The story of spices is one of the most captivating of the world of plants involving, first, the Silk Road as the network of overland trade routes connecting the ancient worlds of East and West, then the maritime spice routes that dominated the political and economic life of Europe through the spice race that launched the Age of Discovery.
Fragrant spices connected humans to the spirit world and the gods. They were also luxury goods that commanded worldly fortunes. Already in the ancient world thay were traded between Mediterranean civilizations and those of India and China. Controlling the trade routes could lead to prosperity and power.
Much of the global character of the modern world of plants was established during this latter maritime period which had inherited the plant preoccupations of the ancients. Herbs and spices were the first plants contributing to global trade, preceded only by the spread of staple plants that occurred during the Agricultural Revolution.
The commerce that has forged today’s global society emerged from two plant-based trading networks connecting East and West, The Silk Road of Antiquity and its later development, the maritime Spice Route of the modern era.
Spice Trade Grand Bazaar, Istanbul Photo: Roger Spencer, May 2014
Trade, commerce, and economics – the distribution of resources – are at the centre of the single most important factor affecting human history and sustainability … social organisation. Trade routes are transport and communication networks for products and ideas are like a giant global central nervous system processing human activity, the cities like energised coordinating ganglionic nodes signalling through a confined space. The competitive exchange of goods, technology, and ideas has nurtured the desire for improvement and progress, not just profit, leading to a collective advance in knowledge. As today, groups isolated from this communal melting pot would seem distant, parochial, and strange, maintaining their cohesion through rigid social and religious structures. Religions that traveled along the Silk Road included Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Manichcheism.
Slowly and hesitatingly it was silk and spices that were bringing the world’s peoples together.
To us the interest in spices might seem rather curious but at one time they were as desirable as gold and precious stones – and they commanded a similar price. What was this strange hold that spices had on the minds of our ancestors?
From the earliest times knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants was critical and an integral part of daily life. They were of course considered an integral part of health and medicine and supplement that made food much more interesting and palatable. Pharoahs sometimes appointed several learned and specialist physicians to manage their ailments. Their knowledge would include familiarity with the properties, dosages, and general administration of herbs and spices. According to Indian, Persian, Greek, and Roman traditions of medicine, especially those espoused by the Greek founder of medicine Hippocrates and the Islamic physicians, the body had four humours (black and yellow bile, phlegm, and blood) corresponding to four temperaments (sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic) and spices could be used to adjust these humours. Herbs and spices were mostly very light and effective in small quantities making them extremely economical, being easy to dry, store, and transport over long distances. There was therefore the potential for substantial profits.
But there were other alluring qualities beyond the economic, medicinal, and culinary. There was the mystery of their origin in distant and exotic lands. Then the aromas intimated at mystical properties (many were considered aphrodisiacs or substances that could enhance fertility) – the religious and spiritual associations were strong, no doubt a legacy from prehistory, and it was commonly believed that their fragrance awoke the senses of the gods, thereby facilitating communication with the divine – a tradition that continues today as the burning of incense. Of course their rarity made them prohibitively expensive so, like gold and precious jewels, spices were associated with the social elite which made them a luxurious and much-coveted symbol of social status. Using spices on your food showed people that you had expensive tastes!
Gold, Frankincense & Myrrh
It was spices of the ancient world that provided a historical precedent for the spice trade that launched the Age of Discovery. Leading this trade were the spices frankincense and myrrh, almost always traded together and often associated with gold. Gold symbolized royalty, frankincense divinity, and myrrh was an aromatic oil-resin with a bitter taste and symbolized death. Being in limited supply these were luxury goods that commanded high prices among the well-to-do. Frankincense and myrrh were accessed from Arabia by all the ancient civilizations including those of India and China. Cardamom from southern India was available in Mesopotamia in the third millennium BCE. It has been traded on the Arabian Peninsula, in North Africa, and Somalia for more than 5000 years, a mural depicting sacks of frankincense traded from the Land of Punt can be seen on the walls of the temple of ancient Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut (1508-1458 BCE). Pharaoh Rameses II, buried in 1224 BCE, was found to have a peppercorn from India inserted in each of his nostrils. Frankincense (Boswellia spp.) was a small tree that exuded droplets of resin described by Theophrastus as ‘tears’ which, when dry, were collected as granules. Herbs and spices were referred to by the Romans as aromatica.
Trade & social organisation
Trade encourages the exchange of ideas as well as goods, it promotes human ingenuity through competitive technological innovation and the peaceful integration of communities for mutual benefit. Through prosperity the material conditions of both individuals and groups are enhanced. Capitalism has amply demonstrated its power, dynamism, and appeal through the impact it has made on the world and the popularity it currently enjoys.
Trade routes are also the paths of disease and there is always the potential for the system to be abused. Greed can lead to flouting of the law and the selfish pursuit of private interest can be to the detriment of the public good. History presents us with many examples of exploitation, which is the less appealing side of trade as, in the extreme, the subjugation of one people by another.
Arguably the strongest historical and commercial global cultural divide has been that existing between East and West, a separation that can be directly attributed to the geographic barriers of mountains and deserts. Only later in history could maritime technology overcome this hurdle to communication between the world’s two hemispheres.
To enter China from the West means crossing the deadly Taklimakan Desert which lies beyond today’s alliterative Afghanistan, Tajikstan, Kyrgystan, and Kazakhstan. Oases are few and caravans tentatively skirt the fringes of a desert where sandstorms are common and temperatures can soar to 50oC in the day, dropping to minus 20oC at night. To the north-east is the Mongolian Gobi Desert, to the south are mountain ranges that include the Himalayas, very effectively cutting off Central Asia from the Indian subcontinent except for hazardous passes at altitudes of at leat 5000 m. Approaching from the north and west also means overcoming unfriendly mountain ranges. The entrance to China is then virtually restricted to the Ganshu Corridor, a more hospitable plain at the foot of the Qilian mountains but hemmed in by the Gobi Desert and Mongolian Plateau to the north and the Tibetan Plateau to the south.
Civilizations developed earlier in the West, its Neolithic Revolution preceding the independent development of that in the East by over 1000 years followed by the great civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Middle East, Persia, India, Greece and Rome. Following the decline of Rome, oriental civilization of the Middle Ages displayed greater technological development and sophistication than was evident among the warring religious factions of Europe but this was to change when European naval power facilitated the trade, exploitation, and colonisation in the East that facilitated European economic growth and its later Industrial Revolution.
Spices available in the East and dating back to antiquity include: cardamom, cassia, cinnamon, ginger, opium, pepper, and turmeric.
What we know of ancient trade comes to us from archaeological evidence and a limited range of written sources including the frequent mention of spices in the Christian Bible but also, from the Classical period, aothors like Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484–425 BCE) who lived about the same time as Socrates. Dubbed ‘The Father of History’ by Cicero his The Histories, his only known work, is considered a masterpiece of historical scholarship even though some of its content is contested. A later Greek historian Strabo (c.64 BCE–24 CE) travelled extensively in the Mediterranean region and Near East spending time in Rome during the relatively peaceful Augustan era. His major remaining work is his Geographica (Geography). Procopius …
Two extremely useful forms of written reference come to us from the classical world: the periplus (a Latinisation of the Greek word periploos – sailing around) a navigators log-book or guide to a particular coastal region which named and sometimes described ports, landmarks, and distances: it was used by seafaring Phoenicians and Persians as well as the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Periplus describes trade of small ships between ports on the east and west coasts of India and larger ships (probably Malay or Indonesian) using the Bay of Bengal in a trade with SE Asia. Similar logs were also created for road travel, notably the Roman itinerarium. Maps were to play an increasing role in exploration but the world map of Ptolemy drawn in 100 CE would serve as the representation of the East until 1482 after which there would be rapid progress in cartography.
Though in classical times a route to India was known from the Red Sea, hugging the land around the Arabian peninsula, to India this was guarded by Arab merchants. According to historian Strabo, around 120 BCE a shipwrecked Indian sailor was presented to king Ptolemy VIII (c. 182-116 BCE) at the Egyptian court in Alexandria. He had sailed across the Indian Ocean. This route appealing to the king who asked the man to guide geographer Eudoxus along the route and back to India. They returned with spices and jewels and then made a second trip. Whatever its beginnings, trade with the west coast of India opened up in the first century BCE when the secret of the seasonal trade winds became common knowledge and were probably studied in detail by Greek Hippalos. Romans took over the trade when Egypt was captured by Rome in 30 BCE giving direct access to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, thus by-passing Arab and Indian middlemen. Trade thrived so that by the time of Augustus in 100 CE around 120 Roman spice ships were trading across the Indian Ocean.
Roman maritime (safer) trade routes with India From Periplus Maris Erythraei, 1st century CE Courtesy Wikipedia Commons
Then there were travelogues like that of Venetian merchant Marco Polo (1254-1324) who crossed Central Asia to visit China.
The 19th century would see a new kind of traveller, the archaeologists, historians and scientists from England, France, Germany, Russia, and Japan, all eager to explore the material and cultural remnants of one of the most remarkable creations of human communication.
 Standage 2009, 69-70
Standage, T. 2009. An Edible History of Humanity. Bloomsbury: London