In March 2022 a team of American archaeologists was excavating a temple of the Egyptian goddess Isis at the ancient site of Berenike, on the shores of the Red Sea in modern-day Egypt, when they stumbled across a series of remarkable finds.
Berenike is today a bleak and desolate spot. Under pale blue skies, the flat, treeless red-dust wadis of the western desert give way to the windy shores of the Red Sea. There is at first glance little to see, and though the site contains the ruins of some once-impressive structures—a temple of Serapis, a Roman aromatics distillery, and a fine bathhouse—the walls now rarely rise above knee-high. Nevertheless, these unprepossessing ruins, easily missed as you drive up the coast, were the landing point for generations of Indian merchants traveling to the Roman Empire, and Berenike was once a place where unimaginable fortunes could be made.
The most startling find to emerge from the temple last March was the head and torso of a magnificent Buddha, the first ever found west of Afghanistan. It was sculpted from the finest Mediterranean marble in a part Indian-Gandharan, part Romano-Egyptian style, with rays of the sun beaming out from it on all sides, as if the Buddha had miraculously transformed into a solar deity like Sol or Mithras. From the style of the carving and what the archaeologists described as the “tortellini-like” curls on the Buddha’s head, they believed the sculpture must have been made in a workshop in Alexandria in the second century CE. There was no inscription, but the director of the dig, Steve Sidebotham, believes it was probably commissioned by a wealthy Indian Buddhist sea captain in thanks for his safe arrival in the Roman Empire.
In the storerooms of the same temple were also found depictions of several Hindu deities and other Indian sacred objects. The most unexpected of these was a trinity of early Hindu Gods, one of whom, with his club and discus, would soon evolve into the more familiar form of Krishna. There was even a bilingual inscription in Greek and Sanskrit, made in the mid-third century by a Buddhist devotee from Gujarat named Vasulena the Warrior.1
Other finds from the same Indian trading milieu have been emerging from the Egyptian desert sand for some time, hinting at the treasures in Berenike. A Tamil-Brahmi pottery graffito found nearby was written by a Tamil visitor who called himself “the Chieftain Korran,” while Prakrit and Sanskrit inscriptions recorded the visits of several other Indians. Deposits of rice, dal, coconuts, coriander, tamarind, and huge pots containing several thousand black peppercorns from India show that the merchants who arrived in first-century Egypt preferred their own deliciously spicy cuisine to that of Egypt, much as their successors still do today.
Ever since the first reports of the incredible riches and luxuries of India began reaching Europe after the conquests of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE, Europeans had fantasized about the wealth of the subcontinent, where, according to Herodotus and the Greek geographers, gold was dug by up by gigantic ants and guarded by griffins, and precious jewels were said to lie scattered on the ground like dust. As the two worlds were brought into regular contact through the ports of the Red Sea in the first century BCE, the Romans became eager consumers of Indian goods and luxuries, particularly the spices of southern India, while Indian merchants satisfied these cravings at considerable personal profit.
The dramatic new discoveries at Berenike are part of a wider trend of research illuminating the scale of contact between Rome and India down the Red Sea and across the Indian Ocean. The Indian finds have been mirrored by equally remarkable evidence of Roman trade from excavations in India, and the size and importance of this trade is being radically reassessed by scholars working on both sides of the Indian Ocean and in many different disciplines—not just archaeology but economic history, Roman literature, numismatics, art history, Buddhism, and Sanskrit.
The result has been a remarkable series of new books bringing together these diverse specializations. Two of them—The Indian Ocean Trade in Antiquity and Globalization and Transculturality from Antiquity to the Pre-Modern World—are collections of essays edited by Matthew Adam Cobb, a brilliant young scholar from the University of Wales. (Globalization and Transculturality was coedited by Serena Autiero.) The third—Rome and the Indian Ocean Trade from Augustus to the Early Third Century
CE —is a monograph based on Cobb’s Ph.D. dissertation. Together, the books represent a thorough rethinking that dramatically changes our understanding of the Indian Ocean trade in antiquity.
According to calculations first made by another emerging scholar, Raoul McLaughlin, in The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean (2014) and debated in Cobb’s three books, customs taxes on the Red Sea trade with India, Persia, and Ethiopia may have generated as much as one third of the income of the Roman exchequer. The principal source for this striking figure is the Muziris Papyrus, a remarkable document of unknown provenance that was probably found in the celebrated trash dumps of the Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus—the City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish. These deposits have for more than a century been providing a series of remarkable ancient manuscripts ranging from previously unknown lesbian erotica by Sappho to fragments of the Sayings of Jesus. They also yielded an archive of administrative and financial correspondence so voluminous that many have only recently been studied.
The Muziris Papyrus, now in Vienna, is a fragmentary shipping manifest and contract for a loan that was taken out by an Alexandria-based Egypto-Roman financier to purchase goods from an Indian merchant based in faraway Muziris, on the coast of Kerala. It followed the standard template used by Alexandrian shippers for such orders and gives a detailed assessment of the fiscal value and contents of one particular cargo that had been sent to Berenike from Muziris aboard a ship called the Hermapollon. What caught the attention of historians was the jaw-dropping value of those goods.2
The exports included nearly four tons of ivory with a value estimated at seven million sesterces, at a time when a soldier in the Roman army would have earned about eight hundred sesterces annually and a would-be senator from the cream of the aristocracy had to demonstrate assets of one million sesterces to be allowed to stand for office.3 The consignment also included a valuable shipment of eighty boxes of aromatic nard, used in the manufacture of perfume; a consignment of tortoiseshell; and 790 pounds of Indian textiles (probably cotton, then considered a luxury product as valuable as silk).
The total value of the 150-ton shipment has been calculated as worth 131 talents, “enough to purchase 2,400 acres of the best farmland in Egypt,” according to the archaeologist Warwick Ball, or “a premium estate in central Italy,” writes McLaughlin. A single trading ship such as the Hermapollon could apparently carry several such consignments, and a successful shipment could turn the merchants behind it into some of the richest men in the empire. No wonder Pliny the Elder mentions that cohorts of archers were carried on board the ships sailing to India to offer protection against pirates.
That was not all. According to the papyrus, the import tax paid on the cargo of almost nine million sesterces was over two million sesterces. Working from these figures and other receipts from the period, McLaughlin has estimated that by the first century CE, Indian imports into Egypt were worth probably over a billion sesterces per annum, from which the tax authorities of the Roman Empire were creaming off no less than 270 million.
These vast revenues surpassed those of entire subject countries: McLaughlin notes that Julius Caesar imposed tribute of 40 million sesterces after his conquests in Gaul, while the vital Rhineland frontier was defended by eight legions at an annual cost of 88 million sesterces. If the figures given on the Muziris Papyrus are correct—there are no reasons to doubt them—and McLaughlin’s extrapolations accurate, then custom taxes raised on the trade coming through the Red Sea would have covered around one third of the funds that the Roman Empire required to administer its global conquests and maintain its vast legions, from lowland Scotland to the borders of Persia, and from the Sahara to the banks of the Rhine and Danube.
Ancient India had a strong shipbuilding tradition, with large and sturdy oceangoing boats being constructed from around the second century BCE. The largest of these ships had two rudders and three square-rigged masts and could carry over five hundred passengers or three thousand amphorae. They were certainly more than capable of making the journey to the Red Sea and back again. Such ships appear on the celebrated ancient murals at the Buddhist caves of Ajanta and are minutely described in the Buddhist Jataka stories. Some Indian rulers were so proud of their boats and regarded them as so central to the prosperity of their realms that they put them on their coins.
Long before this, pioneering Indian merchants made trading voyages in less substantial craft. By the late third millennium BCE Afghan lapis, teak from Malabar, and Indian ivory and red marble were reaching the cities of ancient Mesopotamia. These were probably rafted down the Indus and then ferried on in the larger seagoing boats of Meluhha, as the people of the Indus Valley Civilization are now believed to have called their land. Cuneiform tablets record that the boats of Meluhha were reaching the Persian Gulf from the coast of Sindh around 2300 BCE. Grains of Indian pepper found up the mummified nose of the pharaoh Ramses II, who died in 1213 BCE, also presumably came by this same route, along with the Indian diamonds used in the tools that cut the stones of the pyramids.4 Indian beads, silks, and spices got even further—certainly as far the Aegean, where cinnamon dating from the seventh century BCE has been found on the island of Samos.
There is evidence of an Indian merchant diaspora in the Middle East from very early: one cuneiform tablet mentions a village of Meluhhan Indians settled in Iraq, while another refers to an Indian woman running a tavern; there is even a legal notice about a drunken Meluhhan who was fined ten silver coins as compensation for breaking someone’s tooth in a brawl.
In 510 BCE a Greek captain named Skylax from Caria, on what is now the coast of Turkey, was commissioned by the Persian shah Darius the Great to sail along the coastline from the mouth of the Indus to Egypt. It took him thirty months. Voyages to and from India seem to have accelerated after the sailors got the hang of using the monsoon winds to cross the open ocean, a feat that ancient Western authors say was first accomplished by a Greek captain named Hippalus in the first century BCE. By the third century BCE, the Ptolemies had established the ports of Berenike and Myos Hormos, initially to facilitate the import of elephants for warfare. There begin to emerge hints of growing trade and contact between the two worlds as a result. In the second century BCE, for example, a traveler reported seeing Indian women, cattle, and dogs in a procession in Alexandria; elsewhere he describes pillars of Indian gems.
According to the Greek geographer Strabo, the first European to attempt a serious commercial relationship with India was an Alexandrian merchant named Eudoxus of Cyzicus. Eudoxus was an entrepreneurial Ptolemaic Greek who around 116 BCE went into business with an Indian sailor who had been shipwrecked on the shores of the Red Sea. Having given his new friend a lift home in return for directions to India, Eudoxus made two further trips to South Asia, bringing back hauls of spices and other luxuries. Later he sailed through the Pillars of Hercules, past what would become Gibraltar, with a boatload of singing boys and dancing girls, in an attempt to reach India by a new route, circumnavigating Africa. He was never heard from again.
Cobb shows that while Ptolemaic rulers established the Red Sea ports and initiated the traffic to India long before the rise of Rome, it was the defeat of Cleopatra and Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium in 30 BCE that changed the scale of everything. The incorporation of Egypt into the Roman Empire marked the beginning of large fleets of merchant ships passing seasonally between the two worlds. Strabo wrote that Roman control of Egypt quickly led to a fivefold increase in the shipping heading to India compared to the Ptolemaic period preceding it: “Formerly not even twenty vessels ventured to navigate the Arabian Gulf…but now large fleets are despatched,” with 120 boats a year leaving for India from one port alone. The traffic also brought a steady stream of Indian embassies to the Roman imperial court.
From around this time there begin to be references to Indians among the audiences of shows and games at Alexandria, while one classical author wrote of an Indian raja who had come to the great Mediterranean port to sightsee and trade, and who seemingly possessed a home there. Alexandria was, after all, the hub where goods from India and the Red Sea were received and then exported across the Mediterranean to Rome and beyond.
It was traders such as these who, from the first century CE, brought to Egypt the many Indian luxuries in great demand across the empire, which Cobb details with remarkably specific references: diamonds (whose value far exceeded gold), rubies, opals, amethyst, and onyx; banded black chalcedony and crimson-colored sardonyx; ebony, teak, sandalwood, and blood-red coral; elephant tusks, tortoiseshell, Indian and Chinese silk, and other rich Indian textiles; saddles and a new Asian invention, stirrups. But it is clear from the Alexandrian customs tariffs that some of the most popular South Asian imports are effectively invisible in the archaeological record, whether “painted hangings,” “Indian drugs,” “Indian hair,” or “Indian eunuchs.”
None of these items were cheap, though few were as expensive as the Indian rock crystal ladle on which Pliny says one matron spent 150,000 sesterces or, even more extravagantly, the 40 million sesterces’ worth of Indian emeralds and pearls worn by Caligula’s consort Lollia Paulina in her hair, round her neck, and even on her shoes; she was so keen to prove her jewels’ value that she carried receipts to show anyone who asked.
In addition the Romans imported large quantities of ivory and carved Indian furniture via their Red Sea ports. From this period comes a celebrated Indian ivory figure of a voluptuously pouting yakshi fertility spirit, naked but for armlets and ghungroo dancer anklets, and with long, elaborately braided hair; she is flanked by two attendant maids and was once part of a carved ivory chair. The yakshi—now in the Secret Museum in Naples and the subject of a particularly interesting essay by Laura R. Weinstein in Globalization and Transculturality from Antiquity to the Pre-Modern World—was found perfectly preserved amid the ruins of Pompeii, where there was once a shop owned by Furius, faber et negotiator eborarius (a maker and seller of ivory), who apparently sold nothing but ivory furniture, boxes, and tablets.5
There was demand for other exotic goods too: Rome imported large numbers of wild animals from India—tigers, leopards, panthers, parrots, and the occasional unruly rhinoceros. The excavations in Berenike show that the ships sailing the Indian route were especially large, particularly the elephant transports, which needed much larger harbor berths than the ships working the Mediterranean shipping routes. Most importantly, the Indians brought to Egypt vast quantities of incense and spices: nutmeg, cloves, and a cinnamon-like plant called malabathrum, whose leaves were pressed to create perfume. Their biggest export by far was pepper, large quantities of which have been found all over Berenike, often in torpedo-shaped pottery jars, each weighing more than twenty pounds.
Cobb shows that by the end of the first century, Indian pepper became almost as readily available as it is today. Over eighty percent of the 478 recipes in the Roman cookbook of Apicius included pepper, which appears regularly even in the pudding section. It was still, however, an expensive treat. The first-century Roman-Iberian poet Martial grumbles that the amount of pepper his cook included in his recipe for wild boar was likely to bankrupt him. The Tamil and Sanskrit words for sugar, ginger, pepper, sandalwood, beryl, cotton, and indigo all made their way into Latin, and hence into modern English: “pepper” and “ginger” are both loanwords from Tamil (pipali and singabera).
Such was the scale of Indian exports that they reached not just the Roman elite but ordinary people at the far end of the empire. The writing tablet of Gambax, son of Tappo, a legionary stationed near Hadrian’s Wall at Vindolanda in Northumberland, records a modest order of Indian pepper worth two denarii. This was presumably to make palatable his stodgy Romano-British dinner, something to cheer him up as he peeped over the battlements at the naked, painted, spear-waving Picts shouting incomprehensible insults from their forests and bogs.
It remains an open question whether most of the Red Sea trade was carried on ships based in Egypt or in India. Cobb carefully lays out the evidence. Certainly the surviving papyri indicate that much of the shipping coming out of the Egyptian Red Sea ports was owned by Alexandrian businessmen, some of whom identify themselves as Jewish and at least two of whom were wealthy widows, but there are clear hints that many of the sailors working the route were Indian. The strongest evidence for this is the graffiti left by traders and captains in the Hoq Cave on the island of Socotra, which lies in the northern reaches of the Indian Ocean, about two hundred miles from both Somalia and Yemen, and which is itself the subject of a fascinating book, Foreign Sailors on Socotra: The Inscriptions and Drawings of the Cave Hoq, edited by Ingo Strauch (2012).
During the height of Indo-Roman trade, Socotra seems to have functioned as a refueling stop, as well as a source of “dragon’s blood,” red Indian cinnabar. Over the centuries many of the merchants who pulled in to gather water and food supplies carved their names into the walls and stalagmites of the caves in a variety of languages: Persian, Palmyrene Aramaic, Ethiopic Aksumite, Arabian, Nabatean, and Greek. But most of the graffiti was left by Indians, mainly Gujaratis from Barygaza (modern Baruch): out of 219 inscriptions dating from the second to fifth century CE, 192 were written in the Indian Brahmi script and one each in Bactrian and Kharosthi.
They give names that are clearly and unquestionably Indian: “Vishnu, son of the merchant Ganja,” “Varma, son of Sribhati,” “Skandabhuti, the Sea Captain,” and the nicely laconic “Bhadra arrived.” There are also images of Buddhist stupas, Shaivite tridents, swastikas, Syrian Christian crosses, and pictures of large three-masted Indian ships, as well as prayers to Krishna and Radha, invocations of the Buddha, and the Buddhist Triratna (the symbol of the Three Jewels), the latter inscribed by a visiting monk. Even the name of the island itself derives from Sanskrit: dvipa-sakhadara means the “Island of Bliss.”
Whoever owned the ships or worked the ropes, it is certain that the trade between India and Rome grew quickly from the first century BCE as merchants realized the scale of the profits that could be made: Pliny mentions that goods purchased in India could be sold for one hundred times the price in the Roman Empire. This brought enormous enrichment to Indian exporters, but at the same time some anxiety to those keeping an eye on the Roman economy. As early as the reign of Nero, there was a dramatic drain of Western gold to India. Pliny, a plain-speaking naval commander from Northern Italy, was particularly incensed at this. He did not like the taste of the pepper and was unimpressed by the gemstones of which he says India was the leading exporter. In his Naturalis Historia he describes India as
the sink of the world’s most precious metals…. There is no year which does not drain our empire of at least fifty-five million silver sesterces…. So great is the labour employed, and so distant is the region, drawn upon, to enable the Roman matron to flaunt see-through clothes in public…. Thus is India brought near: by greed, and women’s decadent need to follow fashion.
In 70 CE the emperor Vespasian became so worried about the eastward drain of gold that he put a temporary ban on its export.
For India, the hemorrhage of riches into its coffers only added to its already great prosperity. The early Tamil epic the Cilappadikaram (The Tale of an Anklet) speaks proudly of the ports of the Cavery delta
filled with horses brought in ships; sacks of pepper brought in carts; gemstones and gold from the northern mountains; sandalwood and eaglewood from the western hills; pearls from the southern seas; coral from the eastern seas; wheat from the Gangetic region, rice from the Kaveri plains; food from Sri Lanka and gold from Java…. Broad streets are filled with rare and expensive goods…. In the harbour, the ships with flags on the masts resembled tethered elephants. In this town lived many merchants who brought in wonderful and expensive goods from other countries across the seas on large ships, and overland on carts…. In the harbour areas were the quarters of the Europeans whose eye-catching goods were in great demand. Foreign traders who had left their native places and come here to make money, sailing their ships across dark seas, lived in residential quarters close to the sea.
These poetic descriptions have been amply confirmed by the trowel work of archaeologists. When in the mid-1940s Sir Mortimer Wheeler first dug the ancient Tamil port of Arikamedu (ancient Poduke), near Pondicherry in Tamil Nadu, he found so many familiar Roman artifacts—Romano-Egyptian glass bowls, around 540 amphorae from Italy and the Eastern Mediterranean, pots from Southern France, containers of garum (fish sauce) and olive oil from Spain—that he assumed he was digging at a colonial Roman trading settlement.
Subsequent postcolonial excavations have revealed a more complex picture. Reexamining the evidence seventy years after Wheeler’s dig, archaeologists concluded that Wheeler was overemphasizing the role of the Romans. The Roman finds were greatly outnumbered by local Tamil ones, and what Wheeler had assumed to be a Roman trading colony was in fact probably a major Tamil port, full of wealthy Indian shippers and merchants, that happened to number among its visitors an annual fleet of Roman merchants, as well as traders from Ethiopia and Persia. Moreover, as Cobb demonstrates, contact with the West long predated the Romans, and there were significant numbers of finds from the Ptolemaic period, including amphorae containing wine from Rhodes.
Although Arikamedu may not have been the Roman trading colony Wheeler believed it to be, excavations there and at its west-coast counterpart, Pattanam (ancient Muziris) in Kerala, have confirmed the scale of the trade between Rome and South India at this time. Both sites were found to be packed full of Roman amphorae: six thousand shards of them recently turned up in excavations in Pattanam, along with 1,600 shards of Roman glass and many other Mediterranean artifacts, such as Roman pottery and gaming counters.6 This reflects the observation by the second-century Alexandrian geographer Ptolemy that Muziris was “a port packed with [Romano-]Greek ships,” as well as the line in an anthology of Tamil poems that talks of “the Yavanas arriving with gold and leaving with pepper.” (“Yavana,” from “Ionian,” meant Greeks or other Europeans.) There are signs that some of these Yavanas converted to Buddhism: some of the earliest Buddhist monasteries are to be found on this coast, and several contain inscriptions recording donations from expats. At Nasik, for example, an entire monastery and three cisterns were paid for by three generations of a Yavana family resident nearby. One inscription refers to a donation from the “Raumakas,” which is probably a Deccani rendering of “Romans.”
The implications of this unprecedented scale of direct sea trade between India and Rome are enormous. As Cobb and his colleagues demonstrate, the sea trade was clearly an immense operation, dangerous and complex but highly profitable both to the shippers who operated it and the Roman state that taxed it. Contrary to popular ideas about the overland “Silk Roads,” it is now clear that historians have been looking at entirely the wrong place when they thought about ancient trade routes. It was India, not China, that was the greatest trading partner of the Roman Empire. It is also clear that the main arteries of early East–West travel lay less overland, through a Persia often at war with Rome, and much more across the open seas, via the choppy waters of the Indian Ocean.
For more on Berenike, see Steven E. Sidebotham, Berenike and the Ancient Maritime Spice Route (University of California Press, 2011). ↩
Federico De Romanis’s The Indo-Roman Pepper Trade and the Muziris Papyrus (Oxford University Press, 2020) gives the fullest and most sophisticated reconstruction and analysis of the Muziris Papyrus. ↩
A Roman sesterce would be worth around one dollar today. ↩
For more on the early history of Indian diamonds and their export to the West, see Anita Anand and William Dalrymple, Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond (Bloomsbury, 2017). ↩
For more on the ancient ivory trade (and for pepper up the nose of Ramses), see Kasper Grønlund Evers, Worlds Apart Trading Together: The Organisation of Long-distance Trade Between Rome and India in Antiquity (Archaeopress, 2017). ↩
In the Musée Guimet in Paris there is a shard of an amphora found at Arikamedu that once contained wine from Arezzo. For more on Arikamedu, Pattanam, and other ancient Indian trading ports, see Himanshu Prabha Ray, The Archeology of Seafaring in Ancient South Asia (Cambridge University Press, 2003). ↩