Ancient Romans and Food Trade (Imports and Exports)

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Major food suppliers for Rome at different times in Rome’s history. Sicily, Sardinia, North Africa, and Egypt all produced vast amounts of wheat for Rome at different times in Rome’s history.

Rome depended on its many provinces to supply it with grain and other crops. Sicily, Sardinia, North Africa, and Egypt all produced vast amounts of wheat for Rome at different times in Rome’s history.

Sicily and Sardinia were important sources of grain throughout Roman history. Both islands are mountainous but fertile; Sicily’s warmer climate makes it especially suited to agriculture.

Sicily was located near the center of the Mediterranean, making it a crossroads for all ancient traffic and a magnet for conquest. The Greeks colonized it in the eighth century b.c.e. and used it as a point of trade with Corinth Rhodes, North Africa, and Italy. Carthage gradually claimed most of the island, but by 211 c.e. Rome had taken all of Sicily for itself. The Romans decided that Sicily would be best used for growing wheat. Much of Sicily’s land was divided into latifundia worked by slaves on behalf of owners back in Rome. Conditions were deplorable, and slaves revolted many times; some of the most serious revolts occurred in 135–132 b.c.e. and 104–100 b.c.e.

Under the empire the latifundia system continued in Sicily even as it declined in the rest of Europe, and Sicily remained an important source of Roman grain. Sardinia was wilder than Sicily. The Greeks seem never to have colonized it. Carthage took it in the sixth century b.c.e. but did not make any progress toward pacifying the natives.

Rome took the island from Carthage in 238 b.c.e. and turned it into a colony together with nearby Corsica, which was less fertile.

The Roman government and people never thought much of Sardinia or the Sardinians and looked on the island purely as a source of grain. It continued to supply grain to Rome until the end of the empire.

North Africa also supplied a vast amount of grain to Rome’s tables. Rome took over much of Carthage’s territory after the Punic Wars (a series of three wars fought between Rome and Carthage between 264 and 146 b.c.e.), forming a new province in northern Tunisia in 146 b.c.e.

This province encompassed some 5,000 square miles of the most fertile part of North Africa. The land there became Roman public land, and the government leased it out to grain farmers, who grew wheat for export to Rome. North African estates were vast.

Most of the land was in the hands of a few large absentee land owners, though there were also more modest estates owned by locals. Scholars believe that about half a million tons of wheat left Carthage annually.

Carthage / Pixabay

The province of Carthage’s capital city (also called Carthage) became the second largest city in the Mediterranean on the basis of its agricultural exports. By the second century b.c.e. North Africa was also exporting olive oil, figs, grapes, and beans. All African farmers had to irrigate their crops, and they invented some elaborate systems of getting water to their fields. The simplest forms of irrigation were ditches dug from rivers to fields and dams to hold the water in place, but African farmers also used machinery to move water mechanically. The shaduf was a seesaw like device consisting of a bucket attached to a long counterweighted pole on top of a frame; the weight opposite the bucket allowed farmers to lit water easily and swing it over to an irrigation ditch.

The Archimedean screw was a large screw in a tube resting on an inclined plane. The bottom of the tube sat in water, and as the screw turned, it lit ed the water up and out of the top of the tube. The saqiya was a type of water wheel turned by donkeys or oxen.

Rome took over Egypt in 30 b.c.e., after Augustus defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium.

Augustus annexed Egypt as a Roman province. This event caused Egypt’s fortunes to plummet. Augustus considered Egypt his own personal estate and exploited it at the expense of its inhabitants. Most of the country’s land was turned over to agriculture and Egypt ended up growing a large portion of the grain eaten by Romans. Egypt also supplied Rome with papyrus, a reed used to make paper. Over the next three centuries this agricultural exploitation resulted in the loss of farmland and declining fortunes for Egypt. Only after the Romans let did Egypt’s farmers reorganize their properties.

Roman provinces had their own agricultural specialties that they exported to the capital.

Crete was the best source for herbal medicines. Spain and Gaul made the best garum, a sauce that was made by fermenting fish in salt and that was used to flavor most Roman dishes. Romans also exported their own plants to other countries.

Roman soldiers and colonists missed their wine, lentils, and olives, and so they attempted to plant their own favorite foods wherever they went. Grapes did so well in Gaul (France), Germany, and Spain that wines from those regions began to be popular with Romans during the imperial period. Even distant Britain, which the Romans occupied from 43 to 410 c.e., acquired Roman crops; celery, cilantro, fennel, carrots, pears, peaches, mulberries, and many other plants that now grow there were brought by the ancient Romans.