Most profitable trade goods in the Ancient Mediterannean?

Nov 2008
A lucrative source of profit for Cyrene was the medicinal plant called silphium. It grew wild and proved resistant to transplanting elsewhere in the Roman world. Its root could be pickled and its leaf eaten, and it was used as a laxative and as an antiseptic. In fact, silphium came to be considered as wonder medicinal plant, with many claiming it as an aphrodisiac to a cure for chills. It was so important to the economy of Cyrenaica that it was depicted on the coinage of that region. The plant has never been definitely identified, but it may have been related to fennel. The plant probably became extinct during the reign of the Emperor Nero.
Likes: Gisco


Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
If the early medieval Mediterranean counts, I'm afraid that it is hard to get away from the slave trade, as both McCormick and Dirhams for Slaves have demonstrated.

What about weapons? Is there any evidence of mass production of weapons (in the Roman Empire or earlier), or was this mainly a cottage industry - made by local smiths? What about the famed Spanish sword (Spanish steel)?
The Roman state had arms factories, but they were not big on people privately owning arms, and were even concerned about the export of good-quality iron to their neighbours.
Likes: Gisco


Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
Slaves , wine , olive , Garum , saffron , horses , all sort of goods were traded if there was a market for it
the trade in good often traded the Amphores which had contained the goods
the south of France manufactured some very nice pots which were as valuable as the content

the most profitable is difficult to discern , any large profit would bring competitors thus cutting the margin
grain was probably the most important per volume but it was a very large trade with rather small profit
slavers followed the armies so there must have been good profit for it but once in the great slave emporium
the margins must have been similar to other goods
a very profitable trade would be one where a monopoly was in operation , but there some taxation would take it's cut

the richest men in Rome usually traded in real estate
Likes: Gisco
Apr 2019
I appreciate that the time span of the Ancient Mediterranean is quite vast and that during this period the rise and fall of cities and empires occurred.
During the Neolithic obsidian proved to be extremely valuable as a material - there was a source of this in Turkey, not far from where the town of Catal Huyuk was located. Other sources of obsidian were located at Pantelleria and the Lipari Islands.
Copper seems to have been plentiful in Cyprus, from which the islands name is derived.
During Bronze Age Tin was very valuable material.
Tin was essential because of the nature of Bronze making, the Phoenicians moved this across the Mediterranean probably bringing it from as far away as the British Isles or at least from Gadir. The Greeks referred to the Cassiterides (the Tin Islands).
Silver from Spain or Iberia rather and also Cinnabar.
Cedarwood from the Levant to Egypt must have been a lucrative trade when it was required, I wonder how the Phoenicians managed this resource (is there much Cedar in Lebanon today?)?
The grain from the Black Sea surroundings (as already mentioned) was vital for the Athenians and once it was cut her surrender was forced. Even though I feel her expedition to Sicily was a terrible decision, there was at least some motivation for establishing alternative sources for grain (i'm sure there was even a mention of attacking Carthage in one of Thucydides speeches).
Syria was an extremely important region as trade routes to Mesopotamia crisscrossed the region and overland routes to Egypt from Anatolia were funneled through here.
If I recall correctly Egyptian scarab beetles and other kind of Egyptian jewellery were found in several corners of the Mediterranean Sea. This can lead us to think that they were luxury products with a high demand and his user used it as a symbol of status.
This is a good point as there was also the conspicuous consumption of goods that were used as status symbols and have been uncovered in so many sites as grave goods. Some fine items may even have been gifts.
Bitumen would have been important for ships and houses, it has been said that it was one of the main causes of the wholesale destruction of Carthage in the conflagration of 146 BCE. Did Rhodes supply Rosewater?
I'm sure there are many more examples of Cities specialising in certain goods or trade.........
Apr 2019
Pottery from Attica
This industry must have been widespread, the existence of so much of it in the archaeological record and the very fact that it would have had to be used widely in transportation makes it look like it was akin to an ancient pallet (was there huge differences in the prices of pottery?).
Mar 2018
Pottery was definitely made everywhere since time immemorial. But some stylised where particular popular. The red-black-white style is even today the first image that people have in their heads when thinking about classical pottery. First in Corinth and later in Athens, the mass production of such pots and their export was a major industry. I recall reading in a museum somewhere (Syracuse National Archaeological museum i think?) that a million such pots were made every year in Athens.

So it definitely is *not* an example of an industry happening only in one city. But it is an example of a city (at least partially) specialising in one industry.
Likes: Gisco


Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
The Roman were crazy about something called "lemon wood" it came from North Africa and sees to have become extinct
Purple and Safron were very valuable but required a lot of labor ,
Silk was very rare and very desirable
there was an intense trade in living animals for the circus
the emperor Claudius introduced wild bull fighting as a cost cutting measure
under Nero there were polar bears and rhinoceros

as usual the high risk for high value goods were where profits were ,if one lived to enjoy the money

Similar History Discussions