Supply Chains of the Roman Empire

Imagine it is the year 300 AD and you have just been promoted to run the family business. Your family is one of the wealthiest families in Roman Africa – the Septimii. The family owns extensive olive growing estates and is a major player in the olive oil export business. Are you up to the challenge of running this operation?

The Roman Empire got most of its wheat and a large portion of its olive oil from its provinces in North Africa. The province of Tripolitania (now part of Libya) produced an enormous amount of oil (olive oil), and huge fortunes were made growing olives and exporting the oil to Rome. Here is a picture of that supply chain.

Leptis Olive Oil SC2
(background map courtesy of Google Maps – click for larger image)

There were five main parts to that supply chain and they are still quite visible today. Let’s take a quick look at them to see how the supply chain worked. Then we’ll build a simulation model of the supply chain to understand what your job might be like, and get an idea of the supply chain management skills you’ll need to be successful at your job.


This supply chain originated in an area of North Africa once called the “Green Sea” because it was literally a green sea of olive trees. People had been cultivating olive trees in this area for centuries and under the Roman Empire it reached its peak. Much of the coastal plain of Tripolitania was a forest of olive trees.

Because olive oil was so valuable, extensive waterworks to support olive growing were built inland up into the dry hills at the edge of the Sahara Desert, and also out in desert valleys far from the coast. Terraces and retaining walls were built on hillsides to cause the occasional rains to soak into the earth instead of rushing into the ravines. Water that overflowed the retaining walls was captured in ditches leading to underground cisterns where it was stored for later use. And water that reached the ravines and valleys was stored behind low dams built across the valley floors so it seeped into the soil of the valley floors instead of draining off the land in flash floods.

The result was olive trees and crops like wheat could be grown on formerly barren hillsides and desert valleys. Roman demand for olive oil created a market and a supply chain that literally changed the landscape as shown in the pictures below.

Picture 1 shows a satellite view of Tripolitania. The roads between various centers of olive oil production are shown in blue. Picture A shows a close up of abandoned water works, hundreds of low dams across now empty desert valleys. Where there is just drifting sand, there were once forests of olive trees. Picture B shows a desert valley and ravines far out in the Sahara. The darker bands across the valley and ravines are strips of vegetation growing where the remains of Roman waterworks still allow water to collect and trees can grow.

Green Sea is Desert2
(photos courtesy of Google Maps – click for larger image)(photos courtesy of Saeid Zbeeda, Bani Walid, Libya, 2016 – click for larger image)


The roads led to a city on the coast where the olive oil was transferred to coastal freighters for shipment to Carthage and then on to Rome. The name of this city is Leptis Magna. The oil of Tripolitania flowed through its port. It was also the family home of the Septimii, and from this family came a dynasty of Roman emperors – the Severan dynasty. When Septimius Severus became emperor in 195 AD, he endowed his already prosperous city with a fine new harbor and forum and basilica and other buildings built on a scale to match those in Rome.

Picture 2 shows the plan of Leptis Magna and the harbor. Picture A shows the big public buildings at the center of this city, and picture B shows the now silted up harbor. It was a circular harbor with a lighthouse on the point of land extending into the sea. What is now a stretch of beach was the entrance to the harbor, and ringing the harbor were stone quays and large, two story warehouses where olive oil was stored in shipping containers called amphorae and loaded onto waiting ships. This is illustrated in the rendering below.

Leptis Harbor2


Those ships sailed west from Leptis Magna along the coast to the capital of Roman Africa – Carthage. In the big harbor at Carthage the oil was transferred from the coastal freighters to the large ships of the grain fleet that carried wheat and olive oil from Africa to the port of Rome. Picture 3 shows the remnants of the harbor at Carthage. The circular harbor (A) was the military harbor, and the commercial harbor (B) is next to it.

Picture 4 shows the harbor on the other side of the sea that was the destination for the ships from Carthage. It was the port of Rome at the mouth of the Tiber River. The port was named Ostia and its harbor was built in the shape of a huge hexagon (A). Floods from the Tiber have since silted up the harbor entrance from the sea. On a good voyage, the trip took three or four days from Carthage to Ostia.

Through this port came food and other products needed to support the largest city in the western world at that time (at least a million people). The harbor was ringed with warehouses where olive oil in large amphora were offloaded from seagoing ships. The oil was then loaded onto river barges that were pulled by gangs of workers up the Tiber River (B) to Rome.

Carthage Harbor4

Picture above left shows a harbor crane unloading a ship that is docked alongside the quay. Picture on the right shows one of the warehouses near the harbor at Ostia where products were stored. The marble inscription above the main entrance says it was owned by two freedmen, Epagathus and Epaphroditus. The building was built during the reign of the Emperor Claudius circa 145-150 AD (CE).


On a busy day hundreds of barges loaded with olive oil and other products were pulled up the Tiber and unloaded at a huge dock and warehouse complex named the Emporium (A). There the olive oil was poured from the shipping amphorae it came in and stored in large holding tanks. The shipping amphorae were then transported several blocks away to a disposal site (B). At that disposal site today is a mound of broken shards of olive oil amphorae that is still some 115 feet high (35 meters) and a bit more than half a mile in circumference (1 kilometer). Picture B shows a close up of this mound (known as Monte Testaccio). Note its size compared to the buildings around it.

Mt Testaccio

Evidence from this mound and other sources indicates Rome was importing at least 2 million U.S. gallons (7.5 million liters) of oil annually. In the above rendering of the Emporium on the Tiber River the disposal site for olive oil amphorae can be seen in the upper right corner.


In the next article in this series we’ll build a model of this olive oil supply chain and simulate its operations. Compared to modern supply chains, the technology is simple. But there is more going on than you might think. There is a lot to figure out if you are going to run this supply chain efficiently and keep the family business profitable.
(See the next article in this series: Supply Chains of Rome – The Olive Oil Trade)

There is a working model of this supply chain available in the SCM Globe library. You can import it into your account and explore the issues discussed here in greater depth. See more about this case study here –

[ We are glad to provide a free evaluation account to instructors and supply chain professionals interested in exploring SCM Globe simulations — click here to request an account — Get Your Free 30-Day Trial Demo ]


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