The central issue for historians, is how to characterize the scale and importance of trade and commerce in the overall economy of the Roman empire. Some emphasize how different, and essentially backward, the Roman economy was in comparison to the modern. They point to the Roman élite's apparent contempt for commerce. The primacy of agriculture cannot be denied, and the Roman agricultural writers, with the large landowner in mind, betray both very little interest in markets and an aversion to risk, which did not inspire entrepreneurial experiments. Factories in the modern sense did not exist in the ancient world (see industry). Cities did not grow up as centres of manufacturing; they are better represented as centres of consumption (see urbanism). The cost and difficulty of transport, esp. over land, are claimed to have made it uneconomic to trade over long distances anything other than luxury products. Basic goods, such as wine, olive oil, and corn, also pottery of all kinds, can be shown to have been carried in large quantities over long distances. But, it is argued, something other than the free‐market mechanism is at work here. First, there was the considerable circulation of goods within the extensive households of the rich, from their estates to their town houses, to their retinues and clients. Further, staples could be exchanged in large quantities as gifts between members of the élite. Examples can be identified at all periods. The circulation of goods within the household of the emperor is the same phenomenon writ large. Secondly, and more importantly, it is claimed that the movement of staples was primarily an act of redistribution, directed by the central government, and on a smaller scale by local communities, to ensure the supply of essentials to the large cities, and to maintain the Roman armies, precisely because the private sector was not up to meeting needs on such a scale (see food supply).
A different model has been proposed. The Roman aristocracy did on the whole keep a distance from direct involvement in trade, but even they benefited from its profits through intermediaries. Besides, beyond Rome, it is much less clear that local élites shared the same distaste for trade, with investments, often managed by their freedmen, in potteries, mines, textile production, and the like. The landowners needed markets for their products, but were able to affect a lack of interest in trade, because the whole process, often starting with a contract to gather the crop, lay in the hands of negotiatores. The landowner was provided with a certain return, while the negotiator had to arrange the trade and to take the risks. The number of shipwrecks in the Mediterranean recorded for the period 100 bc to ad 300 is much larger than for either the preceding period or the Dark Age; this suggests a level of operation which was not to be reached again until the high Renaissance. The greatest spur to the development of this trade was the creation of a fully monetarized economy throughout the empire (see money). Barter continued to exist; but it is clear from Egyptian papyri that the use of money in transactions was the norm. Strabo went out of his way to note the lack of coin among the Dalmatians, as a characteristic of barbarian peoples. The availability of coin varied between areas and over time. So bankers who could provide credit to facilitate deals were essential. The empire did not see the growth of large international banks; but at the local level money‐lenders were the key to exchanges both large and small. Some historians see in the spread of the use of money the creation of a Roman unified ‘world economy’. This is an exaggeration. The empire consisted of many regional economies at different stages of development, which linked up with each other in ways which changed over time.
Subjects: Classical Studies.