Thursday, February 18, 2016


Federico De Romanis, Marco Maiuro (ed.), Across the Ocean: Nine Essays on Indo-Mediterranean Trade. Columbia studies in the classical tradition, 41. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2015. Pp. vi, 204. ISBN 9789004289192. $128.00.

Reviewed by Pierre Schneider, Université d'Artois; Maison de l'Orient et de la Méditerranée (

Version at BMCR home site


This volume comprises nine talks that were delivered at the conference "A Tale of Two Worlds", held at Columbia University in March 2011. The editors, Marco Maiuro and Federico de Romanis—both leading experts in their fields of research—divided the contributions into two sections: the first one is centered on Roman Antiquity and particularly on the role played by the Red Sea ("The Cradle of the Ancient India Trade: the Red Sea"). The second section, entitled "Comparative Perspectives on the India Trade", explores topics relating to other areas and periods.1 In their stimulating introduction Maiuro and de Romanis briefly tell us how the Indo-Mediterranean trade, which did not raise much interest among scholars until the 18th century,2 has now taken the place it deserves in the field of economic and social history. They also rightly promote the comparative approach, by which fresh insights into various topics are to be gained. An excellent afterword by Elio Lo Cascio closes the volume.

To begin, Andrew Wilson examines the extent to which Roman administration in Egypt was involved in the development of the Indo-Mediterranean trade via the Red Sea. The author mainly deals with the road system linking the Red Sea ports Berenikê and Myos Hormos to the Nile valley. First Wilson examines how the Roman infrastructure could facilitate trade, describing the facilities such as watering-points, forts and watch towers. He believes that although various kinds of minerals were extracted in the Eastern Desert, the "primary motive" of the Roman administration was to "sustain these roads as trade routes" (p. 21). Here he points out the huge profit made from customs dues (i.e. the tetartê), whose high rate may be understood as the price that merchants had to pay for their security. He also takes the view that the familia Caesaris was involved in the Indo-Roman trade, an assertion that needs much more evidence. Finally Wilson turns his attention to the alterations affecting the pattern of traffic that prevailed until the late second century AD (e.g. the shift towards Aila and Klysma).

J.-J. Aubert returns to a subject on which he has extensively written: the old canal running from the Nile to the Gulf of Suez. Aubert concentrates on the early second century AD, when this waterway was reopened by Trajan. It has long been discussed to what extent this was used for the Indo-Roman trade: on the one hand it was set up at the time when this trade was flourishing; on the other hand the Eastern Desert roads and the Red Sea ports were not abandoned. Finally Aubert discusses the so-called "one way scenario" (from Alexandria to the Red Sea via the canal, from the Red Sea to Alexandria via the Eastern Desert roads). He emphasizes how costly maintaining both canal and land routes would have been and concludes that the Traianos potamos is unlikely to have served as a route for Indo-Mediterranean commerce.

Pearls were much praised in the Roman world from the first century BC onwards. Most of them were imported from the Arab-Persian Gulf and Gulf of Mannar. Katia Schörle, however, states that some pearls were also gathered in the northern Red Sea. She goes on to say that this activity was supervised by the Roman administration in Egypt, as proven by two dedications by the (arkhi)metallarkhês Publius Juventius Agathopous. In addition, on the basis of other written evidence, Schörle also assumes that some Italian gentes, such as the Calpurnii, were particularly involved in the eastern trade: they apparently acted as importers and retailers of pearls, which "suggests vertical integration and a particular investment in the pearl business, although it is likely that this was just one venture within a larger trading and investment portfolio" (p. 52). "He [Trajan] also fitted out a fleet for the mare Rubrum, that he might use to lay waste to India". According to Dario Nappo, this statement by Eutropius discloses what may be called a "Roman policy on the Red Sea in the second century BC". Surely such a policy was not initiated by Trajan: the existence of a military fleet is attested as early as the early Principate. Trajan, however, is credited by Nappo with greatly improving the Roman presence in the whole Red Sea, having annexed Arabia, opened the Aila-Bostra road, and perhaps (p. 68) sent a detachment to the Farasan Island. To sum up, "Trajan planned to better integrate the Red Sea region into the economic system of the Roman Empire" (p. 65). This policy was pursued by Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius.

Taco Terpstra deals with what some scholars would probably term "trading diasporas". The author wants to show that "Puteoli housed the only permanent Nabataean community in the Mediterranean" and that "this community established a mercantile connection between the Nabateans and their Roman buyers"(p. 73). A description of the overland and sea routes involving the Nabataean kingdom opens the paper. Then Terpstra moves on to the core of his subject, namely the twenty-one inscriptions discovered in the Aegean and Italy. Unlike the former region, Puteoli provides evidence for a Nabataean community living here. The author argues that the raison d'être of such a community was to establish and maintain contact with the Puteolans, for the sake of mercantile efficiency. In addition, Terpstra believes that this closed group was self-regulated ("coercive power over individual members"), so that "trust was established between Nabataeans and Puteolans" (p. 88)

Opening the second section of the volume, Falk recalls some classical sources referring to gold production in north-west India (e.g., Herodotus). Long before such documents, the sophisticated Harrapan weight system with its correspondence with other standards supports the view that the Harappan cities exported gold to Mesopotamia via Dilmun. The author goes on to examine the weight units of the Vedic period and the Achaemenid and Hellenistic standards as well. Then Falk concentrates on the kuṣāṇa period. In contrast with South India, where Roman aurei were used as their bullion value, the Kuṣāṇas could get gold from their own territory. He also argues that in the early second century BC the kuṣāṇa king Vima Kadphises adopted the standard of Augustus "as inspired by thoughts on prestige." (p. 113)

Jairus Banaji first considers some Indian ports of uncertain identification and location listed by the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea and Cosmas Indicopleustes (Mandagora, Bakarê, Kaber …). Having shed light on this topic, Banaji takes a broader perspective and considers the whole Western Indian Ocean. He particularly insists on the "reshuffling of ports that went on throughout the history of the Indian Ocean" (p. 123). For instance, the decline of Pattanam (Mouziris) allowed Kollam (Quilon) to emerge in the ninth century. Finally Banaji briefly comments on some features of the trading communities (e.g., the Gujarati baniyans) and addresses the issue of the development of capitalism in the Indian Ocean trading system.

With Federico de Romanis putting in perspective Portuguese documents and ancient sources, the reader has a beautiful example of what a pertinent comparative study can yield. De Romanis starts by assessing the average cargo of spices per ship sailing back to Portugal in the sixteenth century. He then shows that the Hermapollon, loaded with 544 tons of pepper in the second century BC, compares favourably with Portuguese ships.3 The author also points out correspondences in the supply pattern, as Roman and Portuguese traders bought pepper in the same areas. Finally he focuses on the production system. Pepper was largely harvested by local foraging communities, as shown by some Portuguese accounts, a fact of which the third century BC writer Philostratus seems to have been aware.

The last contributor, Martha Howell, tells how from the late fifteenth century onwards the Europeans, who acted as predators whereas the Romans acted as participants, ventured into the Indian Ocean. First the Portuguese controlled the supply of spices until they were challenged by European rivals. Howell tells the extraordinary story of the VOC (Dutch East Indies Company), established in 1602, which was to become "the largest and most profitable mega-corporation in the world". Among numerous factors explaining this success story, the author emphasises the Dutch expertise in carrying goods and their clever and efficient—not to say brutal—business organization.

The contributions presented in the first section of this volume generally revisit issues that have been amply addressed. For instance McLaughlin recently wrote about the Roman military presence in the Red Sea;4 the involvement of the State in Eastern commerce is discussed in Young's monograph;5 the concept of "trading diasporas" has been explored for more than a decade, etc. Nonetheless, the reader will find interesting, but questionable ideas, for instance when Wilson suggests that the Roman State acted as one of the most important retailers in luxuries, the tetartê being exacted in kind: much more evidence is needed to support this view, which rests on the assumption that merchants lacked cash. Similarly the reason why a detachment was garrisoned in the Farasan Island and accordingly why Roman ships ventured into the Southern Red Sea would be less obscure if we knew more about the political situation in the area (Saba-Himyar and Axoum). To give a last example, Schörle's assumption that Rome engaged in producing a luxury item is also interesting, but her interpretation of the document can be challenged.6 The second section, which aims at putting the Indian trade in a comparative perspective, must be praised for what it is. Some papers, however, are more oriented toward the longue durée approach than engaged in comparative study. In addition some subjects deserving a substantial inquiry are too briefly discussed (for instance, the penetration of capitalism in the Indian Ocean trading system referred to in Banaji's paper).

To sum up, this good book first and foremost reinforces the position of the topic in question in ancient studies; in addition it opens interesting perspectives for future research in this field, for the method promoted by the editors is undoubtedly a good way to enhance our knowledge of the relationship between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean in antiquity.


1.   It is worth recalling that in a number of Greek and Latin sources, most of them going back to the third century AD onwards, the name "India" may apply not only to India proper, but also to South Arabia, Axum and Adulis and even the Thebaid. Thus some conclusions in the book need reconsideration.
2.   More about this topic in Pierre Briant's recent essay (Alexandre des Lumières, Paris, 2013).
3.   To fully understand de Romanis' demonstration, it is worth reading first his "Playing Sudoku on the Verso of the 'Muziris Papyrus': Pepper, Malabathron and Tortoise Shell in the Cargo of the Hermapollon", Journal of Indian Ancient History 27 (2012) 75-101.
4.   R. McLaughlin, Rome and the Distant East. Trade Routes to the Ancient Lands of Arabia, India and China, London-New York, 2010, p. 80-81.
5.   G. K. Young, Rome's Eastern Trade: International Commerce and Imperial Policy (31 BC-AD 305), London, 2001, p. 66.
6.   P. Schneider, Margarita. Perles et nacre, de l'océan Indien à la Méditerranée (4e siècle a.C. – 6e siècle p.C.), Turnhout (Brepols), forthcoming.

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