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Roman olive press mosaic (200-250 AD) now in St. Germain en Laye, France - the Roman economy

The Roman economy: a Roman olive press mosaic (200-250 AD) now in St. Germain en Laye, France

Farming in the Roman economy

Most people in the Roman world were farmers. Some of the people who worked on farms were slaves, but most of them were free.

More about farming and debt
Slavery in Ancient Rome
All our Ancient Rome articles

Some farmers owned their own land. But most people had to rent their land from a richer person. Farmers spent their time plowing, scattering seeds on the ground, pulling up weeds with a hoe, harvesting, and processing the food they had harvested so it would be good to eat and last for a long time. They threshed grain, pickled cucumbers, and pressed olives and grapes into olive oil and wine.

More about olive oil
More about barley
When did people start to drink wine?

A Roman man blowing glass

A Roman man blowing glass

What did Roman farmers grow?

Depending on what land they had, people grew wheat and barley and olives and grapes and apples, pears, figs, onions, cilantro, rosemary, and celery. They also grew lettuce, lentils, chickpeas, and many other foods. Some people raised pigs and cattle and sheep for meat. Some people kept chickens.

History of chickens
History of pigs

Not everything farmers grew was for food. A lot of people grew flax to make linen for clothing, ropes, and sails. Other people kept sheep for their wool.

All about Roman clothing
What is linen?
History of wool

Roman surgical instruments

Roman surgical instruments

Roman markets and Roman taxes

Mostly farmers didn’t just eat what they grew. They sold what they grew in markets in the towns, and bought food in the market to eat, the way most farmers do today. And they paid taxes, as farmers do today. Roman farmers paid their taxes partly in money and partly in food.

More about the history of taxes
When did money get started?

Buying stuff in Roman stores

Roman glass bowl - the Roman economy produced a lot of glass to sell within the Roman Empire and internationally

Roman glass bowl – the Roman economy produced a lot of glass to sell within the Roman Empire and internationally

With the money they got from selling their crops, these Roman farmers also bought clothes and furniture and tools. They bought flip-flops and basketsclothesglass drinking cupspottery dishes, leather, and animals to sacrifice to the gods.

History of baskets
Blown glass and the Silk Road 
All about Roman pottery
History of leather

Roman bronze coins - money and the Roman economy

Roman bronze coins

Walking to work

A lot of these farmers lived in small villages or on isolated farms, but a lot of them also lived in bigger towns, and walked out to their fields every day. Some people who lived in small villages made charcoal in the forests to sell for fuel.

What is charcoal?

In villages, people mostly lived in mud-brick apartment buildings with courtyards, and they did their cooking on braziers in the courtyards.

More about Roman apartments
What is a brazier?
Roman fast food restaurants

Slave collar with tag asking the finder to return the slave

Slave collar with tag asking the finder to return the slave

People who lived in town often lived in small apartments, with no courtyards, and didn’t have kitchens, so they bought most of their food from street vendors or in fast food restaurants.

Roman businesses – textile factories and working women

a mosaic of Roman trading ships - Roman trade was important to the economy

a mosaic of Roman trading ships

Rich people and their slaves also lived in the towns. Most of these rich people owned a lot of land, and rented it out to poorer farmers, or made their slaves farm it. Many of the rich people ran businesses, making clothes or tools in factories. Some rich people owned mines, and had thousands of slaves digging up gold and silver, iron, salt, coal, copper, tin, and other things in mines. Many people were involved with fishing. Others worked in factories processing fish into a fish sauce called garum.

What is garum?
History of fishing

Most of the people who worked in these factories were enslaved. Roman people didn’t usually have jobs that paid money by the year or by the hour, like we do. But the Romans considered people who worked for money to be not much different from slaves, anyway.

Slavery in ancient Rome, again
Roman schools and teachers
Roman doctors and medicine

A man in a tunic with dreads in Roman North Africa

A man in a tunic with dreads in Roman North Africa

Some poorer men in the towns taught school, or were doctors, or carried water, or ran bakeries, or begged. Women in the towns sold things in stores, or worked as wet-nurses or waitresses, or begged. Women didn’t generally teach school in ancient Rome. But there were women who worked as doctors and as midwives.

Women’s work in ancient Rome
What is a wet-nurse?
What is a midwife?
Roman waitresses

But many women worked at home or in big spinningknitting, and weaving factories, making clothes for rich people to sell. Many of these people working in towns were also enslaved.

The Roman Empire and international trade

a Roman amphora,used as a shipping container

Roman trade: a Roman amphora,used as a shipping container

Roman people didn’t have to just buy things that were made locally. Traders sailed across the Mediterranean Sea bringing papyrus from Egyptglass from Phoenicia, steel sewing needles from Syria.

(More about Roman glass)

Ships brought pork sausage and salt from Austria, tin from England, fish sauce and cooking pots and dishes from North Africa, and olive oil from Spain.

Even ordinary farmers could afford a lot of these things.

Roman trade with Africa, India and China

Some traders went even further, into the Indian Ocean or across West Asia, and traded with people in India or in West Asia to get Indian cottonpeppercinnamon and medicines, and even silk that came all the way from China.

(More about the history of pepper)

Tombstone of Septimia Stratonice, a shoemaker about 100 AD

Tombstone of Septimia Stratonice, a shoemaker about 100 AD

These things were more expensive than they are now, but most people were able to have them occasionally, or in small amounts.

In exchange, Roman traders sold silver, gold, wool cloth, linen, wine, and glass.

Looking for a second source to cite? Check out this excellent article!

Did you find out what you wanted to know about Roman trade and the ancient Roman economy? Let us know in the comments!

Learn by doing: grow an herb garden
More about farming

Bibliography and further reading about the Roman economy:

Medieval economy
Silk Road
Islamic Economy
Ancient Rome home