The Gallic Exchange

Smoked hams in the marketplace

The Celtic passion for wine stemmed from the fact that it was a prestige commodity; a sign of wealth ranking alongside gold, and thus an instrument of power. Gifts of wine to dependent relatives recall the baskets of food that wealthier Romans might provide their business clients in times of need; and the provision of wine for the native poor at Celtic festivals went some way to ensuring political advancement. The stock-piling of wine conferred social stature, so independent-minded Celts arranged for newly arrived wine to be decanted out of Roman amphorae, and into their own wooden barrels.

Roman traders took full advantage of the Celtic demand for Italian wine in a variety of ways. In southwestern Gaul they could exchange wine for mineral ore, or for agricultural ironmongery, woollen clothing, and salted hams. Or they could barter just one amphora of it for the freedom of a poor native tribesman, at a time when the asking price for a slave in Rome was about sixty times higher. Whatever the nature of the transaction, it seems likely that as many as 40,000 amphorae were being imported into Gaul every year during the middle decades of the 1st century B.C., with Roman negotiators very much in control of this wine trade's organization.