Transport within the Roman Empire was based on roads, navigable rivers and sea routes and focused on the Mediterranean basin, drawing on the resources of North Africa, Spain, France and the Middle East to feed and supply the fast-growing capital, whose population reached 1 million people at the peak of the Empire. The most important import was grain, which arrived in vast quantities from the ‘bread basket’ of North Africa. Other imports included everyday commodities such as cattle, olive oil, wine, wood, iron, marble and leather and more exotic luxury items such as spices, papyrus, ivory, fine glassware, semi-precious metals, and silk, which came from distant China. By the end of the 1st century BC the provinces of the Roman Empire had developed specialized commodities, especially manufactured goods, and Rome’s ever-growing road network, with its system of milestones and posthouses, was crucial when it came to both supplying and policing the Empire. However, the cost of sea transport was 60 times lower than land, so shipping was inevitably used to transport bulky everyday commodities, such as grain and building materials. The Mediterranean (‘Mare Nostrum’) was criss-crossed by shipping routes, with numerous lighthouses, docks and harbours facilitating the safe passage of trading ships to Ostia, the port of Rome. A standardized and stable currency, as well as an accurate and standard system of weight and measures, all did much to facilitate cross-border trade.
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