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Indo-Roman trade and relations

Roman trade with India according to the Periplus Maris Erythraei 1st century CE. Roman gold coins excavated in Pudukottai, India. One coin of Caligula (31-41 CE), and two coins of Nero (54-68). British Museum. Roman trade with India (see also the spice trade and incense road) through the overland caravan routes via Anatolia and Persia, though at a relative trickle compared to later times, antedated the southern trade route via the Red Sea and monsoons which started around the beginning of the Common Era (CE) following the reign of Augustus and his conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE.[1]

The route so helped enhance trade between ancient states of India and Rome, that Roman politicians and historians are on record decrying the loss of silver and gold to pamper Roman wives, and the southern route grew to eclipse and then totally supplant the overland trade route.[2]

Roman and Greek traders frequented the ancient Tamil country (present day Southern India) and Sri Lanka, securing trade with the seafaring Tamil states of the Chola, Pandyan and Chera dynasties and establishing trading settlements which remained long after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.[3] They also outlasted Byzantium's loss of the Egypt and the Red Sea ports[4] (ca. 639-645 CE) under the pressure of Jihad and Islam, which had been used to secure trade with India by the Greco-Roman world since the time of the Ptolemaic dynasty[5] a few decades before the start of the Common Era. Sometime after the sundering of communications between the Axum and Eastern Roman Empire in the 7th century, the Christian kingdom of Axum fell into a slow decline and faded into obscurity in western culture, though it survived despite pressure from Islamic forces until the 11th century, when it was reconfigured in a dynastic squabble.



The Seleucid and the Ptolemaic dynasties controlled trade networks to India before the establishment of Roman Egypt. The Seleucid dynasty controlled a developed network of trade with India which had previously existed under the influence of the Parthian Empire.[6] The Greek Ptolemaic dynasty, controlling the western and northern end of other trade routes to Southern Arabia and India,[6] had begun to exploit trading opportunities with India prior to the Roman involvement but, according to the historian Strabo, the volume of commerce between India and Greece was not comparable to that of later Indian-Roman trade.[2]

The Periplus Maris Erythraei mentions a time when sea trade between India and Egypt did not involve direct sailings.[2] The cargo under these situations was shipped to Aden:[2]

The Ptolemaic dynasty had developed trade with India using the Red Sea ports.[1] With the establishment of Roman Egypt, the Romans took over and further developed the already existing trade using these ports.[1]

Early Common era

Silver denarius of Tiberius (14-37 CE) found in India. Indian copy of the same, 1st century CE. Coin of Kushan king Kujula Kadphises copying a coin of Augustus. Indian ship on lead coin of Vasisthiputra Sri Pulamavi, 1st-2nd century CE. Prior to Roman expansion, India had established strong maritime trade with other countries. The dramatic increase in Indian ports, however, did not occur until the opening of the Red Sea by the Greeks and the Romans and the attainment of geographical knowledge concerning India s seasonal monsoons. In fact, the first two centuries of the Common era indicate this increase in trade between western India and Rome. This expansion of trade was due to the comparative peace established by the Roman Empire during the time of Augustus (23 September 63 BC 19 August AD 14), which allowed for new explorations. Thus, archeologists, with evidence from artifacts and ancient literature, suggest that a significant commercial relationship existed between ancient western India and Rome.

The west coast of India has been mentioned frequently in foreign literature, such as the Periplus Maris Erythraei. The area was noted for its severe tidal currents, turbulent waves, and rocky sea-beds. Although many ships have attempted to sail outside it in order to prevent shipwrecks, many ships were still drawn inside the gulf. As a result of the difficulties, the entrance and departure of ships were dangerous for those who possessed little sea experience. The anchors of the ship would be caught by the waves and quickly cut off, which could overturn the ship or ultimately cause a wreck. Stone anchors have been observed near Bet Dwarka, an island situated in the Gulf of Kachchh, due to these frequent shipwrecks. More importantly, the number of discovered anchors and numerous artifacts suggest that Indo-Roman trade and commerce was significant during the early centuries of the Common era.

Onshore and offshore explorations have been carried out around Bet Dwarka Island since 1983.The finds discovered include lead and stone objects buried in sediment and considered to be anchors due to their axial holes. Though it is unlikely that the remains of the shipwreck s hull survived, offshore explorations in 2000 and 2001 have yielded seven differently-sized amphoras, two lead anchors, forty-two stone anchors of different types, a supply of potsherds, and a circular lead ingot. The remains of the seven amphoras were of a thick, coarse fabric with a rough surface, which was used for exporting wine and olive oil from the Roman Empire. Archeologists have concluded that most of these were wine amphoras, since olive oil was in less demand in India.

A coin of Trajan, found together with coins of the Kushan ruler Kanishka, at the Ahin Posh Buddhist Monastery, Afghanistan. Since the discoveries at Bet Dwarka are significant for the maritime history of India, archeologists have researched the resources in India. Despite the unfavorable conditions the island is situated in, the following items have made Bet Dwarka as well as the rest of western India an important place for trade. From Latin literature, Rome imported Indian tigers, rhinoceros, elephants, and serpents to use for circus shows - a method employed as entertainment to prevent riots in Rome. It has been noted in the Periplus that Roman women also wore Indian pearls and used a supply of herbs, spices, pepper, lyceum, costus, sesame oil and sugar for food. Indigo was used as a color while cotton cloth was used as articles of clothing, Furthermore, India exported ebony for fashioned furniture in Rome. The Roman Empire also imported Indian lime, peach, and various other fruits for medicine. Western India, as a result, was the recipient of large amounts of Roman gold during this time.

Since one must sail against the narrow gulfs of western India, special large boats were used and ship development was demanded. At the entrance of the gulf, large ships called trappaga and cotymba helped guide foreign vessels safely to the harbor. These ships were capable of relatively long coastal cruises, and several seals have depicted this type of ship. In each seal, parallel bands were suggested to represent the beams of the ship. In the center of the vessel is a single mast with a tripod base.

Apart from the recent explorations, close trade relations as well as the development of ship building were supported by the discovery of several Roman coins. On these coins were depictions of two strongly constructed masted ships. Thus, these depictions of Indian ships, originating from both coins and literature (Pliny and Pluriplus), indicate India s development in seafaring due to the increase in Indo-Roman commerce. In addition, the silver Roman coins discovered in western India primarily come from the 1st, 2nd, and 5th centuries. These Roman coins also suggest that India possessed a stable sea borne trade with Rome during 1st and 2nd century AD. Land routes, during the time of Augustus, were also used for Indian embassies to reach Rome.

The discoveries found on Bet Dwarka and on other areas on the western coast of India strongly indicate that there were strong Indo-Roman trade relations during the first two centuries of the Common era. The 3rd century, however, was the demise of the Indo-Roman trade. The sea-route between Rome and India was shut down, and as a result, the trading reverted back to the time prior to Roman expansion and exploration.


Coin of the Roman emperor Augustus found at the Pudukottai hoard. British Museum. Indian copy of an aureus of Faustina, 2nd century CE. British Museum. The replacement of Greece by the Roman empire as the administrator of the Mediterranean basin led to the strengthening of direct maritime trade with the east and the elimination of the taxes extracted previously by the middlemen of various land based trading routes.[7] Strabo's mention of the vast increase in trade following the Roman annexation of Egypt indicates that monsoon was known and manipulated for trade in his time.[8]

The trade started by Eudoxus of Cyzicus in 130 BCE kept increasing, and according to Strabo (II.5.12.):[9]

By the time of Augustus up to 120 ships were setting sail every year from Myos Hormos to India.[9] So much gold was used for this trade, and apparently recycled by the Kushan Empire (Kushans) for their own coinage, that Pliny the Elder (NH VI.101) complained about the drain of specie to India:[10]

File:Gold coin of Claudius 50 51CE excavated in South India.jpg|Gold coin of Claudius (50-51 CE) excavated in South India. File:Gold coin of Justinian I 527CE 565CE excavated in India probably in the south.jpg|Gold coin of Justinian I (527-565 CE) excavated in India probably in the south.

Trade of exotic animals

There existed an exotic animal trade between India Ocean harbours and Mediterranean harbours. The evidence of this we can to find in the mosaics and frescoes of the remains of Roman villas in Italy. For example Villa del Casale has mosaics depicting the capture of exotic animals in India, Indonesia and in Africa. The intercontinental trade of exotic animals was one of the sources of richness of the owners of the villa. In the Ambulacro della Grande Caccia, the hunting scenes and capture of live animals is well represented by such details that it is possible to identify the species. There is a scene that shows a technique to distract a mother Tiger in order to take her cubs by using a shimmering ball of glass or mirror. It is also represented the hunt of Tiger with red ribbons serving as a distraction. In the mosaic there are also numerous other animals such as a Rhinoceros, an Indian Elephant (recognized from the ears) with his Indian conductor and the Indian Peafowl, along with other exotic birds. There are also numerous animal from Africa. We know from sources that lot of Tigers, Pantheras as well as the Asian and African Lion were used in the arenas or in circuses. The European Lion was already extinct. Probably the last that lived in Balkan Peninsula were hunted to stock arenas. The birds and monkeys entertained the guests of many villas. Also in Villa del Tellaro there is a mosaic with tiger in a jungle that is attacking a man with roman clothes, probably a careless hunter. The animals were transported in cages and loaded in a ship arrived to Alexandria harbour, all that is represented in the mosaic.[11]


Roman ports

The three main Roman ports involved with eastern trade were Arsinoe, Berenice and Myos Hormos. Arsinoe was one of the early trading centers but was soon overshadowed by the more easily accessible Myos Hormos and Berenice.


Sites of Egyptian Red Sea ports, including Alexandria and Berenice. The Ptolemaic dynasty exploited the strategic position of Alexandria to secure trade with India.[5] The course of trade with the east then seems to have been first through the harbor of Arsinoe, the present day Suez.[5] The goods from the East African trade were landed at one of the three main Roman ports, Arsinoe, Berenice or Myos Hormos.[12] The Romans repaired and cleared out the silted up canal from the Nile to harbor center of Arsinoe on the Red Sea.[13] This was one of the many efforts the Roman administration had to undertake to divert as much of the trade to the maritime routes as possible.[13]

Arsinoe was eventually overshadowed by the rising prominence of Myos Hermos.[13] The navigation to the northern ports, such as Arsinoe-Clysma, became difficult in comparison to Myos Hermos due to the northern winds in the Gulf of Suez.[14] Venturing to these northern ports presented additional difficulties such as shoals, reefs and treacherous currents.[14]

Myos Hormos and Berenice

Myos Hormos and Berenice appear to have been important ancient trading ports, possibly used by the Pharaonic traders of ancient Egypt and the Ptolemaic dynasty before falling into Roman control.[1]

The site of Berenice, since its discovery by Belzoni (1818), has been equated with the ruins near Ras Banas in Southern Egypt.[1] However, the precise location of Myos Hormos is disputed with the latitude and longitude given in Ptolemy's Geography favoring Abu Sha'ar and the accounts given in classical literature and satellite images indicating a probable identification with Quesir el-Quadim at the end of a fortified road from Koptos on the Nile.[1] The Quesir el-Quadim site has further been associated with Myos Hormos following the excavations at el-Zerqa, halfway along the route, which have revealed ostraca leading to the conclusion that the port at the end of this road may have been Myos Hormos.[1]

Indian ports

Roman piece of pottery from Arezzo, Latium, found at Virampatnam, Arikamedu (1st century CE). Musee Guimet. In India, the ports of Barbaricum (modern Karachi), Barygaza, Muziris in Kerala, Korkai, Kaveripattinam and Arikamedu on the southern tip of India were the main centers of this trade, along with Kodumanal, an inland city. The Periplus Maris Erythraei describes Greco-Roman merchants selling in Barbaricum "thin clothing, figured linens, topaz, coral, storax, frankincense, vessels of glass, silver and gold plate, and a little wine" in exchange for "costus, bdellium, lycium, nard, turquoise, lapis lazuli, Seric skins, cotton cloth, silk yarn, and indigo".[15] In Barygaza, they would buy wheat, rice, sesame oil, cotton and cloth.[15]


Trade with Barigaza, under the control of the Indo-Scythian Western Satrap Nahapana ("Nambanus"), was especially flourishing:[15]


Muziris, as shown in the Tabula Peutingeriana, with a "Templum Augusti". Muziris is a lost port city in the South Indian state of Kerala which was a major center of trade in Tamilakkam between the Chera Empire and the Roman Empire.[16] Large hoards of coins and innumerable shards of amphorae found in the town of Pattanam have elicited recent archeological interest in finding a probable location of this port city.[16]

According to the Periplus, numerous Greek seamen managed an intense trade with Muziris:[15]


The Periplus Maris Erythraei mentions a marketplace named Poduke (ch. 60), which G.W.B. Huntingford identified as possibly being Arikamedu in Tamil Nadu, a centre of early Chola trade (now part of Ariyankuppam), about 2 miles from the modern Pondicherry.[17] Huntingford further notes that Roman pottery was found at Arikamedu in 1937, and archeological excavations between 1944 and 1949 showed that it was "a trading station to which goods of Roman manufacture were imported during the first half of the 1st century AD".[17]

Cultural exchanges

A 1st century CE Indian imitation of a coin of Augustus, British Museum. Bronze imitation of a Roman coin, Sri Lanka, 4th-8th century CE. The Rome-India trade also saw several cultural exchanges which had lasting effect for both the civilizations and others involved in the trade. The Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum was involved in the Indian Ocean trade network and was influenced by Roman culture and Indian architecture.[3] Traces of Indian influences are visible in Roman works of silver and ivory, or in Egyptian cotton and silk fabrics used for sale in Europe.[18] The Indian presence in Alexandria may have influenced the culture but little is known about the manner of this influence.[18] Clement of Alexandria mentions the Buddha in his writings and other Indian religions find mentions in other texts of the period.[18]

Even China was involved in the Roman trade with eastern Asia:

Christian and Jewish settlers from Rome continued to live in India long after the decline in bilateral trade.[3] Large hoards of Roman coins have been found throughout India, and especially in the busy maritime trading centers of the south.[3] The Tamilakkam kings reissued Roman coinage in their own name after defacing the coins in order to signify their sovereignty.[19] Mentions of the traders are recorded in the Tamil Sangam literature of India.[19] One such mention reads: "The beautiful warships of the Yavanas came to the prosperous and beautiful Muchiri (Muziris) breaking the white foams of 'Chulli', the big river, and returned with 'curry' (kari, the black pepper) paying for it in gold.(from poem no. 149 of 'Akananuru' of Sangam Literature)"[19]

Decline and aftermath

Following the Roman-Persian Wars, the areas under the Roman Byzantine Empire were captured by Khosrow II of the Persian Sassanian Dynasty,[20] but the Byzantine emperor Heraclius reconquered them (628). The Arabs, led by 'Amr ibn al-'As, crossed into Egypt in late 639 or early 640 CE.[21] This advance marked the beginning of the Islamic conquest of Egypt[21] and the fall of ports such as Alexandria,[4] used to secure trade with India by the Roman world since the Ptolemaic dynasty.[5] The decline in trade saw the ancient Tamil country turn to Southeast Asia for international trade, where it influenced the native culture to a greater degree than the impressions made on Rome.[22] The Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in the 15th century (1453), marking the beginning of Turkish control over the most direct trade routes between Europe and Asia.[23] The Ottomans initially cut off eastern trade with Europe, leading in turn to the attempt by Europeans to find a sea route around Africa, spurring the Age of Discovery, and the eventual rise of Mercantilism and Colonialism. right

See also

Sri Lankan imitations of 4th century Roman coins, 4th-8th century CE.



Further reading

  • 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.
  • McLaughlin, Raoul. (2010). Rome and the Distant East: Trade Routes to the Ancient Lands of Arabia, India and China. Continuum, London and New York. ISBN 978-1-84725-235-7.
  • 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.
  • Sidebotham, Steven E. (2011). Berenike and the Ancient Maritime Spice Route. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-24430-6.

External links

ca:Comer de l'antiga Roma amb l' ndia es:Comercio de la Antigua Roma con India fr: changes commerciaux entre la Rome antique et l'Inde it:Commercio romano con l'India no:Romersk handel med India ru: - sl:Rimska trgovska povezava z Indijo th:

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