Romans: Commerce

For many in the Roman province of Britain, the cycle of subsistence farming and exchange of specialist goods (like salt or milling stones) with neighbours or more distant communities remained unchanged long after Roman conquest.

Reconstruction drawing of a shop outside Housesteads Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall

Reconstruction drawing of a shop outside Housesteads Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall
© Historic England (illustration by Peter Urmston)

SUPPLYING THE ARMY

The only possible means of meeting the supply requirements of the immense army in Britain, however, was the development of a money economy, driven by military pay and long-distance trade.

Very little evidence of commerce survives in the archaeological record, except for pottery, which does not rot and could not be recycled. So for the most part, we have to imagine the foodstuffs, livestock, textiles and other perishable goods that would have formed the bulk of consignments.

Samianware bowl from Aldborough Roman town

Distinctive glossy red samian ware was made in Gaul (France) and imported into Britain in huge quantities. This bowl, with its rich stamped decoration, was discovered at Aldborough in North Yorkshire, once the tribal capital of the Brigantes.

HOME AND ABROAD

During the conquest period the army of the province of Britain sucked in samian ware and other fine pottery from Gaul, and made humbler coarsewares itself. Imports arrived via the province’s trading ports, such as London – which grew rapidly into one of the largest Roman cities north of the Alps.

By the AD 120s the army on Hadrian's Wall was using pottery produced by the industry of southern and midland Britain, as well as Gallic imports. British landowners and their workers, as well as economic migrants and merchants from overseas, had joined in the military supply chain and had developed ways of profiting from the army’s needs.

Britain’s cities also consumed Roman-style pottery and other goods, and were centres through which goods could be distributed elsewhere. At Wroxeter, Shropshire, the shop-stock smashed into a gutter during a 2nd-century fire reveals that Gaulish samian ware was being sold alongside mixing bowls from the Mancetter-Hartshill industry of the west midlands.

LOCAL PRODUCTS

Gradually there was a shift away from imports from the Mediterranean and Gaul as the local economy grew and Britain became more self-sufficient. Army supply was more local than ever, with few imports from the Continent. A major pottery industry (Crambeck) was established in the north, close to Hadrian’s Wall, and there were large concentrations of potteries in the Nene Valley and Hampshire.

Whereas the army of the conquest had consumed vast quantities of olive oil, imported in amphorae from Spain, the 4th-century army subsisted almost entirely on local produce.

Blacksmith

Pottery fragment from Corbridge Roman Town depicting Vulcan, the god of fire and metal-working. The town was a busy supply base for Hadrian’s Wall, where there would have been a constant demand for skilled metal-workers to make and repair tools and armour.

SMALL TOWNS

The growth of the economy of what was a peripheral frontier province was made strikingly clear by the growth of the so-called small towns, a network of settlements that did not have the same status or appearance as a city (or civitas capital).

These urban centres were like nothing in the pre-Roman Iron Age. They had sizeable populations performing well-developed industrial or commercial activities, most commonly ironworking, pottery and glass manufacture. They were places where agricultural products and services could be exchanged.

Some were more obviously agricultural in character: rural villages, essentially, of varying size. The small towns tended to be on the road networks (like Wall in Staffordshire), sometimes originating on the sites of former military bases.

Roman coins discovered at Richborough, Kent

Coins from the late 4th century are rare in Britain, yet over 20,000 from the period AD 395–402 have been found at Richborough in Kent. This is the largest late Roman coin collection to be discovered in Britain.

PROSPERITY

In the developed province of the 3rd and 4th centuries, the distribution of small towns coincided with that of villas. In these towns, villa owners and small-scale farmers could obtain specialist products (like tools) and services (such as a local vet).

Lowland Britain in the 4th century was agriculturally prosperous enough to export grain to the Continent. This prosperity lay behind the blossoming of villa building and decoration that occurred between AD 300 and 350.

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