Although there is no definite figure, the Roman Empire was estimated to have a population of between 50 and 80 million people. When considered, this is an enormous population which required massive imports in order to feed all citizens. Thus, this assignment will document and describe the types of products imported into the Roman Empire, where they came from, how they got there and why there was the necessity for them. According to Kessler and Temin in 2007, Roman merchants ‘used a variety of mechanisms to deal with the informational problems of long-distance trade at that time’. These mechanisms included the Roman social and legal structures as well as contracts, companies and invoices.
To begin, the importation of oil was of central importance to the Roman Empire’s citizens as well as the ancient economy. ‘The olive and it’s by-products were universally employed as food-stuffs, unguents, medicaments, lubricants and sources of5 energy’. (Scheidel and Reden, 2012). Due to the immense demand for oil during this time, and in order for it to be sold plentifully at an affordable price, merchants were forced to search for the product beyond the borders of the Empire. With the intentions of importing the maximum amount of oil in the shortest amount of time, sea routes were used. As stated by Isaken in 2008, ‘networks have been used in a variety of ways to understand connectivity in past cultures, and do not of necessity require the use of computer technology. Thus, one can evaluate the strength of a route based on two factors; closeness centrality and betweenness centrality. Closeness centrality can be stated as the ease to which entities can reach, or be reached by another entity on the network. This concept is compared to the betweenness centrality which is the ‘probability that a node will be passed by traffic travelling along the shortest route between two other nodes on the network.’ (Isaksen, 2008). A significant portion of the importation of olive oil came from the North African provinces, such as Tripolitania (Libya).. The cultivation of olive trees resulted in Leptis Magna becoming one of the largest centres in Africa for the production of olive oil. ‘Thus, Leptis Magna became a town whose prosperity depended far more on the agricultural produce of its inland holdings than on any caravan trade across the Sahara.’(Matthews and Cook, 2018). This importation process began in the ‘Green Sea’; this name is as a result of the huge amounts of olives which passed the sea towards Rome
Another major commodity which was imported to the Roman Empire was silk. ‘Silk, with its appeal of lustrousness, elasticity and durability, has long been considered a symbol of luxury, elegance and sacredness, and was rightfully dubbed the queen of fabrics, the thread of gold.’ (Flynn, Frost and Latham, 1999). Although the Roman citizens did not know a lot about Silk, or China, they were willing to import it in any way possible. The routes taken by the eastern commerce can be divided conveniently into two groups. The first group is based on the Red Sea and its hinterlands which carried the trade of Arabia, East Africa and India. The second, which focuses on ‘the overland routes into Parthia, and Central Asia, carrying principally Chinese Silk, although also taking some of the Indian trade.’ (Thorley, 1969) This second route passed enormous bulks of Chinese Silk across the Iranian Plateau and according to Thorley, only rarely, ‘in times of actual war on the Parthian frontiers, were Roman merchants obliged to rely on other routes.’ However, Thorley also refers to some silk continuing on down the Persian Gulf, and then onto Petra, either across the desert or by sea to the Port of Petra. The ‘Silk Road’ was also used in order to transport a lot of this silk produce to the Roman Empire. This Silk Road was an ancient network of trade routes which enabled trade to occur from China to other regions of the ancient world. This trade route was also imperative for the mutually beneficial trading and communication routes between the Roman Empire and the Han Dynasty (modern-day China).
Spices formed the other commodity which was imported into the Roman Empire from areas such as South-East Asia, China, India, Arabia or Africa, according to Loewe in 1971, much like oil, spices played numerous roles in the daily life for Roman citizens. Spices were used as condiments, preservatives, concealing flavours, medicines, ointments, cleaning, disinfectants, deodorants and as breath-purifiers. For example; cassia/cinnamon was transported from the east coast of Africa into the Roman Empire. ‘As with the land routes of the north-west, the Chinese themselves took no part in the transport of cargoes, as yet.’ (Loewe, 1971). Romans also imported black pepper from India and nutmeg and ginger from Indonesia. These precious spices were obtained by taking long journeys and ‘conducting their affairs over unexplored seas and dangerous solitudes on lands by means on intermediaries.’ (Warmington, 1974). According to Hull in 2008, camel caravans were also used in order to transport these spices from distant corners. There are large amounts of evidence which support Hull’s statement regarding the camel caravans. In 2012, Pigière and Henrotay stated that ‘The import of camels to the northern provinces of the Roman Empire has been attest to in the past by the bone finds at several archaeological sites from Austria, England, France, Germany, Hungry and Switzerland.’
‘In Roman Law, ‘Slaves are either born or made’ (Hunt, 2017) However, it is a well-known fact that the importation of slaves was an ever-present feature of the Roman world. Although the slave trade is not technically a ‘product’, slavery provided a service which was imported into the Roman Empire. Slavery has also been linked to the importation and supply chains of many of the Roman-day commodities.The slaves within the Roman Empire were the lowest class of society, with no legal rights or individuality. Historians estimate that between 20%-30% of the entire population of the Roman Empire were slaves. Thus, the question arises as to how these slaves were obtained by wealthy Romans. According to Harris in 1999; ‘The sources which most require consideration are; children born to slave-mothers within the empire, persons enslaved in provincial or frontier wars, persons imported across frontiers, the self-enslaved and infants abandoned at places within the Empire.’ Due to the fact that many of these imported slaves were also from Europe, the route was generally by road. Many slaves were captured through the wars and came from countries which the Roman had conquered such as Syria, Germany and North Africa. Regarding this excellent road system from which the slaves were imported, Alcock, Bodel and Talbert stated in 2012 that ‘The road system was not only Rome’s most enduring engineering achievement, it was also proof of universal power.’