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
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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
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
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
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
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.
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