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The Ancient Maritime Trade Route Between India and Europe

The Ancient Maritime Trade Route Between India and Europe

The recent announcement of the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor during the G20 Summit has drawn attention to the historical maritime trade route between India and the Roman Empire. This ancient trade route, which flourished in the early centuries of the Common Era, has recently gained recognition for its scale and significance, surpassing the more renowned overland Silk Road. Here, we explore the fascinating history of this maritime trade route:

Rediscovering the Ancient Red Sea Trade Route

For years, historians have acknowledged the existence of trade between Rome and India in antiquity. Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s excavations in Arikamedu during the 1930s and 40s confirmed Indo-Roman trade in the 1st century CE. However, the historical perspective at the time often downplayed the role of Indian merchants and ship owners in this trade.

Locations, names and routes of the ‘Periplus of the Erythraean Sea’ (1st century CE). The Periplus was a Roman-period guide to trade and navigation on the Indian Ocean. (Wikimedia Commons)

Recent research has shed new light on the scale of this trade, particularly through the discovery of the Muziris Papyrus. This document, associated with an Alexandria-based Egypto-Roman financier, detailed the purchase of goods from an Indian merchant in Muziris, located on Kerala’s coast. The document revealed the astonishing value of the cargo, worth 131 talents, equivalent to acquiring extensive farmland in Egypt or a premium estate in central Italy.

Revenue Impact on the Roman Empire

Custom taxes levied on the Red Sea trade with India, Persia, and Ethiopia are estimated to have contributed as much as one-third of the Roman exchequer’s income. This source of revenue surpassed the income of entire subject territories. The tax revenue generated from the Red Sea trade alone covered approximately one-third of the Roman Empire’s expenses, including the administration of its global conquests and the maintenance of its vast legions.

During the peak of this trade in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, hundreds of ships plied this maritime highway, connecting the Roman Empire and India through the Red Sea.

Commodities Traded on the Route

The Roman Empire had a great appetite for Indian luxuries, including malabathrum (a plant used to create perfume), ivory, pearls, precious gemstones, and exotic wildlife such as elephants and tigers. Pepper, in particular, was a highly sought-after commodity, with large quantities discovered in excavations at Berenike, often stored in pottery jars weighing more than 10 kg each.

In return, Rome primarily exported gold to India, which created a trade imbalance. Roman wine was also a sought-after item, and we find records of Indians appreciating Roman wine.

Origins of the Trade

The trade between India and the Roman Empire can be traced back to the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, particularly after the Romans conquered Egypt. The Indian subcontinent’s role as the hub of economic and cultural exchange between the East and West has been overshadowed by the modern concept of the Silk Road, which did not exist as such during ancient times.

Organized Trade Network

The trade was highly organized, with contracts established between merchants in Kerala and shippers in Alexandria. Goods were shipped in containers, and there is evidence of insurance arrangements. The knowledge of monsoon winds allowed ships to navigate efficiently, taking about six to eight weeks to travel from India to Egypt.

Indian Agency in the Trade

Indians were actively involved in this trade, both as sailors and merchants. Graffiti left by Indian sailors, mainly from Gujarat, has been discovered in the Hoq caves on Socotra Island, indicating their presence in the maritime trade network. Additionally, Indian dynasties showed interest in seafaring, and ships were depicted on early Indian coins.

Comparing with the Silk Road

Contrary to the popular modern concept of the Silk Road, the overland trade route from China to Europe was not known in ancient times. During the Roman period, there is no evidence of direct contact between China and Europe. In fact, Chinese silk reached Rome via India’s ports, further emphasizing India’s role as a central hub in the global trade network.

Future Research and Discovery

The rediscovery of India’s central role in this historical trade has opened up numerous research questions. Scholars are now exploring the influence of Indian Buddhist monasticism on Christian monasticism in the late Roman period and other aspects of this vibrant exchange between India and the Roman Empire.

In summary, the ancient maritime trade route between India and Europe, particularly the Roman Empire, was a thriving and sophisticated network that played a pivotal role in shaping the economic and cultural landscapes of both regions.

Source: The Indian Express

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