Firms, family, friends, guilds: how open were Roman trade networks ?
Trade is unthinkable without networks linking merchants—structuring contacts. The wandering merchant sailing the seas, venturing on rivers and roads, has little hope to rise above his station. Chance encounters, luck—sometimes good, often bad—offers no perspective of lasting improvement. Trading systems may be very diverse. But great or small, based on a few simple dyads or densely connected small worlds, they are never random. Merchants need to cooperate, negotiate, mediate. They need networks that deliver or at least promise predictability. But the shape of these networks can be almost infinitely varied, depending on cultural norms and expectations, legal requirements, distribution of resources and power, but also the personality, talent, acuity and ingenuity of real living merchants.
The Roman world of trade was not uniform. It offers examples of different types of networks. Different solutions to similar problems in different contexts. In this paper I propose to analyze three cases—each special in its own right, but precisely for that reason offering clearly different examples of what was possible. The first case is that of Delos, characterized by a few highly formalized non-roman associations and a less formalized (but not informal !) community of Roman/Italian merchants. The second that of imperial Puteoli, closely linked to Delos in the Late Republic—harbouring still a few foreign resident association—but organized very differently through extended-familia and patronage networks stretching from the familia Caesaris to Alexandrine and Greek merchants. The third is that of the Nehalennia merchants in late second/early third century, operating at the edge of the empire on the North Sea and Rhine in a strongly militarized region. By analysing these three cases we will study the pros and cons of formalization of mercantile cooperation and collectives.