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The Economy of Roman North Africa and its Organisation – A.G.Williams (2013)

The Economy of Roman North Africa and its Organisation

Ashley George Williams

2nd year BA student University of Durham


The Roman economy of North Africa was largely directed by its lead exporter, Carthage. After its destruction in 146 BC, Punic Carthage was rebuilt to serve the Roman market. This paper gives a short outline of the main modes of production and revenue for Roman Carthage and ends with a discussion of the problems faced when exploring the archaeology of the Roman economy of North Africa.  It is intended to reflect Carthage as a justified example of the Roman economy of North Africa particularly during its most prosperous period of AD 200-400.

Estates and Villas 

Initially the new ownership of estates and villas became the biggest source of revenue for Rome after the fall of Carthage in 146 BC. Prior to this, the farms and agricultural land that the Carthaginians had established had simply fed their population; their wealth grew out of maritime trade.[1] Under Rome however, agricultural production in north-west Africa was increased to such a scale that the area became known as ‘the granary of the empire’.  In fact it is claimed in Caesar’s reign that Africa Nova and Vetus alone produced nearly fifty thousand tons of grain a year, with Carthage being at the helm of production and exportation.[2]

The hierarchy of settlement ownership in North Africa has been described by Mattingly as ‘property portfolios’ on the behalf of the Roman senators.[3] Under military occupation of Carthage all property belonged to the people (ie. Rome), but after the movement of the frontiers, more and more properties became open for purchase and were obtained by members of the senate.[4] It is estimated that after the initial conquest over 5000 square miles of arable land was sold to private Roman investors.[5] We know from inscriptions such as those found at Lambasha that the Roman elite acted as landlords subletting plots to local farmers who in return handed a sum of their produce to Rome;[6] though with some continuity, local Numidian elites who sided with Rome maintained control over their land whilst paying revenue to the emperor in the form of the stipendium.[7] A great deal of foodstuffs was exported to Rome for trade, while Rome itself could draw taxes on its new lands as it pleased.

Olive-Oil Production

Before Carthage, olive-oil had not been a commodity for Rome. Its importance is well emphasised by many scholars of the ancient world. It served not only as an ingredient for cooking, but as a sought after base for perfume and soaps and as a fuel for lighting lamps, virtually the only fuel for lighting in the classical world.[8]

David Soren in his book Carthage (1990) argues that under the maximum utilization of the Carthage region under Rome, the vineyards and olive groves that had played such a big part in the Punic economy were completely abandoned. He states that if Rome were to introduce African goods it would have ‘completely fouled up their economy’.[9] But this seems highly unlikely as this must also mean that Rome would have simultaneously destroyed many of the other rural/agricultural estates it obtained from Carthage. Also there seems no logical explanation for Rome maintaining a completely nationalistic economy in light of the revenue available.  What Soren seems to be doing is taking the word of Pliny the Elder as factual evidence while ignoring the archaeological evidence available to him such as the Seigneur Julius mosaic which clearly indicates the presence and the importance of olive oil production on a Roman Carthage estate.

Though it is commonly agreed that rural sites and olive vineyards can be somewhat hard to investigate[10] there is an indicator of olive oil production, amphorae.  David Gibbins argues that by the end of the 2nd century AD, North Africa became the leading exporter of olive oil, replacing Spain, due to the high surge of amphorae production in this period.[11] At sites such as the shipwreck at Plemmiro, Gibbins has identified two Amphorae types, Africana 1 & Africana 2, which appear to have been reserved solely for the transportation of olive oil and fish between North African and Italian ports such as Ostia.[12]

There is also the abundance of late 4th century ostraca, or recording tablets, which quite clearly reveal the demand for olive-oil through the shipping orders for large quantities oil to be exported from Carthage to Rome, as discussed in the study by J.T. Peña.[13]  The 31 ostraca from Carthage’s circular harbour examined by Peña were all produced from shards of African amphorae using Latin text to record the price of transactions, the destination of the olive-oil in question, and the amount of amphorae containing olive-oil which was to be shipped across the Mediterranean.[14] I think the presence of such tablets, made of African materials with Roman text, is an empirical sign of the continued cultivation of olive-oil in the Roman period of Carthage, which assertively undermines Soren’s claim of an African- product- free Roman market. 


Another important component of the Roman economy of Carthage was slave labour, with most households owning one or two slaves.[15] While slaves were initially obtained through warfare and conquest it seems that during the golden era of Carthage (200AD-400AD) debt also became a prominent cause for an individual’s loss of freedom.[16] It is argued that slavery was simply another source of Carthaginian income that Rome utilized after conquest[17] though Rome itself was not alien to the practice within its homeland.[18]

Slavery acted as a capitol product for Rome – not only did the ownership of slaves mean the services of an individual legally belonged to you, but for Roman elites there were also several taxes that could be drawn from slavery.  Duncan-Jones notes that in the 2nd century AD Nero drew a 4% tax on the purchasing of slaves on both buyer and seller, and since the early days of the Republic there had been legislation for a 5% tax on the freeing of slaves.[19]

There are also examples of substantial rewards for the capture of escaped slaves in Northern Africa in terms of individual’s revenue such as the slave collar found at Bulla Regia which has an inscription which states a return reward from the slave’s master.[20]

Problems with Understanding the Roman Economy of North Africa

Our understanding of Roman Carthage and the greater Africa Vitus is dictated by two factors – historical texts and urban archaeology.  Elizabeth Fentress and Roald F. Docter note that although excavation of Punic and Roman sites in North Africa have been going for over a century, little attention has been paid to rural sites.[21]  Many Romano-Punic sites have yet to be surveyed outside the contexts of urban developments, so most of our knowledge of economy is understood by the evidence found within the city walls and also by the historical texts available to us.  Both can be inherently misleading, the historical texts such as Pliny Elder actively seek to deny the value of Africa products in the Roman economy, whilst urban sites may disproportionately reflect the abundance of some produce over others.  I found whilst writing this paper that the majority of secondary texts I came across concerning the Roman economy of Carthage was inherently reliant upon the historical texts as in many instances this was unfortunately the only source on which to draw upon for interpretation.

Urban archaeology itself in Carthage is becoming more problematic as the years go by. More and more sites are now beneath modern structures and are inaccessible for further investigation.  Also North Africa as a whole, and most importantly Libya, has unfortunately been virtually out of bounds for international scholars due to the turmoil of the recent political upheaval in the region.


In this paper I have attempted to briefly outline the main aspects of the Roman economy of Carthage and in consequence that of Roman North Africa. Through my examination of certain products I have tried to emphasise the many debates and conflicting theories concerning an area of archaeology which in some comparisons can be seen as somewhat neglected. It is unfortunate that much of the necessary information regarding Roman Carthage has been lost through later intervention. It is fortunate however that as many rural sites of North African archaeology are yet to be surveyed there is the possibility of a wealth of knowledge which has not yet been brought to light.

Since the first Punic war, Rome actively sought to control and utilise the Carthagian economy.  Conquering Carthage gave Rome access to a huge dimension of arable land, special commodities such as olive-oil, and manpower.  It is my opinion that it is wrong to think that Rome in any way maintained a market whereby it protected the interests of its home producers; the point of the conquest of Carthage was to expand and fuel its growing economical machine. In many ways there are various points of references whereby we can make comparisons with colonial expansion and the beginnings of capitalism, but we must always inevitability battle against the subjectivity of our evidence for past societies.


Fentress, and R.F. Docter, 2008, ‘North Africa: Rural Settlement and Agricultural Production’in P.V. Dommelen and C.G. Bellard (eds), Rural Landscapes Of The Punic World, London

Duncan-Jones, 1990, Structure and Scale in the Roman Economy, Cambridge

Gibbins, 2001, ‘A Roman Shipwreck of c. AD 200 at Plemmirio, Sicily: Evidence for North African Amphora Production during the Severan Period’, World Archaeology, Vol. 32, No. 3, pp. 311-334

A.B.A.B. Khader and D. Soren, 1987, Carthage: A Mosaic of Ancient Tunisia, New York

D.J. Mattingly, 1997, ‘Africa: A Landscape of Opportunity?’in D.J. Mattingly (ed), Dialogues in Roman Imperialism: Power, Discourse and Discrepant Experience in the Roman Empire, pp117-139, Portsmouth

Peña, J.T. 1998, ‘The Mobilization of State Olive Oil: Late 4th c. Ostraca’ in J.H. Humphrey (ed), Carthage Papers – The Early Colony’s Economy, Water Supply, a Public Bath and the Mobilization of State Olive Oil, Michigan

Raven, 1993, Rome in Africa(3rd Edition), London

Soren, A.B.A.B Khader and H. Slim, 1990, Carthage, New York

[1] Raven 1993, 81

[2] Raven 1993, 71

[3] Mattingly 1997, 123

[4] Raven 1993, 83

[5] Khader and Soren  1987, 51

[6] Mattingly 1997, 123-125

[7] Soren et al 1990, 166

[8] Raven 1990, 92

[9] Soren et al 1990, 173

[10] Fentress and Docter 2008, 102-103

[11] Gibbins 2001, 311

[12] Gibbins 2001, 314-316

[13] Peña 1998, 117-235

[14] Peña 1998, 120

[15] Khader and Soren 1987, 56

[16] Khader and Soren 1987, 56

[17] Khader and Soren 1987, 56

[18] Duncan-Jones 1990, 195

[19] Duncan-Jones 1990, 194-195

[20] Khader and Soren 1987, 229-230

[21] Fentress and Docter 2008, 102-103


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