Roman trade with India through the overland caravan routes via Anatolia and Persia, though at a relative trickle comparative to later times, antedated the southern trade route via the Red Sea and Monsoons which started around the beginning of the Common Era (CE) following the reign of Augustus and his conquest of Egypt. Having extended the Empire's reach to the upper Nile, the Romans naturally encountered the great warrior trading nation of Axum (on the Red Sea, in today's Ethiopia) which had been trading with India and Egypt for several centuries.
The use of monsoon winds, which enabled a voyage safer than the long and dangerous coastal voyage, was pioneered by the seafaring Axumite kingdom and subsequently learned of by the Romans, who in any event had cordial relations with Axum and used Axum carriers in many cases. The route so helped enhance trade between ancient kingdoms of India (present day) and Rome that Roman politicians are on record decrying the loss of specie to pamper Roman wives, and the southern route grew to eclipse and then totally supplant the overland trade route.
Roman trade diaspora frequented the ancient Tamil country (present day Southern India) and Sri Lanka, securing trade with the seafaring Tamil kingdoms of the Chola, Pandyan and Chera dynasties and establishing trading settlements which remained long after the fall of the Western Roman empire. They also outlasted Byzantium's loss of the Egypt and the Red Sea ports (ca. 639-645 CE) under the pressure of Jihad and Islam, which had been used to secure trade with India by the Greco-Roman world since the time of the Ptolemaic dynasty a few decades before the start of the Common Era. Sometime after the sundering of communications between the Axum and Eastern Roman Empire in the seventh century, the Christian kingdom of Axum fell onto a slow decline and faded into obscurity in western culture, though it survived despite pressure from Islamic forces until the eleventh century, when it was reconfigured in a dynastic squabble.
|“||Eudaimon Arabia was called fortunate, being once a city, when, because ships neither came from India to Egypt nor did those from Egypt dare to go further but only came as far as this place, it received the cargoes from both, just as Alexandria receives goods brought from outside and from Egypt.||”|
The Ptolemaic dynasty had developed trade with India using the Red Sea ports. With the establishment of Roman Egypt, the Romans took over and further developed the already existing trade using these ports.
Indo-Roman Trade during the Early Christian Era
Prior to Roman expansion, India had established strong maritime trade with other countries. The dramatic increase in Indian ports, however, did not occur until the opening of the Red Sea by the Romans and the attainment of geographical knowledge concerning India’s seasonal monsoons. In fact, the first two centuries of the Christian era indicate this increase in trade between western India and Rome. This expansion of trade was due to the comparative peace established by the Roman Empire during the time of Augustus (23 September 63 BC – 19 August AD 1), which allowed for new explorations. Thus, archeologists, with evidence from artifacts and ancient literature, suggest that a significant commercial relationship existed between ancient western India and Rome.
The west coast of India has been mentioned frequently in foreign literature, such as the Periplus Maris Erythraei. The area was noted for its severe tidal currents, turbulent waves, and rocky sea-beds. Although many ships have attempted to sail outside it in order to prevent shipwrecks, many ships were still drawn inside the gulf. As a result of the difficulties, the entrance and departure of ships were dangerous for those who possessed little sea experience. The anchors of the ship would be caught by the waves and quickly cut off, which could overturn the ship or ultimately cause a wreck. Stone anchors have been observed near Bet Dwarka, an island situated in the Gulf of Kachchh, due to these frequent shipwrecks. More importantly, the number of discovered anchors and numerous artifacts suggest that Indo-Roman trade and commerce was significant during the early centuries of the Christian era.
Onshore and offshore explorations have been carried out around Bet Dwarka Island since 1983.The finds discovered include lead and stone objects buried in sediment and considered to be anchors due to their axial holes. Though it is unlikely that the remains of the shipwreck’s hull survived, offshore explorations in 2000 and 2001 have yielded seven differently-sized amphoras, two lead anchors, forty-two stone anchors of different types, a supply of potsherds, and a circular lead ingot. The remains of the seven amphoras were of a thick, course fabric with a rough surface, which was used for exporting wine and olive oil from the Roman Empire. Archeologists have concluded that most of these were wine amphoras, since olive oil was in less demand in India.
Since the discoveries at Bet Dwarka are significant for the maritime history of India, archeologists have researched the resources in India. Despite the unfavorable conditions the island is situated in, the following items have made Bet Dwarka as well as the rest of western India an important place for trade. From Latin literature, Rome imported Indian tigers, rhinoceros, elephants, and serpents to use for circus shows - a method employed as entertainment to prevent riots in Rome. It has been noted in the Periplus that Roman women also wore Indian pearls and used a supply of herbs, spices, pepper, lyceum, costus, sesame oil and sugar for food. Indigo was used as a color while cotton cloth was used as articles of clothing, Furthermore, India exported ebony for fashioned furniture in Rome. The Roman Empire also imported Indian lime, peach, and various other fruits for medicine. Western India, as a result, was the recipient of large amounts of Roman gold during this time.
Since one must sail against the narrow gulfs of western India, special large boats were used and ship development was demanded. At the entrance of the gulf, large ships called trappaga and cotymba helped guide foreign vessels safely to the harbor. These ships were capable of relatively long coastal cruises, and several seals have depicted this type of ship. In each seal, parallel bands were suggested to represent the beams of the ship. In the center of the vessel is a single mast with a tripod base. Apart from the recent explorations, close trade relations as well as the development of ship building were supported by the discovery of several Roman coins. On these coins were depictions of two strongly constructed masted ships. Thus, these depictions of Indian ships, originating from both coins and literature (Pliny and Pluriplus), indicate India’s development in seafaring due to the increase in Indo-Roman commerce. In addition, the silver Roman coins discovered in western India primarily come from the first, second, and fifth centuries. These Roman coins also suggest that India possessed a stable sea borne trade with Rome during first and second century AD. Land routes, during the time of Augustus, were also used for Indian embassies to reach Rome.
The discoveries found on Bet Dwarka and on other areas on the western coast of India strongly indicate that there were strong Indo-Roman trade relations during the first two centuries of the Christian era. The third century A.D, however, was the demise of the Indo-Roman trade. The sea-route between Rome and India was shut down, and as a result, the trading reverted back to the time prior to Roman expansion and exploration.
Indian copy of an aureus of Faustina, 2nd century CE. British Museum.
|“||"At any rate, when Gallus was prefect of Egypt, I accompanied him and ascended the Nile as far as Syene and the frontiers of Kingdom of Aksum (Ethiopia), and I learned that as many as one hundred and twenty vessels were sailing from Myos Hormos to India, whereas formerly, under the Ptolemies, only a very few ventured to undertake the voyage and to carry on traffic in Indian merchandise."||”|
By the time of Augustus up to 120 ships were setting sail every year from Myos Hormos to India. So much gold was used for this trade, and apparently recycled by the Kushan Empire (Kushans) for their own coinage, that Pliny the Elder (NH VI.101) complained about the drain of specie to India:
|“||"minimaque computatione miliens centena milia sestertium annis omnibus India et Seres et paeninsula illa imperio nostro adimunt: tanti nobis deliciae et feminae constant. quota enim portio ex illis ad deos, quaeso, iam vel ad inferos pertinet?"
"India, China and the Arabian peninsula take one hundred million sesterces from our empire per annum at a conservative estimate: that is what our luxuries and women cost us. For what percentage of these imports is intended for sacrifices to the gods or the spirits of the dead?" - Pliny, Historia Naturae 12.41.84.
The three main Roman ports involved with eastern trade were Arsinoe, Berenice and Myos Hormos. Arsinoe was one of the early trading centers but was soon overshadowed by the more easily accessible Myos Hormos and Berenice.
The Ptolemaic dynasty exploited the strategic position of Alexandria to secure trade with India. The course of trade with the east then seems to have been first through the harbor of Arsinoe, the present day Suez. The goods from the East African trade were landed at one of the three main Roman ports, Arsinoe, Berenice or Myos Hormos. The Romans cleared out the canal from the Nile to harbor center of Arsinoe on the Red Sea, which had silted up. This was one of the many efforts the Roman administration had to undertake to divert as much of the trade to the maritime routes as possible.
Arsinoe was eventually overshadowed by the rising prominence of Myos Hermos. The navigation to the northern ports, such as Arsinoe-Clysma, became difficult in comparison to Myos Hermos due to the northern winds in the Gulf of Suez. Venturing to these northern ports presented additional difficulties such as shoals, reefs and treacherous currents.
Myos Hormos and Berenice
Myos Hormos and Berenice appear to have been important ancient trading ports, possibly used by the Pharaonic traders of ancient Egypt and the Ptolemaic dynasty before falling into Roman control.
The site of Berenice, since its discovery by Belzoni (1818), has been equated with the ruins near Ras Banas in Southern Egypt. However, the precise location of Myos Hormos is disputed with the latitude and longitude given in Ptolemy's Geography favoring Abu Sha'ar and the accounts given in classical literature and satellite images indicating a probable identification with Quesir el-Quadim at the end of a fortified road from Koptos on the Nile. The Quesir el-Quadim site has further been associated with Myos Hormos following the excavations at el-Zerqa, halfway along the route, which have revealed ostraca leading to the conclusion that the port at the end of this road may have been Myos Hormos.
In India, the ports of Barbaricum (modern Karachi), Barygaza, Muziris, Korkai, Kaveripattinam and Arikamedu on the southern tip of India were the main centers of this trade. The Periplus Maris Erythraei describes Greco-Roman merchants selling in Barbaricum "thin clothing, figured linens, topaz, coral, storax, frankincense, vessels of glass, silver and gold plate, and a little wine" in exchange for "costus, bdellium, lycium, nard, turquoise, lapis lazuli, Seric skins, cotton cloth, silk yarn, and indigo". In Barygaza, they would buy wheat, rice, sesame oil, cotton and cloth.
Trade with Barigaza, under the control of the Indo-Scythian Western Satrap Nahapana ("Nambanus"), was especially flourishing:
|“||There are imported into this market-town (Barigaza), wine, Italian preferred, also Laodicean and Arabian; copper, tin, and lead; coral and topaz; thin clothing and inferior sorts of all kinds; bright-colored girdles a cubit wide; storax, sweet clover, flint glass, realgar, antimony, gold and silver coin, on which there is a profit when exchanged for the money of the country; and ointment, but not very costly and not much. And for the King there are brought into those places very costly vessels of silver, singing boys, beautiful maidens for the harem, fine wines, thin clothing of the finest weaves, and the choicest ointments. There are exported from these places spikenard, costus, bdellium, ivory, agate and carnelian, lycium, cotton cloth of all kinds, silk cloth, mallow cloth, yarn, long pepper and such other things as are brought here from the various market-towns. Those bound for this market-town from Egypt make the voyage favorably about the month of July, that is Epiphi. - Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, paragraph 49.||”|
Muziris is a lost port city in the South Indian state of Kerala which was a major center of trade in Tamilakkam between the Chera Empire and the Roman Empire. Large hoards of coins and innumerable shards of amphorae found in the town of Pattanam have elicited recent archeological interest in finding a probable location of this port city.
According to the Periplus, numerous Greek seamen managed an intense trade with Muziris:
|“||"Then come Naura and Tyndis, the first markets of Damirica (Limyrike), and then Muziris and Nelcynda, which are now of leading importance. Tyndis is of the Kingdom of Cerobothra; it is a village in plain sight by the sea. Muziris, of the same Kingdom, abounds in ships sent there with cargoes from Arabia, and by the Greeks; it is located on a river, distant from Tyndis by river and sea five hundred stadia, and up the river from the shore twenty stadia" - The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, 53-54||”|
The Periplus Maris Erythraei mentions a marketplace named Poduke (ch. 60), which G.W.B. Huntingford identified as possibly being Arikamedu in Tamil Nadu, a centre of early Chola trade (now part of Ariyankuppam), about 2 miles from the modern Pondicherry. Huntingford further notes that Roman pottery was found at Arikamedu in 1937, and archeological excavations between 1944 and 1949 showed that it was "a trading station to which goods of Roman manufacture were imported during the first half of the 1st century AD".
The Rome-India trade also saw several cultural exchanges which had lasting effect for both the civilizations and others involved in the trade. The Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum was involved in the Indian Ocean trade network and was influenced by Roman culture and Indian architecture. Traces of Indian influences are visible in Roman works of silver and ivory, or in Egyptian cotton and silk fabrics used for sale in Europe. The Indian presence in Alexandria may have influenced the culture but little is known about the manner of this influence. Clement of Alexandria mentions the Buddha in his writings and other Indian religions find mentions in other texts of the period.
Christian and Jewish settlers from Rome continued to live in India long after the decline in bilateral trade. Large hoards of Roman coins have been found throughout India, and especially in the busy maritime trading centers of the south. The Tamilakkam kings reissued Roman coinage in their own name after defacing the coins in order to signify their sovereignty. Mentions of the traders are recorded in the Tamil Sangam literature of India. One such mention reads: "The beautiful warships of the Yavanas came to the prosperous and beautiful Muchiri (Muziris) breaking the white foams of 'Chulli', the big river, and returned with 'curry' (pepper) paying for it in gold.(from poem no. 149 of 'Akananuru' of Sangam Literature)"
Decline and aftermath
Following the Roman-Persian Wars the areas under the Roman Byzantine Empire were captured by Khosrow I of the Persian Sassanian Dynasty. The Arabs, led by 'Amr ibn al-'As, crossed into Egypt in late 639 or early 640 CE. This advance marked the beginning of the Islamic conquest of Egypt and the fall of ports such as Alexandria, used to secure trade with India by the Greco Roman world since the Ptolemaic dynasty.
The decline in trade saw the ancient Tamil country turn to Southeast Asia for international trade, where it influenced the native culture to a greater degree than the impressions made on Rome.
The Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in the 15th century (1453), marking the beginning of Turkish control over the most direct trade routes between Europe and Asia. The Ottomans initially cut off eastern trade with Europe, leading in turn to the attempt by Europeans to find a sea route around Africa, spurring the Age of Discovery, and the eventual rise of Mercantilism and Colonialism.
Egypt under the rule of the Rashidun, drawn on the modern state borders.Prophet Mohammad, 622-632 Patriarchal Caliphate, 632-661 Umayyad Caliphate, 661-750
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- ^ O'Leary 2001: 72
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