Roman trade with India

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Roman trade with India according to the Periplus Maris Erythraei, first century C.E.

Roman trade with India started around the beginning of the Common Era following the reign of Augustus and his conquest of Egypt.[1] The use of monsoon winds, which enabled a voyage safer than a long and dangerous coastal voyage, helped enhance trade between India and Rome.[2] Roman trade diaspora stopped in Southern India, establishing trading settlements which remained long after the fall of the Roman empire[3] and Rome's loss of the Red Sea ports,[4] which had previously been used to secure trade with India by the Greco-Roman world since the time of the Ptolemaic dynasty.[5]

Contact between the Greco-Roman Empire had been far more extensive the previously thought. Alexander the Great established contact with India by way of his aborted invasion of India in the 4th century B.C.E., followed by the establishment of a Indo-Greco dynasty in northwest India before Christ. Rome's trade route by sea to southwest India opened an exchange of goods and ideas that may have had far reaching impact upon Judaism in Israel, Christianity, and the philosophical views of the Roman Empire. Roman merchants became aware of the teachings of Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. The possibility that Jesus traveled to southern India by Roman merchant ship out of a Red Sea port is likely. The Apostle Thomas's voyage to India to start a Christian mission has sounder evidence to support it. India's impact upon Israel, Christianity, and the Greco-Roman empire before, during, and after the time of Christ may have been extensive.


The Seleucid and the Ptolemaic dynasties controlled trade networks to India before the establishment of Roman Egypt. ██ Kingdom of Ptolemy██ Kingdom of Seleucus

The Seleucid dynasty controlled a developed network of trade with India which had previously existed under the influence of the Persian Achaemenid dynasty.[6] The Greek Ptolemaic dynasty, controlling the western and northern end of other trade routes to Southern Arabia and India, had begun to exploit trading opportunities with India prior to the Roman involvement but according to the historian Strabo the volume of commerce between India and Greece paled compared to later Indian-Roman trade.[7]

The Periplus Maris Erythraei mentions a time when sea trade between India and Egypt occurred through indirect sailings.[8] The cargo under those situations shipped to Aden.

Eudaimon Arabia was called fortunate, being once a city, when, because ships neither came from India to Egypt nor did those from Egypt dare to go further but only came as far as this place, it received the cargoes from both, just as Alexandria receives goods brought from outside and from Egypt.

The Ptolemaic dynasty had developed trade with India using the Red Sea ports.</ref> With the establishment of Roman Egypt, the Romans took over and further developed the already existing trade using those ports.[9]


Coin of the Roman emperor Augustus found at the Pudukottai hoard. British Museum.

The replacement of Greece by the Roman Empire as the administrator of the Mediterranean basin led to the strengthening of direct maritime trade with the east and the elimination of the taxes extracted previously by the middlemen of various land based trading routes.[10] Strabo's mention of the vast increase in trade following the Roman annexation of Egypt indicates that he knew, and manipulated for trade in his time, the monsoon season .[11]

The trade started by Eudoxus of Cyzicus in 130 B.C.E. kept increasing, and according to Strabo (II.5.12.):[12]

"At any rate, when Gallus was prefect of Egypt, I accompanied him and ascended the Nile as far as Syene and the frontiers of Ethiopia, and I learned that as many as one hundred and twenty vessels were sailing from Myos Hormos to India, whereas formerly, under the Ptolemies, only a very few ventured to undertake the voyage and to carry on traffic in Indian merchandise."

By the time of Augustus up to 120 ships set sail every year from Myos Hormos to India.[13] Rome used so much gold for that trade, and apparently recycled by the Kushans for their own coinage, that Pliny (NH VI.101) complained about the drain of specie to India:[14]

"India, China and the Arabian peninsula take one hundred million sesterces from our empire per annum at a conservative estimate: that is what our luxuries and women cost us. For what percentage of these imports is intended for sacrifices to the gods or the spirits of the dead?" - Ibid., 12.41.84.


Roman Ports

Arsinoe, Berenice and Myos Hormos constituted the three main Roman ports involved with eastern trade. Arsinoe served as one of the early trading centers but Myos Hormos and Berenice, more easily accessible, soon overshadowed it.


Sites of Egyptian Red Sea ports, including Alexandria and Berenice.

The Ptolemaic dynasty exploited the strategic position of Alexandria to secure trade with India.[15] The course of trade with the east then seems to have been first through the harbor of Arsinoe, the present day Suez.[16] The goods from the East African trade landed at one of the three main Roman ports, Arsinoe, Berenice or Myos Hormos.[17] The Romans cleared out the canal from the Nile to harbor center of Arsinoe on the Red Sea, which had silted up.[18] That represented one of the many efforts the Roman administration had to undertake to divert as much of the trade to the maritime routes as possible.[19]

The rising prominence of Myos Hermos eventually overshadowed Arsinoe.[20] The navigation to the northern ports, such as Arsinoe-Clysma, became difficult in comparison to Myos Hermos due to the northern winds in the Gulf of Suez.[21] Venturing to those northern ports presented additional difficulties such as shoals, reefs and treacherous currents.

Myos Hormos and Berenice

Myos Hormos and Berenice appear to have been important ancient trading ports, possibly used by the Pharaonic traders of ancient Egypt and the Ptolemaic dynasty before falling into Roman control.[22]

The site of Berenice, since its discovery by Belzoni (1818), has been equated with the ruins near Ras Banas in Southern Egypt.[23] The precise location of Myos Hormos has been disputed with the latitude and longitude given in Ptolemy's Geography favoring Abu Sha'ar and the accounts given in classical literature and satellite images indicating a probable identification with Quesir el-Quadim at the end of a fortified road from Koptos on the Nile.[24] The Quesir el-Quadim site has further been associated with Myos Hormos following the excavations at el-Zerqa, halfway along the route, which have revealed ostraca leading to the conclusion that the port at the end of that road may have been Myos Hormos.[25]

Indian ports

In India, the ports of Barbaricum (modern Karachi), Barygaza, Muziris and Arikamedu on the southern tip of India acted as the main centers of that trade. The Periplus Maris Erythraei describes Greco-Roman merchants selling in Barbaricum "thin clothing, figured linens, topaz, coral, storax, frankincense, vessels of glass, silver and gold plate, and a little wine" in exchange for "costus, bdellium, lycium, nard, turquoise, lapis lazuli, Seric skins, cotton cloth, silk yarn, and indigo".[26] In Barygaza, they would buy wheat, rice, sesame oil, cotton and cloth.


Trade with Barigaza, under the control of the Indo-Scythian Western Satrap Nahapana ("Nambanus"), especially flourished:[27]

There are imported into this market-town (Barigaza), wine, Italian preferred, also Laodicean and Arabian; copper, tin, and lead; coral and topaz; thin clothing and inferior sorts of all kinds; bright-colored girdles a cubit wide; storax, sweet clover, flint glass, realgar, antimony, gold and silver coin, on which there is a profit when exchanged for the money of the country; and ointment, but not very costly and not much. And for the King there are brought into those places very costly vessels of silver, singing boys, beautiful maidens for the harem, fine wines, thin clothing of the finest weaves, and the choicest ointments. There are exported from these places spikenard, costus, bdellium, ivory, agate and carnelian, lycium, cotton cloth of all kinds, silk cloth, mallow cloth, yarn, long pepper and such other things as are brought here from the various market-towns. Those bound for this market-town from Egypt make the voyage favorably about the month of July, that is Epiphi. - Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, paragraph 49.


Muziris, as shown in the in the Tabula Peutingeriana.

Muziris represents a lost port city in the South Indian state of Kerala that had been a major center of trade with the Roman Empire.[28] Large hoards of coins and innumerable shards of amphorae found in the town of Pattanam have elicited recent archaeological interest in finding a probable location of this port city.

According to the Periplus, numerous Greek seamen managed an intense trade with Muziris:[29]

"Muziris and Nelcynda, which are now of leading importance (…) Muziris, of the same kingdom, abounds in ships sent there with cargoes from Arabia, and by the Greeks; it is located on a river, distant from Tyndis by river and sea five hundred stadia, and up the river from the shore twenty stadia." - Paul Halsall. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, 53-54

Pliny the Elder also matter-of-factly commented on the qualities of Muziris, although in unfavorable terms:[30]

"If the wind, called Hippalus, happens to be blowing, it is possible to arrive in forty days at the nearest market of India, called Muziris. This, however, is not a particularly desirable place to disembark, on account of the pirates which frequent its vicinity, where they occupy a place called Nitrias; nor, in fact, is it very rich in products. Besides, the road-stead for shipping is a considerable distance from the shore, and the cargoes have to be conveyed in boats, either for loading or discharging." - Pliny the Elder, Historia Naturae 6.26

Settlers from the Rome continued to live in India long after the decline in bilateral trade.[3] Large hoards of Roman coins have been found throughout India, and especially in the busy maritime trading centers of the south.[3] The South Indian kings reissued Roman coinage in their own name after defacing the coins to signify their sovereignty.[19] The Tamil Sangam literature of India records mentions of the traders.[19] One such mention reads: "The beautifully built ships of the Yavanas came with gold and returned with pepper, and Muziris resounded with the noise."[19]


The Periplus Maris Erythraei mentions a marketplace named Poduke (ch. 60), which G.W.B. Huntingford identified as possibly being Arikamedu (now part of Ariyankuppam), about two miles from the modern Pondicherry.[31] Huntingford further notes that Roman pottery had been found at Arikamedu in 1937, and archeological excavations between 1944 and 1949 showed that the city served as "a trading station to which goods of Roman manufacture were imported during the first half of the 1st century AD".[32]

Cultural exchanges

A 1st century C.E. Indian imitation of a coin of Augustus, British Museum.

The Rome-India trade also saw several cultural exchanges which had lasting effect for both the civilizations and others involved in the trade. The Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum engaged in the Indian Ocean trade network, receiving an influence by Roman culture and Indian architecture.[33] Traces of Indian influences appear in Roman works of silver and ivory, or in Egyptian cotton and silk fabrics used for sale in Europe.[34] The Indian presence in Alexandria may have influenced the culture but scant records remain about the manner of that influence. Clement of Alexandria mentions the Buddha in his writings and other Indian religions find mentions in other texts of the period.[35]

Christian and Jewish settlers from the Rome continued to live in India long after the decline in bilateral trade.[36] Large hoards of Roman coins have been found throughout India, and especially in the busy maritime trading centers of the south. The South Indian kings reissued Roman coinage in their own name after defacing the coins to signify their sovereignty.[37] The Tamil Sangam literature of India recorded mention of the traders.[38] One such mention reads: "The beautifully built ships of the Yavanas came with gold and returned with pepper, and Muziris resounded with the noise."[39]


Egypt under the rule of the Rashidun, drawn on the modern state borders. ██ Prophet Mohammad, 622-632 ██ Patriarchal Caliphate, 632-661 ██ Umayyad Caliphate, 661-750

Following the Roman-Persian Wars Khosrow I of the Persian Sassanian Dynasty captured the areas under the Roman Byzantine Empire.[40] The Arabs, led by 'Amr ibn al-'As, crossed into Egypt in late 639 or early 640 C.E.[41] That advance marked the beginning of the Islamic conquest of Egypt and the fall of ports such as Alexandria, used to secure trade with India by the Greco Roman world since the Ptolemaic dynasty.

The decline in trade saw Southern India turn to Southeast Asia for international trade, where it influenced the native culture to a greater degree than the impressions made on Rome.[42]

The Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in the fifteenth century, marking the beginning of Turkish control over the most direct trade routes between Europe and Asia.[43]

See also

  • Indian maritime history
  • Buddhism and the Roman world


  1. Ian Shaw. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2003)
  2. Gary Keith Young. Rome's Eastern Trade: International Commerce and Imperial Policy, 31 B.C.E.-AD 305. (London: Routledge, 2001)
  3. Philip DeArmond Curtin et al. Cross-Cultural Trade in World History. (Cambridge University Press, 1984), 100
  4. Augustin F. C. Holl. Ethnoarchaeology of Shuwa-Arab Settlements. (Lexington Books, 2003), 9
  5. W. S. Lindsay. History of Merchant Shipping and Ancient Commerce. (Adamant Media Corporation, 2006)
  6. David Stone Potter. The Roman Empire at Bay: Ad 180-395. (London: Routledge, 2004), 20
  7. Young, 2001
  8. Ibid., 19
  9. Shaw 2003, 426
  10. Donald Frederick Lach. Asia in the Making of Europe: The Century of Discovery. Book 1. (University of Chicago Press, 1994), 13
  11. Young 2001: 20
  12. Strabo. "The Geography of Strabo" published in Vol. I of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1917. [1].University of Chicago. Retrieved February 13, 2008.
  13. Ibid.
  14. "minimaque computatione miliens centena milia sestertium annis omnibus India et Seres et paeninsula illa imperio nostro adimunt: tanti nobis deliciae et feminae constant. quota enim portio ex illis ad deos, quaeso, iam vel ad inferos pertinet?" Pliny, Historia Naturae 12.41.84.
  15. Lindsay 2006, 101
  16. Ibid.
  17. De Lacy O'Leary. Arabia Before Muhammad. (London: Routledge, 2001), 72
  18. Charles Ernest Fayle. A Short History of the World's Shipping Industry. (London: Routledge, 2006), 52
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Donald B. Freeman. The Straits of Malacca: Gateway Or Gauntlet? (McGill-Queen's Press, 2003), 72
  22. Shaw
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Paul Halsall. Ancient History Sourcebook: The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea: Travel and Trade in the Indian Ocean by a Merchant of the First Century. (New York: Fordham University) [2] February 13, 2008.
  27. Ibid.
  28. BBC "Search for India's ancient city" [3] February 13, 2008.
  29. Halsall
  30. Pliny the Elder, Historia Naturae. 6.26
  31. G.W.B. Huntingford. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. (Hakluyt Society, 1980), 119.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Philip DeArmond Curtin et al. Cross-Cultural Trade in World History. (Cambridge University Press), 1984
  34. Lach 1994, 18
  35. Ibid.
  36. Curtin
  37. Hermann Kulke, and Dietmar Rothermund. A History of India. (London: Routledge, 2004), 108
  38. Ibid.
  39. Ibid.
  40. Kaveh Farrokh. Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War.(Osprey Publishing, 2007), 252
  41. Meri 2006, 224
  42. Kulke 2004, 106
  43. The Encyclopedia Americana 1989: 176

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Curtin, Philip DeArmond et al. Cross-Cultural Trade in World History. Cambridge Uiversity Press, 1984. ISBN 0521269318
  • Encyclopedia Americana. 1989. Grolier ISBN 0717201201
  • Farrokh, Kaveh. Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War. = Osprey Publishing, 2007. ISBN 1846031087
  • Fayle, Charles Ernest. A Short History of the World's Shipping Industry. London: Routledge, 2006. ISBN 0415286190
  • Freeman, Donald B. The Straits of Malacca: Gateway Or Gauntlet? McGill-Queen's Press, 2003. ISBN 0773525157
  • Halsall, Paul. Ancient History Sourcebook: The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea: Travel and Trade in the Indian Ocean by a Merchant of the First Century. New York: Fordham University. online [4]
  • Holl, Augustin F. C. Ethnoarchaeology of Shuwa-Arab Settlements. Lexington Books, 2003. ISBN 0739104071
  • Huntingford, G.W.B. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.Hakluyt Society, 1980 ISBN 9780904180053
  • Kulke, Hermann, and Dietmar Rothermund. A History of India. London: Routledge, 2004.ISBN 0415329191
  • Lach, Donald Frederick. Asia in the Making of Europe: The Century of Discovery. Book 1. University of Chicago Press, 1994. ISBN 0226467317
  • Lindsay, W. S. History of Merchant Shipping and Ancient Commerce. Adamant Media Corporation, 2006. ISBN 0543942538
  • Meri, Josef W., and Jere L. Bacharach. Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia. London: Routledge, 2006. ISBN 0415966906
  • O'Leary, De Lacy. Arabia Before Muhammad. London: Routledge, 2001 ISBN 0415231884
  • Potter, David Stone. The Roman Empire at Bay: Ad 180-395. London: Routledge, 2004. ISBN 415100585
  • Shaw, Ian. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2003. ISBN 0192804588
  • Young, Gary Keith. Rome's Eastern Trade: International Commerce and Imperial Policy, 31 B.C.E.-AD 305. London: Routledge, 2001. ISBN 0415242193

Further reading

  • Lionel Casson, The Periplus Maris Erythraei: Text With Introduction, Translation, and Commentary. Princeton University Press, 1989. ISBN 0-691-04060-5.
  • Chami, F. A. 1999. “The Early Iron Age on Mafia island and its relationship with the mainland.” Azania Vol. XXXIV.
  • Miller, J. Innes. 1969. The Spice Trade of The Roman Empire: 29 B.C.E. to A.D. 641. Oxford University Press. Special edition for Sandpiper Books. 1998. ISBN 0-19-814264-1.

External links

All links retrieved December 15, 2022.

Part of a series on Trade routes
Amber Road | Hærvejen | Incense Route | Kamboja-Dvaravati Route | King's Highway | Roman-India routes | Royal Road | Salt Road | Siberian Route | Silk Road | Spice Route | Tea route | Varangians to the Greeks | Via Maris | Triangular trade | Volga trade route | Trans-Saharan trade | Old Salt Route| Hanseatic League | Grand Trunk Road


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