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The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean Rome's Dealings with the Ancient Kingdoms of India, Africa and Arabia

The ancient evidence suggests that international commerce supplied Roman government with up to a third of the revenues that sustained their empire. In ancient times large fleets of Roman merchant ships set sail from Egypt on voyages across the Indian Ocean. They sailed from Roman ports on the Red Sea to distant kingdoms on the east coast of Africa and the seaboard off southern Arabia. Many continued their voyages across the ocean to trade with the rich kingdoms of ancient India. Freighters from the Roman Empire left with bullion and returned with cargo holds filled with valuable trade goods, including exotic African products, Arabian incense and eastern spices.
This book examines Roman commerce with Indian kingdoms from the Indus region to the Tamil lands. It investigates contacts between the Roman Empire and powerful African kingdoms, including the Nilotic regime that ruled Meroe and the rising Axumite Realm. Further chapters explore Roman dealings with the Arab kingdoms of south Arabia, including the Saba-Himyarites and the Hadramaut Regime, which sent caravans along the incense trail to the ancient rock-carved city of Petra.
The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean is the first book to bring these subjects together in a single comprehensive study that reveals Rome’s impact on the ancient world and explains how international trade funded the Legions that maintained imperial rule. It offers a new international perspective on the Roman Empire and its legacy for modern society.
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The Roman Empire
and the
Indian Ocean

For my parents
William John McLaughlin
and Elizabeth Terry McLaughlin

The Roman Empire
and the
Indian Ocean
The Ancient World Economy
and the Kingdoms of Africa,
Arabia and India

Raoul McLaughlin

First published in Great Britain in 2014 by
an imprint of
Pen & Sword Books Ltd
47 Church Street
South Yorkshire
S70 2AS
Copyright # Raoul McLaughlin, 2014
ISBN 978-1-78346-381-7
The right of Raoul McLaughlin to be identified as the author of this work has been
asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in
any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical including photocopying,
recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without
permission from the Publisher in writing.
Typeset by Concept, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, HD4 5JL.
Printed and bound in England by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon CR0 4YY.

Pen & Sword Books Ltd incorporates the imprints of Pen & Sword Archaeology,
Atlas, Aviation, Battleground, Discovery, Family History, History, Maritime,
Military, Naval, Politics, Railways, Select, Social History, Transport, True Crime,
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List of Plates . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


Acknowledgements . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


Abbreviations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . viii
Ancient Figures and ; Modern Estimates . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


Ancient Greek and Roman Authors . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


Maps . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . xiii
Introduction: The Ancient Economy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . xvii
1. Revenue and the Roman Economy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


2. Roman Prosperity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18
3. Incense: A Unique Product . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 28
4. The Intermediaries: Petra and the Nabataeans . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 50
5. Beyond Egypt: The Nile Route and the African Kingdom of Meroe . . 59
6. The Red Sea Route . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 73
7. The Scale and Significance of Indian Ocean Trade . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 88
8. International Business . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 95
9. East Africa and the Aksumite Kingdom . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 113
10. Southern Arabia and the Saba-Himyarites . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 128
11. Arabia Felix and the Hadramawt Kingdom . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 140
12. The Indo-Parthians . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 150
13. The Saka and Satavahana Kingdoms . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 157
14. The Tamil Kingdoms of Southern India . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 172
15. The Anuradhapura Kingdom of Sri Lanka and the Far East . . . . . . . 196
16. The Antun Embassy to China and the Antonine Pandemic . . . . . . . . 207
Conclusion: Assessing the Roman Economy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 218
Appendix A: The Roman Economy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 226
Appendix B: Reconstructing Roman Revenues . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 228
Appendix C: The Expense of the Roman Legions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 230
Notes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 232
Bibliography . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 266
Index . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 270

List of Plates
Roman merchant ship depicted on the Sidon Relief.
Roman ship graffiti from a wall at Pompeii: The Europa (first century AD).
Roman relief showing armoured marines on a bireme warship.
Silver Egyptian tetradrachm issued by the Emperor Nero (AD 54–68).
Roman grave relief showing the Peticii business-family who exported wine to
Peutinger Map showing a Roman temple in Southern India.
Relief depicting Prince Arikankharer of Meroe (AD 25).
Gold Coins of the Aksumite King Ousanas (AD 300).
Silver Saba-Hymarite coin displaying emblems from Greek drachmas and
Roman denarii (Athenian owl and laureled head of Caesar).
Indian ship depicted in a painting from a temple-cave in Ajunta (western
Silver Coin of the Indo-Parthian King Gondophares (AD 20).
Silver Coin showing the Saka King Nahapana (AD 50).
Silver Roman denarius found in India.
A denarius of the Emperor Tiberius.
An Indian sculpture showing the death of the Buddha with a robed monk in
attendance (Gandhara, Indus Region, second century AD).
Indian Ivory Statuette found at Pompeii (first century AD).
Relief Sculpture from the Stupa at Sanchi depicting an Indian City
(first century AD).
Portrait Bust of a Buddhist Roman (second century AD).

I was educated at Lagan College in Belfast, the first cross-community integrated
school to be established in Northern Ireland. The college was founded to offer
young people of all cultural backgrounds an education free from the divisions of
race, religion or social class. I owe a lot to my school, its staff and principal at that
time, Dr Brian Lambkin.
I attended Queen’s University Belfast for an undergraduate degree in Archaeology and Ancient History and the early stages of my doctoral research was
financed by the Northern Ireland Department of Education and Learning. I am
grateful to Doctor John Curran and Professor David Whitehead for giving me
the opportunity to teach tutorial classes in Republican Roman and Classical
Greek history at Queen’s.
After finishing my doctorate in 2006, I completed and published my monograph, Rome and the Distant East: Trade Routes to the Ancient Lands of India, Arabia
and China (2010). Turning my doctoral research into a book and the completion
of further volumes has meant financial hardship. This book is therefore dedicated
to my immediate family, my parents William and Elizabeth McLaughlin, my
brother Leon and my sister Thayna, all of whom gave me their support and
Raoul McLaughlin
September 2013

C.I.L. = Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum.
C.I.S. = Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum.
F.H.N. = Fontes Historiae Nubiorum.
I.L.S. = Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae.
O.G.I.S. = Orientis Graeci Inscriptiones Selectae.
Periplus = The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.
P. Vindob. G. 40822 (Papyri Vindobonensis Graecus) = The ‘Muziris Papyrus’.
R.E.S. = Répertoire d’épigraphie Semitique.

Ancient Figures and Modern Estimates
Roman currency
O 4 brass sesterces = 1 silver denarius.
O 25 silver denarii = 1 gold aureus.
O 1 day’s labour: 1 silver denarius.
O 1 month’s earnings: 1 gold aureus.
O 1 Roman pound (libra) = 12 ounces or 329 grams.
O Greek silver talent: 24,000 sesterces.
O Greek silver drachma: 1 denarius or 4 sesterces.
O Greek silver talent: 6,000 drachma (denarii).
O Egyptian silver talent: 6,000 sesterces.
O Egyptian silver drachma: 1 sesterce.
O Tetradrachm: 1 denarius (4 sesterces).

Mediterranean shipments
O Citizens in Rome eligible for the government grain dole: 200,000 men.1
O Size of grain dole: 88,000 tons.2
O Contribution of Egypt: 29,000 tons.3
Cost of a Legion = 11 million sesterces
O 5,000 Legionaries paid 900 sesterces annually = 4.5 million.4
O 5,000 Auxiliaries paid 750 sesterces annually = 3.75 million.5
O 54 Centurions (each paid 13,500); 4 Centurions First Cohort, Primi Ordines
(paid 27,000); Senior Centurion – Primus Pilus (54,000); 5 Tribunes (45,000);
Legion Legate (61,000) = 1 million sesterces.6
O Discharge bonuses (praemia) paid after 25 years service: c.120 legionaries per
year granted 12,000 sesterces = 1.4 million plus 1.1 million sesterces bonus for
O Plus additional cost of junior and auxiliary officers, cavalry pay (900 sesterces
per horseman), purchase of cavalry horses (deposit cost: 500 sesterces) and
pack animals.8 Animal feed perhaps received through local taxes.9
O Cost of food and clothing was deducted from troop pay.10 But some soldiers
were able to accumulate significant funds in their military accounts.11
Roman Military (300,000 professional soldiers)
O Augustan era (27 BC–AD 14): 28 Legions reduced to 25 after the Varus
disaster (AD 9).12


The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean

O First-Second century AD: 27–30 Legions in service (150,000 Legionaries sup-

ported by 150,000 Auxiliaries).13

Modern estimates for Roman State spending (1,000 million sesterces per
O Military: Legions and Auxiliaries, Praetorian Guard in Rome and Roman
navy = 640+ million sesterces.
O Civilian Employees = 75 million sesterces.
O Imperial hand-outs including donatives (occasional cash gifts to soldiers) =
44 million sesterces.
O Imperial building projects = 60 million sesterces.
O Emperor’s Household and imperial gifts = 50–100 million sesterces.

Ancient Greek and Roman Authors
484 BC–425 BC: Lifetime of the Greek writer Herodotus, author of the first
classical history.
60 BC–30 BC: The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus writes his universal history.
70 BC–19 BC: Lifetime of the Roman poet Virgil.
20 BC–AD 24: The Greek geographer Strabo writes and revises his Geography.
65 BC–8 BC: Lifetime of the Latin poet Horace.
50 BC–AD 15: Lifetime of the Latin poet Propertius who wrote eulogies.
43 BC–AD 18: Lifetime of Ovid, a Roman poet who composed important works
on the theme of love and seduction.
AD 14: The first Roman Emperor Augustus dies and his achievements are published in an inscription called the Res Gestae.
AD 14–AD 37: A wealthy Roman named Apicius becomes famous for his
banquets. His name is attached to a collection of household recipes.
AD 27–AD 66: Lifetime of Petronius, a Roman courtier who wrote a story called
the Satyricon.
AD 50: An anonymous Greek merchant writes the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea,
describing Roman trade voyages around and across the Indian Ocean.
AD 77: Pliny the Elder, Roman governor and advisor to the Emperor Vespasian,
publishes his encyclopedic Natural History.
AD 40–AD 102: Lifetime of the Roman poet Martial who composed a large
collection of Latin epigrams.
AD 45–AD 96: Lifetime of Statius, a Latin poet who composed works
commenting on Roman society and promoting patrons.
AD 55–AD 138: Lifetime of Juvenal, a Latin poet who composed a collection of
AD 61–AD 112: Lifetime of Pliny the Younger, a Roman magistrate who wrote
and published a series of letters to colleagues and superiors, including the
Emperor Trajan.
AD 56–AD 117: Lifetime of Tacitus, a Latin senator and leading historian.
AD 46–AD 119: A Greek historian named Plutarch writes a series of moralistic
biographies of famous Greek and Roman generals and statesmen.


The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean

AD 119: An imperial secretary named Suetonius published a biography of early
Roman Emperors.
AD 150: An Alexandrian mathematician named Claudius Ptolemy publishes a
world Geography containing detailed coordinates for the construction of maps.
AD 129–AD 200: Lifetime of the renowned Greek doctor Galen, who wrote
numerous medical texts.
AD 205–AD 229: A Roman Consul named Dio Cassius writes a Greek history of
the Roman Empire from its earliest times to his own era.

The Ancient World.

Claudius Ptolemy’s World Map (AD 150).

The Roman Empire (second century AD).

Western Asia and the Indian Ocean.

The Ancient Economy
This book sets out to bring the Ancient World Economy to widespread attention.
It focusses on ancient evidence without the influence of modern precepts,
ideology, or theory-based economic models. The book presents the case for an
ancient world economy and gives a perspective to eastern trade by discussing
better known phenomena such as the Roman grain dole. Information is based on
the relevant source testimony and archaeological remains from the main civilisations involved in the Ancient Economy. These explain the condition of the
Roman Empire and reveal what imperial authorities knew about State revenues
and the value of international trade.
This book deals with a fundamental question – how did the Roman Empire
function and in particular, how did it pay for its military costs? The answer
requires a wider view than that presented by most Classical Historians who confine their studies to the Mediterranean and the western part of Europe. Roman
contacts with eastern civilisations have been judged to be outside the scope of
Classical Ancient History and therefore beyond productive scholarly consideration. But the Roman Empire belonged to an ancient world economy that
stretched thousands of miles across the Indian Ocean and significant commercial
contacts linked Roman subjects with their distant counterparts in east Africa,
southern Arabia and the kingdoms of ancient India. These trade exchanges are
confirmed by source testimony from many different cultures and verified by
numerous archaeological finds.
Preoccupied by contemporary issues, past generations of Classical Historians
have dismissed the significance of ancient India and China. The last Classical
Historian to write a book on Indo-Roman commerce was a Cambridge based
scholar named E.H. Warmington. Born in the nineteenth century, Warmington
published The Commerce between the Roman Empire and India in 1927 at a time
when India, Somalia, the Sudan and Aden (in Yemen) were part of the British
Empire. Current debate on the Roman economy preserves a complex legacy of
past fixations, including mid-twentieth century reactions to the Soviet Union
(a centralised socialist state-economy) and the issue of whether Rome was ‘market
orientated’ or ‘capitalist’ drew relevance from Cold War concerns (1947–1991).
However, some of the underlying assumptions defining modern study are still
grounded in much older traditions, including nineteenth-century concepts of
social class, race and colonialism.


The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean

Current historians often use modern theory-based models as a shortcut to
identify and explain processes and qualify select ancient evidence. Most current
discussions of the Roman economy are a reaction to debate-led theories and
generally support, or criticise, pre-set thesis statements. Debate is focussed on
semantics and on defining abstract features such as ‘market growth’ or ‘economic
prosperity’. A careful re-examination of ancient evidence reveals the authentic
Roman economy and this can be done without modern pretexts, or the use of
current models as a foil for debate. The sources suggest that the movement of
world resources through international commerce was a vital element in the
success of Imperial Rome.
The Romans were well aware that their Mediterranean Empire was not the
only powerful regime in the ancient world and there were other prominent
powers in the east that matched their administration. Some Latin poets publicised ideas of a globalised Roman authority, but their views were far from reality.1
Anyone in a Roman crowd moving through a commercial district could see
evidence of a wider ancient world in the fashions worn by rich patrons, the
incense burnt at religious altars, or the spices that flavoured many Mediterranean
meals. This is the ancient world described and evidenced by the ancient sources
and this book explains how these distant contacts provided Rome with the
revenues it needed to finance its army and sustain its Empire, thereby enabling
the Pax Romana (Roman Peace and good-order).
The Romans knew about India, but were unaware of the Far East until the first
century BC when silk began to reach the Mediterranean by way of the Parthian
Empire which ruled ancient Iran. There were thousands of miles of steppe-land
and desert between Rome and China and the presence of intervening regimes,
such as Parthia, prevented contact and limited the flow of information. The
Parthians understood the profits to be made by controlling overland trade and
therefore denied Roman subjects access to the caravan routes that led across
The final Civil War of the Roman Republic was fought in 31 BC, when the
Roman general Octavian, adopted son of Julius Caesar, declared war on the
Egyptian Queen Cleopatra and her consort Mark Antony. Cleopatra ruled
the rich Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt and Mark Antony commanded the Roman
Legions of the eastern Mediterranean. Together they planned to defeat Octavian
with a rapid seaborne campaign, then seize Rome and take power in Italy. The
decisive sea battle was fought at Actium in western Greece. During the engagement, when the galleys commanded by Mark Antony seemed to be losing,
Cleopatra suddenly turned her fleet about and fled. In desperation Antony
followed Cleopatra back to the Egyptian capital Alexandria and so lost the battle.
Anthony’s eastern Legions deserted him and the victorious Octavian readied his
army to capture Egypt and put an end to the reign of the Ptolemaic Queen
The world changed when Rome annexed Egypt and gained access to the Red
Sea shipping-lanes that led into the Indian Ocean. Within a decade, there were
over a hundred Roman ships sailing to India and the Mediterranean markets were

Introduction: The Ancient Economy


suddenly inundated with goods from across the eastern world.3 These imports
included products such as incense, spices, gemstones and silks. The Roman
Empire imposed a quarter-rate import tax known as the tetarte on these commodities and as trade increased, the tetarte began to generate enormous new
revenues for the imperial regime. It is estimated that by the first century AD,
foreign trade was supplying Roman government with perhaps a third of the
income it required to finance the entire Empire.4
The Emperor Augustus used these new revenues to fund the first full-time
professional army created by any ancient regime.5 This military institution was
both unique and crucial to the long-term security and success of Roman civilisation. It was a career-based military force structured around the Roman Legions
and their auxiliary support. At its height, the Roman Empire employed 300,000
professional soldiers to defend its vulnerable frontiers and maintain order
amongst subject nations. But this army depended upon the finance that was
obtained from taxes imposed on international business. Consequently, the
fortunes of the Roman Empire were inextricably linked to world trade and in
particular, to the eastern economies of India and China.


Revenue and the Roman Economy
Roman authorities were well informed about the revenues that sustained their
Empire. For example, during the Republican period Cicero listed the information that a senator ought to possess concerning the interests of the Roman State.
This included, ‘how many soldiers the Roman Republic has, what are its financial
resources, what allies it has, who are its friends and what subjects have to pay
tax’.1 Many of these details were known by members of the Roman ruling class
comprising senators and equites.
The Roman elite also recorded and circulated financial information within
their own writings. In his last book on Roman History the Greek author Appian
promised to consider ‘the size of the Roman army, the tribute that they collect
from each province, what they spend on naval garrisons, and other things of that
nature’.2 Unfortunately this work has not survived and few modern historians
now recognise the significance of the extant ancient testimony that does describe
Roman finances.
Some of the more astute Emperors appointed men who had demonstrated a
good understanding of provincial finances to high office. For example, the
Emperor Hadrian selected Antoninus Pius to be his successor because he displayed an array of interests and noble qualities, which included a thorough
knowledge of State business. It was said that Antoninus ‘knew the budgets of all
the provinces and their sources of revenue extremely well’.3 When the Emperor
Augustus was gravely ill in 23 BC he gave a senator named Piso a ‘list of the
military and the public revenues written in a book’.4
A staff of administrative slaves and freedmen worked for the imperial regime in
order to manage provincial finances and keep track of the different revenues
and expenses. The Emperor operated his own imperial treasury called the fiscus
which was managed by an official known as a rationibus. The court poet Statius
describes the responsibilities of the rationibus, ‘to him alone have been entrusted
the records of the revered treasury, the riches received from all peoples, revenues
that have come from the entire world’. The rationibus kept income accounts and
had to track expenditure. As Statius explains, ‘he balances income against major
expenses – such as how much will be needed to maintain the demands of the
Roman military in every region’.5
Newly appointed Roman governors brought some of their own staff to the
provinces and these men worked alongside the existing administration. Most
governors therefore had good knowledge of the revenues and expenses involved
in the provinces they managed and this information was freely exchanged
between their colleagues in Rome who had served in various regions of the
Empire during their own careers.6 Official information about provincial revenues


The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean

could be assembled into a comprehensive report and on the discretion of the
Emperor these accounts were made widely available to the Roman elite. Unfortunately, most medieval scholars were not interested in preserving documents
that contained mainly financial information; so much of this data is no longer
available. But the surviving sources do mention several occasions when an
imperial budget was circulated amongst the Roman governing class.
At his death in AD 14, the Emperor Augustus left a document in his Will that
described the overall revenues and expenses of the Roman Empire. He also left
instructions that this financial information was to be read out in front of the
Senate to inform the ruling class about the fiscal condition of the Roman State.
Suetonius reveals that the document gave an account of: ‘how many soldiers there
were in service and where they were; how much money there was in the central
Roman treasury and the provincial treasuries; how much were the outstanding
revenues and where they could be located’. Tacitus provides further details on the
same incident stating that ‘the document contained a description of the resources
of the State, the number of citizens and allies under arms, information on the
fleets, subject kingdoms, provinces, taxes both direct and indirect, necessary
expenses and customary bounties.’7 Suetonius refers to the administration that
managed this financial data. Augustus stated that his representatives would
‘supply the names of freedmen and slave-secretaries who could provide accounts
on demand regarding each of the categories of expenditure’.8
The Emperor Caligula published an imperial budget at the onset of his reign
(AD 37–41). In it he made a commitment to deposed client princes by restoring
their former realms and repaying them the revenues that had been extracted from
their territories when the Emperor Tiberius was in power. Suetonius reports:
‘any king who Caligula restored to his throne was awarded the arrears of taxes
and revenue that had accumulated since his disposition. This included Antiochus
of Commagene who got a refund of a million gold pieces from the treasury.’9
This initiative indicates that the Roman State kept financial records stretching
back over several decades and these archives were available for official consultation if it proved necessary.
In certain parts of the Empire the collection of some Roman taxes was granted
to private companies in return for a fee paid to the State. Precise details about
these arrangements were not generally made public since many of the profitmaking companies included members of the governing class. There was a change
in policy during the reign of Nero when Tacitus reports that ‘the Emperor issued
an edict that the regulations about every branch of the public revenue should be
published including details which had previously been withheld’. These details
revealed how much provincial income came from the sale of tax-collecting contracts and ‘arrangements were made to ensure an exact correspondence between
the amount of income and required spending’.10
Knowledge of Trade
Roman authorities knew about the scale and value of eastern trade because it was
part of the tax system that sustained their Empire. International trade had to pass

Revenue and the Roman Economy


through designated custom posts and all exports and imports were subject to
fixed-rate taxes. Source evidence suggests that total trade figures were available,
along with specific totals for certain commodities such as coin or bullion.11
In the case of Indo-Roman trade, members of imperial government such as
Pliny the Elder could easily obtain information about bullion exports from
Roman tax records collected at Coptos. All goods sent to the Egyptian Red Sea
ports had to pass through this single custom station and separate officials were
tasked with assessing different commodities.12 Trade ventures were also timed
according to seasonal schedules, so goods intended for export to India would
generally have to pass through custom stations during certain identifiable
periods. For example, cargoes headed for India were loaded before July and
goods destined for the nearest ports in East Africa would pass through the custom
stations in July and August to facilitate sailings in September.13 Roman officials
who knew the amount of revenue gained from customs tax could easily estimate
the overall value of any particular export. Frontier customs taxes were set at a
quarter-value, so the collected revenue multiplied by four would suggest the scale
of trade to those who wanted to know the figures.14
In the case of exports from Egypt, the Romans probably allowed private business to bid for the right to collect certain government imposed customs taxes.
Acquiring a contract was a competitive process and the winning company had to
outbid rival businesses in order to gain the commission. The successful company
had to keep the bid beneath the value that the tax might produce and by this
means cover their costs, yet still make sufficient profit from the collection rights.
Any tax collected beyond the bid amount could be kept by the private company,
so there were often good opportunities for profit. These contracts gave Roman
authorities an indication of trade levels, especially if particular companies bid to
collect taxes on specific exports such as bullion, or fabrics.
The export amounts suggested by tax records would have been confirmed by
businessmen who had dealings with central Roman government. These included
Annius Ploclamus who ran an eastern trade business and had a freedman associate
manage his contract to collect Red Sea taxes (AD 50).15 This freedman discovered
a new route to Sri Lanka and returned with a team of Sinhalese ambassadors.
Annius Ploclamus may have accompanied this embassy to meet the Emperor
Claudius, with his freedman probably serving as translator for the visiting envoys.
During these proceedings the Emperor and his advisers would have had an
opportunity to question Annius and his freedmen about the scale and value of
Indo-Roman trade. Later members of the Anni family are evidenced in Puteoli,
including another Annius Ploclamus who served as a decuriones (town magistrate)
in AD 187 and an L. Annius, the son of Annius Numisianus, who was honoured
with a public statue.16
A further example indicates the contacts that could occur between important
businessmen and senior members of Roman government. Josephus mentions a
prominent Jewish businessman named Tiberius Julius Alexander (Major) who
was an alabarch in charge of collecting import taxes at Alexandria.17 This income
made Tiberius Alexander extremely influential and he is probably the ‘Alexander’


The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean

mentioned in the New Testament when the Apostles Peter and John began their
ministry in Jerusalem after the Crucifixion.18 Josephus reports that Alexander
paid for gold-plated decorations to embellish the nine gates that led into the
Jewish Temple complex in Jerusalem.19 Sometime before AD 35 Alexander also
lent the Jewish prince Herod Agrippa 200,000 Greek drachmas to repay his debts
in Rome, with 30,000 handed over in Alexandria and another 170,000 to be
collected in Puteoli.20 Subsequently, he arranged for his youngest son Marcus to
marry the daughter of Herod Agrippa in a union that would combine business
finances with royal lineage.21
Alexander also assisted the imperial family and when Antonia, the mother of
Claudius, wanted someone to oversee her Egyptian properties she chose
Alexander to manage these affairs.22 In AD 38, Tiberius Alexander joined a political delegation to Rome led by his brother the Jewish philosopher Philo. The
Emperor Caligula detained Tiberius Alexander in Rome as a political hostage in
order to guarantee compliance amongst the Jewish community in Alexandria. He
was not released until Claudius became emperor in AD 41.23
Tiberius Alexander used his profits to give his eldest son a political career in
imperial service and to establish his younger son Marcus as a leading businessman. Beginning in AD 37, transport receipts from the Nicanor Archive reveal that
Marcus had commercial agents at Coptos and in the main Red Sea ports. In
Myos Hormos he used a free agent named Saturneinos and a slave managed his
business at Berenice.24 Marcus was sending ships to India and trading along the
sea-lanes described in the merchant handbook called the Periplus of the Erythaean
Sea. During this period his elder brother Tiberius Julius Alexander (Junior) held
office as a Roman administrator in the Thebaid district of southern Egypt, which
included Coptos.25 Marcus died sometime before AD 44, as his widow remarried
that year.26 By AD 66, his brother Tiberius Alexander Junior was serving as the
governor of Egypt and during the Roman civil war of AD 69 supported the
general Vespasian in his bid to become emperor.27 When Vespasian was victorious, Tiberius Alexander became one of the most influential people in the Empire.
He was part of Vespasian’s inner circle of advisors, but he also had family
members involved in the eastern trade business. Tiberius Alexander could
therefore confirm details about the scale and value of international commerce,
including the amount of bullion carried aboard Roman vessels bound for India.
Tiberius Alexander ended his military career as Prefect of the Praetorian Guard
and his statue was erected in the Roman forum to honour his achievements.28
Other leading members of Roman government spent their early careers in the
frontier provinces and would have learned about foreign trade from these experiences. A responsible Roman governor would have toured his province to inspect
the outlying garrisons and investigate issues on the frontier.29 For example,
Strabo received figures for the size of the Roman fleet sailing to India while he
was on a tour with the Roman governor Aelius Gallus. Gallus was on a journey
from Alexandria through Coptos to the cities of Syene and Philae on the frontier
between Egypt and Nubia.30 It would have been a simple matter to question a

Revenue and the Roman Economy


trusted Roman businessman and enquire how much bullion was typically carried
aboard vessels sailing to different eastern destinations.
Roman authorities could have gained information about the scale of Arabian
trade at Coptos, Leuke Kome, or Gaza. The Periplus reports that there was a
Roman customs post at the Nabataean port of Leuke Kome and this garrison was
commanded by a centurion to ensure that all quarter-taxes were paid in full.31
Pliny also mentions ‘our customs agents’ at the Mediterranean port of Gaza and
he was able to give precise figures for the amount of tax taken in non-Roman
territory. He reports that 688 denarii were collected per camel-load by foreign
agents on the Incense Trail between southern Arabia and Nabataea.32 This
indicates that precise figures were available for taxes that included regions beyond
Roman control. Imperial officials would have known how many camels were
arriving at Gaza, how much revenue this trade raised in customs tax and how
much Roman bullion was being expended to sustain this commerce.
Roman authorities knew about the amount of incense being produced in
southern Arabia and this information would have come from traders and foreign
envoys.33 By the first century AD the Hadramawt Kingdom was managing the
main frankincense groves as a royal monopoly and the Qataban realm was
collecting a quarter-tithe on all myrrh produced in its territories.34 Both regimes
therefore had good knowledge about the scale of incense production in their
territory and were able to convey these details to the Roman government. Pliny
and the author of the Periplus suggest that Arabian kings sent frequent embassies
to the Roman Emperors and these officials could confirm the value of the incense
Roman authorities could also have calculated the value of Arabian trade by
estimating how much incense was produced in southern Arabia. The Roman
elite devoted their attention to vineyards, so the idea of estimating production
from areas under cultivation was a familiar concept.36 Pliny repeats well-known
figures about the size of the incense-growing territories in southern Arabia and
the number of families tasked with cultivating these plots.37 Leading Roman
authorities could have estimated frankincense production from these details.
The Roman System: The Republican Period
During the Republican period, the Roman regime operated an army raised
mainly by citizen levies. The Romans and their Italian allies recruited and trained
a body of soldiers drawn from their large citizen populations. As Rome expanded,
it raised revenue by imposing war indemnities on the defeated foreign powers and
demanding regular tribute from subject regions.
Conquest was a profitable venture for Roman commanders and their troops,
who could capture booty and seize foreign resources. But when a region was
conquered, the Roman State had to assume the long-term costs of regional
administration and the expense of defending that particular territory. This was an
expensive process and often, in the long-term, the cost of a region was barely
covered by its regular revenues.


The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean

Between 66 and 63 BC, the Roman general Pompey Magnus campaigned in
the eastern Mediterranean and added substantial new territories to the Republic.
These included Bithynia et Pontus and Cilicia in Asia Minor, most of Syria
and the island of Crete. He also accepted further regions into Roman control
as protectorates, including the Kingdom of Judea. In 61 BC, Pompey staged an
elaborate Triumph in Rome to display the wealth of these newly subdued territories. Amongst the exhibits, Pompey paraded information about the revenues his
conquests would provide for the enlarged Roman Empire. Plutarch reports that,
‘it was shown on written tablets that the new taxes Pompey added to the State
came to 50 million denarii and the Republic now received revenues of 85 million
denarii’.38 This meant that Pompey had increased the Roman revenues from
200 million to 340 million sesterces per annum.
In this period, the Ptolemaic Kingdom was the last major Greek regime to
retain power in the eastern Mediterranean. By 80 BC, the Ptolemaic regime was
confined to ancient Egypt where it received revenues worth about 300 million
sesterces from a highly prosperous, well-ordered kingdom. Details of the
Ptolemaic revenues are given by the Greek geographer Strabo who spent time in
both Alexandria and Rome during the Augustan period. Strabo also consulted
legal and political speeches given by prominent Republican statesmen who were
contemporaries of Pompey and King Ptolemy XII Auletes (80–51 BC). Strabo
reports, ‘Cicero tells us about the revenues of Egypt in a certain speech. He
states that Auletes, who was the father of Cleopatra, received annual revenue of
12,500 talents’.39 In Roman currency this was equivalent to about 75 million
silver denarii, or 300 million sesterces.
Asia Minor, the Near East and Egypt were ancient urbanised territories that
had been part of sophisticated and well-organised kingdoms for thousands of
years. Consequently, they had pre-existing well-developed monetary economies
that were capable of producing large cash revenues on a regular basis. By contrast
most of northern Europe was rich in agricultural produce, but had few centralised
civic institutions such as towns, or mints able to produce and circulate extensive currencies. Julius Caesar added a large territory to the Roman Empire when
he conquered greater Gaul (58–50 BC), but the region provided only moderate
income for the Roman Republic. Suetonius reports that ‘when Caesar reduced
the defeated parts of Gaul to the status of a province he imposed upon them a
yearly tribute of 40 million sesterces’.40 This is a seventh of what Egypt provided
for their Ptolemaic Kings.
During the late Republic, Asia Minor (Anatolia) was possibly the only Roman
territory that, after paying its own costs, was still able to forward substantial
revenues to the central government in Rome. In a law court speech, Cicero
explains that ‘the revenues of the other provinces are such that we can scarcely
derive enough from them for their own protection’. Asia Minor was an exception
because it exported more valuable goods than other subject territories. This was
because it had rich soil, a wide variety of crops and a large amount of land given
over to pasture. As Cicero explains, ‘due to multitude of its exports, Asia is greatly
superior to all other countries’.41 Cicero confirms this situation in a political

Revenue and the Roman Economy


speech delivered in 63 BC. In it he calls Roman Asia ‘the most beautiful estate
belonging to the Roman people – the main source of our riches, our chief
ornament in time of peace, our chief source of supply in time of war, the
foundation of our revenues’.42
When the Roman general Mark Antony took the eastern Mediterranean as his
share of the divided Empire, he made an alliance with the Ptolemaic Queen,
Cleopatra VIII. Together they used the Ptolemaic revenues to fund an expensive
war against the Parthian Empire which ruled ancient Persia (40–33 BC). During
this period, increased taxes damaged Egyptian businesses and the regime
neglected important elements of Egypt’s economic infrastructure, including the
canals necessary for irrigation and transport.43 When Octavian conquered Egypt
in 30 BC, it was reported that this new province could only provide revenues of
about 40 million sesterces per annum. Velleius sums up the situation when he
writes that Octavian ‘made Egypt tributary, thereby contributing nearly as much
revenue to the treasury as Caesar had brought in from the Gauls’.44
The inclusion of Egypt into the Roman Empire brought the total imperial
revenues to about 420 million sesterces per annum. This included the Republican
provinces (340 million), Caesar’s Gaul (40 million) and newly conquered Egypt
(40 million sesterces). But this income alone was not enough to sustain the
enlarged Empire and provide the funds needed to meet its long-term military
costs. Octavian (Augustus) therefore convened a conference with his closest
advisors to debate the future of the Roman State. He was told by his leading
general Agrippa ‘you will need to procure a large supply of money from all
available sources, because our present revenues are not sufficient to support the
troops and our other expenses’.45 The best solution for this revenue deficit
seemed to be further conquests and plans were therefore made to seize the
Sabaean Kingdom of southern Arabia and invade the Parthian Empire.46
By this period the Sabaean Kingdom was producing over 40 million sesterces
worth of incense per annum.47 The nation also had stockpiles of precious metals
that could be used to subsidise the Roman regime and postpone the approaching
financial crisis. Strabo was an associate of the Roman general Aelius Gallus who
the Emperor ordered to ‘gain authority over these Arabs, or subjugate them’.
Strabo explains that ‘the Emperor’s plans were based on well-established reports
that the Arabs are very wealthy because they sell aromatics and extremely valuable
gemstones for gold and silver. But they never offer the wealth they receive from
this trade to outsiders.’48 However, when the invasion failed, the imperial regime
was forced to seek other revenue sources to pay for its long-term expenses.
The Cost of Empire
Modern scholars have calculated the costs of the Roman Empire based on its
military expenses and other outlays. Army pay, military numbers and other items
of State spending have all been analysed and estimated to create figures for the
Roman State ‘budget’.49 These estimates also indicate the income of the Empire,
since the regime must have had sufficient revenues to pay its regular expenses.


The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean

But the problem of how and where these revenues were acquired is harder to
It seems that compared with other ancient regimes Rome did not impose large
amounts of tribute on its subject populations. In 167 BC, the Romans imposed
an annual tribute on the conquered kingdom of Macedonia. Plutarch reports:
‘Macedonia was restored to its people. Their cities were permitted freedom and
independence and in return they were to pay the Romans 100 talents (2.4 million
sesterces) in tribute, a sum less than half of what they used to pay to their kings’.50
Similar policies were enacted during the Imperial era and Tacitus explains that
when the Kingdom of Cappadocia was made a province in AD 17, ‘royal tributes
were reduced to encourage hope that Roman rule would be lenient’.51
Tribute levels imposed by the Roman State probably remained relatively stable
over long periods of time. Strabo reports that after Marcus Metellus conquered
the Celtiberians he placed an annual tribute of 14 million sesterces on Spain
(143 BC). A century later Spain was able to provide funds worth 18 million
sesterces to the faction that opposed Julius Caesar during the Civil War that
began in 49 BC.52
During the Imperial period the Romans collected regular census reports from
subject provinces that contained details about population size and private wealth.
Roman government used these details to allocate where and how regional tribute
was to be collected. Tribute was seen as an act of political submission and many
communities resented paying any tax to a foreign power, even when the tribute
taken was minimal. Augustus imposed three censuses on Greater Gaul between
27 BC and AD 14.53 Many Gauls would have resented this State intrusion and the
census taken in 12 BC provoked a regional uprising.54
The tribute that the Romans imposed on their eastern conquests seems to have
been comparatively low and probably not subject to regular increases. Herodotus
provides tribute figures for the Persian Empire in the fifth century BC. He
reports that western Anatolia gave the Persian King Darius 1,170 Attic talents per
annum (equivalent to 28 million sesterces).55 During the second century AD, the
Roman province of Asia included most of this territory and collected a similar
amount of tribute.56 This suggests that Rome did not demand large sums or
substantially increase tribute payments imposed on its subject territories.
Cicero writes that in the Republican period Asia Minor was the only region to
provide Rome with worthwhile surplus revenues and most provinces of the
Roman Empire could barely meet their own protection costs.57 Furthermore, the
revenues forwarded to central government in Rome were relatively small. During
the Civil War of 43 BC, the quaestor (lieutenant governor) in charge of the Roman
province of Asia delivered 2 million sesterces to the Republican commander
Brutus. Plutarch explains ‘he gave him 500,000 drachmas which was the money
that he was delivering to Italy’.58 This situation seems to have continued during
the Imperial period when the Emperors were in power. In most Roman provinces
locally produced revenues were used up by regional costs and only a small token
amount of surplus wealth was forwarded to Rome as a symbolic act of compliance.

Revenue and the Roman Economy


In the Imperial period there were almost forty Roman provinces and most sent
less than 4 million sesterces to central government as part of their annual tribute.
This situation is confirmed by Seneca who reports that the Emperor Caligula
spent 10 million sesterces on a single banquet, representing the ‘tribute-money
from three provinces’.59 When Caligula restored the small Kingdom of Commagene in Asia Minor, he repaid its ruler 1 million aurei (100 million sesterces).
This was the amount that the Roman regime had collected from the region as
tribute in the course of twenty years.60 The figure suggests that a prosperous and
well-urbanised territory might only produce about 5 million sesterces of surplus
revenue per annum. The idea that most provinces provided limited revenue could
explain other measures. In AD 67, the Emperor Nero made all of Greece exempt
from direct Roman taxes to celebrate his tour of the leading Greek festivals.61
The Roman system was able to support this scheme because Greece was not a
heavily garrisoned region and probably sent only small amounts of revenue to
The Roman ethos promoted the idea of public spending on buildings and
grandiose displays to benefit, or entertain, large numbers of people. This meant
that Roman governors were encouraged to spend most of their excess revenues
on improving their province. Any surplus funds were spent on expensive acts of
State benevolence, including regional building initiatives. Little of this surplus
was ultimately transported to central government in Rome and most regional
revenues were used for the benefit of local citizens and subjects. Philostratus
describes how all the revenues raised in the Roman province of Asia were spent
on a single project to benefit one city. They were used for the construction of an
aqueduct that took several years to complete and cost 28 million sesterces.62 This
policy of spending local surplus would have been sufficient to manage the
Empire, except that some Roman provinces could not meet their own long-term
costs and therefore were governed at a loss.
Deficit regions were a problem for the late Roman Republic and certain
European provinces had to be subsidised from treasury funds. Cicero describes
events in 57 BC when Calpurnius Piso was made governor of Macedonia with the
support of his son-in-law Julius Caesar. Piso was granted funds by the Roman
treasury to finance his governorship, but Cicero accused him of keeping the
money for personal gain. In court he claimed, ‘the treasury gave you 18 million
sesterces as governor of your province, but you left this money in Rome to be lent
out at interest’.63
Deficit Regions
The ancient evidence indicates that most of the Empire’s revenue deficit territories were in northern Europe. Northern Europe may have been well populated
and rich in agricultural produce and natural materials, but before the Roman
conquest, urban development had been limited. The Celts and the Germans did
not live in rich kingdoms similar to the long-established urbanised civilisations
existing in the Near East and India. Their economies were not currency-centred
and did not have the benefit of tax-systems developed over many centuries to


The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean

produce easily transferable cash revenues for centralised government. This was a
serious problem for the Roman State, as large garrisons were needed to hold and
defend the frontier territories of northern Europe and these regions could not
support their military cost with locally raised taxes. The Roman State therefore
sent large amounts of money into these regions in the form of army pay. This
military money attracted merchants and supported the businesses that kept
garrisons supplied with essential goods and services.
The provinces with revenue shortfalls became a long-term problem as Appian
confirms in his Roman History, written about AD 150. Appian explains, ‘the
Romans lose money on some of their subject nations, but they are ashamed to set
them aside, even though they are detrimental’.64 Some of these deficit territories
were necessary for frontier defence and others provided corridors for contact
between crucial regions. Some had been places where ambition or honour had
taken Roman interests, then committed their forces to long-term occupation.
Defence was an important issue as between 113 and 101 BC the Roman
Empire withstood a large-scale invasion of Germanic peoples called the Cimbri
and the Teutones, who had migrated through Gaul towards Italy. This invasion
was the mass movement of thousands of refugee families supported by a vast
horde of warriors who threatened to overrun the Italian peninsula and permanently occupy Roman territory. The crisis was averted by a Roman general named
Gaius Marius who was proclaimed ‘Third Founder of Rome’ because he preserved Roman possession of the land.65
Julius Caesar used the subsequent Roman fear of Germanic invasion to justify
his conquest of Gaul. Caesar advised: ‘it would be dangerous to the Roman
people if the Germans should become accustomed to cross the Rhine. What if a
great mass of them entered Gaul? After possessing Gaul, these wild and savage
men will not restrain themselves. They will enter our province (Transalpine
Gaul) and march into Italy, just as the Cimbri and Teutones attempted’.66 His
solution was to subjugate Gaul to prevent the region falling under Germanic
control (58–50 BC).
His successor the Emperor Augustus thought that the part of Germany that lay
between the Rhine and the Elbe was a viable conquest. After two decades of
campaigning, the region seemed pacified (12 BC–AD 6). But in AD 9 there was
an uprising among German tribes who annihilated three Roman Legions as they
marched through the dense Teutoburg Forest. After this defeat, Roman forces
withdrew back to the Rhine frontiers and Greater Germany was left to its native
Other conquests ordered by the Emperor Augustus did succeed. Celtic
Pannonia was added to the Empire so that the Danube became a defensible
frontier and the land routes between Italy and Greece were properly safeguarded.
But the loss of Germany shocked Augustus and convinced him that further conquests were unwise. Suetonius reports that Augustus ‘thought that taking large
risks with the chance of small gain was like fishing with a golden hook. If lost, the
value of the hook was greater than any catch.’67 In his will Augustus warned his
successor Tiberius that ‘the Empire should be confined to its present limits’ and

Revenue and the Roman Economy


there is evidence that during this era the Roman State was struggling to pay its
military costs.68 In AD 14 the Rhine and Danube legions threatened to revolt
due to reduced pay and the claim that veteran troops were not receiving their
expected discharge payments.69
The situation in Gaul can be used to suggest the scale of the Roman deficit
problem. When Suetonius writes about the conquest of Greater Gaul he
describes a vast territory that produced only moderate amounts of revenue for
Rome (40 million sesterces). By the first century AD, Greater Gaul was split into
five separate provinces which included two narrow frontier zones called
Germania Superior and Germania Inferior. In total there were eight Legions
stationed near the Rhine frontiers which would have cost the Roman State over
80 million sesterces per annum to maintain.70 Gaul could not have paid for these
Legions if the central Gallic provinces were only contributing revenues of about
40 million sesterces per annum. Rome probably increased provincial taxes during
the early Imperial period, but it is unlikely that the regime was able to double the
Gallic revenues in order to meet regional expense costs. Appian confirms that
parts of the Empire still operated at a loss in the second century AD, so it is
apparent that Rome had not rectified its deficit problems.
Tacitus offers an insight into the Roman mind-set and its response to the
deficit provinces. During the Roman civil war of AD 69 there was a revolt in the
northern Rhineland territories (modern Belgium) when German auxiliaries
known as Batavians staged a regional uprising with the support of the local Gallic
population. When the Roman army crushed the rebellion, the Gauls were singled
out for severe condemnation. A Roman commander addressed them: ‘you have
often provoked us, yet we have imposed upon you by right of conquest only one
demand: that you pay the costs of keeping the peace here. For the tranquillity of
nations cannot be preserved without armies; armies cannot exist without pay; pay
cannot be furnished without tribute.’ He added, ‘perhaps you think that you
yourselves can equip armies to repel the Germans and the Britons for less tribute
than you pay us?’ The answer was no – as ‘Gaul always had its petty kingdoms
and internal wars’ and without the Empire paying money into the region for its
defence, then ‘there would be nothing but discord in its future’.71
The Roman armies posted on the Rhine frontier guaranteed the security and
prosperity of Gaul. Towns and cities developed, craft industries appeared, agricultural productivity was increased by new farming techniques and the population grew. When Josephus explains the importance of Gaul to the Empire he
describes how ‘the prosperity of the Gauls grows from their soil and enables them
to inundate the whole world with their goods. This is because they submit to
being the milch cow of Rome.’72 However, this trade provided Roman government with little direct revenue, because custom-taxes between Roman provinces
(portoria) were set at a comparatively low value (one-fortieth).73
The Case of Britain
In the Augustan period the Roman Empire had high defence costs and limited
surplus revenues, so the invasion of Britain seemed a remote prospect. Strabo


The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean

thought that Britain would never be added to the Empire because its population
was not a threat to Roman territory. Writing before AD 14 he explains, ‘the
Romans could have held Britain, but they scorned the opportunity because they
saw that there was nothing to fear from the Britons. They are not strong enough
to cross over and attack us.’74
Another reason to leave Britain as a free territory was the low revenues
expected from its conquest and occupation. These were predicted to be less than
the expense of stationing a Legion on the island (about 11 million sesterces).75
Trade between the provinces produced relatively little revenue for the Roman
State, but the situation was different for cross-border commerce. This was
because the Roman regime collected quarter-rate taxes on all goods crossing the
imperial frontiers. In the Augustan era, trade between Gaul and Britain must have
been worth over 44 million sesterces a year since Rome collected at least
11 million sesterces from taxing this commerce. Strabo calculated that ‘at present
more revenue is derived from the custom duties imposed on their commerce than
the tribute could bring in, given the expense of the garrison needed to guard the
island and to collect revenues from it’.76
When the Emperor Claudius launched the Roman conquest of Britain in
AD 43 he was motivated by ideas of honour and prestige.77 But once southern
Britain became Roman territory, the quarter-rate frontier tax was replaced by a
standard one-fortieth portorium. Revenues on cross channel-trade would have
fallen to about a million sesterces and income from the new province must have
been less than that from Gaul (40 million sesterces collected from a larger
territory). Writing a century after the Romans began their conquest of Britain,
Appian reports: ‘the Romans have taken possession of the larger and better part
of the island. They do not care for the remainder because even the part they do
hold is not profitable.’78 Tacitus describes how Nero thought of abandoning
Britain during the Boudican Revolt of AD 61, but ‘changed his purpose only
because he was ashamed to seem as denigrating the glory of Claudius’.79
Ancient evidence indicates the scale of the Roman investment in Britain.
Diodorus describes Alexandria in the first century BC when the city was ‘the
prime city of the civilized world and far ahead of all other cities in terms of its
extent, elegance, riches and luxury’. He reports that ‘when we were in Egypt, those
who kept the census returns of the population said that there were more than
300,000 free residents in Alexandria. The Ptolemaic King received more than
6,000 talents from the place.’80 This is equivalent to approximately 36 million
sesterces and nearly the amount needed to pay for the annual cost of three Roman
Legions (33 million sesterces). In the first century AD the Roman Empire
deployed three or four Legions in Britain at any given time. These had to be supported by regional taxes supplemented by central government funds.81 Revenue
comparable to the tax-wealth of Alexandria, one of the largest and richest cities in
the entire empire, was therefore being paid into Roman Britain. The result was
rapid and substantial urbanization as cities developed in a previously rural landscape. But overall, the conquest and occupation of Britain placed further stress on
imperial finances in return for few strategic gains.

Revenue and the Roman Economy


The situation in Britain demonstrates another important aspect of the Roman
system. In the Augustan era cross-channel trade raised revenue equal to a quarter
of the income obtained from occupied Gaul. Furthermore, frontier tax was a
revenue source that required only a relatively small investment of troops to
manage. This has relevance for the eastern frontier where Roman merchants
were trading with large urbanised kingdoms that produced numerous unique and
expensive commodities.
Roman Revenue Wealth
The evidence suggests that once their internal costs had been paid, most Roman
provinces sent very little cash revenue to Rome. But the Empire had other ways
to profit from its conquered territories. During the Imperial period the main
gold and silver mines in Europe were brought under government control and
large amounts of new bullion passed directly into the Roman treasuries. This
bullion was minted into new coin and sent to the deficit provinces to pay for
military wages in the frontier regions. Ancient evidence suggests that by the late
first century AD, bullion production provided Rome with between 120 and
200 million sesterces per annum. This was about a sixth of the revenue that the
Roman Empire needed to meet its basic costs (1,000 million sesterces per
There were gold mines in Gaul and the Eastern Desert of Egypt, but the main
bullion sources for the Roman regime were in the Iberian Peninsula (modern
Spain and Portugal). Pliny the Elder served as procurator in Hispania Tarraconensis, so he had good knowledge of bullion production in Iberia (AD 72–4).83
Some of the most productive silver mines available to Rome were in southern
Spain where work had begun in the third century BC by the Carthaginians. Pliny
describes how a site named Baebcio ‘provided Hannibal with 300 pounds of silver
a day as tunnelling was extended a mile and a half into the mountain’.84 Strabo
records that in the second century BC the mines near Carthago Nova ‘covered an
area four hundred stades in circuit (44 miles); employed 40,000 workers and
contributed 25,000 drachmas (100,000 sesterces) to the Roman treasury per
day’.85 These figures suggests silver production of about 36 million sesterces per
annum, but output during the first century AD was probably smaller as the
underground deposits became harder to access.
Roman gold mining operations were highly productive during the first century
AD and Pliny gives figures for Iberian output in this period. He reports that
Iberia produced up to 20,000 pounds of gold a year which is equivalent to
800,000 aurei or 80 million sesterces.86 This was enough to pay the annual cost of
more than seven legions, or almost the entire army stationed on the Rhine
frontiers. Bullion income was therefore an important part of the imperial finances
and it helped the Empire to maintain its deficit regions. Gold from Iberia was a
long-term, reliable income source and as Pliny comments, ‘no other part of the
world has offered such a continuous production of gold for so many centuries’.87
Sometimes there were short-lived, but highly lucrative, bullion strikes in relatively underdeveloped parts of the Empire such as Dalmatia (modern Croatia).


The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean

Pliny describes how, ‘recently in Dalmatia when Nero was Emperor, a metal
seam was discovered near the surface that yielded fifty pounds of gold a day’.88
This represents a bonus of about 70 million sesterces per annum that suddenly
enriched government finances. This probably explains how Nero was able to pay
an extra 60 million sesterces a year into the State treasury, the aerarium.89 The
aerarium was managed by the Senate and received many of its finances from the
old Republican provinces.
Gold output from the Dalmatian mines would have declined as the most accessible deposits were stripped from the surface and specialist miners began underground exploration. However, these mines were still a major source of revenue in
AD 93 when Statius lists Iberian and Dalmatian gold as one of the main incomes
received by the imperial treasury (the Emperor’s fiscus).90 It is significant that
Statius does not mention silver mines as a major state-resource, so by this period
the Roman regime was probably receiving comparatively limited quantities of
new silver bullion.
In the early second century AD, the Emperor Trajan led Roman Legions
across the Danube to conquer the mountainous Transylvanian Kingdom of
Dacia. Dacia possessed gold mines that possibly compensated for any long-term
decline in output from Iberian and Dalmatian sites. Modern scholars have
estimated coin production in the Roman Empire by counting the number of dies
used to strike new coins. By the time of the Emperor Hadrian (AD 117–138), the
Roman mint was producing a probable 16 million denarii and 1.1 million aurei
per year. This is equivalent to 64 million sesterces worth of silver and 110 million
sesterces worth of gold.91 However, most of this silver was possibly collected
from older coinage melted down for reissue.
Rome could sustain its military provinces as long as this high-value bullion
income continued without interruption. This bullion created prosperity within
Roman territories, but it was also needed to replace the wealth lost from the
Empire through large-scale eastern commerce, particularly through trade with
The Roman System: The Imperial era
The early Roman Empire was successful because a large part of its State income
came from taxing international commerce. During the Imperial period, Roman
rule was structured around the military and the main expense incurred by the
imperial government was the cost of the army. Most provinces paid very little
tribute to central government and the expense of Empire was met by newly
mined bullion and frontier customs taxes imposed on international trade. By the
first century AD, the value of eastern imports entering the Empire via the Indian
Ocean was more than 1,000 million sesterces per annum and this commerce
raised more than 250 million sesterces in tax revenue for the Roman government.92
In the ancient world, merchants made money by trafficking distinct craft
goods, or shipping unique regional products. The Mediterranean territories grew
similar basic crops due to their comparable climate and this limited the prospects

Revenue and the Roman Economy


for trade. As Pliny observes, ‘wine and roses, myrtle leaves and olive oil, are
products that belong to almost all our countries in common’.93 But most spices
and incense could not be grown productively in the Mediterranean. As Pliny
explains, ‘the cinnamon shrub is not strong enough to be grown in Syria and
delicate amomum and nard plants cannot survive travel out of India, even by sea to
Arabia’. Some eastern plants could be grown in Italy, but they did not thrive or
bear fruit. Pliny explains that ‘the climate is unrelenting. The pepper-vine will
live in Italy, the cassia-plant can grow in northern climates and incense-trees have
been known to survive in Lydia. But we do not have the sunshine to ripen their
fruit or make their resin productive.’94
Eastern trade was significant because of the enormous quantity and variety of
unique products that Africa, Arabia and Asia could supply to the Roman Empire.
These were commodities grown in particular environments, or gathered from
rare localised resources. Pliny confirms how Rome was dependent on eastern
imports for its consumer fashions. He describes an expensive popular perfume
called the ‘Royal Unguent’ because the recipe was taken from a formula used by
Parthian kings. There were more than twenty eastern ingredients in this perfume
including cinnamon, spikenard root and myrrh. Pliny observed that: ‘none of the
components of this scent are grown in Italy, the world conqueror. None are even
grown in the whole of Europe, with the exception of only two substances.’95
Rome imposed a quarter-rate customs tax on all foreign goods crossing the
imperial frontiers known as the tetarte. In Egypt this meant that Alexandrian
merchants paid the imperial government a costly dividend to transfer eastern
merchandise from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. These goods were taxed as
soon as they entered Roman authority, so merchants could not evade the high
dues that government agents levied on this economic activity. Merchants paid the
tax at the frontier, but they could recoup this expense with profits made by selling
these goods at high prices to affluent consumers throughout the Mediterranean.
During the Imperial period competitive spending on eastern goods became
synonymous with fashion and status throughout Roman territory and people
from across the Empire with surplus money to spend would willingly pay for
attractive foreign commodities. Rome therefore presided over a system where
people with wealth voluntarily paid high prices for the privilege of owning
foreign products and this enriched the State.
The income from international trade provided the first Emperor Augustus
with the funds he required to instigate important reforms to the Roman military.
At the start of his reign, Augustus needed to end the cycle of civil wars that had
characterised Roman politics during the previous fifty years (88–30 BC). He
believed that the best way to achieve this aim was to de-politicise the army by
separating the mass of Roman citizens from the responsibility of military service.
Dio explains the argument given by Agrippa, ‘if we permit all the men of military
age to have weapons and to practise warfare, they will always be a source of
sedition and civil wars’. The solution was to replace the citizen levies with a
permanent army of full-time professional soldiers. These soldiers would be
recruited ‘from the citizens, the subject nations, and the allies’.96


The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean

The new army was based around the existing Legions, but employed full-time
soldiers who received regular pay and other financial benefits from the State.
Each region of the Empire was assigned the forces required to maintain its
security and the new army was planned accordingly. Agrippa explained, ‘the
reason for a standing army is this: we are distant from the frontiers of our Empire
and on every side enemies live near our borders. So, at critical times, we cannot
depend upon expeditionary forces.’97 Dio describes how the Emperor assessed
and set tribute levels in the established Roman provinces, ‘he instituted various
required reforms, made donations of money to some regions, while at the same
time commanding others to contribute an amount in excess of the previous
When Octavian (Augustus) defeated Antony in 30 BC, there were up to fifty
Roman Legions in existence, constituting up to 500,000 troops. Augustus
reduced this figure to just twenty-eight Legions consisting of about 300,000 fulltime soldiers with auxillary support.99 The size and pay of this army was planned
according to set State revenues.100 Enormous sums were then spent demobilizing
the surplus troops who expected land, or cash bonuses, to support their return to
civilian life.
There is good evidence for the size of the Roman Legions and the auxiliary
units that gave them support on the battlefield. This information can be combined with evidence for military pay to suggest the overall cost of the Roman
army. Modern scholars who have made these calculations suggest that during
the Augustan era the Roman army cost the Empire about 640 million sesterces a
year. In this period, total spending by the Roman State has been estimated at
1,000 million sesterces per annum, taking into consideration administration
costs, building expenses and other outlays.101 As long as international commerce
thrived, the Roman Empire could meet these high-level military costs.
International commerce offered Roman government a way to indirectly tax the
surplus wealth that was generated across their empire. Roman subjects did not
pay this tax imposition unless they could afford to buy eastern goods, so impoverished people living on basic subsistence did not have tax forced upon them.
Instead, affluent people paid highly for their consumerism and their spending
contributed to the finances that the Roman government used to support a professional army. A secure and prosperous Mediterranean in turn bolstered international commerce and increased the trade revenues collected by the Roman
In the Roman Empire, merchants performed a function that in other regimes
was managed by a complex and costly range of tax officials and State agents.
Firstly, traders who dealt in eastern goods sought out prosperous communities in
the Roman Empire who had surplus disposable wealth. Merchants acquired this
wealth by selling people commodities that had already been heavily taxed by the
State. Secondly, by regularly paying its frontier legions with high-value coin, the
Roman Empire incentivised the trade systems that furnished the army with many
of the essential supplies they required for their operations. Merchants voluntarily
took on this responsibility because of the profits that could be gained. In both

Revenue and the Roman Economy


respects, private individuals operating commercial businesses provided much of
the essential economic infrastructure that Rome required to manage its empire.
This system also allowed Roman government to minimise the intrusive tax
burdens it imposed on its provincial subjects. In many areas the Romans left the
collection of local taxes to the indigenous elite who had been in power before
the Roman conquest. These were exactly the class of people who, in places
like Britain and Judea, would be most likely to organise any native opposition to
Rome. This approach encouraged co-operation with Rome and undermined possible resistance against the Empire. Many conquered peoples might have felt
humiliated by foreign interference in their countries, but by ancient standards the
Roman Empire did not generally impose oppressive measures on those who
willingly submitted to their authority.
This incentive-based system had further benefits for Rome as it allowed the
Empire to prosper with only a minimal level of State infrastructure. For example,
control over several crucial custom points in Egypt and the Arabian frontier, with
only a small investment of military personnel, provided the Empire with up to a
third of its required revenues. Added to this were the millions of sesterces in
bullion extracted from imperial mines and paid directly into the army as newly
minted cash. Neither of these operations required large numbers of civilian State
employees who needed to be paid substantial amounts to perform intricate,
empire-wide, bureaucratic tasks. Rome could maintain a minimal bureaucracy
and therefore ensure that its essential administrative expenses were focussed on
an effective military infrastructure. By minimalizing its civilian bureaucracy, the
Empire also reduced the potential for the corruption and tax abuses that these
organisations could engender. The Roman State had therefore found a successful
way to gain profit from international business through market consumerism.
But this also made imperial Rome vulnerable to events that might occur far
beyond the direct control of their Empire and its armies. For example, when Arab
settlers in Somalia angered local people, the Africans started a forest fire that
burned the cinnamon groves.102 The fall in cinnamon output would have caused
a significant loss to tax-based Roman frontier revenues. The Romans tried to
protect their foreign interests and expanded their control over the Indian Ocean
trade networks by placing a military station at the Farasan Islands. This outpost
in Yemen gave the Roman Empire command over traffic passing into and across
the Red Sea. But Rome could not hope to control events in places such as India,
the main source of the international commerce that financed their Empire.


Roman Prosperity
When Octavian (Augustus) defeated Queen Cleopatra he obtained an enormous
fortune from the capture of Ptolemaic treasures. Dio confirms that ‘great quantities of treasure were found in Alexandria because Cleopatra had seized practically all the offerings from even the holiest shrines and this helped the Romans
enlarge their spoils’. Furthermore, all the richest people in the conquered territory had two-thirds of their wealth confiscated.1As a consequence, unprecedented
amounts of bullion were brought back to Rome and distributed amongst the
citizen population. Augustus used these funds to supplement State spending and
reward Roman citizens with generous grants, both as a way to meet political obligations and to buy popular support. The wealth greatly enriched Roman society
and caused a sudden and unexpected increase in international commerce.
Dio reports that in one of these pay-outs, ‘Augustus gave gifts to the soldiers
and distributed 400 sesterces to every Roman citizen’.2 This was the equivalent of
100 silver denarii per citizen, which was more than a labourer could earn in three
months. The money was considered to be a political privilege, so it reached
Roman citizens from all classes and at all financial levels. The result was a consumer boom as many people spent their newly acquired bonus wealth on nonessential goods. Sellers also realised that they could ask for higher-prices now
that consumers had greater available cash to spend on products.
The economic effects of this distribution are well documented in the surviving
sources. Paulus Orosius reports that ‘when Octavian conquered Alexandria, by
far the richest and greatest of all cities, its wealth so enhanced Rome that the
abundance of money raised the value of property and other saleable goods to
double their previous levels’.3 Suetonius explains that ‘Augustus brought the
treasures of the Ptolemies to Rome for his Alexandrian triumph and so much cash
passed into private hands that the interest rate on loans dropped sharply, while
real estate values soared’.4 Dio confirms, ‘such a vast an amount of money
circulated through all parts of Rome that the price of goods rose and loans for
which the borrower had been glad to pay 12 per cent, could now be had for one
third that rate’.5
These higher prices attracted many foreign merchants to Rome in pursuit of
profit as the increased wealth entering circulation made it easier to borrow money
at lower interest rates. The profits funded ventures east to secure further unique
products to sell to customers in the enriched imperial capital. All these events
coincided with Rome gaining control over the Egyptian Red Sea ports and the
sea-lanes that led to ancient India. When Strabo journeyed up the Nile with the
Roman governor of Egypt, he heard direct reports about this dramatic increase in

Roman Prosperity


eastern trade. After only a few years of Roman rule the number of ships sailing
from Egypt to India had increased from less than 20 to at least 120 vessels.6 This
was an unexpected development for the Empire and it provided important new
revenues for the imperial regime.
The Profits of Egypt
During the Late Republic, Roman revenues were about 380 million sesterces
per annum.7 By the Imperial period the Empire was divided into approximately
forty provinces. This suggests that many provinces could generate about 10 million sesterces of revenue per annum.8 However, in most provinces after local
expenses were paid less than a third of regional revenues were sent to Rome.9
A Roman legal document called the Muziris Papyrus confirms how imperial
customs agents taxed incoming eastern cargoes. The document records how a ship
called the Hermapollon returned from a trade venture to Tamil India carrying over
9 million sesterces worth of eastern goods. State-officials collected about 2.2 million sesterces worth of tax on this single cargo.10 The entire merchant fleet of 120
ships was probably importing over a billion sesterces of Indian cargo per annum.11
A quarter-rate tetarte tax on Indian imports worth 1,000 million sesterces
would have raised annual revenues worth 250 million sesterces for the Roman
regime. However, many of these goods would be taxed again when they were
exported from Alexandria to Rome or other Mediterranean cities. A single
Mediterranean portoria tax (one-fortieth) on goods worth 1,000 million sesterces
would have produced further revenues worth perhaps 25 million sesterces per
annum.12 This meant that Roman authorities imposed a double tax on Egypt’s
trade with India. Strabo confirms that ‘large fleets are sent as far as India and the
extremities of Africa and the most valuable cargoes are brought to Egypt. From
Egypt they are sent forth again to all other regions and as a consequence, double
duties are collected on both imports and exports’.13 Together the one-fortieth
portoria and the quarter-rate tetarte tax could have raised 275 million sesterces for
the Roman State.14
Added to this figure was the quarter-rate customs-tax collected on Roman
goods exported to the distant east. Pliny reports that Rome exported over 100 million sesterces of bullion to India, Arabia and China, but this wealth probably
passed through different customs stations in separate regions (Egypt: Coptos,
Palestine: Gaza and Arabia: Leuke Kome).15 It is possible that total Roman
exports from Egypt to India, including goods and bullion, were valued at more
than 100 million sesterces and produced more than 25 million sesterces of
revenue. This is because Han texts suggest a tenfold price difference between
Roman exports to India (100 million sesterces) and Indian imports (1,000 million
By 20 BC, Augustus was receiving income from Egypt that was larger than the
revenues that King Ptolemy XII Auletes had derived from the same region in
80 BC. Strabo explains: ‘even though Auletes administered his kingdom in a
wasteful and careless way, he received annual revenues of 12,500 talents
(300 million sesterces). So consider what the present revenues must be, now that


The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean

Egypt is under diligent management and commerce with India and Africa has
been increased to such a great extent.’17 Revenues from the Republican Empire
were about 380 million sesterces, so the restoration of Egypt increased the
imperial income to more than 700 million sesterces per annum.18 Therefore,
during the Augustan era, Egypt was providing up to half the income needed to
finance the entire Roman Empire.
Trade with India allowed the Romans to double the amount of revenue they
received from Egypt and by the mid-first century AD the province was producing
annual revenues worth 600 million sesterces.19 This is confirmed by Josephus
who describes how King Herod Agrippa tried to discourage his people from
rebelling against Rome (AD 66). Agrippa reminded the Jews how rich and
powerful the Roman Empire had become after subduing Egypt. He reportedly
said: ‘look at Roman power in our nearest neighbour Egypt. Egypt reaches to
Ethiopia and Arabia Felix (Yemen) and it is the port for India.’ Agrippa told his
people, ‘Egypt has a powerful incentive to revolt because of Alexandria, a city of
great size, population and wealth. Alexandria is three-and-a-half miles long and
over a mile wide. It pays Rome every month more tribute than you pay in a year
and sends Rome enough grain for four months of the year.’20 Josephus reports
that the Jewish Kingdom ruled by Herod Agrippa produced revenues of about
48 million sesterces per annum, so every year Egypt was probably sending more
than 570 million sesterces to Rome.21
The growth in eastern trade explains how the Roman government received
a sudden boost to its revenues during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius
(AD 14–37). When Tiberius died he left 2,700 million (2.7 billion) sesterces in
the imperial treasury, which is almost three times the amount the State required
to pay its annual costs.22 To have obtained these funds, the Roman government must have been receiving a revenue surplus worth more than 110 million
sesterces per annum.23 The early Empire operated with minimal surplus revenues
and as a result Augustus warned his successors not to undertake further conquests.24 But by the time of Tiberius, trade had transformed Roman opportunities to expand their empire and in AD 43 Claudius could afford the conquest
of Britain, adding another deficit region to the imperial domains.
The Emperor Domitian (AD 81–96) raised army pay by a third and this
increased Roman military spending by over 200 million sesterces a year.25 The
initiative was possible because eastern trade was producing large amounts of new
revenue for the Roman regime. By this period, Egypt was generating at least
600 million sesterces per annum, or about two-thirds of the revenue Rome
needed to pay for its Empire. There were only two legions stationed in Egypt, so
military costs in the region were low and most Egyptian revenue could be sent
directly to Rome.26 The other provinces that comprised the Empire were generating at least 380 million sesterces a year, but most of these funds were being used
locally on defence or other regional projects. This meant that Egypt gave Rome
the funds it needed to balance the finance of its deficit regions. In effect, Egypt
was paying for the Empire and Egyptian revenues were probably the only large
scale transfer of provincial taxes directly to Rome.

Roman Prosperity


Egypt had its own regional currency and Roman government transferred
revenues from Alexandria to Rome in standard imperial coin. Alexandrian merchants brought imperial coin profits back to Egypt and this ensured that a sufficient store of money was available in Alexandria to pay future imperial revenues.
Strabo describes the cargo imbalance between the two territories by reporting
that ‘the exports from Alexandria are larger than the imports. Anyone can judge
this by seeing the merchant vessels at either Alexandria or Puteoli (the port of
Rome). Observe how the ships on arrival are heavy and vessels on departure are
much lighter.’27
The Romans understood the connection between Egyptian trade revenues and
imperial income. Tacitus describes an incident late in the life of Augustus when
the Emperor’s ship was sailing past the bay of Puteoli. An Alexandrian freighter
on its way to Rome approached the imperial vessel to salute the ageing Emperor.
The merchant crew and passengers who had donned white garments and dressed
in garlands began burning celebratory incense. Tacitus records that they ‘lavished
good wishes and the highest praise on the Emperor, saying that he had given
them their livelihood. They sailed the seas because of him and because of him
they enjoyed their freedom and their fortunes.’ Augustus watched this display
with pleasure and ‘gave forty gold pieces to each one of them. But he made them
swear that they would spend their money on goods from Alexandria.’28 The
Emperor appreciated that anyone who purchased incense and other eastern
products was paying into a tax system that ultimately enriched the Roman
During this period, custody of Egypt meant control over the bulk of imperial
revenues and possession of a third of the grain dole needed to feed the city of
Rome. Augustus and his successors realised the revenue potential of Egypt and
understood that access to this powerful resource had to be restricted. The
Emperors therefore placed severe political limitations on Alexandria and its local
administrators. The governor of Egypt held equestrian rank and no senators
were permitted to visit the province. No Alexandrian could become a senator and
the leading citizens of the city were forbidden to convene any administrative
council.29 The Emperor could not afford to have any challenger or separatist
movement originate in Egypt to disturb imperial finances and threaten food
shortages in Rome.
During the Roman civil war of AD 69 Vespasian calculated that since he ‘held
Egypt which controlled the grain supply of Italy and possessed the revenues of
the richest provinces, the army of Vitellius could be forced to surrender by lack of
pay and food’.30 His supporter Mucianus repeatedly asserted that money ‘was
the sinews of war’.31Any permanent loss of Egypt and its eastern trade could
ultimately mean the financial collapse of the entire Roman Empire.
Surplus Income and the Grain Dole
The Roman Empire was committed to large-scale schemes intended to reward
and benefit its citizens. One example was the grain dole (annona) introduced by
politicians in the Late Republic as a way of securing support from the citizen


The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean

assemblies who took the lead in electing officials and ratifying State policy. The
annona was enacted for political reasons, but many Romans believed the practice
was warranted; as Florus explains, ‘what could be more just than a people in need
maintained from their own treasury?’32 The scheme was continued in the
Imperial period when Augustus guaranteed that 200,000 adult male citizens in
Rome received a regular grain dole from the State.33 Leading historians suggest
the practice also benefited many wealthy Romans, as low-income people in the
city could afford to purchase the wine and olive oil produced on large villa
Juvenal considered how the Roman people had once allocated military commands in overseas conflicts, but in his own time they were preoccupied with
the issues of food costs and public entertainments, or ‘bread and circuses’.35 The
Emperors were also committed to expensive public building programs in Rome
and hired large numbers of unskilled workers. Pay from these schemes further
subsidised the common people and allowed them to meet the cost of living in
the capital. Suetonius reports an incident when an engineer offered Vespasian the
use of a machine that could reduce the size of the city workforce needed to move
heavy columns. The Emperor ‘gave the engineer a large reward for his invention,
but refused to use it, saying: ‘‘I must feed my common poor’’’.36
Roman government paid private merchants to ship state-owned stocks of grain
from the provinces to Rome. This incentivised commerce since the merchants
who took these contacts were guaranteed earnings in Rome, even if market conditions proved unfavourable for other deals. Philostratus describes how many
low-level merchants operated ships that ‘roamed the seas searching for some
market that is badly stocked where they can sell and buy’.37 The grain-dole
ensured that Rome was a destination visited on many of these ventures.
By guaranteeing food supplies for those who lived in the capital, the dole
system allowed Rome to develop a larger urban-population than any other
ancient city. The Han Empire of ancient China had a population equivalent to
the Roman Empire, but its capital Luoyang was home to approximately 500,000
people.38 By contrast, during the height of its Empire in the first century AD,
Rome had up to a million inhabitants. This urban population was not equalled in
Europe until the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the rapid growth of the
city of London in the early nineteenth century.39
The grain dole was not a means-tested provision so even those with sufficient
income were granted this benefit. Each citizen regularly received a grain parcel
that could be made into a quantity of bread which was more than enough to feed
an adult male throughout the year. Any surplus would have gone to feeding
family members, or providing for other dependants, including household slaves.
The grain allowance was offered to 200,000 male citizens, but it was so generous
that it probably supplied enough bread to feed 400,000 people including women,
children and slaves.40 For many households the money that would have been
spent on basic grain could go towards affordable incense, spices and other minor
luxuries. Therefore, by subsidising thousands of its citizens, the Roman State
indirectly fostered centralised market commerce.

Roman Prosperity


Modern scholars have calculated that the Roman Emperors needed at least
88,000 tons of grain a year to maintain the dole for approximately 200,000 male
citizens in Rome.41 Most of the grain sent to the Roman capital came from estates
in North Africa that were either owned by the State, or subject to a government
tithe that seized a large share of their output for shipment to Rome.42 Egypt
was an important grain producer because the floodwaters of the Nile carried rich
soil deposits from the Sudan that replenished, as well as irrigated, the vast field
systems lining the river. Ancient sources suggest that Egypt provided up to a
third of the grain supply that fed Rome. Josephus reports that every year
Alexandria ‘sends Rome enough grain for four months’.43 This represents at least
29,000 tons of grain shipped from Alexandria to Rome to sustain the government
dole. In terms of monetary value, 29,000 tons of grain would have been worth at
least 8 million sesterces in Egypt and 16 million sesterces in Rome, had the entire
stock been bought and sold at market prices.44
The Roman State paid private merchants to ship the grain dole to the main
ports that supplied Rome. The grain was then transferred into large government
warehouses for safekeeping until distribution could be arranged. In the summer
months it took only a few days to sail from North Africa to Italy and ships loaded
with grain took advantage of predictable good weather.45 But the voyage from
Alexandria to Rome was a more difficult crossing and would take several weeks
to accomplish.46 There was also a possibility of bad weather during the voyage
and several stopping-points might have to be made along the route if the ship
encountered rough conditions.
A passage from the Christian New Testament indicates the hazards involved
when sailing from Egypt to Italy. In AD 60, the Apostle Paul was sent to stand
trial in Rome and placed aboard an Alexandrian grain ship. The vessel was sailing
in late summer or early autumn, and Paul warned his guards, ‘I can see that this
voyage is going to end in hurt and damage to the cargo, the ship and our lives’.47
But the centurion in charge of the prisoners was convinced by the ship’s owner
and captain that the voyage was safe. Paul was correct and the ship was wrecked
by a storm off the island of Malta. The crew survived and when spring came they
continued their voyage aboard another Alexandrian ship that had been forced to
shelter at Malta during the winter season. This ship had also taken a chance on a
late summer sailing, but had escaped destruction by finding a safe winter harbour
on Malta. Paul was delivered to Rome where he was arrested and placed under
armed guard. He continued his ministry by writing letters of encouragement to
newly established Christian communities.
Roman Government offered various incentives to guarantee grain shipments to
the city of Rome, including exemption from certain civic taxes. Furthermore,
anyone who would manage a transport vessel on the grain-run for six years was
offered citizenship and social privileges.48 The Digest of Roman Law confirms that
‘exemption from public employments is granted to those who have constructed
ships destined for the transport of provisions to the Roman people. These ships
should have a capacity of at least 50,000 modii (350 tons), or several, each with a
capacity at least than 10,000 modii (70 tons).’49 Mediterranean merchants had no


The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean

system to insure their cargoes against shipwreck, but the Emperor Claudius gave
grain-shippers ‘the certainty of profit by assuming the expense of any loss that
they might suffer from storms’.50 Ships that offloaded grain cargoes in Rome
either took on ballast, or loaded wares that might fetch some profit back in
eastern Mediterranean markets.51
Nonetheless, many people in Rome had to purchase grain from private merchants to feed themselves and their families.52 If market prices were considered
too high, then Roman government could intervene by offering surplus State
stocks at appropriate prices, or buying private supplies to re-sell at lower rates.
Pliny the Younger explains that ‘longstanding obligations are met and provincials are not burdened by new impositions. The treasury buys what needs to be
bought, with prices agreed between buyer and seller, so that there is plenty in
Rome without causing starvation in other places.’53
When there were protests about grain prices in Rome, the Emperor Tiberius
‘fixed a definite price to be paid by the buyer and guaranteed the seller a subsidy of two sesterces per measure’.54 After the Great Fire of Rome (AD 64)
the Emperor Nero lowered the grain price to 3 sesterces per modius to assist the
population.55 These subsidies and interventions encouraged and ensured private
grain shipments to the capital.
Ships on the normal trade run from Alexandria to Rome could complete
several voyages during the summer months and most of these ships probably
ranged in size from 70 to 400 tons.56 An Egyptian papyrus provides a short
register of nine ships arriving at Alexandria which belonged to a single businessman. The document records the tonnage of five ships at between 50 and 80 tons,
a 230 ton vessel and an empty grain freighter from Ostia registered at 410 tons.57
A few specialist grain-freighters were equipped to carry more than 1,000 tons
of cargo and Lucian describes one of these giant vessels which was named after
the Egyptian goddess Isis. The captain of the Isis was forced to find winter
harbour at the Athenian port of Piraeus when his ship was caught out by bad
weather on a late voyage. Ships as large as the Isis could only dock at main
harbours, whereas smaller vessels had more opportunities to stop and trade with
intervening ports between Alexandria and Rome. The Isis became a temporary
visitor attraction at Piraeus because of its extraordinary size and ornate design.
Lucian reports that the ship was 180 feet long with a beam 45 feet wide. Its cargo
hold was 44 feet deep which suggests a cargo capacity of up to 1,100 tons.58
Modern scholars have focused their studies on the grain supply to Rome
because it is considered one of the largest economic processes that occurred in
the Roman Empire. The grain trade also provides some basic evidence for the
scale of the Roman economy. The grain dole delivered from Egypt to Rome can
be conceptualised in many different ways, but the simplest approach is to visualise
100 vessels making two voyages per year, each with a grain cargo weighing 150
tons. This offers an important perspective to the scale and significance of Roman
trade with the distant east.
Another important point about trade within the Roman Empire is that internal
customs taxes (portorium) were generally low. Merchants shipping cargo between

Roman Prosperity


the provinces had to pay tax rates that were often set at about one-fortieth, or
less than 3 per cent of the value of their goods. Furthermore, Italy was exempt
from these port taxes as a special privilege designed to encourage incoming
trade.59 This meant that merchants from Alexandria had to pay taxes to export
goods from their home city, but paid nothing to offload this same cargo in Rome.
The low rates set on portorium tax meant that the Roman government received
relatively small revenues from internal commerce. Supposing the stocks of
privately owned grain shipped from Alexandria to Rome matched the scale of the
government grain dole (29,000 tons), this quantity of grain would be worth
perhaps 8 million sesterces in Egypt, but would generate 200,000 sesterces for
the government from the single low-rate export tax imposed at Alexandria.
The grain dole ensured the provision of a basic, stable diet for the male citizens
of Rome and their closest dependants. But it also enabled people to afford other,
non-essential items that could be purchased with their surplus income, including eastern products available in new food flavourings, perfumes and remedies.
In Rome many people began to spend their surplus wealth on eastern spices,
incense, ivory, gems and pearls. Tacitus describes how ‘the consumption of edible
luxuries reached substantial new levels in the century between the close of the
Actium War and the struggle which placed Servius Galba on the throne’
(31 BC–AD 69).60 Other eastern commodities imported during this era created
fashions for popular new forms of jewellery, ornaments and clothing. Pliny confirms that ‘pearls came into common use in Rome after Alexandria came under
our power’ (30 BC).61 Throughout this era, the most fashionable, desirable and
expensive items available to Roman consumers were the eastern goods delivered
to Rome through the Red Sea trade.
The Commercial Significance of Rome
By the first century AD, Rome was a vital component in the Mediterranean
economy. In the ancient world the long-distance transport of goods by sea was
generally faster and more convenient than land haulage. Diocletian’s Price Edict
suggests that shipment by sea was twenty-seven times cheaper than land transport
and these figures are confirmed by the recorded haulage costs in eighteenth
century Europe.62 The Roman Empire was structured around the Mediterranean Sea and Rome lay at the hub of a major maritime thoroughfare that could
easily facilitate the mass movement of commodities between widely spaced
The city of Rome possessed the advantage of being close to the geographical
centre of the Mediterranean Sea. It was therefore ideally placed to control the
sea-lanes and attract cargoes from all regions enclosed by this seascape. From
Italy, the Romans could exploit the passage of goods between three continents,
Europe, Africa and the Asian Near East. As Pliny comments, ‘all benefits come to
Italy from her situation – for the land juts out in the direction that is most
advantageous to us, midway between the East and the West’.63
Rome performed an important function in the Mediterranean because in
ancient times market information could only travel as fast as the movement of


The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean

people, or commodities. It was therefore important to have a centrally placed city
that could function as a nucleus for the regular exchange of goods. Over and
above the normal transactions of local exchange, in any given year there would be
seasonal food surpluses in many countries that bordered on the Mediterranean,
while in other territories there would be shortages caused by unpredictable crop
failures.64 In both circumstances Rome acted as a central marketplace where
those with excess could be certain to sell their goods at a competitive price and
those with shortages knew that they could acquire immediate provisions at an
appropriate market cost. As there were no customs taxes imposed at the Italian
ports, merchants favoured places like Rome for their transitional deals. Aristides
calls Rome ‘the common trading centre of all mankind’ and declares that ‘whatever is grown, or made amongst every people, it is always to be found here in
Rome at all times and in great abundance’.65
Rome, with its large population of up to a million inhabitants, provided unique
opportunities for visiting merchants. Over 200,000 people in the city were
eligible for the grain dole that enabled them to spend their earnings on prod