Roman Trade and Commerce

The Romans introduced the earliest coins in Carlisle. Before they arrived, barter was probably the main means of exchange.  The basic Roman coin was the denarius, which was valued at 25 to the gold piece. Originally these were of pure silver. However, as time went on inflation meant that they weighed less and the quality of the silver went down so that by 270 CE it was only 4% of the weight of the coin. [See Image 1]

In 301CE (AD), the emperor Diocletian fixed the price of goods in the Roman Empire and also the amount people were paid. Much of what he specified survives and allows comparison between what people earned and what items cost. For example, a half litre of best quality wine cost 30 denarii, 500 grams of fish cost 8 denarii and an 8 litre measure of wheat 100 denarii; an elementary teacher would earn 50 denarii per pupil per month, the attendant at the bath house would be paid 2 denarii per bather and an average Legionary soldier would be paid 15,400 denarii per year.

Trade in Roman Carlisle can be divided into material that was made locally and material that was imported from other parts of Britain and the Empire. Locally produced material included many agricultural products such as grain and wool. Some of the  local grain was made into beer. One of the writing tablets from Castle Street may be addressed to a dealer in this type of grain. Some pottery was made locally, as kilns have been found at English Damside (near the station) and on Fisher Street (between the covered market and the dual carriageway). [See Image 2]

Materials imported into the area included pottery, both from other areas in Britain and from continental Europe, barrels and their contents, and foodstuffs. The most well-known pottery is the red shiny type called samian ware that was imported from Gaul, what is now France and Germany. The recent excavations on the Roman fort in Carlisle produced a fragment of amphora (shown here) that was labelled fish relish from Tangiers, showing long-distance trade in luxury foods. Olive stones, grape pips and fig seeds provide other evidence for imported food. None of these plants would have grown in Roman Carlisle. [See Image 3]

One of the main reasons why trade during the Roman period was so wide ranging was the road system. Before the Romans came to Britain, most roads were only tracks. However, in order to be able to move their army around quickly, the Romans built proper paved roads. This allowed travel to be much quicker encouraging long-distance trade, However, the evidence from the Vindolanda writing tablets suggests that in winter even Roman roads became difficult to travel on. One person writes that he would have collected his hides but the roads were bad and he didn’t want to injure his pack animals.