Monday, 22 August 2016

Shopping and Trading in Roman Britain

The Romans never took to the the weather. The gag from the 1960s spoof movie Carry On Cleo is quite appropriate:

Bilius: Hail, Mark Antony!
Mark Antony: Hail - snow, rain, thunder, lightning - the lot!

What the Romans wanted was business, as they still say in Soho.

Britain was well known to the ancients, not only Greeks and Romans but also Carthaginians. Long before Pytheas of Marseille wrote the (lost) On the Ocean, Chimilkat (Himilco Poenas, the Punic) had visited; his account survived until at least late imperial times, because he is referred to three time in Ora Maritima, a poem on the sea coasts of the Roman Empire, by Rufus Festus Avienus in the early fifth century AD. You can read more about Pytheas in Barry Cunliffe’s The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek (Penguin 2001).

Julius Caesar would have had access to both Himilco and Pytheas, and it is quite possible that the opening parts of his description of Britain in Book IV of De Bello Gallico is based on that. There are descriptions of Britain’s distinctive shape and nature in the Getica of Jordanes, on the very first page of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica and in Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum. All of those seem to draw on Caesar. There may have been other Greek and Roman peripli of Britain that we know nothing about.

As Britain was a major source of tin for bronze (still important in the Iron Age) there had been trade for a millennium and more before Rome conquered. Diodorus Siculus, a younger contemporary of Caesar, wrote in detail about Britons taking tin out to an island to be loaded onto deeper-water ships (Biblioteka Historike).

Since tin was and is mined in Cornwall and west Devon, the island may have been St Michael’s Mount. Alternative choices include Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour, Dorset, which curiously was the site of the world’s first major Boy Scout jamboree; there is an Iron Age harbour at nearby Hengistbury Head , Hampshire-until-1974 (Hynesbury Head until the 19th century and nothing to do with the Anglo-Saxon figure Hengist). Another possibility is Scilly, the island group off the west coast of Cornwall; at that time, it may have been a single island as Roman sources call it Insula Scillonia (‘Syllan’ in Cornish).

According to Diodorus, a Greek-speaking Sicilian, ships from the Veneti, a people from Gaul, living in the area near the mouth of the River Loire, collected the tin from the island and brought it over to their area. This is the area today known as the Vendée, derived from their name (as is its ancient capital Vannes). They then loaded it into shallow-draught boats and took it all the way upstream on the Loire, then down the Rhone to the Mediterranean and thence to Italy. There would have needed to have been portage from the upper Loire to the mid-Rhone, south of Lyon, as there are rapids on the Rhone at this point. The portage from Loire to Rhone takes one across the Morvan and Gévaudan. 

Evan today, Burgundy's Morvan landscape is quite daunting
This is even today a wild region and not one known for its friendliness to outsiders. Anyone who reads Robert Louis Stevenson’ Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879) will be surprised at the hostility he encountered there. One of the surveyors of the map maker Jacques Cassini was murdered there because the locals assumed he was a Parisian spy, or worse, a tax collector. My point is this was a highly valued cargo and the profit must have been extremely good to warrant such long-distance trade.

Clearly the tin trade was well known in Caesar’s day. As with all trade and exchange, what did they exchange the tin for? The best guess is wine. This seems to be the case in later, Christian, times, when ships from Gaul called in to deliver wine, needed for the Christian Eucharist.

Another item to trade was hunting dogs. A letter survives from Cicero to Caesar asking him to bring him back a hunting dog. These dogs may have been known as Agassians, a breed considered to be the ancestor of the springer spaniel. This dog is also mentioned by Grattius Falliscus (Cynegeticon, time of Augustus), Strabo, Tacitus, Nemesianus (Cynegetica, 4th century AD) and Claudian at the turn of the fourth and fifth centuries. Strabo (Geography IV.5.2) says the exports of Britain were ‘grain, hides, cattle, iron, silver, slaves, and clever hunting-dogs’.

We can see images of these dogs on colour-coated ware from the lower Nene Valley (modern Huntingdonshire) and in pots found at Corbridge, near Hadrian’s Wall.

Nene Valley Ware from Huntingdon, with Hunting Dogs
Hunting Dog Pot from Corbridge, Hadrian's Wall

Wool was a major export from England in the later Middle Ages. Many handsome towns with large churches in the Cotswolds and Suffolk earnt their wealth through the strong demand from Flemish weavers for high quality wool. But while Strabo knew about cattle and hides, he didn’t mention wool. It is however referred to in a letter from by Suetonius Paulinus, governor of Britannia Inferior, when he sends someone a tossia Britannica, a kind of woolen blanket, while at Tampium. (See AR Birley The Roman Government of Britain, OUP (2005) pp342-4). Suetonius Paulinus was based in York and is recorded at Corbridge. Modern Yorkshire is well known for wool; the area around Bradford, Leeds and Dewsbury was until recently known as the Woolen District.

Britain was in the Roman Empire for up to 367 years (Egypt by comparison was in the Empire for 684 years); that’s fifteen generations. Since there was already a solid trade between Britain and the empire, what did the Romans win additionally from Britain that they couldn’t get through trade?

One idea that could be explored is debt. Pre-Roman trade was exchange, and while that entails some concept of relative value, sale and purchase were not meditated through cash. There were of course many pre-Roman coins in Britain, based on the Stater of Philip II of Macedon via Gaulish copies. They should be viewed as handy-shaped pieces of bullion, rather than as part of a complex system of trade. They were issued by rulers, but rulers have always seen controlling the safety and standard of markets as part of their functions. The use of iron rods as a form of currency is more that of standard size bullion.

The revolt of Boudicca in the reign of Nero was not spontaneous as is often suggested. Cassius Dio blames it on the introduction of debt. Rich Romans had offered to make key Britons rich, and the Britons had taken the money with no understanding of servicing a loan through repayments, dancing attendance daily as clients of the Romans, let alone the abstract idea of interest. When the Britons couldn’t repay, the loan sharks (publicani) seized property, enslaved subjects and generally ‘sent the boys round’. In a very slightly different context, they thought it was liberation when in fact, as Tacitus remarked in Agricola 21, it was part of their enslavement.

One of the recently discovered London Writing Tablets, from the Bloomberg Excavation and dated before AD53, refers to a debt. The Guardian (accessed 1 June 2016) quotes:

In the consulship of Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus for the second time and of Lucius Calpurnius Piso, on the 6th day before the Ides of January (ie 8 January AD57) I Tibullus the freedman of Venustus have written and say that I owe Gratus the freedman of Spurius 105 denarii from the price of the merchandise which has been sold and delivered. This money I am due to repay him or the person whom the matter will concern

There are references to to Tertius the brewer and Junius the cooper, suggesting a kind of goldrush frontier mentality, as trade and craft specialisms flooded into the new province, which at that time had not progressed beyond the south east. One early tablet says:

… because they are boasting through the whole market that you have lent them money. Therefore I ask you in your own interest not to appear shabby … you will not thus favour your own affairs

Diodorus mentions slaves as exports, and we may ask who these slaves were. Rufus wrote to Epillicus ‘make sure that you turn that slave girl into cash’. One of them was in London and the main topic was the ‘realisation’ of an estate. (Keith Bradley, Slavery and Society at Rome, 1994, CUP, p.106). It reads as this was an estate acquired for cash or as settlement of a debt; maybe the slave girl had been a housekeeper or mistress of the owner and was now surplus stock.

A graveyard unearthed as part of the excavations for the Crossrail new metro system indicates that a lot of Londoners were  immigrants, voluntary or not, including a young woman from North Africa; maybe she was turned into cash once too often.

But who were the enslaved in Britain in the time of Diodorus, since the Romans were customers, not slave drivers? Could it be Germanic settlers? Although it is centuries in in the future, Angles from Deira were supposedly being sold in the slave market of Rome in the later sixth century when the future Gregory the Great asked about them there. The Britons were quite happy to enslave Roman sailors shipwrecked off the Elbe (Tacitus Annals 2).

Goods were evidently retailed in Britain and were imported and exported. The Notitia Dignitatum makes reference to the ‘procurator of the weaving house at Winchester’ [Venta Belgarum] in the Britains. This was one of the woollen weaving state monopolies; a distinction is made with linen weavers. It seems there were no imperial estates in Britain at the time the Notitia was compiled, although we do know about the estate of the millionairess-turned-ascetic Melania the Younger, who sold her massive estates including those in Britain shortly before the end of Roman rule in AD410.

The Count of the Sacred Bounties, an imperial official charged with overseeing the emperor’s business monopolies, not only ran weaving sheds in Britain, but also had a provost of the storehouses in London and an accountant of the general tax in the Britains. Under him would have been a number of junior staff to calculate who was liable to pay what. To what extent tax farmers were used is unknowable, and there is little or no evidence. The four/five provinces which made up the Vicariate of the Britains had two receivers of taxes, which doesn’t sound a lot, although there was a phrase used ‘and the rest of the staff’. They probably used publicani if the population was as high as is believed (five to eight million people).

The Roman government of the Britains was driven by cash. Roman subjects, later made citizens, farmed to make a crop or livestock surplus, which they took to market to sell for cash, then (probably while in town) paid their taxes in cash. They would have also bought items they could not create themselves, such as salt, an imperial monopoly. Many would have paid a miller to mill their grain and a specialist baker for flatbreads and rolls, similar to those in Gaul. As Britain was a place to which people were sent into exile, there would have existed a market for home comforts, such as wine, to extract income from such people.

The coins of Carausius, minted in London, show considerable skills in engraving. You can see one here. It was quite an investment in propaganda for a peripheral part of the Empire. Financial problems must have impacted his reign, because Carausius was overthrown by Allectus, his procurator, suggesting that Carausius had spent too much and taxed too little, with the whole project at risk of collapse.

Coins of Carausius, Emperor of Britain
There is considerable evidence across the western empire of the collapse of a cash economy in the fourth century, following hyper-inflation in the third. In Britain this can be seen in several ways: first the rise of great houses, termed ‘villae’ in conventional history, but more like manors in truth. Sharecroppers (Coloni adscripticii) on landed estates were close to the classic high medieval idea of a serf, unable to leave the land or sell possessions without the lord’s permission.

The lifestyle of such farms developed. The one at Shakenoak Farm, near Witney, Oxon is a good example.  It is the only known example of an inland fish farm (vivarium) from Roman Britain. Its lords lived a highly Romanised lifestyle, even buying an eye ointment, stamped. The site is discussed in Martin Henig and Paul Booth’s Roman Oxfordshire (2001). The vivarium seems to have been converted into a barn c.200 and the Romanised building converted into an Iron Age roundhouse. By the fifth century, the estate was fortified, and remains have been found of young men in Germanic clothes, presumed to be guards, buried aligned east-west in the Christian manner around the main building. Elsewhere on the estate remains of Germanic style women’s clothing has been found. The Ashmolean Museum’s website claims these point to the arrival of Germanic women from the continent. However, it could merely indicate a change of lifestyle, with local women adopting styles favoured by their husbands (just as in Britain, local women who marry immigrant or even local Muslim men are known to adopt Muslim women’s styles). The Germanic people may have exported women’s clothes to Britain. As Guy Halsall points out (Worlds of Arthur), the trip from Germania was not necessarily a single one way trip. As men’s clothing styles are those of the 420s, not 450s, they came across when markets were probably still working.

What we do see in the late imperial period is the steep decline of housing and possessions requiring specialist labour. In the immediate post-imperial period – within about thirty years – many Roman period buildings were deliberately and carefully demolished. We can see this very clearly in Wroxeter (Viroconium), where the lower courses of houses have been maintained, in order to pen livestock (White, R. and Barker, P. (1998) Wroxeter: Life and Death of a Roman City, Stroud: Tempus). 

View of Levelled-Off Buildings at Viroconium (Wroxeter)
There was no more specialist labour to maintain the upper floors and rooves. Some had been removed to Gaul by order of the Caesar Constantius Chlorus (recorded in a Latin Panegyric). Remaining craft labour would no doubt have worked on the expanding major villa complexes of the fourth century, but away from the towns, which were in major decline, and thus from the craft guilds.

The decline of towns, trade and money is well discussed by Simon Esmonde-Cleary in Esmonde-Cleary, A.S. (1989) The Ending of Roman Britain, London: B.T. Batsford. Money seems to be in confusion, with short supplies of coins in the London mint, and overstriking by coin forgers, something mainly seen in Britain (Numismatic Society website, consulted 20/8/16); perhaps the forgers were former mint employees. The existence of forgeries supposes a market for cash and therefore a cash market for goods. Maximus reopened the London mint for a while, minting solidi and siliquae, but otherwise the coinage came from Trier. Few coins were imported from Trier after AD404, and while Constantine III minted coins, that was only in Gaul and few have ever been found here. A number of low-value Roman coins continued in Britain till AD435.

The writings of St Patrick in the fifth century AD give his birthplace as Bannaventem Taburniae; the Shops at Bannaventa. Bannaventa (which means ‘white market’ in Brythonic) is probably the site near Whilton Lodge, Northants. (The Bannaventa page in Wikipedia is full of mistakes.) Bannaventa sits on Watling Street. There were many attempts by Irish raiders and settlers to invade Roman in the fifth century. There is no reason why Bannaventem Taburniae needs to be in the west. The church run by Patrick’s father, the deacon Calpurnius, was at the local shops, where people still came in a market economy; Calpurnius was rich enough to have a small villa nearby, possibly inherited from his father, Potitus, also a priest and maybe part of Britain’s first Christian generation; Potitus is likely to have been a local nobleman (Confessio 1). The collapse of that market economy can be seen in the same source, where Patrick, returning to Britain in about AD420 found a land so denuded of people that he and the sailors who accompanied him saw nobody for a month, and within that time encountered a herd of pigs loose on the road and abandoned beehives (Confessio 19).

Within a decade or so of Patrick’s captivity in Ireland, there was a visit to Britain by Germanus of Auxerre to negotiate with religious dissidents, who were said to be dressed in magnificent robes, including a man called Agricola (Vita Sancti Germani). Magnificent robes are rarely off-the-peg items and would need high-quality dyes, which needed to be imported.

Recent archaeology, such as that at West Heslerton, East Riding, (notably the work of Dominic Powlesland) does indicate the survival of some urbanism, with a ‘ladder community’ gradually migrating in space. Recent work has also found that early medieval Britain had plots of land allocated along Roman roads, containing houses, smallholdings and, we may assume, some craft specialisation. Ken Dark has written about the survival of Romano-British polities as Dark-Age kingdoms (Civitas to Kingdom: British Political Continuity, 300-800, Leicester University Press, 1999), and that presumes a survival of farming, trades and loyalty.


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