Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.07.22

Gary K. Young, Rome's Eastern Trade: International Commerce and Imperial Policy, 31 BC - AD 305.   London/New York:  Routledge, 2001.  Pp. xv, 303.  ISBN 0-415-24219-3.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Constantina Katsari, University of Exeter
Word count: 1674 words

Gary K. Young's study is a much revised version of his doctoral manuscript and has the expected advantages and the disadvantages. The abundance of evidence Young includes in his study proves that he has researched his topic thoroughly. Furthermore, Young's presentation of material from such a diverse range of sources -- literary, archaeological, numismatic, epigraphic and papyrological -- highlights his uncommon ability to understand and use a variety of methods in order to reconstruct the eastern Roman trade. Y. sets as his objectives the study of the routes and communities involved in the Eastern trade and analysis of the effects of commercial activity on the political decisions of the Roman government and of the impact of trade on local communities (p. 2). According to a well-established historiographical orthodoxy, the Roman emperor showed a strong interest in inter-regional trade and followed a proactive policy.1 In contrast, Y. convincingly shows the absence of a centralized imperial policy on trade and the importance of local authorities in the active promotion of commerce.2 The end result of Young's efforts is a well-written analysis of the function of eastern Roman trade and of the political, economic, and social context in which it took place in the period from Augustus to Diocletian.

The book is organized geographically and deals in sequence with the following eastern regions: the Red Sea area, Arabia, the city of Palmyra, and Syria. At the same time, the author follows a chronological division and distinguishes between the comparatively stable first two centuries and the transitional third and fourth centuries in the history of the Empire. Young's decision to implement a chronological and geographical framework has both positive and negative consequences. On one hand, the emphasis on geographical diversity helps researchers who are interested in the evidence from a specific area to draw the information they need from a specific part of the book. In this respect, Young's work is a good example of study of historical regionalism, a long neglected and much needed feature in the scholarship on the Roman Empire. On the other hand, the separate treatment of different geographical areas tends to distort the attention of the reader from the major point of the author's thesis: the absence of imperial intervention in matters related to Roman trade. As for the treatment of specific areas, it is fair to say that some -- such as the city of Palmyra -- are studied in the minutest detail, while others -- such as Syria -- seem to offer disproportionately little evidence. In the case of Syria in particular, this lack of data has little justification, since the region covers a large area characterized by a number of inscriptions, coins and archaeological remains.

Young's main hypothesis on the protectionist activities in regards to imperial policy in the East seems convincing. The outflow of silver and gold coins in Arabia and India did not seem to pose a problem for the central authorities, although several ancient authors mentioned it repeatedly, mainly for ethical purposes. Furthermore, the emperor had substantial financial gains from the taxes imposed on the routes leading to Rome and other major cities, taxes which ranged from 2% to 25%. For this reason, it was in the emperor's interest to facilitate rather than prohibit trade outside the borders of the Empire. The lack of direct intervention by the emperor could hardly have been caused by indifference to immense profits. Y. suggests throughout his book that the emperor followed a protectionist policy when he established forts and fortresses along the main commercial routes. Examples of this policy are the protection of routes in the Eastern desert (pp. 69-70), the system of fortifications and roads on the Limes Arabicus (pp. 128 ff.), and the dispatching of military officers in order to facilitate the Palmyrene trade (pp. 157 ff.). To be sure, the emperor's interests were not restricted to the gathering of custom dues or various forms of taxes. The emperor was also an individual who conducted his own economic activities -- probably with the help of his freedmen -- and he might very well have had commercial interests similar to the ones of his subjects, though Y. seems to disagree (p. 61).

On the other hand, Y. states that the main point of the emperor's non-interventionist economic policy was the "reactivity of the Roman governments' involvement in trade" (p. 74). The emperor would not normally interfere in order to direct the economic policy of the Empire, unless a crisis or a matter of personal interest forced him to do so. Even his active role in protecting the commercial routes arose from the fact that caravans and traders were probably routinely attacked by bandits (p. 83). In general, the Eastern trade was largely based on transactions of luxury goods and goods with religious and medicinal purposes. Unlike other commodities, such as grain, which was the main staple crop produced in the empire, the luxury goods coming from the East were only marginal for the survival of the Roman state. It is possible, then, that the marginal nature of the trade in these particular goods did not command an interest -- let alone an extensive reaction and subsequent intervention-- on the side of the emperor, even though he could make large profits through it. At the same time, we should be careful in generalizing from this particular case and concluding that all types of regional trade did not attract the attention of the emperor or did not lead to his attempt to regulate them. There is much study that still needs to be done before we can come to a definitive conclusion on this matter.

Young's point on the absence of imperial intervention in regards to the Eastern trade, though important, is but one aspect of his book. Most of it is an ambitious attempt to reconstruct the economic and social changes caused by the spread of trade in the Red Sea area, in Arabia, in the city of Palmyra, and in Syria. Unfortunately, the lack of evidence from these areas does not allow him to construct a solid economic model that can also explain the functioning of the economy of the Roman empire. On the other hand, Young brilliantly succeeds in constructing a social model, especially in his analysis of Palmyra. He clearly shows the effects of trade in the changes in the social structures of the city. The numerous inscriptions, which bear information on social hierarchies, social mobility, and the administration of the city, allow Y. to write a convincing account of Palmyrean society. Although we cannot generalize on the society of other cities, the author succeeds in showing that Palmyra is a strong case-study that should be used by all socio-economic researchers interested in the dynamics of Roman international trade.

There are a few weak points. The author claims that the amount of trade in heavier cargoes such as grain and textiles exported from Egypt to India and Arabia may have increased in the Antonine period, whereas in the previous century trade may have been characterized by a larger quantity of coins that were much more easily transported. According to Y., an indication of this would be the fact that the issues of Roman denarii found in the coin hoards in India are almost exclusively from the Julio-Claudian period. The author concludes that by the second century AD the amount of trade in kind was higher than the one in cash "and so the volume of goods leaving Egypt increased" (p. 77). As a matter of fact, the heavily debased denarii by the end of the Antonine era were probably no longer considered viable for such transactions. Instead, India accepted only gold aurei at least until the end of the reign of Septimius Severus, while, later, the Indian people probably preferred to be paid in raw bullion since the production of gold coins had decreased.3

Y. makes a similar point about the evidence -- or, rather, lack of evidence -- for the decline of trade in Palmyra in the third century AD (pp. 53 ff.). He rightly acknowledges the importance of the military decline of the Roman Empire and of the parallel continuous rise in bandit activities. He also claims that inflation reduced further the ability of citizens to purchase luxury goods. However, in my opinion, the 'inflation', which occurred in the third century, could have hardly affected international trade in any significant way. On the one hand, the Romans who purchased luxury products probably belonged to the higher strata of society; therefore, they counted their wealth in terms of land ownership rather than money. On the other hand, the degree of monetization in the Roman Empire did not exceed 20% in the best of the cases;4 so, the majority of transactions would not have been directly affected by any kind of inflation. Finally, the third-century AD 'inflation' was directly connected with the rapid debasements of silver coinage. The increasing amount of silver coins of lower fineness in circulation probably caused an increase in prices. The price increase reflected the amount of silver lost from the coin; as a consequence, precious metal coinage became base and more billon coins were needed in order to buy the same products as before, while the amount of silver that was exchanged remained the same. This situation is also reflected in the case of international trade, which was always based on the exchange of gold or silver as bullion (whether it took the form of coinage or not), since the value of Roman coins was not guaranteed by the Roman State outside the borders of the Empire.

All in all, Young's book on Rome's Eastern trade depicts clearly the social and, in some cases, economic effects of international commercial activities in the Eastern provinces of the Empire. Furthermore, the author correctly emphasizes the role of the emperor and convincingly suggests that the imperial authority had a protectionist, rather than an interventionist, role. The plethora of useful information included in the book will make it an invaluable tool for specialists and students alike.


1.   Charlesworth, M.P., Trade Routes and Commerce of the Roman Empire, Cambridge 1926; Miller, J.J., The Spice Trade of the Roman Empire, Oxford 1969; Sidebotham, S.E., Roman Economic Policy in the Erythra Thalassa 30 BC - AD 217, Leiden 1986.
2.   Similar views were recently expressed by Isaak, B., The Limits of Empire: The Roman Army in the East, Oxford 1990.
3.   On the aurei found in hoards lost in India see: Turner, P.J., Roman Coins from India, London: Royal Numismatic Society 22, 1989. The reduced production of gold coins in the Roman Empire during the third century AD has been studied by Bland, R., 'The changing pattern of precious-metal hoards in the late empire' in L'antiquité Tardive 5 (1997), pp. 29-55 table on p. 33.
4.   For the monetization of Roman Asia Minor see Mitchell, S., Anatolia: Land, Men and Gods in Asia Minor, vol. I, Oxford: Clarendon Press 1993.

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