Ancient Trade Routes to India, the Trade Surplus India Enjoyed and It’s Impact on the Roman Economy
You have similar stuffs going on in the Western Indian Ocean as Indians begins to trade with the Roman Empire as well and the roots of this Roman Empire and what was going on has been left to us in a manual called “The Periplus Of The Erythraean Sea” this is a manual is fascinating. It’s Greek, Greek Egyptian manual and it clearly tells us the route it was taken by merchants coming from the Roman Empire, to trade with India.
So where did the start off? There were two starting parts, you could start either in Alexandria or you could start off in Tyre or Sidon. If you started off in Alexandria, you could go down the Nile a little bit and then there was actually a canal which connected the Nile, across from what is now Cairo across (to the) somewhere near where the Suez is. So, the Suez Canal you see today is not the first version of this Suez Canal, even thousands of years ago there was a canal. The problem was of course it was a sandy area, so every time it was a real problem keeping it clean, but there were several attempts to keep it going.
There was another route you could go furthered up down the thing, to the first cataract and then also there was another path to a place called Bernica. You could ,you have to cross by camel from the Nile to the coast. There was another route and then there was another route which I mentioned which was from Lebanon and what is now Israel area, across through the desert, through the ruins, now Petra, that was why Petra was so rich because it was a caravan route and then it reached a place called Aqaba. Anyway, whichever way you came, you ended up in the Red Sea and then you basically made your way down the Red Sea trading on either side of the thin narrow sea. You traded your way down it. Incidentally the word Erythraean Sea, in Greek Erythraean literally means red and that’s what it really means.
Anyway having made that they then came up to Yemen and from Yemen they made a short hop across to a small island called Socotra. Now why is it called Socotra? Its origins are incidentally Dweepa Sukhadara -the island of bliss and it was full of Indians and Arabs and it was a major trading point, there even today all kind of graffiti left by Indians sailors, in some of the caves there. and from there you had a choice, now the old route was then to go North to Yemen along the Baloch coast and then you went across to Gujarat and so on and then made your way down south.
Now somewhere in the 1st century AD, some smart guy called Hippalus, discovered that you didn’t have to do this rather circuitous route, you could again use the monsoon winds and sail, right across to Kerala and very quickly a major port appeared in Kerala called Muchiri or Muziris, which is just a little north of modern-day Cochin in and around actually a village called Pattnam, found a lot of archaeological stuff from there from that period. So this was suddenly, by certainly, the early Roman period or even before the empire was still a republic, major trading routes were being set up. This was a period after the destruction of the Great temple of the Jews, significant Jewish population also came and began to settle along this coast and so on.
So what were these guys trading with each other? Now the Periplus tells us that the Indians were exporting among other things, Cotton, which was very highly prized, especially from the Gujarat area cotton, Iron and Steel goods, because, as I mentioned even while iron was an Indian invention, even in much later times Indian metallurgy was considered a very high quality, so there was all kind of steel and iron products and if you were coming from the Muchiri area, they were trading spices, black pepper was particularly important but also large number of spices that were brought in from Southeast Asia, were then made its way too Muchiri and then the Indians then, so these Indonesian spices made it to Indians, which was then passed on to the Romans and so and so forth. So this was what the Indians were exporting.
So what were the Indians importing? Now among other things Indians were importing Italian wines and very importantly it turns out, they were importing women for the royal harems. So this leads us to one of the most important conclusion that we can draw from learning ancient Maritime history which is, that even in ancient times page-three parties used to involve foreign liquor and foreign escorts.
Now this period, so such a lot of trade that had caused a major problem, which was this, although the Indians were importing lots of women and wine, they were still running a large current-account surplus. Now how do you in an ancient world pay for a current account surplus? You’ll pay for it essentially in gold and the Romans were handing out so many millions of gold coins, that became a real problem because if you are pushing out lot of gold to some other country, then you don’t have enough gold in your own country to print coins and the Roman Empire by the 2nd century AD had a serious crisis and you have in the Senate, you know people like Pliny and others really arguing, you know they have a real problem, don’t have enough to gold print our own coin, you need to do something about these Indian chaps. So emperor Vespasian decided that he was going to introduce some sort of a ban on trade with India and he tried very hard initially, the problem was of course both the Indians and the Jews, very quickly figured out various smuggling routes and that whole thing failed.
So after a while they opened up trade again, but the Romans now decided that the way they were now going to deal with it was to reduce the amount of gold in their coins. So they began to debase their currencies. Now what did the Indians do in response? The Indians kept accepting these coins, so if you go to archaeological sites across India along the coast, you have lots of coins and depending on which period you go to, the amount of gold keeps diminishing.
Featued Image: Wikipedia.