The Trade-Routes between Rome and India – Egypt and the sea-route to India

The great Nile river in a manner unites Egypt to that region of the world which we have called a “waist” of land, and, by way of the Red Sea, the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean are placed geographically close to each other.

Navigation in the Red Sea dates from very early times, and a definite but mostly indirect trade with India was established by the Ptolemies, under whom Alexandria became the inevitable entrepôt between East and West and a commercial meeting-place for the peoples of three continents, and when Augustus established himself as princeps of an united western world there were two permanent methods of travel between the Egyptian capital and Indian seas, one which avoided the Red Sea as much as possible, and one which braved that treacherous gulf throughout its length. Merchants who preferred the first method started from Iuliopolis on the canal which connected Alexandria with the Canobic arm of the Nile, and navigated that river southwards for about eleven days when winds were fair until the horseshoe-bend of the river was reached. In this region lay Caenepolis (Kenah) and Coptos (Keft) where roads struck out towards the Red Sea. From Caenepolis one track led N. and N.E. for six or seven days to Myos Hormos (Mussel-Harbour, now identified with Abu Scha’ar) while from Coptos another led S.E. for twelve days to Berenice upon the Umm-el-Ketef bay below Ras Benas. Coptos reached through a short canal, was much frequented by Egyptians and Arabians with Indian and Arabian wares, and was in fact the starting-point of both these desert-routes, for Coptos and Caenepolis were connected by road as well as by river. Men travelled across the desert by camel or caravan and generally at night, and the Romans, leaving the tracts unpaved because of the camels, maintained the Ptolemaic division of them into stages with fortified supply-stations, cisterns (hydreumata), and armed guards; the caravansaries were large and the hostels at Berenice were considered good. The different statements made by Agatharchides, Strabo, and Pliny shew that the use made of the two ports varied at different periods. Both had been established as havens by Ptolemy Philadelphos, but when Agatharchides wrote in the time of Philometor (181-145), only Myos Hormos was important, probably because the Mons Porphyrites was close by the route and because weather and shoals were a nuisance at Berenice. When Strabo wrote under Augustus, Myos Hormos, where there was a naval station, was still the chief port, but Berenice, with its good landing-places, was rising. Lastly, when Pliny wrote under Nero and Vespasian, Berenice had surpassed the other, probably because a land-journey thither passed near some emerald mines and avoided part of the Red Sea, and it is possible that ships unloaded at Berenice but lay in harbour at Myos Hormos which retained, perhaps, some importance as a receptacle of Arabian wares.

There were other desert-routes between the Nile and the Red Sea, notably a track branching off from the Caenepolis—Myos Hormos route at Arâs and leading to Philoteras, probably at the mouth of the Wadi Guwesis; another branching from the Coptos—Berenice route at Phoenicon and leading eastwards to Leucos Limen (Albus Portus, Kosseir); and south of Thebes, a track from Redesiya on the Nile (near Apollinopolis Magna, Edfu) joining the Coptos—Berenice route at Phalacro (Dwêg); another from Ombos joining that route at Apollonos (Wadi Gemal); and one, beyond Roman influence, from Meroe to Ptolemais. Most of these had become unimportant when the Roman Empire began and in my judgment were used chiefly by people who were not in charge of loads of wares, but the route Coptos—Leucos Limen, provided with intervisible beacons as well as with stations, was used fully by loaded camels even in Roman times, and the route Redesiya—Berenice was also so trodden but less and less. Choice of route might vary according to a man’s taste and to his home, to prevailing winds in the Red Sea, and to disturbances reported from time to time along the desert-roads.

An ivory statuette of Lakshmi (1st century CE), found in the ruins of Pompeii

If a man chose to risk the dangers of sea and pirates he could use the ancient canal leaving the Pelusiac branch of the Nile at Phacusse (at least in the time of Augustus, though the point of departure has not been constant), and by taking a journey of seven days from Alexandria along the Wadi Toumilat and by way of the Bitter Lakes could reach the Heroopolite Gulf (Gulf of Suez) where the second Ptolemy, who cleared out the wide and deep canal-channel and added locks to prevent flooding from the Red Sea, had founded Arsinoë or Cleopatris (Ardscherud near Suez). Augustus probably cleared it out afresh, but the frequent south wind and the shoals at Arsinoë continued to deter many an intending voyager. We shall describe some important developments in the use of this route which served to connect Egypt with Aela(na) (Akaba), Petra, and distant Gerrha on the Persian Gulf, passing through irrigated country as far as the Gulf of Suez, but under Augustus and throughout the imperial period the route up the Nile to Coptos and then to Berenice and Myos Hormos was the chief passage for the trade with India. Strabo says that in times gone by very few vessels durst pass the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, but under Augustus and especially after the expedition to Arabia Eudaemon (Yemen) in 25 B.C. Arabia and India became better known through frequent trading; one hundred and twenty ships (presumably Egyptian) left for the East every year, visiting India and the Somali in fleets which brought back precious freights to Alexandria—a city which controlled the trade, distributed cargoes to other regions, reaped double customs-dues, and attracted foreigners to a degree above all other marts. He emphasises the importance of Myos Hormos and Berenice in this traffic. The merchants who visited India, not yet knowing the best use of the monsoons, coasted all the way in small vessels, perhaps sometimes sailing across from Ras Fartak to the river Indus. In constant dread of the inhospitable and uncivilised Arabian coast and of the shoals in the Red Sea, they sailed under armed guards and with the help of professional guides down the middle of that long gulf or near its western side and called at Adulis (Zula, the present port being Massowa) chiefly for African wares, then on the east side at Muza (Mokha), and having taken in water at Ocelis (near Cella) near Cape Acila at the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb proceeded into the Indian Ocean and found Indians and Indian wares in African marts of the Somali, in Socotra Island, but above all at Arabia Eudaemon (Aden), a prosperous and wealthy meeting-place of Greeks, Arabians, and Indians. Farther along, in Hadramaut, Cane (Hisn Ghorab) and Moscha (Khor Reiri), both trading with India, invited a call. Leaving out most of the Persian Gulf, men coasted along until they reached Barbaricon on the Indus, where Indian, Tibetan, Persian, and Chinese goods could be obtained. Further sailing to the south brought them to the Gulf of Cambay and the Saka mart Barygaza (Broach) on the Nerbudda. Local marts along the coast of India could be visited under the supervision of Andhra rulers who controlled much of the western and eastern shores, but the chief goals were the three Tamil States of South India—(a) the Chera Kingdom, controlling generally the sea-coast from Calicut to Cape Comorin, and possessing the famous pepper-marts, Muziris (Cranganore) and Nelcynda (Kottayam), though the latter may have passed already to (b ) the Pandya Kingdom, occupying roughly the districts of Madura and Tinnevelly and bounded on the S. and S.E. by the north coast of the Gulf of Manaar to the Palk Strait—a kingdom famous for its pearls of Kolkai; (c) the Chola Kingdom stretching along the east side of India from the Vaigai, or at least the Valiyar to Nellore and the river Pennar, and famous for its muslins. Ceylon, sending its products to these Tamil peoples, was known to but not visited by Roman subjects who however, according to Strabo, were penetrating to the Ganges by sea in small numbers. He says that their visits to India and the Ganges were rare and hasty, and complains of the unscientific nature of their reports and, as a result, he relies much upon earlier Hellenistic writers, gives no details about the Indian peninsula, and ignores the tributaries of the Ganges. Roman subjects did not reside yet in India, nor did many Indians visit Alexandria, for Cleopatra gave audience to Ethiopians, Trogodytes, Hebrews, Arabs, Syrians, Medes and Parthians; no Indians are mentioned.

The Greeks of Augustan Egypt were hampered in their trade by the activities of intermediary races. In the first place, a great part of the Indian merchandise now reaching the Roman Empire was obtained by the Egyptians from Arabians. The southern area of Arabia contains the highland plateaux of Asir and Yemen. In temperate regions with, productive , soil by the sea settled and prospered for ages the Sabaeans in Yemen or Arabia Eudaemon; these in the course of centuries, conquering the Minaeans of Jauf, built up a prosperous and undisturbed trade with India, their capital being Ma’rib (Mari(a)ba) and their chief mart Arabia Eudaemon (Aden), named from the district, then the only safe and shoal-free harbour between Suez and India, and in ancient times a meeting-place of Ptolemaic Greeks and Indians, particularly from the Indus. These Sabaeans, together with the Gerrhaeans of the Persian Gulf, grew immensely wealthy and were for a long time the chief intermediaries of sea-trade between East and West, checked only for a short period through the activities of Ptolemies II and III. They made full use of the sea and of desert-routes, and helped the Africans to exclude Indians from the Red Sea and to keep secret from the Greeks the use of the monsoons. About 115 B.C. the power passed to the Himyarites or Homerites of the extreme south-west of Arabia and the two came to form one people under one king. Their importance in Rome’s Indian trade at the beginning of the Empire is shewn by the frequency with which we find Indians and Arabians coupled together in Augustan writers, and Roman knowledge, even of the Sabaeans, in their time was vague. The kingdom of Hadramaut (Chatramotitae), with the dependent Catabanes and Gebbanitae, was an intermediary of less importance, but passed oriental wares into a kingdom which, much nearer Roman borders, created a barrier between the Romans and direct trade with India, tapping steadily the trade both of Egypt and of Syria. This barrier was formed by the Nabataean Arabs of the Suez Peninsula and the N.W. corner of Arabia, who extended their influence down the Red Sea coast at least as far as Leuce Come (El Haura) and to the north-east along the borders of Syria and Arabia even to the Euphrates. Their very great wealth was due to their caravan trade with the Persian Gulf, with the Sabaeans and (through the Gebbanitae) with Hadramaut, and also to their bitumen traffic with Egypt, their geographical position giving them great advantages: thus their capital, Petra (Sela, and perhaps Rekem) in the Wadi Muza between the Dead Sea and the Aelanitic Gulf, with which it was connected, received wares from Leuce Come and passed them on to Rhinocolura (El Arish?) on the confines of Egypt and to Gaza (‘Azzah, now Ghuzzeh) for distribution in the Mediterranean; at Petra too roads to Hebron and Jerusalem branched off from a track leading from Aelana (Akaba) to Bostra, Damascus, Palmyra, and other Syrian centres; short tracks led across Sinai to Arsinoë or Pelusion; great routes ran from Petra to the Persian Gulf and to South Arabia—one through northern deserts to Forath and Charax (Mohammarah); another through Thalaba and Dumaetha to Gerrha (El Katif or perhaps Koweit), one through Leuce Come to Arabia Eudaemon and to Hadramaut, and another well inland to Hadramaut. All these routes carried Indian wares and Aelana received Chinese fabrics also, destined for Syria, but in Strabo’s time it was the camel-traffic between Petra and Leuce Come (which was both a port and a station on a caravan-track) that had reached such large dimensions. Small wonder that the unfortunate tendency of the Nabataeans towards piracy on the Red Sea was giving way to more peaceful occupations. Almost the whole of their traffic was conducted without touching Egypt, which was thus perpetually a rival in commerce, but goods could be sent across the Peninsula of Sinai or across the Red Sea to Myos Hormos and Berenice in order to avoid a long journey by sea.

In the second place, some of the Arab-African peoples of the marts of the Somali, and carrying on a traffic of very long standing with Indians of Cambay in Indian, African, and Arabian shipping centred at the Cape of Spices (Cape Guardafui), were beginning to unite themselves into an inland Axumite kingdom of Abyssinia, with Auxume or Axum as the future royal seat and Adulis in the Red Sea as the main port. With the Arabians and the now free Somali they held several trade secrets and perhaps persuaded the Indians not to go nearer to Egypt than Ocelis at Bab-el-Mandeb even in the time of Augustus. King Iuba recorded a “Promunturium Indorum” on the Egyptian coast of the Red Sea, near the confines of Ethiopia; Pliny’s sole mention of Barygaza, the chief centre of this commerce on the Indian side, is to say that some held it to be an Ethiopian town “on the sea-shore beyond”, and the monolith at Axum is Buddhist in its inspiration. Hence arose that confusion between Ethiopia and India which caused writers, chiefly of a later age when Rome’s trade had once more fallen into Axumite-Ethiopian control, constantly to locate India and Indians in the regions of south-east Arabia and the east coast of Africa, where so much Indian trade was centred.

By land, too, these Abyssinians controlled a route from the Red Sea across the Tigre highlands to Meroe and by the Atbara river to the Nile, which was then followed to the marts Elephantine and Syene, where the river became navigable with ease. Meroe had once been a centre of trade between the Red Sea and Libya, but the increasing use of the Red Sea by the newly-rising Axumites and the difficulties and expenses of a Nile voyage to Meroe from the Roman point of view caused this kingdom to decline; Nero’s explorers found Meroe almost a solitude. The Axumites preferred more and more to meet the Greeks at Adulis, at Somali marts, and probably on the island of Socotra (Dioscorida) inhabited by a mixed population of Arabs, Indians, and Greeks under Arabian control, and visited by merchants going to and from India.

The veiled hostility of Parthia, the irruption of “Scythian” tribes into Central Asia, the great length and uncertainty of the land-routes, and the enormous expense incurred in buying wares from the desert-routes of Arabia—all those considerations influenced the Romans towards using so far as possible the route through the Red Sea, and the constant presence of the “Sabaean”, Nabataean, and Axumite middlemen along that route impressed upon Augustus, for the sake of his empire’s welfare and for the sake of his own interests in Egypt (part of his own domains), the necessity of taking steps to make theRoman trade with India easier and more profitable for state and people. With reference to Egypt itself, he cleared out the canals; maintained a military camp at Coptos and employed the soldiers in repairing the cisterns on the roads leading to Myos Hormos and to Berenice; established (so far as we can tell) a strategos as receiver (παραλήπτης) of the dues of the Red Sea in the districts of Ombites, Philae, and Elephantine, doubtless in order to supervise the tax-farmers who were sent down to levy the dues of Myos Hormos and Berenice; reproduced a Ptolemaic system so that a strategos or the epistrategos of the Thebais, assisted by an Arabarches and a praefectus montis Berenicidis(-es), had military supervision over the routes from Coptos to the harbours and perhaps over the Red Sea as far as the Strait; maintained local or transit-dues, for instance at Coptos, Syene, Hermonthis, Fayum, Hermupolis, and Schedia near Alexandria; and levied road-dues on persons using the desert-routes.

Considerable efforts were made by Augustus in opposition to the powerful intermediaries of which we have spoken. The Himyarite-Sabaeans, prosperous and secretive, were the most substantial barriers to direct trade between Roman territory and India along the sea-route, and against them Augustus turned the force of Roman arms. In 25 B.C., influenced by reports of their wealth and, without a doubt, desirous of controlling the traffic in oriental spices, aromatics, precious stones, and so on, of which many were attributed to the peoples through whose hands they passed, he sent out Aelius Gallus to explore southern Arabia and Ethiopia and to subdue where he could not conciliate, but the expedition, which crossed from Arsinoë or Cleopatris to Leuce Come and was assisted dubiously by Nabataeans and Jews, failed to injure permanently the Himyarite power, failed perhaps to reach even Mari(a)ba the capital, and, after crossing from Egra to Myos Hormos, returned through Coptos to Alexandria. However, the Romans increased their knowledge and made an impression upon the Sabaeans and Himyarites, who put the head of Augustus on their coins. Commercial schemes were renewed in connexion with the journey entered upon by Gaius in 1 B.C. From what we know of the work of Iuba and the investigations made for Augustus by Isidore and apparently Dionysios, both of Charax, and from Pliny’s implication that there was a Roman fleet in the Red Sea at this time, we can safely conclude that Augustus had planned a circumnavigation of Arabia by two fleets, one starting from the Persian Grulf, one from Egypt. With the death of Gaius the scheme was abandoned but, as Augustan writers shew, Rome was excited with the prospect of military glory in the East, and the Red Sea fleet may have destroyed, dismantled, or occupied Arabia Eudaemon at this time. The fate of this mart is referred to by only one authority—the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea of Nero’s time, but the date, author, and nature of the event are much disputed. But since the author of the Periplus says plainly that not long before his time “Caesar” subdued (κατεστρέψατο) the place, I have no doubt that one of the earlier emperors must be held responsible, and the overthrow must have occurred before the Greeks fully discovered the use of the monsoons—for after that, military action was not needed. By Nero’s time Himyarite Muza inside the Red Sea had taken the place of Arabia Eudaemon, which however was destined to rise again as Adane.

Hadramaut was too far round the Arabian coast, and the dependent Catabanes and Gebbanitae were too far in the desert to come within the reach of Roman armed forces, but the activities of the Nabataeans were adequately controlled, their pirates on the Red Sea being chastised, probably with the approval of Petra, and there can be no doubt that the kingdom had become a client of Rome. Perhaps it was Augustus who instituted at Leuce Come a very high due of 25 per cent, (τετάρτη), which, I think, was a protective due levied by the Nabataeans for their own treasury at the command and under the military supervision of the Romans who wanted to drive trade to Egyptian ports. At any rate, Pliny states that goods from South Arabia passing through the Nabataean territory paid Roman dues first at Gaza and that the expenses of that route were enormous. The friendship of the Nabataeans with Rome was uncertain, and though Nabataeans came westwards to Rome and Puteoli, and Roman subjects frequented Petra, quarrels over lawsuits were frequent and the loyalty of the Arabs was unreliable.

In the case of the Ethiopian trade, which was not a brisk one except by sea, something was done by Augustus, but only in connexion with the kingdom of Meroe. Thus, in 29 B.C. Cornelius Gallus, after suppressing a revolt in the Thebais including Coptos and caused by the arrival of Roman tax collectors, arranged that the region above the First Cataract should be held by the Ethiopians of Meroe as a Roman protectorate. Shortly afterwards the Ethiopians were included in the scheme of Aelius Gallus against Arabia, and when they seized Syene Elephantine and Philae in his absence, Petronius after fruitless negotiations drove them back; Queen Candace refused to abide by the peace granted by Petronius and when she re-opened negotiations he sent her envoys to Augustus at Samos in 21 B.C. where at the same time the emperor received one or more Indian embassies also. The Roman frontier was now fixed at Hierasycaminos (Maharraka), and the region (Dodecaschoinos) between this place and Syene (Assuan) was strengthened by a line of stations and
put under the control of Elephantine. In 13 B.C. envoys were sent to Candace and the Ethiopians seem to have become peaceful, caught between Egypt and Axum.

Kushan ring with portraits of Septimus Severus and Julia Domna

It is possible that the Romans imposed differential customs- dues at Egyptian ports of the Red Sea against Arabian vessels from Augustus’ time onwards, but, as we shall see, after that emperor no real attempt was made to occupy the coasts of Arabia or to curtail the activities of the Axumites; there are no certain traces that even the Red Sea was well policed, yet there was constant rivalry between Rome and her intermediaries. No attempt was ever made by the Romans to reach India by sailing round Africa. The Phoenicians had sailed round from east to west, if indeed their own report of their voyage was true, but only Eudoxos of Cyzicos had proved himself a forerunner of Vasco da Gama by attempting twice (unsuccessfully so far as we can tell), in the time of Ptolemy Lathyros, to reach India by sailing from Spain round Africa, after two successful voyages to India from the Red Sea.

The efforts which Augustus made for the sake both of his imperial subjects and of his imperial rights of production and sale in Egypt brought him thanks at the beginning, at the end, and along the course of the sea-route to India; he was hailed as a god at Puteoli; thanks were rendered to him in Egypt; a temple was raised to him at Philae, and another at Muziris (Cranganore) in India. 

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

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: