Names, routes and locations of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea or Periplus of the Red Sea (, ) is a Greco-Roman periplus, written in Greek, describing navigation and trading opportunities from Roman Egyptian ports like Berenice along the coast of the Red Sea, and others along Northeast Africa and the Indian subcontinent. The text has been ascribed to different dates between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD, but a mid-1st century date is now the most commonly accepted. Although the author is unknown, it is clearly a firsthand description by someone familiar with the area and is nearly unique in providing accurate insights into what the ancient world knew about the lands around the Indian Ocean.
Although Erythraean Sea () literally means "Red Sea", to the Greeks it included the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf.
Ancient map (17th century) depicting the locations of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. The work consists of 66 chapters, most of them about the length of a long paragraph in English. For instance, the short Chapter 9 reads in its entirety:
- "From Malao (Berbera) it is two courses to the mart of Moundou, where ships anchor more safely by an island lying very close to the land. The imports to this are as aforesaid [Chapter 8 mentions iron, gold, silver, drinking cups, etc.], and from it likewise are exported the same goods [Chapter 8 mentions myrrh, douaka, makeir, and slaves], and fragrant gum called mokrotou. The inhabitants who trade here are more peaceful."
In many cases, the description of places is sufficiently accurate to identify their present locations; for others, there is considerable debate. For instance, a "Rhapta" is mentioned as the farthest market down the African coast of "Azania", but there are at least five locations matching the description, ranging from Tanga to south of the Rufiji River delta. The description of the Indian coast mentions the Ganges River clearly, yet after that is somewhat garbled, describing China as a "great inland city Thina" that is a source of raw silk.
Another interesting feature of the Periplus is that some of the words describing trade goods are seen nowhere else in ancient literature, and so we can only guess as to what they might mean. The Periplus also describes how Hippalus first discovered the direct route from the Red Sea to southern India.
The text derives from a Byzantine 10th-century manuscript in minuscule hand, contained in the collections of the University Library Heidelberg (CPG 398: 40v-54v), and a copy of it dating from the 14th or 15th century in the British Museum (B.M. Add 19391 9r-12r). In the 10th-century manuscript, the text is attributed to Arrian, probably for no deeper reason than that the manuscript was adjacent to the Periplus Ponti Euxini written by him. The Periplus was edited by Sigmund Gelen (Zikmund Hruby z Jeleni of Prague) and first published in a modern edition by Hieronymus Froben in 1533. This edition was corrupt and full of errors but served for later editions for three centuries until the rediscovery of the 10th century Heidelberg manuscript which was taken to Rome during the Thirty Years War (1618 1648), then to Paris under Napoleon, and finally returned to Heidelberg in 1816.
One historical analysis, published by Schoff in 1912, narrowed the date of the text to 60 A. D. Though narrowing the date down, from 1912, to a single year roughly 2000 years earlier might be considered remarkable by modern standards, a date of 60 A. D. nevertheless remains in perfect agreement with present day estimates of in the middle of the 1st century. Schoff additionally provides an historical analysis as to the text's original authorship and arrives at the conclusion that the author must have been a "Greek in Egypt, a Roman subject," and by Schoff's calculations this would be during the time of Tiberius Claudius Balbilus (who coincidentally also was an Egyptian Greek).
John Hill maintains that the "Periplus can now be confidently dated to between 40 and 70 CE and, probably, between CE 40 and 50."
Schoff continues by noting that the author could not have been "a highly educated man" as "is evident from his frequent confusion of Greek and Latin words and his clumsy and sometimes ungrammatical constructions." Because of "the absence of any account of the journey up the Nile and across the desert from Coptos," Schoff prefers to pinpoint the author's residence to "Berenice rather than Alexandria." Though Schoff is unclear about which "Berenice" he is referring to and several possibilities exist for "Berenice", it is actually Berenice Troglodytica which is documented, discussed at length and vividly described within the periplus text itself.
One peculiarity noted by Schoff while translating from the original Greek version is that "the text is so vague and uncertain that [the author] seems rather to be quoting from someone else, unless indeed much of this part of the work has been lost in copying."
Ras Hafun in northern Somalia is believed to be the location of the ancient trade center of Opone. Ancient Egyptian, Roman and Persian Gulf pottery has been recovered from the site by an archaeological team from the University of Michigan. Opone is in the thirteenth entry of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, which in part states:
In ancient times, Opone operated as a port of call for merchants from Phoenicia, Egypt, Greece, Persia, Yemen, Nabataea, Azania, the Roman Empire and elsewhere, as it possessed a strategic location along the coastal route from Azania to the Red Sea. Merchants from as far afield as Indonesia and Malaysia passed through Opone, trading spices, silks and other goods, before departing south for Azania or north to Yemen or Egypt on the trade routes that spanned the length of the Indian Ocean's rim. As early as 50 AD, Opone was well-known as a center for the cinnamon trade, along with the trading of cloves and other spices, ivory, exotic animal skins and incense.
The ancient port city of Malao, situated in present-day Berbera in northwestern Somalia, is also mentioned in the Periplus:
Aksum Empire (Eritrea and Ethiopia)
Coins of king Endybis, 227-235 AD. British Museum. The left one reads in Greek "A WMITW BACI EYC", "King of Axum". The right one reads in Greek: C C C, "King Endybis".
Aksum is mentioned in the Periplus as an important market place for ivory, which was exported throughout the ancient world:
According to the Periplus, the ruler of Aksum in the 1st century AD was Zoscales, who, besides ruling in Aksum also held under his sway two harbours on the Red Sea: Adulis (near Massawa) and Avalites (Assab). He is also said to have been familiar with Greek literature:
Himyarite kingdom and Saba (Arabia)
Coin of the Himyarite Kingdom, southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, in which stopped ships between Egypt and India passed. This is an imitation of a coin of Augustus. 1st Century AD. Ships from Himyar regularly traveled the East African coast. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea describes the trading empire of Himyar and Saba, regrouped under a single ruler Charibael (Karab Il Watar Yuhan'em II), who is said to have been on friendly terms with Rome:
Frankincense kingdom (Hadramaut)
The Frankincense kingdom is described further east along the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, with the harbour of Cana (South Arabic Qana, modern Bir Ali in Hadramaut). The ruler of this kingdom is named Eleazus, or Eleazar, thought to correspond to King Iliazz Yalit I:
Rhapta (Tanzania - or Mozambique?)
Recent research by the Tanzanian archaeologist Felix Chami has uncovered extensive remains of Roman trade items near the mouth of the Rufiji River and the nearby Mafia island, and makes a strong case that the ancient port of Rhapta was situated on the banks of the Rufiji River just south of Dar es Salaam.
The Periplus informs us that:
"Two runs beyond this island [Menuthias = Zanzibar?] comes the very last port of trade on the coast of Azania, called Rhapta ["sewn"], a name derived from the aforementioned sewn boats, where there are great quantities of ivory and tortoise shell."
Chami summarizes the evidence for Rhapta's location as follows:
"The actual location of the Azanian capital, Rhapta, remains unknown. However, archaeological indicators reported above suggest that it was located on the coast of Tanzania, in the region of the Rufiji River and Mafia Island. It is in this region where the concentration of Panchaea/Azanian period settlements has been discovered. If the island of Menuthias mentioned in the Periplus was Zanzibar, a short voyage south would land one in the Rufiji region.
The 2nd century geographer, Ptolemy, locates Rhapta at latitude 8 south, which is the exact latitude of the Rufiji Delta and Mafia Island. The metropolis was on the mainland about one degree west of the coast near a large river and a bay with the same name. While the river should be regarded as the modern Rufiji River, the bay should definitely be identified with the calm waters between the island of Mafia and the Rufiji area. The peninsula east of Rhapta would have been the northern tip of Mafia Island. The southern part of the bay is protected from the deep sea by numerous deltaic small islets separated from Mafia Island by shallow and narrow channels. To the north the bay is open to the sea and any sailor entering the waters from that direction would feel as if he were entering a bay. Even today the residents identify these waters as a bay, referring to it as a 'female sea', as opposed to the more violent open sea on the other side of the island of Mafia."
In recent years, Felix Chami has found archaeological evidence for extensive Roman trade on Mafia Island and, not far away, on the mainland, near the mouth of the Rufiji River, which he dated to the first few centuries CE. Furthermore, J. Innes Miller points out that Roman coins have been found on Pemba island, just north of Rhapta.
Nevertheless, Carl Peters has argued that Rhapta was near modern-day Quelimane in Mozambique, citing the fact that (according to the Periplus) the coastline there ran down towards the southwest. Peters also suggests that the description of the "Pyralaoi" (i.e., the "Fire people") - "situated at the entry to the [Mozambique] Channel" - indicates that they were the inhabitants of the volcanic Comoro Islands. He also maintains that Menuthias (with its abundance of rivers and crocodiles) cannot have been Zanzibar; i.e., Madagascar seems more likely.
Interestingly, the Periplus informs us that Rhapta, was under the firm control of a governor appointed by Arabian king of Musa, taxes were collected, and it was serviced by "merchant craft that they staff mostly with Arab skippers and agents who, through continual intercourse and intermarriage, are familiar with the area and its language."
The Periplus explicitly states that Azania (which included Rhapta) was subject to Chariba l, the king of both the Sabaeans and Homerites in the southwest corner of Arabia. The kingdom is known to have been a Roman ally at this period. Chariba l is stated in the Periplus to be a friend of the (Roman) emperors, thanks to continuous embassies and gifts and, therefore, Azania could fairly be described as a vassal or dependency of Rome, just as Zesan is described in the 3rd century Chinese history, the Weil e.
Trade with the Indian harbour of Barygaza is described extensively in the Periplus. Nahapana, ruler of the Indo-Scythian Western Satraps is mentioned under the name Nambanus, as ruler of the area around Barigaza:
Under the Western Satraps, Barigaza was one of the main centers of Roman trade with India. The Periplus describes the many goods exchanged:
Goods were also brought down in quantity from Ujjain, the capital of the Western Satraps:
Early Chera, Chola, and early Pandyan kingdoms (India)
The lost port city of Muziris (Near present day Cochin) in the Chera kingdom, as well as the Early Pandyan Kingdom are mentioned in the Periplus as major centers of trade, pepper and other spices, metal work and semiprecious stones, between Damirica and the Roman Empire.
According to the Periplus, numerous Greek seamen managed an intense trade with Muziris: Damirica or Limyrike is Tamilakkam (Tamil ) – the "Tamil country". Further, this area served as a hub for trade with the interior, in the Gangetic plain:
Remains of the Indo-Greek kingdom
The Periplus explains that coins of the Indo-Greek king Menander I were current in Barigaza. The Periplus describes numerous Greek buildings and fortifications in Barigaza, although mistakenly attributing them to Alexander the Great, who never went this far south. If true, this account would relate to the remains of the southern expansion of the Indo-Greeks into Gujarat:
The Periplus further testifies to the circulation of Indo-Greek coinage in the region:
The Greek city of Alexandria Bucephalous on the Jhelum River is mentioned in the Periplus, as well as in the Roman Peutinger Table:
Lionel Casson, The Periplus Maris Erythraei: Text With Introduction, Translation, and Commentary (Princeton University Press, 1989) ISBN 0-691-04060-5
- Chami, F. A. 1999. "The Early Iron Age on Mafia island and its relationship with the mainland." Azania Vol. XXXIV 1999, pp. 1 10.
- Chami, Felix A. 2002. "The Graeco-Romans and Paanchea/Azania: sailing in the Erythraean Sea." From: Red Sea Trade and Travel. The British Museum. Organised by The Society for Arabian Studies.
- Dihle, A. 1965. Umstrittene Daten Untersuchungen zum Auftreten der Griechen am Roten Meer, Wissenschaftliche Abhandlungen der Arbeitsgemeinschaft F r Forschung des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen. K ln und Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag.
- Hill, John E. (2004). "The Peoples of the West" from the Weil e, Section 15. (Draft version). Downloadable from: http://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/weilue/weilue.html#section15.
- Hill, John E. (2009) Through the Jade Gate to Rome: A Study of the Silk Routes during the Later Han Dynasty, 1st to 2nd Centuries CE. BookSurge, Charleston, South Carolina. ISBN 978-1-4392-2134-1.
- Huntingford, G. W. B. (translator) (1980). The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, ISBN 0-904180-05-0, (also includes translation of Red Sea material from Agatharchides)
Hjalmar Frisk, Le P riple de la Mer Erythr e (G teborg, 1927)
- Miller, J. Innes. 1969. The Spice Trade of The Roman Empire: 29 B.C. to A.D. 641. Oxford University Press. Special edition for Sandpiper Books. 1998. ISBN 0-19-814264-1.
- Fussman, G. 1991. "Le Periple et l'histoire politique del'Inde". Journal Asiatique 279 (1991):31-38.
- Robin, C. 1991. "L'Arabie du sud et la date du P riple de la mer rythr e". Journal Asiatique 279:1-30.
- Dr. Nagaswamy, R. 1995 Roman Karur. Brahadish Publications. http://tamilartsacademy.com/books/roman%20karur/cover.html
- Schoff, Wilfred Harvey, translator and Secretary of the Commercial Museum of Philadelphia, with a foreword by W. P. Wilson, Sc. Director, The Philadelphia Museums. Periplus of the Erythraean Sea: Travel and Trade in the Indian Ocean by a Merchant of the First Century, Translated from the Greek and Annotated. (First published 1912, New York, New York: Longmans, Green, and Co.) Reprinted 1995, New Delhi: Munshiram Monoharlal Publishers, ISBN 81-215-0699-9 .
http://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/periplus/periplus.html "The present text has been digitalized from the translation of William H. Schoff, The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea: Travel and Trade in the Indian Ocean by a Merchant of the First Century (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1912). Some additional commentary including alternate spellings or translations from Lionel Casson's more recent edition are given in square brackets."
Ancient history sourcebook: The basic text from Schoff's 1912 translation.
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