While our sources mention numerous prices of a wide range of commodities, the question remains to what extent these prices offer insight into the ancient economy. Despite the wealth of data, reliable prices of everyday goods under normal market conditions are rare. The extent to which they can be used to analyze such topics as market integration, living standards, market stability, and inflation is limited. Only regarding Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt do we possess sufficient market prices (rather than imposed prices or valuations) to conduct meaningful analyses. For most of the rest of the empire, the prices—in particular those of everyday goods—are generally too uncertain, too sparse, and too diverse to form a solid basis for economic analysis. It is a valid question, moreover, to what extent prices in the ancient world reflect the interplay of supply and demand according to modern economic theory. Nevertheless, ancient writers depict price levels as depending on the interplay of supply and demand, and market transactions, as narrated in our sources, emphasizing competition and bargaining, make clear that price formation was largely determined by economic forces. Hence, prices fluctuated over time and differed in various places. The authorities tried to keep prices of staple foods low by influencing market conditions, but direct price fixing was rare.
Theodore John Cadoux and Robin Seager
Ludwig Alfred Moritz
Ernst Badian and Tony Honoré
Ernst Badian and Andrew Lintott
Fergus Graham Burtholme Millar and Graham Burton
Robert I. Curtis
The Mediterranean Sea dominated Greco-Roman society in many ways, but none more importantly than as a source of food. Early Punic settlers in the West and later Greeks and Romans, motivated by the need for long-term storage and commercial transportation of highly spoilable marine products, developed methods for salting fish that have persisted, albeit in more technically sophisticated ways, into modern times. Salted fish products took two basic forms, salt-fish (salsamentum, tarichos) and fish sauce (garum, liquamen, allec, muria). The former served as an appetite enhancer during the gustatio; the latter was the primary condiment used in food preparation and consumption. In addition, both products had perceived dietary and therapeutic value.
Ancient literary, epigraphic, papyrological, and archaeological sources show that salt-fish products were produced at family, artisanal, and industrial levels and played a significant role in long-distance trade. Greeks and especially Romans, for whom evidence is more plentiful, established processing centers at places on the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, including in some urban areas, that offered sources for fresh water, salt, and fish, particularly pelagic species. Extant remains of fish salteries (cetariae), especially in Spain, North Africa, and the Black Sea, display consistent patterns of vat construction, arrangement, and operation that imply a common origin for the salting process. The most active period of production of and commerce in salted fish occurred between the 1st century
Arnaldo Momigliano and Tim Cornell
Almost all inhabitants of the ancient world were dependent to varying degrees on retailers to supply them with at least some food items, raw materials, or manufactured goods, and this was particularly true of urban inhabitants. While the amount of built commercial space increased in the Hellenistic period and was a particular feature of Roman urban centres, we cannot trace a simple linear development from periodic markets through to permanent shops. Instead the retail trade remained varied throughout antiquity, consisting of periodic and permanent markets, shops and workshops, and street stalls and ambulant hawkers, all of which performed complementary roles within an integrated network of distribution. The size of the local market, however, inevitably had an impact on the organisation of the retail trade, with increased specialisation and clustering of trades possible in larger urban centres, where a wider range of products was typically available to the consumer and capital investment in dedicated commercial space was encouraged by the level of demand for goods.
Ancient shopping was an immersive and interactive experience. Prices fluctuated in response to market pressures and were very often arrived at through haggling and bargaining. Markets, shops, and streets were as much places of social interaction as they were of shopping, and men and women mixed freely as both buyers and sellers. Advertising and marketing may have been rudimentary, but the attempts by retailers to maximise sales contributed to the colorful and vibrant nature of the ancient commercial environment; the open doorways of shops and workshops facilitated interaction between those inside and outside, and goods, sellers, and customers often spilled out onto the street, while painted notices and signs displayed goods for sale, and the distinctive shouts of sellers competed loudly for the attention of potential customers.
J. P. Wild
Frederick Norman Pryce, John Boardman, and Michael Vickers
D. M. MacDowell
Athenian officials appointed annually by lot to supervise the sale of grain, barley-meal, and bread, and prevent overcharging. There were originally five for the town of Athens and five for *Piraeus, but later the numbers were increased to twenty and fifteen respectively.