What trade was sufficiently large to justify sending embassies from Ancient India to Rome?
Why did the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar express the fact that embassies were often sent to him from the Kings of India?
Which was the market that provided Rome with most of its Chinese silk?
The answer to all of this is connected to the ‘Indo – Roman Trade’. Roman trade with India started around the beginning of the Common Era following the reign of Augustus and his conquest of Egypt.
It was the year 118 BC. As the waves raged, an Egyptian ship was on a journey, amidst the rough sea. The small whitecaps lapped against the starboard side and then retreated. It had been rough since the start and would be until they reached the breakwater in the harbor. Onboard, they had just finished pulling on the ropes to raise the masts. Laying a wager on their luck, the ship slowly swung around from the wheel and turned around the rocks. They braced themselves as they passed over the rough caps, slowly moving around the biggest ones so that the craft wouldn't capsize. Keeping a stronghold on the wheel, they made sure that they would stand the waves. Catching sight of the left, they started to see edges of what seemed like a shipwreck. As darkness descended, the sky began to get darker. The further they sailed into the night, the clearer the perception of some obstacle ahead. Their assumption about the wreck was correct. A shipwreck was found in the red sea with only one survivor, an Indian sailor. They took the Indian to the court of Ptolemy VIII in Alexandria where he learned Greek and was well treated. A few days later, he offered to guide Egyptian ships to India. Ptolemy the 8th liked the idea. India at the time was a prosperous land and he commanded Eudoxus of Cyzicus to lead the ship with the Indians. The Indian sailor taught Eudoxus the secrets of the Indian monsoon winds, which blew from the southwest in summer and northeast in winter. This is when the Egyptians and Indian kingdoms established trade relations.
But it was really during the time of Augustus, the first emperor of the Roman empire that the Indo-Roman trade relations really picked up between 30 BC and the 1st century AD. Trade also happened via the land routes. Caravans of traders crisscrossed the long distances with their goods. But once Augustus conquered Egypt in 30 B.C, use of the sea route picked up. Realizing how much trade with India benefited the Romans, Augustus made watchtowers against the bandits. The watchtowers were commonly square, with one or two floors that were decorated with wooden artwork. The watchtowers had two functions: they were a place for recreation, a bright and protected meeting point against the stormy weather, and they were a place from which the traffic in the harbor could be observed. Roman soldiers would also escort the larger caravans to keep them safe.
The Greek geographer Strabo tells us - “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 Hormuz to India.”
The sea journey was difficult because of strong tidal currents, turbulent waves, and rocky sea - beds. The anchors of the ships would often get caught by the waves and quickly detach to capsize the vessel or cause a shipwreck. By the time of Augustus, a relatively safe and punctual contact over the open sea was established. The route was to India, they would leave from Aden to arrive in India in September, spending two months and using the November winds to go back from Egypt. This massively brought down the number of shipwrecks. The trade between India and Rome was favourable to India from the beginning. As a result, Augustus received embassies from Indian kings between 26 and 20 BC.
M. Cary, the author of ‘A History of Rome – Down To The Reign Of Constantine’ tells us - “These missions were certainly intended for something more than an exchange of empty compliments.”
For example, the embassy from the Purus, the territory between Jhelum and Beas, gifted Romans with serpents, exotic Indian birds, tigers, and a letter written in the Greek language. The embassy from Bharuch in Gujarat even took a Buddhist monk with them named ‘Germanos’. The Chera dynasty built a temple in honor of Augustus at Muziris, which lies in modern-day Kerala. The embassy from the Pandya kingdom sent precious stones, pearls, and an elephant as gifts to Augustus. By the 1st century AD, Indian kingdoms had organized a well-organized system to enable this trade. A system with customs officers, taxes, and even spies was settled. Romans brought glassware, perfumes, printed cloth, silverware, gemstones, incense, and the Mediterranean red coral. According to the Indians, red coral was believed to have mystical properties.
Pliny, the elder tells us – “Indian soothsayers and seers believe that coral is potent as a charm for warding off dangers. Accordingly, the delight in its beauty and religious power.” In return, Rome brought Indian tigers, rhinoceros, elephants, and serpents for circus shows. They also bought Indian pearls which were loved by the women of Rome. They also bought Indian incense, indigo, ebony, wood, and spices like pepper, lyceum, sesame oil, and sugar for food. The trade between the ancient Roman empire and India brought so much gold to India that Pliny once moans - “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.”
However, these peaceful and prosperous trade relations slowly died out towards the 4th and the 5th century AD because of political upheavals at home and in Rome. Roman pottery and gold coins have been found in places like Arikamedu which was a Tamil fishing village and now lies about three kilometers from Pondicherry. These were also found in Muziris and Pattanam, places in modern-day Kerala. The cultural exchange was a part of this, as traders traveled long distances within India, initiating to the north and then to the south, and living there for months on end. The ‘Periplus Ponti Euxini’ , a description of trade routes along the coasts of the Black Sea, is a book written by Arrian in the early 2nd century CE.
Periplus shares one such experience. He says - “Every year there turns up at the border of China a certain tribe, short in body and very flat-faced called Senate. They come with their wives and children bearing great packs resembling mats of green leaves and then remain at some spot on the border between them and those on the China side, and they hold a festival for several days, spreading out the mats under them, and then take off for their own homes in the interior.”
The history of India’s maritime contact with Rome, generally described as Indo – Roman trade, has been a prominent theme of discussion in her historiography, exciting several historians with the imaginary notion of a maritime civilization, as any book on ancient India would show. The tale of trade between India and the Roman empire was a complete journey, arduous in description and filled with many adventures. But for the traders, it was a journey that brought them riches and they risked their lives to get it. Just before and after the Christian era, Romans began to trade with India. They watched out for the trade winds of the monsoons and landed on the west coast of India. They traveled through the jungles of the Western Ghats and then by crossing the Palghat pass reached the region of Coimbatore. Here they bought the varied spices and precious gems. But gradually they learned to sail around the Southern tip of India and reach the ports of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh on the East coast. While the relationship between the two countries began with trade, there were more connections to come — diplomatic ties, exchange of art and culture, so much so that many aspects of Roman politics, society, and culture mingled with Indian traditions and beliefs.