How Roman trade with India made the Empire rich


In our previous episode discussing the economic
history of the Roman Empire, we covered how Egypt and its vast wealth helped to facilitate
the increased prosperity which the Empire enjoyed during the early part of its existence.
While the great fertility of the Nile region and the desert’s plentiful mining resources
undoubtedly played a part, the greater factor was trade. The well-managed Egypt began to
function as a conduit for massively prosperous trade to and from the east. In this video
we shall discuss the various routes used for this trade, its history and its products in
more detail. Welcome to our video on the red sea route, Indian ocean trade and how it interacted
with the Roman Empire This video is sponsored by Imperator: Rome
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support our channel by buying the game via the link in the description! The Indian ocean was central to the economy
of the ancient world. The rich variation of climates across the various ecological zones
of the subcontinent, and other eastern regions, made possible the cultivation of unique spices,
and other products, which could not be grown in the temperate Mediterranean or Western
Europe. By the first century AD, the Indian population, for example, had grown to around
60 million people, and it is said that the size of their great civilisation even awed
the Romans. How did the prosperous international trade between the Mediterranean world and
the East begin? We shall cover a brief history of the topic now. The Red Sea became prominent in ancient near-eastern
trade during pharaonic rule in ancient Egypt, when the kingdom’s rulers launched expeditions
into it to make contact with a land known as ‘Punt’, which was known to be a land
of plentiful incense. Egypt required this valuable commodity due to its religious significance,
and they would use it for rituals such as mummification. Carvings and hieroglyphs in
the tomb of Hatshepsut reveal how she established a base on the Red Sea coast, from which ships
were sent to modern Somalia, returning loaded with frankincense. Almost a millennium later, Egypt was conquered
by the Persian Great King Cambyses II. His successor, Darius I, conquered the Hindu Kush
mountain range and advanced into northern India. Herodotus recorded that the Indian
provinces of the Achaemenid Empire subsequently provided a third of all Imperial tribute,
showing the vast wealth of the Indus region. Alexander the Great destroyed that Empire
centuries later, but he died young in 323 BC. During the era of warfare after his death,
the Seleucid Empire and Ptolemaic Egypt vied for supremacy in battle. To this end, both
desired to reinforce their armies with deadly war elephants. The Seleucids initially did
not have a problem with this, as they had access to the powerful Indian elephants. The
Ptolemies had a more difficult time, as Carthage restricted access to the North African elephant.
It was clear that for the sake of prestige and military prowess, Ptolemaic Egypt had
to acquire its own via other means. To accomplish this, King Ptolemy II ordered
the construction of harbours and shipyards on the Red Sea, following in the footsteps
of earlier pharaohs who had exploited eastern links. A Greek port called Arsine was established,
along with two more southerly bases named Myos Hormos and Berenice. Using these seaports as staging points, the
King sent Egyptian sailors, along with Greek mercenaries, along the African coast, where
they established hunting stations in Ethiopia and Somalia. When captured elephants were
transported by sea back to Berenice, they were moved inland to the Nile River – a 2
week long trip inland. During this long journey, the caravans of animal handlers and guards
often sheltered in caves or under rock formations to avoid the vicious desert heat of the day
time. They would often leave graffiti in these shelters, scratching their names or drawing
the animals they were transporting. For example, an Indian ‘Mahout’, or elephant handler,
named Sophon, asked the Greek god Pan for a safe journey. When they reached the Nile, the beasts were
taken aboard barges and transported north on the river to the Ptolemaic heartland. However,
by 200BC the fading threat of Seleucid military superiority prompted the Ptolemies to abandon
their hunting operations. Nonetheless, the infrastructure on the Red Sea remained in
place, and allowed merchants to capitalise and make profits from Red Sea trade. In 118 BC, an Egyptian patrol ship discovered
the shipwreck of a merchant vessel with only one survivor – an Indian sailor. After being
taken aboard, he was spirited away to the court of Ptolemy VII and was treated well,
apparently learning Greek during his stay. He explained to the Ptolemaic Court that he
had been blown off course whilst sailing from India, and offered to guide any ship which
would return him to his homeland. The Egyptian ruler was enthusiastic about potential direct
contact with the prosperous countries of Ancient India, and appointed a Greek navigator named
Eudoxus to command the voyage. The Indian mariner revealed the secrets of
the monsoon wind, which would blow from the southwest in summer and the northeast in winter.
This helped the expedition to reach the Indus Kingdoms in only a few weeks, and they both
exchanged gifts and made trade deals with the Indian Rajas. This discovery of swift
monson-aided sailing routes across the Indian Ocean began a crucial new era in the development
of the ancient economy, which the rising Roman Empire would subsequently exploit to the full. After Octavian’s conquest of Egypt in 31
BC, Rome controlled a concentric ring of territories around the Mediterranean, and now sought to
expand its commercial interests further. As we mentioned in our previous video, Augustus
undertook a significant restoration of Egypt’s infrastructure – governed at the time by his
prefect Aelius Gallus. This leader was ordered by the Emperor to restore the Red Sea shipyard
at Arsine in order to prepare for a campaign to Arabia. While this ended in disaster, the
restoration of harbour facilities allowed Roman merchants to take advantage, and build
dozens of new commercial vessels with which to undertake new ventures to India. During
Gallus’ prefecture his personal friend, the Greek geographer Strabo, accompanied Gallus
on a tour of the Nile river, during which he learned that six times the number of vessels
now made the journey to India than during Ptolemaic times. The Nile city of Coptos was the nexus of the
so-called ‘Red Sea route’, and was the main hub at which goods from Arabia, India
and Africa were received. Roman officials and agents consequently had their headquarters
there, in order to exact the required taxes. To reach this city by ship on the Nile from
Alexandria took 12 days, as the journey was almost 400 miles. From Coptos, merchants and
other travellers would join overland caravans bound for two main Red Sea ports – Berenice
and Myos Hormos. Myos Hormos was closer to Coptos, but often had unfavourable sailing
conditions, whereas Berenice was further away but its winds were less tempestuous. The caravan routes leading to these jumping-off
points were simple tracks marked by cairns made of stone. The previously dire danger
of mountain bandits was reduced when Augustus constructed watchtowers and garrison outposts
to protect the trade routes. Contingents of Roman soldiers would even escort some of the
larger caravans to their destination. This would protect valuable trade and increase
merchant confidence, but this was not the only factor which drove the Romans to protect
the routes. Supplies for and resources from the valuable stone quarries, emerald mines
and gold veins passed through them, which were crucial to increasing Rome’s prosperity. At the end of the voyage were the two aforementioned
main Red Sea ports – Berenice and Myos Hormos. The latter was the favoured base for outbound
voyages to India, and it was from here that over 120 merchant vessels per year sailed
during the prefecture of Aelius Gallus, in the Augustan era. The city’s harbour had
a long, winding entrance which would function as breakwaters, protecting docked ships. The
size of the port was exemplified in 25 BC when Gallus brought his army back from Arabia.
The prefect managed to land his entire hundred plus strong fleet of ships at Myos Hormos. The town itself was focused on the trade which
ran through it. Workshops connected to shipbuilding and the shipping industry, along with workshops
for naval repair and temporary lodgings for traders were all common. On the outskirts
was also a large enclosure which possibly functioned as part of a caravanserai, a rest
stop for merchants and their precious camel mounts. 180 miles and 5 sailing days south of Myos
Hormos was Berenice. This larger port town served as an important administrative center
for the Roman government in Egypt. Its harbour facilities had degraded under the Ptolemies,
but were restored during Tiberius’ reign to enable long-term docking facilities. This
appears to have had its intended effect, as the Nicanor Archive reveals to us that commercial
enterprises based in Coptos were making plentiful outbound deliveries to the coastal city. An
increase in the graffiti on the route from Coptos to Berenice dating to this period also
confirms the rise. This all was intended to facilitate trade
from the Indian Ocean, into which hundreds of Roman ships would venture in order to reach
distant kingdoms in Africa, Arabia and India itself. Trade with India alone pumped more
than a billion sesterces worth of taxable eastern goods into Roman territory every year.
The revenues raised by these taxes contributed to the cost of the professional army which
secured Roman dominance and ensured the Pax Romana. In addition to adding vast quantities of wealth
to the Imperial treasury, Eastern goods transformed Roman culture by offering unprecedented new
food flavourings, perfumes, jewellery and clothing fashions, luxuries which had never
before been seen by the often austere Romans. Many senior aristocrats, such as Pliny, viewed
the growth of this international trade with incredible pride. He stated that ‘no-one
can deny that life has been advanced by the interchange of commodities in this partnership
of peace.’ However, eastern trade also brought new risks
to Roman structure which risked its long term stability. The unique environmental and geographical
conditions in which imported eastern products such as incense and spices were grown meant
that the Empire had no equivalent export with which to meet the cost. Therefore, in order
to sustain the eastern trade, Rome had to ship vast amounts of bullion to pay for the
eastern products. Pliny again comments on this troubling state of unbalance: ‘Both
pepper and ginger grow wild in their respective countries, but we buy them using so much gold
and silver.’ In order to examine the rich contents of the
eastern trade in more detail, we shall look at the Hermapollon – which was briefly covered
in our previous episode. The Muziris Papyrus tells us that the ship carried 60 boxes of
nard – an Indian aromatic plant, 100 pairs of elephant tusks and 3 tons of turtle-shell.
The ship’s main cargo however were Indian spices, in the 135 tons of pepper and 83 tons
of malabathrum – Indian cinnamon – which were recorded in the Muzirus Papyrus. The full scale of Indian ocean imports to
Roman Egypt per year is a difficult matter to calculate, but by upscaling the Hermapollon’s
contents, we can attempt it. Assuming Strabo’s 120 merchant ships, the Red Sea ports could
have been receiving 16,000 tons of pepper and cotton, worth 556 million sesterces, 10,000
tonnes of malabathrum and other spices, worth 158 million sesterces, 50 tones of nard, worth
32 million sesterces, 576 tons of ivory, worth 60 million sesterces, and 360 tons of turtle-shell,
worth 18 million sesterces per year. This is a stunning volume of trade, totalling around
26,000 tons of eastern goods per annum – with various exotic spices as the main product.
Trade on this scale was possible because Rome was interacting with civilisations with populations
as large as their entire empire. We are planning to make more videos on the
Roman economy, so make sure you are subscribed to our channel and have pressed the bell button.
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