Trade in the Eastern Mediterranean, 100-700 AD

Since the beginning of time, exchange and trade have played an important role in the development of civilizations. They function as a mechanism that allows individuals, cities and empires the opportunity to grow beyond the natural resources available to them. While exchange can refer to the transfer of numerous items such as goods, services, ideas, or even customs, trade is usually defined as the exchanging of material goods or commodities. In order to make this analysis of trade manageable, I will limit the study chronologically from the year AD 100 to 700, a time frame typically viewed by modern scholars as a period of declining trade activity (Finley 1973), (Jones 1974), (Hopkins 1980). The intention of my study will be to determine the scale and nature of trade in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as its importance to the economy of that area. In order to answer this question my study will focus on the nature of trade, its direction, its volume, the goods or commodities being traded, the relationship of this trade to local and global economies, and its role in the metamorphosis of Late Antiquity.


Three differing modes of exchange have been identified by anthropologists: reciprocity, market exchange, and redistribution (Polyani, Arensberg, and Pearson 1957). Reciprocity is the exchange of goods between individuals for mutually acceptable terms. Market exchange results when a central selling point, such as a market, is established for the buying and selling of goods. Redistribution occurs when an organization gathers the goods at a central point and then redistributes these materials as needed to outlying areas. Since the term trade can encompass a wide variety of different meanings, it is important to establish a definition for what I designate as "trade." For the purposes of this study trade is defined as the exchange of goods for other goods, monetary remuneration, or services and can be performed on a local, intermediate, or long distance level.

Literary Sources

The use of different types of literary sources has been important to this study. The works of ancient historians and chroniclers, such as Procopius and Theophanes, have been examined for all indications of trade, but particularly for large scale trade. Since few historians directly address trade in their works, most of the evidence concerning trade has been incidental information based upon facts mentioned briefly in the texts.. These works provide two main types of information on trade. First, governmental involvement with trade and even volume of commercial activity has been evident in the historical accounts. Secondly, trading routes between specific areas can be discerned by the listing of import and export goods in the historians’ writings. Legal sources, such as the Codex Theodosianus and Codex Justinianus, also show how the government tried to control and use commercial activities for its gain. Hagiographical sources (the lives of religious figures), such as that of Saint John the Almsgiver, on the other hand often provide first hand accounts of trading on a local level, information concerning regional trade, as well as better understanding of the way religion and trade interconnect.

Archaeological Evidence

Recent scholarship has attempted to use new approaches in determining the extent and importance of trade. As the amount of archaeological information increases, more scholars are attempting to use this data to supplement existing evidence, particularly for questions that lack straightforward answers. While efforts have been made in the past to utilize archaeological evidence, new methods, most notably the quantification of data, have helped the modern researcher better interpret the large amounts of available cultural material (Randsborg 1991), (Duncan-Jones 1974), (Greene 1986). Quantification of data allows many different items to be analyzed together in the study of trade, permitting a more accurate comparison of the presence and omission of specific trade goods. Such quantitative analysis allows patterns and trends to be noted over periods of time both for general, as well as specific, regions.

One of the archaeological sources most frequently used in examining trade is the study of pottery and amphorae, the most commonly used containers for seaborne transport. Several factors contribute to the usefulness in examining the remains of pottery and amphorae. Not only are they extremely durable, often surviving for thousands of years, but they were common objects of their time. The art work, design, and fabric of pottery and amphorae allows the origin of manufacture to be determined, which is useful in determining trading routes and extent of trade (Peacock and Williams1986), (Pucci 1983).

Another modern source of information is found in nautical archaeology. Shipwrecks provide data from their cargo and the ship itself. The cargo recovered from a shipwreck can reveal the ports the ship visited during its voyage. This can help demonstrate trading routes, commercial links between certain cities, and the type of goods traded. Quantifying the number and location of wreck sites can also lead to conclusions concerning the importance of shipping during specific periods and in specific regions. Caution, however, must be used when doing this type of analysis since a shipwreck might not be representative of the shipping during their time, or that underwater work in certain areas might be proceeding faster than in other areas. Shipwrecks, however, will still provide valuable data for this study (Parker 1984).

Related to the evidence obtained from nautical archaeology is the information that can be gained from the study of ports and harbors. Similar to landscape archaeology, the study of the rise and decline of these sites reveals much about trade in the region (Meiggs 1973). These locations, as opposed to a shipwreck, offer the scholar an opportunity to view trading activity over a span of years instead of at a fixed point in time. This allows trends and patterns to be observed for that region and its trading activity. Changes in buildings, archaeological remains, inscriptions, and art work can be analyzed to determine the importance of trade in that region.

Approximately 10 to 20 archaeological sites will be examined for their possible contributions to this study. The archaeological evidence from these sites will be combined to form a picture of the trading activity conducted in the Eastern Mediterranean. The use of information from different sites does present a problem. Since the sites were excavated by various archaeologists using different methods over many years, it will not always be possible to compare sites on a one to one basis. Another limiting factor is that many sites are poorly published and their publications fail to contain the raw data needed for quantitative analysis. This will be balanced by several sites at which I have direct access to first hand material, such as Isthmia and sites on Cyprus. This archaeological evidence, when combined with other types of data, such as Mediterranean weather patterns, will produce a solid pattern of commercial activity.


My first step in approaching the question of trade in Late Antiquity was in defining the chronological and geographical parameters of the study. My research is limited to the time period AD to 717, a period chosen for several reasons. It was an era of vast change as the Roman Empire, and its borders in particular, ebbed and flowed. More importantly, this period has been usually seen in only two ways. Most scholars see this time period as one in which there was little trade because the economy was tied to agricultural factors. Other scholars, if they accept that there was commercial activity, believe that this was disrupted by the Vandals or the Muslims. Both these views are typically based upon prior scholarship that has gone unquestioned and these assumptions need to be examined to determine if these two prevailing hypotheses are correct. Geographically my survey is limited to areas bordering the Mediterranean Sea, starting with Greece and running clockwise around to Carthage which will be only examined in relation to its trade with the eastern Mediterranean. This allows me to focus on the trade that flourished in the east.

The first part of my study followed the standard methodology of ancient historians. A literature search was employed to gather all data dealing with commercial activity. Using the literary evidence,100 I have created a picture of trading activity during this time period. Having completed this section, the second stage of my survey has begun. Archaeological evidence from different sites is being examined to create the archaeological picture of trade at this time. These sites include Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Palestine, Egypt, Libya, and Carthage. One of the main focal points is the study of the pottery from these sites. The pottery will be examined on an individual site basis as well as compared against other sites in an attempt to determine relative values of scale. Using data from the archaeological sites, I believe a trading pattern can be established. While the sites will reveal information pertinent to the trading activity at that particular site, the combination of multiple sites allows a more regional view to be created. The final step will be in reconciling the two pictures (if needed, and I do not believe that to be the case) and creating one, uniform conclusion. This picture will illustrate the directional flow of trade, its commodities, and their volume. Based upon this evidence it will be possible to demonstrate both the importance and nature of trade in the Eastern Mediterranean.

©Robert Scott Moore, 2002

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