Rome’s Commerce with India – Travel between Italy and the Near East

The first two centuries of the Roman Empire witnessed the establishment and development of a profitable commerce between two great regions of the earth, the Mediterranean countries and India. We need not wonder at this. In the first place, the century after Christ was an era of new discoveries and enterprises, for the western world, after ages of struggle, was united under the firm rule of Rome, and, in the enjoyment of lasting peace and prosperity, was ripe and ready for fresh developments in the intercourse of men; in the second place, the welding of the races of the West and of the near East into one well-governed whole brought into sharp relief the prominent geographical feature formed by Asia Minor, Palestine, Arabia, and the north-eastern corner of Africa. By using the near East as a base, merchants filled with the western characteristic of energetic discovery and the will and power to expand, backed by the governing power of Rome and the prestige of her great name, and helped by Roman capital, were readier to push eastwards by land and sea than they had been before. The moving force from first to last came from the West; the little-changing peoples of the East allowed the West to find them out. We have, then, on the one side India of the Orient, then, a disjointed aggregate of countries and, while open to commerce, content generally to remain within her borders and to engage in agriculture. On the other side we have Rome, also at first agricultural, but now risen after centuries of triumph to be mistress of a vast empire of peoples, with whom and through whom she conducted all her commerce. The peculiar attitude of Indians and Romans towards commerce caused them to meet each other rarely along any of the routes which linked them over long distances, and to conduct their affairs over unexplored seas and dangerous solitudes on land by means of intermediaries.

These indispensable middlemen and carriers belonged, from geographical necessity, to the following: (a) Greeks, especially those of Alexandria and Egypt, Roman subjects who spread both east and west in enterprises conducted chiefly by sea; Syrians, Jews, and other peoples of Asia Minor, Roman subjects who moved westwards and along land-routes eastwards; (c) Armenians and Caucasian tribes, Roman allies of very doubtful loyalty; (d) Arabians, non-Roman carriers upon desert-routes and oriental waters; (e) Axumites and Somali, non-Roman Arab-Africans who traded with the far East and the interior of Africa; (f) the Parthians, a great land-power, a rival of Rome, and controlling the great land route to the far East. Of these, the non-Romans proved a difficult problem to Roman commerce through a succession of principates; the Parthians could place almost unsurmountable barriers in the way by land, and even on the sea, which is open to all, the Romans had to contest the right of control with Arabians and pirates.

Roman trade in the subcontinent according to the Periplus Maris Erythraei 1st century CE

If the vast expanse of Europe, Africa, and Asia be contemplated as a whole, it will be found that the long but narrow Mediterranean Sea and the extended curve of the Indian Ocean compress the tract formed by Asia Minor, Palestine, and Arabia, into what maybe called a “waist” of land from which the coasts of Italy and India are roughly equidistant. The Mediterranean and Indian seas, thus brought close together, are brought closer still by the two western inlets of Indian waters—the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, and by them the positions of Syria and Arabia between East and West are emphasised. Lastly, the Red Sea approaches the Mediterranean to within a very small distance at its northern end, especially by means of the Heroopolite Gulf, and this fact fixed as the main channel of Rome’s trade with India the sea-route from Alexandria through the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean.

What we have called the “waist” of land received in some part of itself all the routes which connected India with the Mediterranean by land and sea, for the strip of land between the western coast of the Red Sea and the Nile must be included in the “waist.” In these intermediate territories were found nearly all the receivers and carriers of Indian merchandise bound for the West; into these regions flocked merchants from the West bent upon oriental trade; within these regions were found nearly all those great cities or races which were made great by seizing the opportunities offered by the reception and carriage of oriental trade.

Rome had received Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt into her hands; her empire extended over the “waist” of Asia Minor so as to include all territories as far eastwards as the river Euphrates and the vague frontier separating Syria and Palestine from Arabia, but the arid tracts of the Arabian peninsula she did not control, while the uncouth tribes of the Caucasus mountains, surging between the Caspian and Black Seas, had felt but slightly the power of her military forces. The city itself, which had become the money-centre of the world through the speculative activities of Romans and through wars, had sent crowds of speculators to the near East and had received an extensive free population of Orientals; the old frugal austerity had long given way before the attractions of luxury, and wares of the far East were reaching Rome in some quantity at the end of the second century before Christ. Rome held the West as a unity, but India was not one whole. Central India with both coasts was under the sway of powerful Andhra kings; the north-west was chaotic, for Graeco-Bactrians and pastoral nomads (Sakas) from Central Asia were being driven southwards through Sind regions by the Yue(h)-chi, while Magadha kings ruled the north-east. Three strong Tamil kingdoms occupied the south of the peninsula. The Indians sent no ships farther westward than the Red Sea mouth, letting the Greeks come to them. Thus in dealing with the trade-routes, we start from the West.

Although Rome was the largest market for goods from the near and from the far East, the port used for landing the more precious and fragile wares in Italy was not Ostia, where the silting up of the Tiber caused danger and delay, but the safer one, Puteoli (Pozzuoli), close to fashionable Baiae, and more favoured for its proximity to the productive works of Campania than for its sheltered harbour, mole, pier, and large docks. Travellers, starting when the lamps were lit, could sail to Rome by night, but merchandise was sent thither along one hundred and fifty miles of road through Capua, Sinuessa, Minturnae, and Tarracina. Trade and travel between Puteoli and Syria and Alexandria were brisk and constant, and the place was a centre for transhipment to the provinces.

The Roman Empire in 117 AD at its greatest extent, at the time of Trajan’s death

When the Empire began, one of three journeys was normally taken to the near East — (a) from Brundisium across the Adriatic, along the Via Egnatia, and across to Bithynia or Troas whence great routes to the far East could be reached at Sardis, Tarsos, Antioch, and other centres—a slow journey but available throughout the year; (b) a voyage from Italy to Ephesos by way of Corinth and Athens or round the Peloponnese to Asia Minor and Syria, a route used in summer by sight-seers, leisured men of business, and by traders with Greece; (c) a voyage direct from Rome or Puteoli to Alexandria, where Indian wares destined for the West were concentrated after transport from the Red Sea and even from Antioch and were shipped again to Puteoli, especially from May to September when corn-ships sailed direct between Puteoli and Alexandria, direct voyages between Italy and Syria or Asia Minor being by far less favoured. About July strong N.W. winds forced west-ward-bound ships with cargoes and passengers to sail by night when calms prevailed, or to coast Syria and Asia Minor by means of local breezes, while between mid-November and mid-March any voyage at all was exceptional.

The firm establishment of Augustus in the principate brought peace and prosperity, and since much trade shifted from the near East to Rome, the Mediterranean Sea had become filled with merchants, and the fashionable world began to demand oriental luxuries on a scale unknown before, brought by Greeks, Syrians, Jews, and Arabians in Greek vessels, true Romans (resident not farther east than Asia Minor) helping them with moneyed capital when it was needed. The main channel for these luxuries through the Mediterranean was the sea-voyage from Alexandria to Puteoli.

(Source: “The commerce between the Roman Empire and India”, by E.H. Warmington, M.A.)

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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