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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 Roling From Egypt To The Roman Empire

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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.

Bill of sale for a donkey, papyrus; 19.3 by 7.2 cm, (126 AD) Houghton Library, Harvard University (Public Domain)

Bill of sale for a donkey, papyrus; 19.3 by 7.2 cm, (126 AD) Houghton Library, Harvard University (Public Domain)

Exporting Papyrus Rolls

When papyrus paper left Egypt in sheets or rolls bound for the Roman markets, it represented a marvelous example of the value-added principle. Papyrus paper needed little or no input, unlike grain that was sent raw to be ground into flour by the Roman mills, gold that needed to be refined and recast, or glass and linen that required much initial work, and in the case of producing glass, pottery, and refined gold, fuel was needed in a country where wood was scarce.

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Dr John Gaudet is a Fulbright Scholar to both India and Malaya and acquired his PhD from the University of California at Berkeley. His early research on papyrus, funded in part by the National Geographic Society, took him to Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, and Ethiopia. He is the author of The Pharaoh's Treasure, The Origins of Paper and the Rise of Western Civilization

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

By: Dr John Gaudet

 

John

A Fulbright Scholar to both India and Malaya, Dr John Gaudet is a writer and practicing ecologist. His early research on papyrus, funded in part by the National Geographic Society, took him to Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, and Ethiopia. A trained... Read More

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