Maritime trade

Why trade?!

In order to provide your country’s consumers with the goods they wish, you need to import some of them and to pay foreign producers for the goods and for their transportation. The required money can be obtained by exporting your own goods and services.
Roman individuals could export Roman goods as a return cargo when sailing back to foreign countries. The Roman state could provide the ‘service’ of military protection of provinces within the empire, receiving a tribute for this service.

How trade?

Trust between buyers and sellers is required, hence regular trading contacts are necessary, and therefore repetition of trade routes. To be ‘professional’ you need to specialise: choose your goods, choose your trade cities and routes, choose your trade contacts. That will be ‘your’ trade network. The nodes of each network may be large inter-regional ports (‘hubs’) or smaller regional, or even local, ports.

Trade hubs

According to Wikipedia, a hub is the central part of a wheel that connects the axle to the wheel itself. Many expressions use the term for a literal or figurative central structure connecting to a periphery. A transport hub is a place where cargo is exchanged between transport modes. With the growth of containerisation, intermodal freight transport has become more efficient.

Today, there are several major nodal points for maritime traffic which are related to the network of main streams of traffic:

  • consumer goods transported in containers from China, Korea and Japan to Europe via the Suez Canal and to the US west coast via the Pacific Ocean;
  • energy such as oil, Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) transported in bulk from the Middle East, to China, Korea and Japan and many other countries;
  • other raw materials such as coal and iron ore are also transported in bulk from Africa, Australia and South America to many countries.

The major nodal points, now called “hubs”, are therefore located in Europe (Rotterdam, Hamburg), in USA (Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, New Orleans), in Asia, (Shanghai, Hong Kong, Busan, Yokahama, Singapore)[1].

Alexandria was the “greatest emporium of the world”, acc. to Strabo[2]: Goods were imported from, and exported to, South Arabia, East Africa and India[3], and paid for with gold and silver bullion; they were taxed at 25% by the Roman state, thereby providing a substantial part of its total income:

  • Some goods, such as perfumes and dyed silk, were transformed and manufactured in Alexandria, thereby adding great value to the imported goods;
  • Goods were exported to Rome and other cities of the empire: not only exotic spices and goods from beyond the Red Sea, but also vast quantities of grain produced in Egypt.

Alexandria was a hub of the Roman economy. Additional nodes of a large-mesh Roman trade network might be located at Gades (Baetica, for garum, salted fish, olive oil) and at Carthago (Proconsular Africa, for wheat and olive oil). This coarse network shows 3 lines converging on Rome. The question is whether finer-mesh networks might be added to the coarse one by including nodal points of smaller importance[4].

Data base analysis

Let’s elaborate on this with an analysis of our database on ancient ports: we know of around 5000 ancient coastal settlements, out of which around 1500 are explicitly mentioned as ports by ancient authors:

Ancient ports mentioned explicitly by at least one ancient author.
This map has no pretention of accuracy; it just intends to show concentrations of ports; more accurate locations are available on Google Earth maps shown on:

A corpus of 87 ancient authors from 500 BC to 500 AD (with a few exceptions like Homer, Procopius) has been analysed, searching for the word ‘port’ in the 19th c. French translations available on the web (mainly Each author is counted only once for each port, even if he mentioned the port several times in several books or chapters.

Obviously, various reasons motivated ancient authors to mention these ports: historical (military, naval), commercial (trade, emporia), geographical (description of land and peoples) or sailors following the coasts. In the picture above, trips like those of Arrian on the Black Sea or the Stadiasmus can nearly be distinguished.
Furthermore, ancient authors may sometimes have been somewhat egocentric when describing only their own part of the world, like Pausanias in Greece, which may have led to ‘zooming’ effects in some areas.
Conversely, some areas were not much mentioned by ancient authors, like Hispania, Lusitania, Gaul and it cannot be said if that is because there were no ports (which is surely untrue) or because these somewhat remote areas were of lesser interest to ancient Greek and Roman authors.
Anyway, a concentration of ports mentioned by ancient authors can be seen around the Aegean Sea.

Nearly 1000 ports are mentioned by only one ancient author.

Nearly 300 are mentioned by two ancient authors.


Detailed results of the database analysis.

81 are mentioned by five or more ancient authors. These places are listed below in a clockwise ranking around the Mediterranean, with the number of authors mentioning it in brackets:

  • Hibernia (Isle of Ireland) (5)
  • Gades (5)
  • Carthago Nova (5)
  • Massalia (5)
  • Monoeci (Monaco) (5)
  • Portus Pisanus (6)
  • Aithalia (Isle of Elba) (5)
  • Portus Augusti Ostiensis (over 10) and Ostia (7)
  • Antium (5)
  • Caiete (5)
  • Misenum (6) and Puteoli (5)
  • Rhegium (7)
  • Zankle (Messina) (9)
  • Syracuse (over 10)
  • Crotone (5)
  • Lilybaion (5)
  • Tarentum (7)
  • Hydruntum (Otrante) (6)
  • Brindes (9)
  • Corcyra (8) and Casiope (5) (Isle of Corfu)
  • Glykys Limen (5)
  • Nisea (5)
  • Kytlene (5)
  • Pylos (5)
  • Gytheion (7)
  • Skandeia (Isle of Kythera) (7)
  • Nauplia-Argos (5)
  • Lechaion-Corinth (10) and Sicyon (8)
  • Kenchreai-Corinth (over 10)
  • Salamis (Isle of Salamis) (6)
  • Piraeus (over 10)
  • Phaleron (7) and Munychia (5)
  • Aegina (6)
  • Aulis (6), Chalkis (5) and Eretria (5) (Isle of Evia)
  • Thasos (Isle of Thasos) (5)
  • Abydos (10) and Sestos (6)
  • Byzantium (6)
  • Portus Symbolorum (Crimea) (5)
  • Sindicos (Anapa) (5)
  • Sinop (6) and Armene (5)
  • Calpe (5)
  • Cyzikos (5)
  • Sigeion (5)
  • Delos (Isle of Delos) (10)
  • Naxos (Isle of Naxos) (5)
  • Tenedos (Isle of Tenedos) (8) and Troy (6)
  • Mytilene (Isle of Lesbos) (over 10)
  • Phokeia (6)
  • Elaia (5)
  • Chios (Isle of Chios) (over 10)
  • Ephesus (10)
  • Pythagoreion (isle of Samos) (over 10)
  • Miletos (9)
  • Kos (Isle of Kos) (5)
  • Knidos (7)
  • Rhodes (over 10)
  • Kaunos (5)
  • Patara (8)
  • Korikos (Kizkalesi) (5)
  • Phaselis (5)
  • Paphos (Isle of Cyprus) (5)
  • Salamis (Isle ofCyprus) (5)
  • Sidon (6)
  • Tyr (6)
  • Alexandria (over 10)
  • Paretonius (5),
  • Menelaus (5),
  • Neapolis-Leptis (5)
  • Cercenna (6)
  • Carthago (8) and Utica (5)
  • Melite (Isle of Malta) (6)

The listed places are shown on the map below (green dots) together with the four ‘main hubs’ (black dots). The listed places are fairly concentrated in an area between Rome and Rhodes covering the southern part of Italy, Greece, the Aegean Sea and Asia Minor. It cannot be denied that this area was the most active area both for trade and for naval operations during a millennium from the 5th c. BC to the 5th c. AD.

Note that no time frame was defined, hence Greek hubs of the 5th c. BC are mixed with imperial Roman hubs. Had we restricted the time frame to e.g. the 6th to 4th c. BC, we would have seen Piraeus (over 10), Emporion (Spain) (4), and Naucratis (Egypt) (1) as main hubs. Had we taken the 3rd and 2nd c. BC, we would have mentioned Delos (10).


Trade networks in the Roman Mediterranean Sea: Black dots are main hubs: Rome, Alexandria, Carthage, Gades; Green dots are places mentioned by five or more ancient authors.

It must be admitted that the above approach based on the number of ancient authors mentioning places does not show the trade networks we would expect intuitively because major cities are missing (Tarraco, Narbo, places on the Adriatic, on the Black Sea, in northern Africa).

Imported goods

How can we further study these networks? We may look into shipping, we may distinguish different historical periods, we may search ancient texts … we may study commodities[10], i.e. try to find out from where they come and where they go (mostly to Rome!).

A literature survey yielded the following:

white marble,
Italy (Luna, Volterra), Spain (Ebro valley), Attica (Mount Pentelikon), Naxos, Thasos, Marmara
granite France i.a.
pozzolana Pozzuoli
obsidian Anatolia (central & eastern), Melos, Gyali, Pantelleria, Sardinia (Mt Arci), Lipari, Ponza (Palmarola)
turquoise Sinai (Wadi Maghara, Serabit el-Khadim)
lapis lazuli Syria (from Afghanistan/Bactria)
malachite Cairo (Maadi), Negev (Timna)
amethyst Aswan (Wadi el-Hudi)
topaz Red Sea (St. John’s Island)
Metals (ingots):  


(& electrum)

Ireland (Wicklow Mountain), Britain (Dolaucothi), France (Limousin, Vaulry), Spain NW (Laza, Caurel-Quiroga, Los Ancares, Las Médulas-Teleno-Maragateria-Llamas de Cabrera, Villablino-Las Omanas, Ibias-Tineo, Rio Carrion), Lusitania (Valongo Paredes, Tres Minas-Jales-Boticas), Dalmatia (Crvena Zemlja, Mracaj), Thrace (Pautalia), Dacia (many places around Rosia Montana in Transylvania), Georgia (R Phase), Turkey (Bakla Tepe NW of Ephesos), Cyprus, Nubia
silver Britain (Charterhouse), Lusitania (Aljustrel), Spain (Rio Tinto, Palazuelos, Diogenes, Malaga, Cartagena, Linares), Sardinia (Iglesiente, Domusnovas), Carthage, Dalmatia (Srebrenica), Attica (Laurion), Thrace (Pautalia), Turkey (Ordu, Lesbos, Troad, Milet, Bodrum, Mersin)
copper Ireland (Great Orme, Ross Island, Cork, Wicklow), Britain (Beauport Park, Llanymynech, Nantyrarian), Asturias (Aramo), Lusitania (Aljustrel, Sto Estevao), Huelva (Rio Tinto, Sotiel Coronado), Dalmatia (Majdanpek, Belovode), Attica (Laurion), Thrace (Pautalia, Burgas), Turkey (Trabzon area), Petra (wadi Feynan), Negev (Timna valley, wadi Arabah), Cyprus (Kalavasos, Soli & Skouriotissa), Algeria
tin (cassiterite) Cornwall (Ictis), France (Ploermel), Spain (Laza), Germany (Erzgebirge), Tuscany (Mte Rombolo & Valerio), Dalmatia (Mt Cer), Turkey (Uludag near Bursa, Bakla Tepe NW of Ephesos, Mersin area: Kestel/Göltepe mines)? Syria (from NW Iran & Afghanistan/Bactria)?
lead Britain (Charterhouse, Cornwall), Aquitaine, Spain (Galicia, Palazuelos, Diogenes, Cartagena, Linares), Sardinia (Iglesiente, Domusnovas), Algeria (Arksib, Denaïra), Dalmatia (Srebrenica), Attica (Laurion), Turkey (Mersin area)
iron Britain (Sussex, Cornwall, Great Doward), Aquitaine, Galicia, Algeria, Elba, Dalmatia, Attica (Laurion), Trabzon, Cyprus (Mitsero)
raw glass Egypt (wadi Natrun, Taposiris), Israel (near Dor),
and potential places in Italy (beach Piombino-Follonica, beach Policoro-Metaponto, beaches Brindisi-Torre Rinalda), in Spain (outlet of R Guadiana, beach of Aguilas near Cartagena), and in France (Bay of Hyeres)
cedar Phoenicia (Byblos)
papyrus Egypt (via Byblos)
Ceramics, terracotta:  
tiles (tegulae-imbrices) export only
bricks export only
oil lamps Tunisia (Carthage)
wheat Alexandria, Tunisia, Sicily
wine Greece, Gaul (Rhone valley, Bordeaux), Spain (Tarraconensis, Baetica), Tunisia (Carthage), Levant (Byblos, Gaza), Cyprus, Crete, Aegean (Skopelos, Chios, Samos, Naxos, Thera), Sardinia? Black Sea, Dalmatia, Istria
defrutum, siraion, epsima (reduced fruit must) Baetica, Cyprus?
garum, liquamen (fish sauce)
salsamenta, tarichos (salted fish)
Baetica (Cadix, Cartagena), Lusitania (Lisbon, Troia), Morocco (Lixus, Cotta), Tunisia (Carthage, Nabeul), Gaul (Mareille, Antibes), Libya (Leptis Magna), Black Sea (Crimea, Bithynia)
olive oil Istria, Dalmatia, Sicily, Sardinia, Attica, Samos, Turkey (Ionia, Cilicia), Cyprus, Crete, Levant (Syria, Phoenicia, Canaan), Cyrenaica, North Africa (Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco), Baetica (Cadix)
pepper India (Muziris on Malabar coast)
India (by sea via Socotra, and overland via Syria)
ivory Punt (Red Sea), India
perls Red Sea, Persian Gulf
fashioned glass Dalmatia (Zadar), Germany (Trier), Phoenicia (Sidon), Alexandria
silk & cotton Kos, China & India (via Alexandria, Carthage?)
linen Spain (Xativa)
purple dye Lesbos, Rhodes, Phoenicia (Tyre, Sarepta, Sidon), Tunisia (Jerba, Kerkouane, Carthage), Sicily (Motya), Morocco (Essaouira)
(& myrrh)
Punt (Red Sea), Somalia (Heis, Antara), Oman (Salalah)
perfume Alexandria, Cyprus (Kato Pyrgos)
ebony, hbony Punt (Red Sea), Nubia
amber Baltic (overland/rivers to Olbia-Borysthenes, to Hatria & Aquileia, to Marseille)
bronze artwork Greece
marble artwork Greece
terra sigillata, African Red Slip, fineware Greece (Attic), Tunisia (Sidi Bouzid area)
slaves  Delos i.a.

We can summarise this result per country:

Exporting country Goods imported by Romans
Baltic amber
GB & Ireland metals
Lusitania & Baetica metals, olive oil, garum, wine, defrutum
Cartagena metals, linen
Tarraco metals from Galicia, marble, wine
Gaul (Narbo, Massalia) metals from UK & Germany, glass from Germany, amber from Baltic, wine, garum
Tuscany & Elba metals, marble
Sicily & Lipari wheat, obsidian, olive oil, purple dye
Hatria & Aquileia amber from Baltic
Istria & Dalmatia metals, olive oil, wine, fashioned glass
Greece silver & copper at Laurion, marble, olive oil, wine, bronze & marble artwork, ceramics
Thrace metals
Dacia (Transylvania) metals
Borysthenes & Crimea & Tanais wheat, garum, amber from Baltic
Georgia (R Phase) gold
Anatolia (Trabzon, Nicomedia, Ephesos, Attaleia, Mersin) metals, obsidian, olive oil
Marmara Sea marble
Thasos metals
Lesbos purple dye
Peparethos (Skopelos) wine
Chios wine
Keos (Kea) silver, lead
Delos slaves
Naxos marble, silver, lead, wine
Koufonisia silver, lead
Paros copper
Siphnos gold, silver, lead (exhausted in Roman times)
Milos obsidian
Samos olive oil, wine
Thera (Santorini) wine
Rhodes purple dye
Crete olive oil, wine
Cyprus metals, olive oil, wine, perfume
Cilicia (Mersin) metals
Syria (NW Iran & Afghan./Bactria) tin, lapis lazuli
Levant timber, metals, raw glass & fashioned glass, purple dye, olive oil, wine at Gaza, gems & perls & spices from Red Sea & Gulf/India
Egypt & Sinai wheat, papyrus, metals & ebony from Nubia, gems, glass, ivory & silk & cotton & incense & spices from Red Sea/India
Libya garum at Leptis Magna, olive oil in Cyrenaica
Tunisia wheat, olive oil, garum, wine, purple dye, ceramics
Sardinia silver, obsidian, olive oil
Algeria metals, olive oil
Morocco garum, olive oil, purple dye

These tables are probably incomplete. Please help!

Similar studies can be conducted for other cultures: Greeks, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Mycenaeans, Minoans, etc. Results are provided in the xls table.

Realise that this result includes only primary imports, i.e. goods needed by the peoples for their own consumption, but does not take into account imports aimed at being re-exported, possibly after some manufacturing. Hence, this is only a first step towards a better understanding of ancient trade networks.

Further to the above-mentioned overview of ancient trades, the following hubs might be defined:


Trade networks in the Roman Mediterranean Sea: Black dots are main hubs: Rome, Alexandria, Carthage, Gades; Red dots are regional hubs.

In addition to the four main hubs, the above survey of Roman imports provides a series of ‘regional hubs’, including Carthago Nova, Tarraco[5], Narbo[6], Arelate[7], Puteoli, Syracusa, Aquileia, Athens, Byzantium, Tomis, Crimea, the Tanaïs river area, Nicomedia[8],  Ephesus, Rhodes, Attaleia[9], Cyprus, Antioch ad Orontem/Seleucia Pieria, Gaza (if it was more than a place of transit such as Myos Hormos and Berenike), Apollonia of Cyrene, Caesarea Mauretania, Lixus.

In addition to Indian places such as Muziris (Pattanam, north of Cochin), a lesser known place such as Omana (possibly located at al-Dur, ed-Dur, in Umm al-Quwain Emirate) should be mentioned here too in order not to under-estimate ancient traffic in the Gulf to Palmyra and Antioch.

A pattern of imbricated networks could be refined almost indefinitely as each regional hub may have its own trade with its hinterland and other nearby smaller ports. Like a fractal that exhibits a repeating pattern displayed at every scale.

Some trade routes

Sailing from cape to cape (cabotage) is the most obvious route for any seafarer, except for those sailing a direct route on offshore waters.

Goods Routes
Amber from Baltic R Daugava, R Dniepr, Borysthenes, Bosphorus
  R Vistula & R Oder, R Morava, Carnuntum (near Vienna), R Danube, Bosphorus
  R Vistula & R Oder, R Morava, Carnuntum (near Vienna), Aquileia, Adriatic, Delphi & Corinth & Mycenae, Crete, Levant & Egypt & Cyrene
  R Elbe, Prague, Brenner pass, Aquileia, Adriatic, Delphi & Corinth & Mycenae, Crete, Levant & Egypt & Cyrene
  R Rhine, Basilia (Basel), R Doubs/Saône/Rhône, Massalia (NB: Basel has same Latin name as Samland: coïncidence? Ships from Samland arrived at Basel …)
  R Rhine, R Danube, Bosphorus
Tin from GB Ictis, La Coruna, Gades
  Ictis, Burdigala, Narbo
  Ictis (?), R Seine (?), R Saône/Rhône, Massalia
Tin from Armorica Poërmel, R Oust, R Villaine, Pénestin (?), Burdigala, Narbo
Tin from Galicia Laza, R Ebro, Tarraco
  Laza, R Sil, R Mino, Ourense, Gibraltar
Tin from Anatolia Uludag near Bursa, Bakla Tepe NW of Ephesos, Mersin area: Kestel/Göltepe mines, Anchialeia, Rhodes & Levant
Tin from NW Iran Antioch, Rhodes & Levant
Incense from Dhofar Moscha area (Salalah), Shabwa, Najran, Mecca, Medina, Petra, Gaza (100% overland)
  Moscha area (Salalah), Qana, Leuke Kome (al-Wajh?), Hegra (Mada’in Saleh), Petra, Gaza (25% overland)
  Moscha area (Salalah), Qana, Berenike or Myos Hormos, Coptos, Alexandria (25% overland/river)
  Moscha area (Salalah), Hormuz, Babylon, Antioch (35% overland/river)
Incense from Somalia Mundus-Mosylium area (Heis-Antara), Nubia, Coptos, Alexandria (100% overland/river)
  Mundus-Mosylium area (Heis-Antara), Berenike or Myos Hormos, Coptos, Alexandria (30% overland/river)


[1] DUCRUET, C., (2015), “Inside the pond: an analysis of Northeast Asia’s long-term maritime dynamics”, International Journal of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Korea Maritime Institute, 2015, 7 (2), pp.25-40.

[2] STRABO, Geogr. 17, 1, 13

[3] ARNAUD, P., (2015c), “ La batellerie de fret nilotique d’après la documentation papyrologique (300 avant J.-C.-400 après J.-C.) ”, in La batellerie égyptienne, Archéologie, histoire, ethnographie, éd. P. Pomey, Centre d’Etudes Alexandrines, 34 – 2015.: Kerkouros-type ships were sailing and rowing southward on the Nile in winter time, at least during the Hellenistic period.

[4] BRAUDEL, F., (1949), “La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II”, éd. Armand Colin, Paris, (533 p) : he distinguishes various basins: “La Méditerranée n’est pas une mer, mais une succession de plaines liquides communiquant entre elles par des portes plus ou moins larges.” Each basin is the result of human cultures superimposed upon physical constraints, with continuous changes always going on.
See also: ARNAUD, P., (2005), “Les routes de la navigation antique”, éd. Errance, Paris, (248 p),
and: STONE, D., (2014), “Africa in the Roman Empire: Connectivity, the Economy and Artificial Port Structures”, American Journal of Archaeology, 118(4), (p 565-600).

[5] Tarraco may have been the exporting place for metals from the north-western Tarraconensis (Galicia).

[6] Narbo may have been a place of transit of metals from Great Britain sailing to Burdigala.

[7] Arelate may have been a place of transit for goods originating in northern Europe.

[8] Byzantion and Nicomedia were both ancient Greek cities, but they were on each side of the Bosphorus, on different continents: Thracia on the western side, was rather undeveloped, and Asia Minor on the southern side, was highly developed since many centuries. Nicomedia was a major Roman city in the 2nd and 3rd c. AD, while Byzantium was reconstructing after Septimus Severus’ destructions in 195 AD and finally heading for becoming a capital city when renamed Constantinopolis as late as 330 AD.

[9] Pergé was part of the Roman Empire since 188 BC and was the capital city of Pamphylia. It had its own river port some 16 km from the sea, but the seaport of Attaleia could be used when the coast was free of pirates.

[10] RICE, C., (2016), “Shipwreck cargoes in the western Mediterranean and the organization of Roman maritime trade”, Journal of Roman Archaeology, 29.
RICE, C., (2011), “Ceramic assemblages and ports”, in Maritime Archaeology and Ancient Trade in the Mediterranean, edt. D. Robinson & A. Wilson, Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology Monographs.
BOETTO, G., (2012), “Les épaves comme sources pour l’étude de la navigation et des routes commerciales:
une approche méthodologique”, in: Rome, Portus and the Mediterranean, edt. S. Keay, British School at Rome, Oxbow Books.