Book Review

ANDRE TCHERNIA. Les Romains et le commerce. 431 pages, 10 illustrations, 1 table. 2011. Naples: Centre Jean Bérard; 978-2-918887-06-5 paperback €30.

Review by Andrew Wilson
Institute of Archaeology, University of Oxford, UK

Wilson image

André Tchernia is one of the leading experts on amphorae as a source of economic history, a pioneer of maritime archaeology, and author of a wealth of articles on Roman trade, notably the wine trade. This excellent publication brings together twelve previously published essays (many in obscure conference proceedings), updated with more recent notes and prefaced with an entirely new synthesis of his views on Roman commerce with a particular emphasis on the people involved in it. The result is almost two books in one: as the author notes in the foreword, the introductory essay ballooned in the writing into something approaching a book in its own right. Part I of this volume thus consists of an introduction and five chapters, whose themes the collected essays in Part II serve to develop at greater length.

The introduction sketches the book's main topics, and Chapter 1, 'Landowners and traders', examines the role of elites and in particular the senatorial aristocracy in long-distance trade. Tchernia argues that in spite of the growth of villa estates and market-oriented agriculture, the norm was a separation of agricultural production and long-distance trade. Although some senators did engage in large-scale exports, most remained landowners and increased their revenues further by lending surplus capital to merchants and traders, who were often their own freedmen. Elites thus had a means of recovering wealth from trade, from interest on the loans they made to traders, and from their share of their freedmen's inheritance, which guaranteed that a large share of the profits (but not the losses) would revert to them, all the while minimising their exposure to risk. This was not a secret engagement in trade, but a separation of function that maintained social norms.

Chapter 2, 'The fortunes of merchants', traces the persistence of some family trading networks over several generations in the Red Sea/India trade, and the trade of olive oil and fish products from Baetica (modern-day south-west Spain). It also considers some very wealthy families who could but did not become local town councillors, a choice attributed to a reluctance to pursue political honours and a preference for concentrating on money-making. Chapter 3, 'The question of the market', argues that the debate over whether the Roman world was "an enormous conglomeration of interdependent markets" has been framed in the wrong terms (the original phrase envisaged not geographical market regions, but product market sectors). Market integration was variable and often regionally limited, but there were nevertheless close links between some different regions. The careful use of archaeological distribution maps shows not merely how the costs for different means of transport affected distribution along particular routes, but also how and why different regions dominated or competed in various markets at different times. This leads onto Chapter 4, 'The role of the state', which shows that public and private activities were not always clearly separated and there was often a close imbrication of merchants carrying state cargoes and trading on their own account; likewise, soldiers occasionally describe themselves as 'merchants'. Chapter 5, 'Transporting what is lacking', looks at some of the biggest trade flows in the Roman world, such as the wine-for-slaves trade between Italy and Gaul in the late Republic, accounting for much of the peak in the number of western Mediterranean shipwrecks at that time. It argues that they are explicable not so much by Keith Hopkins' 'taxes and trade' model as by the ability of Roman merchants to spot gaps in the market and organise distribution to regions under-supplied in certain goods from areas where those goods were produced in quantity and cheaply; Roman markets were rarely fully saturated.

Part II, Scripta varia, forms a very coherent collection of selected essays treating related themes: loans and maritime commerce; the sale of wine vintages; the Republican limits on the size of ships that senators could own; the credit crisis of AD 33; the food supply of Rome (three papers); trade with India; Baetican merchants (two papers); trading patterns on the grain route between Alexandria and Rome (entrepôts, return cargoes and complementary cargoes); and the supposed crisis of agriculture in Italy as a result of provincial competition. In this last paper Tchernia shows that the supposed crisis is a modern fiction and deliberate competition by merchants to drive others out of a market sector was rare; rather, they expanded into markets already vacated by others.

An important feature of this book is its identifications of intersections between some of the major political events recorded in ancient sources and the development of trade into new areas, e.g. the new stimuli to mercantile activity in Gaul that resulted from Augustus' decision to establish a headquarters at Lyon in 16 BC to prepare for the invasion of Germany; or the suggestion that the credit crisis of AD 33 is to be related to the development of the lucrative trade with the Red Sea and India, the scale of which required large sums for maritime loans and encouraged the growth of lending to colossal proportions. Overall, the book contains a wealth of insights into the workings of ancient trade and expertly combines discussion of the material evidence—especially of amphorae and wrecks—with the prosopographical approach derived from epigraphic, papyrological and historical data. It deploys masterfully a broad range of archaeological and documentary sources, and should be read by anyone interested in the Roman economy.