Papyrus Rolls Rolling From Egypt To The Roman Empire

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Augustus and Cornelius Cinna Magnus Bozetto by Louis André Gabriel Bouchet (1819) Versailles Musée National du Chateau et des Trianons (Public Domain)

Papyrus Rolls Rolling From Egypt To The Roman Empire

By the first century AD, papyrus paper was available throughout the Roman Empire, a market that consisted of the area stretching from Hadrian’s Wall in the northern wilds of Caledonia, east to the dry karst plateaus of Cappadocia and the Caspian Sea, south to the lush valley of the Nile, and west to Lixus in the deserts of Mauretania. An empire of over two million square miles surrounding the Mediterranean, Mare Nostrum, “our Sea” and comprising a population of almost 100 million people, it had an enormous daily demand for food, drink, and paper. To make things easier, the Romans simply made Egypt a province. In so doing they were formalizing a long-standing arrangement. Egypt had been a major supplier of grain for many years. But even though Egypt was now a province, it was still a major trading partner.

Nebamun, a middle-ranking official ‘scribe and grain accountant’ during the New Kingdom is shown hunting in the marshes, in a scene from his tomb-chapel. British Museum (Public Domain)

Nebamun, a middle-ranking official ‘scribe and grain accountant’ during the New Kingdom is shown hunting in the marshes, in a scene from his tomb-chapel. British Museum (Public Domain)

In exchange for luxury imports and raw materials such as gold coins, glassware, olive oil, wool, purple fabric, metal weapons, and tools, Egypt exported gold, linen, glass, painted pottery, papyrus paper, and rope. For years Egypt also sent grain, which fed the ports, cities, and populace of Italy, but grain shipments were essentially a tax in kind sent to Rome instead of money.  The amounts rose to more than 100,000 metric tons per year under the first emperor, Augustus. For many items other than grain, the export business was a two-way street and thrived on finished products in preference to raw materials. Egyptian exporters saw it as an opportunity to export value-added items, a practice that goes on in many countries today as well as it did in ancient times.


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