In April 2012, LIVESCIENCE reported on the discovery of a 3rd century AD ship which sank near Trapani, Sicily. According to the report,

Her cargo, officially consisting of assorted jars once filled with walnuts, figs, olives, wine, oil and fish sauce, also contained many unusual tubular tiles. The unique tiles were apparently valuable enough for sailors to smuggle them from North Africa to Rome, where they sold for higher prices.

These tiles were used by Roman builders and were much cheaper in North Africa than in Rome. However, googling has not turned up any further examples of smuggling in the Roman Empire in the time period I'm interested in. Nor does the Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World appear to cover this.

As duties and the value of goods varied at different times, so (I would guess) did the amount of smuggling and the kinds of goods smuggled. presumably, items with low duties would not have been worth smuggling. Is there any evidence that (for example) salt and silk were smuggled? This source (from 1875) states,

the practice of smuggling appears to have been as common among the Romans as in modern times.

but gives no details.

What evidence is there for the smuggling of goods? Do we know what kinds of goods were most commonly smuggled?

As I’m not sure how broad this question is, answers could be restricted to the smuggling of goods into the Italian peninsula and Sicily, and / or to a shorter time period (in which case, preferably during the time of the Julio-Claudian dynasty).

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    Smuggling wasn't about "forbidden goods", but about avoiding import/export taxes. If you had a cargo-laden ship and knew of a hidden cove and someone with a few wagons you could attempt to smuggle the goods to avoid tax. Commented Jan 20, 2018 at 14:20
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    Smuggling a ship's entire cargo strikes me as dangerous and difficult. More likely might be to smuggle a single wagon-full of cargo, then "officially arrive" at port the next day with the remainder. As to what would be smuggled - probably the highest taxed commodity that happened to be on the vessel's manifest. Commented Jan 20, 2018 at 14:23
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    @PieterGeerkens At different points during the history of the empire, emperors sold or grants monopolies in particular goods. Whether evading those monopolists would have led to smuggling is an interesting question. Monopolies of that type have always led to smuggling every other time they've been used.
    – tbrookside
    Commented Apr 15, 2019 at 15:24

1 Answer 1


Everything was a candidate to be smuggled -- especially when coming from outside the Empire. The port duties on goods moved from one part of the Empire to another was 1/40th of its value (in kind or cash), while goods from outside the Empire could face duties as high as 1/4th.

Tax rates come from Paolo McLaughlin's "The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean"; he claims a universal 1/4th for goods from outside the empire, but I've seen lower figures cited, so I took his as the maximum.

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    One or more sources and a few details on what exactly was getting smuggled would improve this answer. Commented Apr 5, 2019 at 20:13
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    The goods McLaughlin discusses that would be the most easily smuggled would be gems from India. Most of the other goods were either too bulky or not profitable. Tin from pre-conquest Britain? Probably too bulky. Hair from India? Too cheap. Even pepper from India may not have been worth it. Alberto Angela's "The Reach of Rome" has a vignette where a slaver tries to smuggle in an extra slave by claiming she's his daughter; those vignettes are fictional, but based on Angela's scholarship. Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 19:24
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    If I may suggest, add that to your answer with precise references. Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 19:26

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