Chapter 15

The Commerce of the Romans with the Barbarians

September 20, 2021

THE Romans erected a vast empire in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

The weakness of the people and the tyranny of their laws united this immense body. The Roman policy was then to avoid all communication with those nations whom they had not subdued. The fear of carrying to them the art of conquering, made them neglect the art of enriching themselves. They made laws to hinder all commerce with barbarians.

Valens and Gratian said “Let nobody send wine, oil, or other liquors to the barbarians, though it be only for them to taste."

Gratian, Valentinian, and Theodosius adds= “Let no one carry gold to them. If they have any, let our subjects deprive them of it by stratagem.”

The exportation of iron was prohibited on pain of death.

Domitian was a prince of great timidity. He ordered the vines in Gaul to removed from a fear that their wines should draw the barbarians. Probus and Julian had no such fears. They ordered them to be planted again.

After the decline of the Roman Empire, the barbarians obliged the Romans to establish staple towns and to trade with them. But even this is a proof that the minds of the Romans were averse to commerce.

Chapter 16= The Commerce of the Romans with Arabia, India

The only foreign trade of the Romans was to:

  • Arabia Felix, and
  • India

The Arabians had immense riches from their seas and forests.

  • They sold much and purchased little.
  • They drew to themselves the gold and silver of the Romans.

Augustus knew of that opulence. He resolved they should be either his friends or his enemies. With this view, he sent Elius Gallus from Egypt into Arabia who then found the Arabs:

  • indolent,
  • peaceable, and
  • unskilled in war.

He fought battles, laid sieges to towns, and lost but seven of his men by the sword. But his army was ruined by:

  • the perfidy of his guides
  • long marches
  • climate
  • lack of provisions
  • distempers
  • ill conduct

He was therefore obliged to be content with trading to Arabia by giving them gold and silver in exchange for their commodities, like other nations. The Europeans trade with them still in the same way. The caravans of Aleppo, and the royal vessel of Suez, carry thither immense sums.

Nature had formed the Arabs for commerce, not for war. But when those quiet people came to be near neighbours to the Parthians and the Romans, they acted as auxiliaries to both nations.

Elius Gallus found them a trading people.

The prophet Mohammad happened to find them trained to war. He inspired them with enthusiasm, which led them to glory and conquest.

The commerce of the Romans to India was very considerable. Strabo says that in Egypt, the Romans employed 120 ships for commerce, which was carried on entirely with bullion. They sent thither annually 50,000,000 sesterces.

Pliny says that the merchandise brought from India was sold at Rome at generally a 100% profit.

If this trade had been so vastly profitable, everybody would have engaged in it which would then end the vast profits.

Was the trade to Arabia and the India of any advantage to the Romans? They were obliged to export their bullion thither, though they had not, like us, the resource of America, which supplies what we send away.

I think that the continual exportation of silver to the India led to a shortage at home. This then caused them to debase their coin. Indian commodities were sold at Rome at 100% profit. But this was obtained from the Romans themselves, and could not enrich the empire.

However this commerce increased Roman navigation and their naval power to bring in new merchandise which:

  • augmented their inland trade
  • encouraged the arts and employment to the industrious
    • the local population grew proportionally to the new means of support

this new commerce produced luxury, which I have proved to be as favourable to a monarchical government, as fatal to a commonwealth this establishment was of the same date as the fall of their republic the luxury of Rome was become necessary; and that it was extremely proper, that a city which had accumulated all the wealth of the universe, should refund it by its luxury.

Strabo says that the Romans had a larger trade to India than to the Egyptian kings. But it is very extraordinary, that those people who knew so little commerce, should have paid more attention to the commerce of India, than the Egyptian kings, whose dominions lay so conveniently for it.

After Alexander’s death:

  • the Egyptian kings established a maritime commerce to India.
  • the Syrian kings sixth chapter established a commerce carried on partly by land, and partly by rivers through the Macedonian colonies

Thus, Europe had trade with India by Egypt and Syria.

Syria was lost to become Bactriana. It was not prejudicial to this commerce. Ptolemy says that Marinus the Tyrian mentioned the discoveries made in India through some Macedonian merchants.

They found out new roads unknown to kings in their military expeditions. They went from Peter’s tower as far as Sera. The discoveries made by mercantile people of so distant a mart, situated in the north-east part of China, was a kind of prodigy.

Hence, under the kings of Syria and Bactriana, merchandise were conveyed to the west from southern India, by the river Indus, the Oxus, and the Caspian sea; while those of the more eastern and northern parts were transported from Sera, Peter’s tower, and other staples, as far as the Euphrates.

Those merchants directed their route, nearly by the 40th degree of north latitude, through countries situated to the west of China, more civilized at that time than at present, because they had not as yet been infested by the Tartars.

While the Syrian empire was extending its trade to such a distance by land, Egypt did not greatly enlarge its maritime commerce.

The Parthians soon appeared and founded their empire. When Egypt fell under the Romans, Parthia was at its height and became the rivals of Rome. This closed off commerce.

Ambition, jealousy, religion, national antipathy, and difference of manners, completed the separation. Thus the trade from east to west, which had formerly so many channels, was reduced to one.

Alexandria was the only staple, so the trade to it was immensely enlarged.

The principal branch of its inland trade was the wheat brought to Rome for the subsistence of the people. But this was rather a political affair than a point of commerce.

On this account the sailors were favoured with some privileges, because the safety of the empire depended on their vigilance.

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