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Roman commerce was the engine that drove the growth of the Roman Empire. Fashions and trends in historiography and in popular culture have tended to neglect the economic basis of the empire in favor of the lingua franca of Latin and the exploits of the Roman legions. The language and the legions were supported by trade while being at the same time part of its backbone. Romans were businessmen — the longevity of their empire was due to their commercial trade.
Whereas in theory members of the Roman Senate and their families were prohibited from engaging in trade, the members of the Equestrian order were involved in businesses, despite their upper class values that laid the emphasis on military pursuits and leisure activities. Plebeians and freedmen held shop or manned stalls at markets while vast quantities of slaves did most of the hard work. The slaves were themselves also the subject of commercial transactions, and given their high proportion in society (compared to that in Classical Greece), and the reality of runaways, the Roman Servile Wars and minor uprisings, they gave a distinct flavor to roman commerce.
The intricate, complex, and extensive accounting of Roman trade was conducted with counting boards and the Roman abacus. The abacus, using Roman numerals, was ideally suited to the counting of Roman currency and tallying of Roman measures.
Negotiatores and Mercatores
The Romans knew two types of businessmen, the negotiatores and the mercatores. The negotiatores were in part bankers because they lent money on interest. They also bought and sold staples in bulk or did commerce in wholesale quantities of goods. In some instances the argentarii are considered as a subset of the negotiatores and in others as a group apart. The argentarii acted as agents in public or private auctions, kept deposits of money for individuals, cashed cheques (prescriptio) and served as moneychangers. They kept strict books, or tabulae, which were considered as legal proof by the courts. The argentarii sometimes did the same kind of work as the mensarii, who were public bankers appointed by the state. The mercatores were usually plebeians or freedmen. They were present in all the open-air markets or covered shops, manning stalls or hawking goods by the side of the road. They were also present near roman military camps during campaigns, were they sold food and clothing to the soldiers and paid cash for any booty coming from military activities.
The Forum Cuppedinis in ancient Rome was a market which offered general goods while at least four other large markets specialized in particular goods such as cattle, wine, fish and herbs and vegetables, and the Roman forum drew the bulk of the traffic. All new cities, like Timgad, were laid out according to an orthogonal grid plan which facilitated transportation and commerce. The cities where connected by good roads.
Even before the republic, the Roman Kingdom was engaged in regular commerce using the river Tiber. Before the Punic Wars changed completely the nature of commerce in the Mediterranean, the Roman republic had important commercial exchanges with Carthage, entering into several commercial and political agreements in addition to engaging in simple retail trading. The Roman Empire traded with the Chinese over the Silk Road. Staple goods and commodities like cereals for making bread and papyrus scrolls for book production were imported from ancient Egypt to Italy in a continuous fashion.
Maritime archaeology and ancient manuscripts from classical antiquity show evidence of vast Roman commercial fleets. As with most Roman technology, the roman sea going commercial ships had no significant advances over Greek ships of the previous centuries. The Romans used round hulled sailing ships. Continuous Mediterranean "police" protection over several centuries was one of the main factors of success of Roman commerce, given that Roman roads were designed more for feet or hooves than for wheels, and could not support the economical transport of goods over long distances. The Roman ships used would have been easy prey for pirates had it not been for the fleets of Liburnian galleys and triremes of the Roman navy.
The trade over the Indian Ocean blossomed in the first and second century CE. The sailors made use of the monsoon to cross the ocean from the ports of Berenice, Leulos Limen and Myos Hormos on the Red Sea coast of Roman Egypt to the ports of Muziris and Nelkynda in Malabar. The main trading partners in southern India were the Tamil dynasties of the Pandyas, Cholas and Cheras. Many Roman artifacts have been found in India, for example at the archaeological site of Arikamedu near present day Pondicherry. Meticulous descriptions of the ports and items of trade around the Indian Ocean can be found in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.
Standard weights and measures
A standard amphora, the amphora capitolina, was kept in the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill in Rome, so that others could be compared to it. The Roman system of measurement was built on the Greek system with Egyptian influences. Much of it was based on weight. The Roman units were accurate and well documented. Distances were measured by odometers connected to carriage axles, and systematically inscribed on stone by agents of the government.
Commerce and Religion
Mercury, who was originally only the god of the mercatores and the grain trade eventually became the god of all who were involved in commercial activities. On the Mercuralia on May 14, a Roman merchant would do the proper rituals of devotion to Mercury and beseech the god to remove from him and from his belongings the guilt coming from all the cheating he had done to his customers and suppliers.
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