Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.05.30 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.05.30

Taco T. Terpstra, Trading Communities in the Roman World: A Micro-Economic and Institutional Perspective. Columbia studies in the classical tradition, 37.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2013.  Pp. xiii, 244.  ISBN 9789004238602.  $133.00.  

Reviewed by Justin Leidwanger, Stanford University (


Recent years have seen no shortage of interest in the Roman economy.1 This attention has served to sharpen focus on both quantitative and qualitative inquiry into how ancient economies functioned across the vast expanse of the Mediterranean. Based on a 2011 dissertation, this welcome addition to the growing corpus by Taco Terpstra sets a goal of exploring certain mechanics of conducting business, particularly over long distances: “how did trade operate in the Roman Empire under conditions of imperfect government enforcement and imperfect information?” (p. 1) In short, the author’s answer is that common geographical origin formed the institutional basis for group identities that facilitated shared information and lower transaction costs, while potential loss of social standing or expulsion formed a powerful deterrent against errant behavior.

Following an Introduction that establishes the work’s scope, parameters and basic outline, Chapter 1 focuses on the internal details of trade practices in Puteoli, most clearly illuminated by the remarkable Sulpicii archive. For Terpstra, these records offer a window into the intensely local dealings of a closely-knit group of sub-elite businessmen, mostly of freedman status, where legal verbiage was common but the law itself was of limited practical utility. Rather, face-to-face interaction meant that information flowed quickly and freely, and successful business partnerships were impossible without the reputation and trust that came with good community standing. Loss of this standing was the normal threat that kept traders in line, and official legal recourse was costly, difficult and in many cases impractical. Why, then, voluntarily assume the complex formalities and rigid trappings of imperial Roman contracts when conducting business and resolving disputes even within the group? The behavior, Terpstra argues, is best explained through the lens of path dependence: Roman law had become such a widely accepted and venerable practice—so thoroughly ingrained in the Roman mindset and involving significant sunk costs in knowledge acquisition—that invoking the traditional institution became a powerful incentive to uphold institution-conformant behavior.

Looking outward from this tightly connected group, Chapter 2 discusses how businessmen engaged in trade beyond the reliable social confines of their own (in this case native Puteolan) community. With knowledge at a premium, legal enforcement of obligations even trickier, and no formalized mechanisms for community responsibility or punishment, how did Roman merchants mitigate dangers and conduct reliable trade outside their communities? Drawing parallels with 19th-century American merchants active in Mexican California, Terpstra argues that the resettling of foreign trader groups in major towns like Puteoli created effective bridges. These “cross-cultural brokers” (p. 69-70) formed trading stations that became integral and trusted features of the Puteolan economic landscape, playing by local rules and contributing to the local fabric, while also maintaining connections overseas, providing a base for merchants from back home, and assuming collective responsibility for member behavior. Seen simultaneously as both belonging and distinctly foreign, such groups fostered long-distance trade and safeguarded economic ties between Puteolan businessmen and their counterparts across the Mediterranean. The community of traders from Tyre provides fertile ground for the most detailed case study in the chapter, and Terpstra reads their local epigraphic record as commemorating the station’s dual loyalties.

Chapter 3 likewise explores the inner workings of trading communities across significant distances, with a particular focus on another Italian hub for diverse foreign maritime activity: Ostia. Terpstra scrutinizes the spatial layout and architectural sequence of the problematic Piazzale delle Corporazioni, ultimately accepting an identification of the space as a clustering of stations ideally situated to facilitate information sharing. Although the piazzale itself has no convincing archaeological parallels in Italy or elsewhere, the author suggests that it represents only the most obvious manifestation of a widespread practice of diaspora merchants organizing themselves on foreign shores. Where maintaining a good local reputation was a key consideration for anyone who actually settled overseas, the threat of expulsion from their communities of origin was the primary motivation for visiting merchants who depended on these community ties to smooth business across space and time. For this chapter the well documented Maghribi merchant networks provide a critical comparative historical perspective.2

Chapters 4 and 5 shift the discussion first to the imperial capital, and then to Roman merchants living overseas. In Rome, the evidence for foreigners is copious even if their primary purpose in the city is not always clearly commercial. Nonetheless, Terpstra can apply his basic model to the available evidence: groups of businessmen, transplanted from overseas, organized themselves both locally and back home so as to facilitate trade. Looking beyond Italy to the province of Asia, the author argues that similar institutions were established by Romans abroad and functioned in a roughly parallel manner. Although the provinces saw the broad adoption of imperial law, the general lack of official enforcement of contracts meant that Roman traders once again were relegated to observing local customs in conducting their business affairs just like their counterparts settling in Italy. Regardless of the agents involved, personal networks built on reputation and trust remained the basis for overcoming the logistical difficulties of distance and limited information.

Terpstra’s arguments are tightly organized and well presented,3 and although not everyone is likely to be convinced immediately about the practical ineffectiveness of Roman law,4 his findings on the whole are persuasive and thought-provoking. The historical comparisons with other socially embedded economic structures are apt and informative without being reductive. Sociologists and anthropologists have long recognized the importance of social bonds in underpinning exchange,5 and that the transfer of objects is only one facet of trade, the process of which involves multidirectional flows of information, ideas and values alongside materials.6 While the author’s declared mandate focuses squarely on how communities of common geographical origin established parameters for business relationships, the complex interplay of economic and other social variables quickly becomes apparent: social bonds not only enable business but may be reinforced through the commercial process. “Trade” and “exchange” are employed interchangeably throughout this study, but we might also think more broadly and explicitly about allied forms of (very social) exchange beyond the commercial: barter, redistribution, etc. Expanding from Terpstra’s community-based model, a satisfying picture appears of a world of agents, whose networks may have taken as many varied forms as the goods they moved and the social bases on which they were founded: not just geographical origin, but kinship, ethnicity, religion, and the like.7 If, like geographical provenance, other structures fostered different types of trading communities, it should perhaps come as no surprise that their material and historical manifestations are quite uneven and often equivocal: here the unbalanced distribution of (mostly African) trading groups represented in the piazzale at Ostia comes to mind.

The broader implications of Terpstra’s coherent synthesis should by now be apparent. Recent opposing models of trade outlined by Peter Bang and Peter Temin provide obvious points of comparison.8 In contrast to Bang’s opaque and chaotic “Roman bazaar” or Temin’s sleek and highly integrated pan-Mediterranean market, Terpstra follows a progressive middle path toward accommodating at once both the obvious scale and complexity of Roman trade—including key operational differences between inter- and intra-community dynamics—and the practical limitations inherent to pre-modern economic phenomena. Such social institutions have become increasingly important in light of the recognition that embeddedness, asymmetrical access to information, and generally less-than-ideal market conditions are common if not universal among economies, whether ancient or modern.9 While the limitations of geographical distance and time lag in transactions still loom large, the reframing of trade in terms of human and group relationships establishes the social network as the critical factor in successful business. In this way, Terpstra’s work converges nicely with recent trends in social network approaches to the ancient world that stress the ability of network proximity to overcome vast spatial and temporal divides.10 Certainly the day-to-day realities of trade in this world would have involved nuanced decisions about whom to trust that regularly blurred boundaries of “local” vs. “non-local” and “intra-“ vs. “inter-community”, and one can imagine Roman merchants employing the full array of financial and legal instruments somewhat flexibly according to relative levels of information, familiarity and trust.

In short, the essential parameters of Terpstra’s model provide a useful framework by which to explain certain evident successes of Roman trade. Contrasting his focused thematic volume with recent broader monographs by Bang and Temin, Terpstra declares “no such lofty aspirations” (pg. 7), and indeed the present work approaches a thinner slice of Roman trade. On these terms and more, it is undeniably successful, elucidating beautifully many details of one critical socioeconomic component of a broader model of Roman connectivity.


1.   E.g. the large research and publication program generated by the Oxford Roman Economy Project
2.   See generally A. Greif, Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade, Cambridge, 2006.; J. Goldberg,. Trade and Institutions in the Medieval Mediterranean: The Geniza Merchants and Their Business World, Cambridge, 2012.
3.   The only obvious formatting quibble I might make is with the awkward editorial choice to place the figures less helpfully at the end of each chapter.
4.   Cf. those who assign a stronger role to Roman law: e.g., W. Broekaert, “Joining Forces. Commercial Partnerships or Societates in the Early Roman Empire,” Historia 61.2 (2012): 221-253.
5.   E.g. K. Polanyi, C. Arensberg, and H. Pearson, eds., Trade and Market in the Early Empires, New York, 1957; M. Granovetter, “Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness.” American Journal of Sociology 91.3 (1985): 481-510.
6.   E.g. C. Renfrew, “Trade Beyond the Material.” Trade and Exchange in Prehistoric Europe, edited by C. Scarre and F. Healy, 5-16, Oxford, 1993; A.A.Bauer, and A.S. Agbe-Davies, eds., Social Archaeologies of Trade and Exchange: Exploring Relationships among People, Places, and Things. Walnut Creek, 2002.
7.   E.g. the work of Rauh on religion as a foundation for economic transactions on Roman Delos comes again into focus: see N. K. Rauh, The Sacred Bonds of Commerce: Religion, Economy, and Trade Society at Hellenistic Roman Delos. Amsterdam, 1993.
8.   P. F. Bang, The Roman Bazaar: A Comparative Study of Trade and Markets in a Tributary Empire. Cambridge, 2008; P. Temin, The Roman Market Economy, Princeton, 2012.
9.   Granovetter 1985 (above n. 4); see also S. Plattner, “Economic Behavior in Markets,” Economic Anthropology, edited by S. Plattner, 209-221, Stanford, 1989.
10.   In the Mediterranean, see most recently I. Malkin , A Small Greek World: Networks in the Ancient Mediterranean, Oxford, 2011; C. Knappett, Network Analysis in Archaeology: New Approaches to Regional Interaction, Oxford, 2011; A. Collar, Religious Networks in the Roman Empire: The Spread of New Ideas, Cambridge, 2013.

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