When you’re in business, everyone wants their cut. A ship in port has some unique vulnerabilities from governments, unscrupulous merchants, swindlers, and pirates. Find out more about how ancient ports imperiled the wealth of captains, traders, and investors in the ancient Mediterranean. And what they did about it.
“Aeolus loosed fierce winds that beat against our ship. We lost two men.” Pityocampos pulled at his beard in a milking motion that Irta found distracting. Was it a tell? If so, what did it say about the man?
Irta looked him over. She’d invested the last of her dead husband’s money in the cargo of that ship and now the captain would claim that his ship had been wrecked. “Then we must pray to Poseidon for the souls of your men. What are their names?” Irta motioned toward the scribe who picked up his pen and looked expectantly.
“Their names?” More beard kneading. Definitely a tell. The man lied badly.
“Of course I will need their names. To inscribe on the votive disk.” She made her voice silky and kind but the man shifted nervously.
“You are too generous.”
“Clearly.” Irta began tapping her fingers in irritation. She’d taken over her husband’s business when he’d died of the fever three months ago. She’d anticipated some problems but not to be swindled so blatantly. Just over the captain’s shoulder she could see Ami playing with her son. If only his father hadn’t chosen this time to die. She’d make this deal happen send a message to the world so that no one would ever think of cheating her again.
She decided. She pointed at the scribe. “Do not allow the captain to leave until he gives you the names and details of his men.”
The scribe nodded his agreement. Irta smoothed her skirts and then left to make arrangements. They would visit the temple and talk to the priests after she’d taken care of one small detail.
She asked her maid to find a suitable cloak. She selected two stout men and two maids to accompany her. The streets of Alexandria were not always safe, even in groups, and never safe for a woman alone. She returned to the antechamber to find the scribe patting the papyrus to dry the ink and Pityocampos leaving the room.
“Captain, will you accompany me so that we may honor your men?”
“So sorry. I have to get back to my ship.”
“Mmmmm.” She smiled. “Your ship will be in harbor for a while now, won’t it? Leave it to be fixed by our city’s excellent shipwrights and come honor your men.”
She waggled her fingers and the two stout men from her guard stepped closer to the captain. She felt a gleam of satisfaction as he flinched. These men who cheated and abused women in the security of their strength were cowards when confronted with their own sex. He nodded nervously.
“Of course, Lady. I thank you for the honor and your concern.”
“I hope that all will see how I deal with my true friends and my enemies, Captain.”
They walked to the temple in a stately fashion and Irta made pleasant small talk with her maids. She had everyone stop a few times to admire a sight or cloth and jewelry for sale. Irta didn’t want to arrive too soon. An excellent stew needed a bit of time to cook properly and Irta felt it was the same with plans. The pieces of it had to muddle together to work.
She guided her little group west toward the Poseidonium, the Temple of Poseidon located near the great Bazaar and the temple of Serapis, protector of Alexandria. She glanced cooly up at the Serapeon as if reminding the god of her request and her generous donations to his temple. It was beautiful with plaques made from gold, silver, bronze, blue faience and sun-dried Nile mud plus five other plaques made from opaque glass. They shimmered in the sunlight. The gods were fickle and mysterious, answering human requests in their own time and in their own ways. Serapis either didn’t want to respond or had already responded with silence. Irta supposed she would soon learn his answer.
They climbed the stone steps to Poseidon’s grand home. They were met by two of the God’s priests who stopped them from entering the God’s presence. “What brings you here wife of Jencir?”
Irta made a courteous obeisance to the priests and then motioned to the Captain. “Two men who served Captain Pityocampos have fallen overboard. He seeks the God’s favor in the matter of their deaths.” She held her hand out and the scribe placed the scroll in her hand. “I have come to pay for inscribed votive disks to honor these men and intend to help the widows they have left behind.”
“There is no need for you to handle that personally, Lady. Merely give me the money and I will see to it that the widows receive it.” Pityocampos quickly said, interrupting the little ritual as the priest took the votive disks and the coins pressed into his palm by Irta’s scribe. She merely smiled and bowed her head politely.
Then the priest turned to Captain Pityocampos. “I am sorry that you have suffered the loss of your men, Captain. Come into the chamber so that the God may see your face and take the souls of your men. Lady you may not enter.” The color of the captain’s face turned to ash but he walked stiffly into the chamber where the enormous statue of Poseidon awaited. Irta thought his will to keep up his swindle might fail when the gods were watching, but he didn’t. He looked at her with hate in his eyes and the promise of retribution. It was a shame, she thought.
When the men had left, Irta turned her attention to the scribe. “Please pay my respects to Serapis. Remind him of my good deeds and those of my husband in his behalf. Tell the god that he owes me and my house and that I expect him to honor his side of the bargain. Then find out for me if we have been successful. Hurry.”
The scribe left in a flurry and too soon after he’d left, the men returned from Poseidon’s temple. Irta approached the priest. “Will the God accept the souls of these fine men and guide them to the afterlife?” she asked.
The priest shook his head. “Poseidon found no souls, Lady. They are either still alive or their souls were destroyed before their deaths.”
“What nonsense is this?” the captain shouted taking the priest’s arm roughly in his and shaking him.
“Do not dishonor Poseidon’s home, Captain, or you and your men will bring his anger upon you,” the priest spat. “Since you ply the seas, you rely on his favor.”
Captain Pityocampos turned red with rage but he released the priest.
Irta nodded her agreement. “Perhaps the men did not die,” she said. “Are you certain that they are honest men? I fear that they may have deceived you.”
“They are good and honest men. As good and honest as myself.”
Irta nodded. “That seems very clear.” She turned to the priest. “Are you and Poseidon satisfied?”
The priest lowered his head. “It is as you said, Lady.” He faced Pityocampos. “I offer you the hospitality of the temple until you are able to find a new berth.”
“What? I will leave to go to my ship now.”
The priest looked to Irta and she spoke. “Best to take Poseidon’s offer, sailor. Your ship has a new owner and a new captain.”
She motioned to the scribe who opened his scroll and read, “The new owners of the ship, as described and named by Pityocampos himself, are Eneas and Hali who bought out his loan and claimed his ship under their patron, the Lady Irta, widow of Jencir and Guardian of Farris.”
“As you can see, Pityocampos, they are exactly as honest and reliable as you are.” She motioned her entourage to leave. As they walked out of the temple Irta felt his angry gaze warming the flesh of her back like the sun reflecting from Dike’s golden scales of justice.
Ten Cool Facts About
Ancient Port Financials
Governments and individuals in port cities in the ancient world found numerous ways to extract money from the ships that docked there.
- As a ship entered or left the entrance to the harbor, officials hailed the ship and asked to board. Once onboard, they looked over the cargo and demanded a cut of the cargo for the harbor toll. In the Greek port of Piraeus in the fifth or fourth century BC that cut totaled two percent.
- Following the harbor toll, customs agents boarded and requested their percentage.
- Finally, the port authority came onboard to collect dues to allow the ship and crew to use the port facilities.
- Once all dues and taxes had been paid, the real value extraction began. Canny merchants in the city’s bazaar negotiated for the products carried by the ship. If the ship was hauling grain, specialized grain dealers might negotiate the best price they could get.
- In some ancient cities the ruling class set prices and controlled trade. For example, in ancient Alexandria the Ptolemaic government established prices and directly bought grain and other constrained products directly from the merchants. Rome did the same.
- Our commodity market system gets its start in the port cities of the ancient world. Small businessmen working in partnerships borrowed or raised money to invest in cargos. They invested broadly to avoid risking all their money on a single shipment.
- Traders who handled the cargo pursued the opposite strategy. The trader invested all his time and money in one cargo, accompanied the cargo on the ship, and negotiated for himself.
- Sometimes the trader actually owned the ship and the captain of the ship was his employee. In a few cases, ships were operated completely by slave crews, including the captain for the benefit of the owner. Other times the captain owned the ship and the trader paid to be transported along with his cargo.
- Borrowing the money to invest in a cargo required dealing with investors who demanded up to 30 percent interest for a loan that covered the sailing season. The equivalent yearly interest rate could be as high as 90 percent.
- Investors had to worry about more than just supply and demand turning against their investments. The sea trade had many dangers including piracy, severe storms, fraud, and rapacious merchants in other ports. In cases where ships ran aground or wrecked, hardened men would race to salvage the goods aboard the ship, often killing any survivors to make the salvage operation easier.
Ancient Port Economics Gaming Ideas
Choose one of the following as the seed of an adventure:
- A ship has disappeared and word has reached the investors that it may have been shipwrecked. However, the story of shipwreck is a lie. The adventurers are hired to find the ship and bring it back to the investors.
- A merchant and captain borrowed money eight times using the same cargo as surety. The adventurers are hired to trick the the two of them and take back all the money.
- Someone is purposely attacking ships just after they pay their customs fees, forcing them to wreck, then killing all survivors and “salvaging” the cargo. The adventurers are hired by the port authority to discover the identity of the culprits and to stop them.
Learn More About Ancient Port Economics
- The Ancient Mariners by Lionel Casson
- Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson
- The Ancient Economy by M.I. Finley
Like Google Maps or Expedia for the ancient world, this site calculates travel costs and times (both by boat and land) for the ancient Mediterranean world. The site focuses on the Roman Empire, but travel times and costs would not have varied much going back to the time of Alexander or as late as the Medieval dark ages.