants for manufacture and future delivery. If this be a typical case, the buyers sent to such factories as then existed and placed their orders.
In general it may be said that the producer was in that simpler day nearer the consumer than at present, that in foreign trade the shipper brought his goods to the harbor market-place for the retailer or consumer to purchase, and that, to a far greater extent than to‑day, the producer of domestic articles was himself an artisan and shopkeeper who sold directly to the consumer what he made in his small shop. Middlemen were relatively very few.
This review has shown the growth of an adequate commerce on the seas, and a commerce also that changed from the Greek tramp type to a regular and dependable system very much like our own. But it has also shown that the Romans never became a seafaring people. Greeks, Orientals, p402 and South Italian Greeks who had developed the trade before Rome rose to greatness, succeeded in keeping at least the larger share of the commerce on the houses.
The Romans had so long found a sufficient outlet for surplus capital disclosed by their expanding armies that maritime trade never became fashionable with them. Moreover, the great merchant is apt to rise out of the retailer, and for the retailer Roman public opinion, shaped by the landholding nobility, never had anything but scorn. The shopkeepers at Rome were very largely foreigners and freedmen.
Even the freedmen who engaged in the lucrative pursuits of banking and commerce therein, and grew wealthy, found that they must wash their hands of the taint of business in order to acquire any social standing. They changed their names, sold their business, moved out to country villas, bought some books and pictures and passed as gentlemen farmers.
The famous Trimalchio, described by Petronius as a favorite freedman of Maecenas, is typical of the class except that when intoxicated he talked too freely of his past: "I too was once like you," he says to his poor but respectable guests from Rome,1 "but by my ability I've come to this. It's brains that makes the man. . . . After wheedling my fool of a master to set me free I went into business. I built five ships, loaded them with wine, but every ship was wrecked. Do you think I lost courage? No, by heaven! I built more ships, larger and better ones. I loaded them wine again, pork, beans, perfumes and slaves. In one trip I cleared a million. At once I bought up all the farms that my master used to own, and went into cattle-raising. [Note the progress to respectability.] Everything I touched prospered. When I found that I had more than all the citizens of the town put together, I retired from active business and made my freedmen agents for me. [He p403 is now banker by proxy.] Then I retired to this estate and built this palace. It has four dining rooms upstairs; it has a very fine porter's lodge and plenty of rooms for guest. Take it from me, if you've got something, you're worth something. So your humble servant, who was a pauper, has come to be a prince."
Agriculture in Italy had shown a wholesome tendency in Caesar's day. Sicily, which had long supplied the grain for Rome, had now been "overcropped" and was providing only scanty harvests; hence prices began to rise and all the more rapidly because extra quantities of food were needed to feed Caesar's large armies. The Italian farmers were then called upon to supply the want, and when they tried it they found that their once exhausted soil had recovered during a generation of grazing. Hence we hear not a little of the fertility of Italian soil at the end of the Republic. The farmers, moreover, taught by past experience not to put their trust implicitly in grain, took the occasion to combine sparse vineyards and fruit orchards with cereal raising, planting the vines or trees far apart, and the grain and small crops between the rows, a device which the very strong sunlight of Italy permits.
But this good era of farming did not endure everywhere. The triumvirs, as we have noticed, confiscated the lands of some of the richest portions of Italy to give them to their thirty legions, and many of these soldiers were shiftless adventurers from the city who knew nothing about farming or Gauls who did not comprehend Italian needs and methods. And what added to the misfortunes of Italian agriculture, many of the dispossessed migrated to Africa where they presently turned that province into wheat fields by an elaborate study of irrigation and mixed farming. Before long shiploads of grain from Africa came to capture the markets of Italy from the bandit soldiers. With lack of success in Italy, the lands again began to fall under the control of fewer landlords, and presently the cry again is p404 raised that large plantations and ranches are ruining the whole peninsula.
If we wish to have a picture of the methods of the capitalist landlords and the business-like manner in which they specialized on the most productive crops when they had fertile lands, we can do no better than examine a country villa at Boscoreale, •two miles beyond Pompeii, where the ashes of Vesuvius have preserved the farmhouse almost intact. The place was buried in the eruption of 79 A.D. but the system in vogue differed little from that which we know prevailed in the days of Augustus. That the owner was a practical farmer is clearly apparent from the abundance of farm implements, wine vats, and the like on his place. That, however, he was a man of urbane breeding and social connections, with wealth enough to gratify very fastidious tastes is proved by the fact that his silver plate is now reckoned one of the special treasures of the Louvre.
Whatever other plantation owners may have done, this landlord, from the point of view both of production and of consumption, was part and parcel of the world's commerce and industry. So‑called domestic economy has no place in his system. He produced a few specialties for the market with a view to profit, caring little whether or not he succeeded in satisfying the needs of his household from his own estate. The main part of his farm was devoted to vine culture, as two strong presses and a storeroom of jars with a capacity of •nearly twenty thousand gallons testify. That there was also provision for some olive-growing is shown by a mill, a press, and jars of •a few hundred gallons capacity. Little provision was made for stock raising and there was apparently small need for hay. A survey of the implement room is instructive. The abundance of hoes and picks and pruning hooks indicate the narrow limits within which the work of the farm was confined. A small mill and oven show that there was grain enough for home use, but p405 nothing has been found to bear out the orthodox assumption that a house of this sort would have a staff of slave women spinning and weaving. Since the soil near Vesuvius was too rich to be given over to pasture the farm probably produced no wool, and the clothes were probably bought. More, the supposition that large plantations were independent of the market in the matter of labor and implements seems to break down here. It is hardly necessary to mention that the house was built by skilled masons, as the fashionable type of reticulate masonry indicates, frescoed by an expert painter from the city, decorated with terracotta ornaments, and fitted up with standard bathtubs and an elaborate hot‑water system that must have required the services of Pompeii's highest-priced plumbers. These things are in harmony with the silverware, the artistic bronzes, and the shop-made furniture. But even the implements of the stockroom are of the standard forms, made by skilled artisans, the crudest pottery bears the factory stamp, and the bricks bear trade-marks known from Pompeii. In fact, the landlord had proceeded far beyond the earlier practice of agriculture according to which the householder adapted his system of livelihood to the productions of his farm. This man's connections with his land were quite incidental. To him the land was a factory for the production of a special article from the profits of which he could make a living. And he lived upon his farm, when he did, only because he chose to be near his business or because he liked the air, not because it gave him his bread and cheese and homespun. But this was also a system whereby one man drew all the profits of a large estate. Slaves did his work, and Italy's citizenry profited little by his success.
1 Petronius, Cena Trimalchionis, 75‑6, condensed.
c The Lex Collegii (CIL XIV.211), now in the National Museum of Rome; abridged here. An excellent line-by-line discussion, with photographs of the inscription, and a brief bibliography, is given at Following Hadrian, "The Natalis Antinoi and the collegium of Diana and Antinous in Lanuvium".
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
A History of Rome
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY if its URL has a total of one *asterisk. If the URL has two **asterisks, the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use. If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 10 Dec 20