The emperor directly controlled coinage, taxation, and his own enormous estates, but otherwise allowed the economy to operate freely, with demand dictating prices and profits. Above all it was the end of civil war that encouraged economic growth. Roman armies could control piracy and allow maritime trade across the Mediterranean as never before.
Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii Many wealthy Romans invested in land, which they used for agriculture as well as recreation. Often the owners lived in the city and hired an overseer to manage their estates. Many also had lavish homes or villas which included beautiful works of art like this fresco from the Villa of the Mysteries outside of Pompeii, Italy.Bridgeman Art Library, London/New York
Farming was the basis of the Roman economy. Republican senators traditionally invested their wealth in Italian land, but the imperial peace also encouraged them to invest abroad. The Romans began to cultivate more land when they brought Mediterranean plants and more sophisticated farming methods farther north into Gaul, the Rhine River valley, and the Balkan Peninsula. Vineyards spread throughout Gaul, and olive groves were planted in North Africa. The Romans learned new techniques for farming in wet climates that allowed them to open new lands for agriculture in northern Gaul and Britain, where increasing demands for timber transformed native forests into agricultural estates.
Rome imported wheat from Egypt and Africa, wine from Gaul, and oil from Spain and Africa.
Landowners lived in the cities or, in the case of the truly wealthy, in Rome itself. A foreman managed each estate separately. Some individual estates, called villas, were huge operations. One villa, the Boscatrecase, which was located near the Italian city of Pompeii, had 100,000 jugs of wine in storage. Large estates in the provinces had lower labor costs, which gradually undermined traditional Italian agriculture. As a result, Rome imported wheat from Egypt and Africa, wine from Gaul, and oil from Spain and Africa.
Roman industry did not include mass production, and small workshops manufactured pottery, metalwork, and glass. A successful brickmaker might have owned dozens of workshops rather than one large factory. Manufacturers dispersed or decentralized their production because it was expensive to transport goods. Bricks for construction were made at the building site, or terra-cotta figurines were fashioned at the temple where they were sold. Unlike independent artisans who had their own shops, wage laborers were treated with contempt in the ancient world and worked alongside slaves.
The eastern Mediterranean was initially the manufacturing center of the Roman world, but under the empire, Gaul also experienced great industrial growth. A number of factors combined to encourage manufacturing in Gaul, including the availability of ample raw materials, the Celtic tradition of exquisite metalworking, good river transportation, and the enormous market created by the military along the northern borders of the empire. The Roman soldiers needed weapons, pottery, boots, clothing, and building materials, and they bought them from local craftspeople.
Roman Ship Most Roman ships designed for commerce or war featured distinctive square sails. Long banks of oars propelled the ships swiftly through the water. Warships often had additional protective coverings to shield the crew from fire and missiles. © Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
Land was the safest investment for the wealthy, but trade was the only legal way to acquire a fortune quickly. Transport by sea was far cheaper than by land, but every voyage faced both financial risks and opportunities. Shipwrecks occurred frequently during this period, and now provide archaeologists with abundant information about Roman shipping routes and cargoes. The Romans shipped food and rare raw materials like colored marble throughout the Mediterranean, along with Egyptian papyrus reeds for paper, purple dye from Syria, glass from Palestine, and Spanish ironwork.
Land was the safest investment for the wealthy, but trade was the only legal way to acquire a fortune quickly.
The frontiers of the empire did not hinder trade. German peddlers crossed the borders in both directions, bringing amber from the Baltic and exchanging it for Roman artifacts. However, few Romans actually took part in foreign commerce. They did not trade directly with Arabia, Africa, India, and China, but received incense, ivory, pepper, and silk from these countries through intermediaries. Asian caravans crossed the steppe to China, and Parthians controlled the caravan route to India. From the 1st century ad, Egyptian sailors from Alexandria learned how to use the monsoon, a wind that changed direction with the seasons, to enable them to make frequent trips to India. A guidebook from ancient times for captains sailing through the Red Sea still survives.
C4 Coinage and Taxes
The deficit spending of later emperors nearly halved the silver value of the coinage.
Merchants throughout the empire and as far away as India used Roman coins, but the monetary system primarily served as a way for the emperors to pay their troops, because the soldiers expected cash. When an emperor had insufficient income, he was forced to raise taxes, seize property, or, as a final measure, melt down existing coins and mint new ones that weighed less or contained smaller amounts of precious metals. Silver coins were a basic medium of exchange during the empire, and one of the major Roman coins, a denarius (plural, denarii), equaled four of the smaller silver coins called sesterces. During the reign of Augustus, a silver denarius weighed 5.7 gm (.20 oz) and was 99 percent pure. By ad 193 it had dropped to 4.3 gm (.15 oz) and was only 70 percent pure. The deficit spending of later emperors nearly halved the silver value of the coinage.
The Roman Empire taxed the people under its control, and the taxes fell most heavily on conquered peoples in the empire. Roman citizens did not have to pay the individual or head tax required of each subject of the empire, and the empire exempted Italian land from tribute. However Roman citizens did have to pay the 5 percent inheritance tax, a 1 percent sales tax, a customs or import duty, and a tax on freed slaves. Local magistrates, imperial officials, and professional tax collectors were all employed to gather taxes, and the imperial census became an important tool to identify potential taxpayers. Total taxes amounted to about 10 percent of the empire’s gross national product. That percentage of tax may seem low by modern standards, but the imperial government provided minimal services. For provincials who could barely make a living, paying 10 percent of their income to the government was a considerable burden.