Greco-Roman maritime trade
For a brief period historian Strabo reports that Romans avoided the Arab intermediaries when, in the reign of Augustus from about 63 BCE to 24 CE, a fleet of about 120 Roman ships would pass down the Red Sea to make an annual round-trip to India, but this trade returned to Arab hands when Alexandria fell with the Roman empire.
Alexandria enjoyed a golden age under the dynastic rule of the Ptolemys who, following Alexander’s conquest, ruled for 275 years from 305-30 BCE through the Hellenistic period up to the Roman conquest after which Rome inherited the old Greek trade routes. This was the last great Egyptian dynasty following the pharoahs ending with the demise of Egyptian Cleopatra as a result of her fatal dalliance with Roman General Marc Antony which resulted in a Roman takeover of trade following the Battle of Actium in 30 BCE. Rome now controlled the massive grain harvests of the Nile Valley and the Roman economy boomed. Emperor Augustus (r. 27 BCE – 14 CE) claimed that he inherited Rome as a city of brick and converted it to a city of marble. Cicero reports the sending of tax assessors to Judaea for a census and the observation of a land of luxury and plenty prompting an assessment of Roman land and sea trade around the Persian Gulf. Within a few years 120 Roman ships were sailing for India every year. Villages on these trade routes grew into thriving towns and cities and Roman monuments were erected everywhere. Romans admired the silk from China which allowed the ‘Roman lady to shimmer in public’ (Pliny NH 6.20) and a imports made up as much as 10% of the Roman budget. Alexandria, as a busy cosmopolitan trading port, the docks buzzing with Phoenicians from the Levant, Greeks, Egyptians, and the black Nubians of today’s Sudan. Trade passing betwen the Mediterranean and India passed from Alexandria, down the Nile to Aswan before being taken by camel train to the Red Sea port Berenice Troglodytica (trade hub between India, Arabia, and Upper Egypt) sailing to the coastal port of Aden before passing along the Gulf of Aden to cross the Arabian Sea sailing southwards down India into the Indian Ocean before setting out for Malabar on India’s south-western coast.
Both eastern and western Indian ports served as emporia for goods from eastern and south-eastern Asia. According to The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (c. 50 CE), the only eye-witness account of the spice trade in the classical era between Berenice in Arabia to the Indus River, Malabar coast, Sri Lanka, Coromandel coast and Ganges River in the Bay of Bengal. Greeks enjoyed perfumed oils as did the Romans whose opulence drew heavily on imports of pepper and cinnamon. Spices sweetened the aroma of funerary pyres.
By this time in history East was connected to West by societies that were administratively skilled, competitive, and efficient. Goods and coins passed through China, Central Asia, India, Persia, Arabia, and, once in the Mediterranean, dispersed throughout Europe and as far west as the British Isles. Global connectivity like this would shortly break down and not return until broken land routes were supplemented by the sea routes ploughed during the Age of Discovery.
By 410 CE the Roman Empire had become fragmented, literacy was on the wane, and stone buildings no longer the order of the day. In about 540 CE bubonic plague spread along trade routes to both East and West, bringing economic depression. However, in the 5th century CE a Roman cookbook titled The Excerpts of Vinidarius lists more than 50 herbs, spices and plant extracts that ‘… should be in the house in order that nothing is lacking in seasoning‘.
The world of learning and commerce would now pass to Arab and Muslim as, from 600 Persia spread its influence with Turks playing an increasing role. In 619 the mainstay of the Roman agararian economy, Alexandria, fell. In 614 Jerusalem fell. Islamic influence spread rapidly in the 7th century resulting in its own trade networks and wealth, much invested in Syria and the cities of Jerash, Scythopolis, and Palmyra but mainly to Baghdad which for several centuries would become the centre of the Islamic world and the richest and most populous city in the world made possible by the taxation of its vast and productive empire. In 527-564 CE Byzantine Emperor Justinian sent a successful secret mission to obtain silk worms from China the subsequent silk production in northern Greece (Thrace) becoming a European monopoly.
Carried across land and sea from Asia the spices of the Far East arrived in the West via India. India was a half-way house between East and West and, along with the Axum Empire of northern Ethiopia and Eritraea fl. 100– CE which bounded the Red Sea, controlled the sea lanes into the Red Sea at this time although Roman merchants had learned how to take advantage of the seasonal monsoon winds. The Grand Trunk Road running across northern India was especially active in the Hellenistic period but probably dates back several millennia.
In the Indian segment of the Silk Road there are the c. 30 rock-cut Buddhist Ajanta Caves dating from the 2nd century BCE to about 480 CE with paintings and rock-cut sculptures that are outstanding examples of ancient Indian art and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They are, in effect, ancient monasteries and probably a monsoon retreat for monks, as well as a stopping point for travelling merchants and pilgrims.
The Ajanta Caves They are recorded by medieval Chinese Buddhist travellers and the Mugha official of the Akbar era in the early 17th century. Enveloped in jungle they were rediscovered and recorded for the West in 1819 by British colonial officer Captain John Smith when hunting tigers.
By 500 CE the Indian centre of trade had moved to Sri Lanka which was on the preferred trade route of merchants from Burma, Java, Sumatra and Malaya. Indian traders working in south-east Asia brought with them the Hindu and Buddhist faiths. Sanskrit inscriptions dating to the 4th century have been found in Indonesia perhaps the most obvious evidence of this Indian influence today being the 8th century Borobodur temple in Java and the 12th century temples around Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
The overland route from India to Europe was by camel and packhorse and it passed from India to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, the Balkans and, finally, to Venice. The loyalty of the Veneti tribe to Rome had been rewarded with a gift of marshy lands where the tribe had prospered such that, by the 800s, a small township called Venice had emerged. By the early 1500s Venice had the largest merchant navy in Europe an it used a sophisticated banking system with branches in Europe’s main cities. In the Middle Ages meat was salted and pepper was regarded as a culinary necessity for the well-to-do. Spices generated much of the wealth on display in Venice, driving the spice race that was launched from the Iberian Peninsula. Pepper served as a currency for the storage and exchange of wealth and it was a useful source of government tax revenue.
Arabic numerals though originating in India, had arrived in Europe with Arabic merchants.
Indian connections with SE Asia and the Far East were invaluable to Arab and Persian traders of the 7th to 8th centuries.
Islam, from its beginnings, encouraged trade. There was a natural transition from the star-guided navigation of camel caravans across the waves of the desert to navigation on the seas. From local trade in frankincense and myrrh to international trade in spices. Prophet Muhammad (c. 570-632 CE) was born into a family of spice traders and his revelations comitted to the Qur’an rapidly united the Arab empire from Baghdad to Alexandria under the religion of Islam and Muslim control of the spice trade throughout Arabia, initially under the control of the Umayyad Dynasty in Damascus. With the passing of the caliphate to the Abbasid Dynasty in 750 the centre of the Muslim world passed from Damascus to Baghdad, much closer to the Persian Gulf and trade along the Tigris and Euphrates. (B. p. 29) At the mouth of the Red Sea the port of Aden was used by shipping from India carrying ambergris, camphor, musk, and sandalwood. Captains would pay a tribute to the Sultan of Yemen to use the Red Sea and this led to the fabulous riches that are recounted in the Tales of Sinbad the Sailor. As Islam spread across North Africa c. 650 CE both overland European caravans and Red Sea shipping trade was closed off except via Arab merchants from Arabia and Persia.
By the mid 7th century CE there was a take-over of sea routes and this continued into the Middle Ages. Tribes of south and west Arabia also gained control of land trade between South Arabia and the Mediterranean. Nabateans took control of the route crossing the Negev from Petra to Gaza. Petra, the Nabatean city carved out of rock, provided an oasis for caravans on a route that passed by sea from Arabian Jeddah (adjacent to Mecca) on the east coast of Red Sea north to Medina, inland to Jordanian Petra and then on to Gaza on Israel’s southern coast. Trade in the Red Sea passed from Bab-el-Mandeb at the southern mouth of the Red Sea to Berenike, built by Ptolemy II and from the 1st to 2nd century CE the trading hub for Arabia, Egypt, India and the Malabar coast.
When Alexandria was taken by Muslim forces in 641 CE direct trade with the Mediterranean ceased. As early as 671 Arab and Persian traders were operating in China and by the 8th century were trading with Canton (today’s Guangzhou). Here goods from the Moluccas would be loaded on the ships for the return trip – silk, camphor, porcelain, and spices, this trade coming to a halt when Guangzhou was destroyed by rebel forces in 878. At about the same time Buddhist traders had established a strong trading centre at Srivjaya (near Palembang) in South Sumatra where nutmeg and cloves from the Moluccas were passed on to merchants from China, Arabia, and India.
In the 13th century Arab vessels sailed from Basra at the head of the Persian Gulf trading their cargo on the way and using the monsoon winds to arrive in Canton (Guangzhou) six months later. Through the 15th century there was increasing European concern about Muslim control of trade to the East, about 80% of this being in Arab hands in 1400. The merchants of Venice were dealing with about 500 tons of spice a year, mostly pepper.
Muslim control of trade continued in the high and late Medieval period through the Ottaman Turks. In the Middle Ages European trade was largely controlled by Venetian and Genoan merchants who dealt with the merchants of the Byzantine Empire. When the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople in 1453 the overland trade between Venice and the Arabs was finally closed off. There was just one possible way forward for Portugal and Spain, the maritime powers of the day … a sea route to the Indies. Ottoman Muslim rivals, the Mamluks, followed by increasing the duties on spices passing through Alexandria.
Muslim trade domination was a major incentive for European sea powers to find alternative sea routes for their business and as navigational skills and shipbuilding improved the Age of Discovery opened up sea lanes via the Cape of Good Hope and world trade was steadily taken over by European colonial powers.
The first records of cloves in China date to the third century BCE.(B. p. 22)
By the 16th and 17th centuries technological advance in Europe – the improved ship building and sophisticated navigation aids so important to the Age of Discovery, the increasingly effective weaponry – presented European powers with the opportunity to loosen the Muslim grip on trade in the East while, at the same time, introducing the orient to the ‘one true religion’.
European merchants were also able to cash in on the fortunes to be made from spices, serving as middle-men in Silk Road trade that passed through Byzantium. Although trade was delivered to many ports it was, between about 700 and 1500 that the maritime republics of Italy, most notably Venice and Genoa, commandeered the trade passing to the Middle East – not only the lucrative spices and incense but also opium and other goods. Italy thus held a virtual monopoly on this trade until the rise of the Ottoman Empire and the fall of Constantinople that closed to Europeans the land-sea route to the east, the merchants of Venice amassing huge wealth together with considerable resentment.
At the Far Eastern nd of the trade route were the Austronesian sailors who were ancestors of Polynesians, Micronesians, Maoris, Malayans and Madagascans. They used outrigger canoes that carried cargoes of rice, taro, sugarcane, yams, breadfruit, and coconuts. Pliny noted how in his day these remarkable sailors traded cinnamon, the journey from their homeland to the coast of Africa and back taking about five years. However, their major trade occurred in India and included cloves and nutmeg as well as cinnamon also venturing along routes to the Mediterranean that included the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, as well as the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates Rivers, in the classical era c. 50 BCE to 96 CE usually distributed round the Mediterranean following accumulation on the docks of Alexandria. Pepper was a major commodity traded with India at this time.
While Rome was marching east, Chinese of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) were pushing west through the Gansu corridor to today’s northwestern Xinjiang Province from which it was about 1000 km to the crossroad city of Dunhuange on the fringes of the Taklamakan Desert. Progress was hampered by the raids from the northern Yuezhi and Xiongnu nomadic tribesmen who, like the Scythians, were skilled horsemen. They were also a source of prize horses. The Kushan Empire was a syncretic Empire formed by the Yuezhi a people occupying the arid grasslands of today’s Chinese provinces of Xinjiang and Gansu. The Yuezhi siezed Greco-Bactrian territories in the early 1st century and at its height King Kanishka the Great (127–163 CE) ruled over an area that included much of Afghanistan and today’s Peshawar and northern India – from Turfan in the Tarim Basin to Pataliputra on the Gangetic plain. Turpan was a trading hub with numerous inns and brothels, a slave trade but mostly supplying vegetables, cotton and grapes, as China’s largest raisin-producing region. For many years China was prepared to pay for peace in goods but eventually lost patience and after about ten years intermittent struggle managed, in 119 BCE, to occupy the Gansu corridor marking what is possibly the time of east-west integration on the Silk Road.
General Ban Chao with tens of thousands of troops penetrated from the Great Wall as far as the Caspian Sea, even sending an envoy to Rome.
Silk is a textile made from the extremely fine thread produced by silk-worms, the caterpillers of the insect Bombyx mori as they spin cocoons while feeding off the leaves of Chinese Mulberry, Morus alba. In a China lacking coinage silk was a valuable commodity of exchange and this use expanded into the international markets.
In the 7th century especially there was contact between India and China through the medium of Buddhist monks leading to later Buddhist shrines in Bamiyan (Afghanistan), Mount Wutai (China), Angkor Watt (Cambodia) and Borobudur (Indonesia).
During the Tang dynasty (618-907) the capital city of Chang An in about 700 CE under female Wu Zetien had a population of about 1 million citizens and it was linked to the Silk Road as a city of great wealth and luxury based on its trade to the Mediterranean and Japan. Wu was a concubine who rose to become political leader during the brief Zhou dynasty interlude of 684–705 CE. Here there was the largest ever known palace complex (178 acres) that included areas for archery and polo. At this time rice was stored in vast granaries and Buddhism and its temples were established across the land. The famous five-storey Buddhist Giant Wild Goose Pagoda built in 652 CE in Xi’an was destroyed by an earthquake and was rebuilt in 701-704. This was an era in which women gained political power only to be resisted by the subsequent Confucian hierarchy.
From 1206 to about 1360 the Mongol power of Ghengiz Khan and family extended beyond the Central Asian steppes into northern China forcing the Song Dynasty in 1227 to move to the southern trading port of Huangzhou and a new maritime trade and when this also fell in 1276 Kublai Khan ruled a trading route that extended 6000 km from China to the Black Sea. Strung along the route were trading hubs that included, from West to East, Erzurum (Anatolia), Kazan (C Russia), Solkhat (Crimea), Astrakhan (Lower Volta), Tabriz (N Iran, Samarkand (Transoxiana), Karakprum (C Mongolia) Beijing (N China). This ended the Islamic hold on world trade.
For the West this period is familiar through the chronicles of Marco Polo who was respectfully entertained by Kublai Khan who was keenly interested in life, the Roman Catholic Church, and other aspects of life in the the West. In 1271 the three Polo brothers Nicolo, Mafeo and the 15-year-old Marco had travelled with the Venetian merchant fleet noting that for the merchants of Venice, Pisa, and Genoa it was Antioch (Ayas) that was the main Mediterranean point of access to inland routes.
At the time of the Tang Dynasty China opened its doors, accepting foreigners and their trade while themselves sailing beyond India to become regular merchants along the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. During the Han Dynasty there was a long period of peace, a Pax Sinica, at the same time as the Pax Romana. This was later followed by a second Pax Sinica lasting from 589 to 907, mostly during the Tang Dynasty (618–907).
Morco Polo describes Chinese smerchnat ships of the late 13th century carrying up to 300 people and cargos of 120 tons. Built with four masts, double hulls, airtight compartments (bulkheads) allowing the ship to remain afloat of the hull was damages – ships of this quality were not built by Europeans for another 500-600 years.By the 14th century Western visitors were also amazed by Chinese skills with porecelain and the use of paper money. By 1402 Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty decided to open a political dialogue with the world’s great nations hoping that in return for gifts and protection they would pay tribute to the Emperor. Nanjing shipyards on the Yangtze River produced hundreds of giant junks – military, trade, and provision. This Treasure Fleet was placed under the command of Admiral Zheng He who, rom 1405-1433 led seven expeditions, the sixth rounding the Cape of Good Hope into the Atlantic. To mobilise such extraordinary campaigns, some with fleets of several hundred ships, required logistical skills and technology far in advance of any other country in the world. Though such forces were capable of subduing other countries these voyages were peaceable and on the death of Emperor Yongle in 1424 was succeeded by his Confucian son Zhu Gaotzi China once again looked inwards, leaving the seas open to the European ships and ambitions that would change the world. This theme is taken up in the next article.