Rome and the Distant East: Trade Routes to the ancient lands of Arabia, India and China Review

Rome and the Distant East: Trade Routes to the ancient lands of  Arabia, India and China
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Rome and the Distant East: Trade Routes to the ancient lands of Arabia, India and China ReviewThis is a study of "globalisation" in the antique world , or "archaic globalisation" as it is sometimes called. Specifically, this is a study of the links of the Roman world with other antique societies, notably, Persia, Arabia and further east, India and China. It covers trade, diplomatic relations and most importantly, the economic impact on the Roman Empire of its relations with the East, particularly India.
McLaughlin makes a compelling case for the importance and indeed in many respects transformative effect on the Roman Empire of its relations with distant societies to its East. His narrative uses evidence from Greek, Latin, Chinese, Persian, Prakrit, Tamil and Sinhalese sources as well as archaeological evidence.
India was probably the most significant of Rome's overseas trading partners. The sources reveal a vibrant trade between Rome and India. Romans largely exported bullion so that to this day, archaeological digs in India reveal large numbers of Roman coins. Exports however also included glass, Italian wine for which Indian elites appear to have acquired a taste. Indian exports to Rome included cotton, pepper and various luxury goods. What was cheap and mundane in Rome, such as the common wine drunk by legionaries was a prized luxury in India. Conversely, the plentifully available pepper in India, was a valuable commodity in Rome. Goods acquired by Romans in India included goods sourced from other more distant places such as China, Sri Lanka and Malaysia. By the time of Pliny, it appears that Roman ships were visiting Sri Lanka and going around the island to visit ports in eastern India. A Roman ship appears to have reached China about 166 ACE but this was a one off contact.
The reach of Rome into Arabia and East Africa is also discussed. Arabian trade may have equalled Indian trade in its magnitude. Roman traders sourced frankincense and myrrh from Arabia and from east Africa various items of primary produce. In return, their brought manufactured goods such as textiles. Roman traders also acted as middlemen supplying to Africans, goods from India such as steel. They also brought rice from India for sale in East Africa so that the commodities in which they traded did not just include luxuries but also staples.

Rome due to its proximity to these areas also at times exercised political power over some regions such as Nabataea and also launched military expeditions into Arabia. While both Pompey (emulating Alexander) and the Emperor Trajan both gave thought to an expedition to India, neither was able to proceed with their plans. India appears to have been a centre of economic gravity for Rome's external trade so that considering conquest of Indian markets was perhaps not surprising. It is also not surprising that neither Pompey nor Trajan in the end decided to take their legions to India, given the difficulty Alexander himself faced in India (he was fought to a standstill in the Punjab) and the formidable Persian state lying between Rome and India.

A chapter on the "silk road" to China looks at the overland trading links between Rome, Persia, Central Asia and eventually China. Chinese silks passed down these trading routes through middlemen ultimately making their way to wealthy Roman consumers. The Han policy was to allow hostile foreigners "to develop a craving for our products and this will be their fatal weakness". Romans did not have direct access to China on account of Persian resistance to such contacts, no doubt in order to protect their own business interests as middle men. A separate trade route ran down to southern Iraq which joined a maritime route to India's west coast. Palmyra in Syria was a centre of these trading networks and became so rich and powerful that it was able for a short time to overthrow Roman rule and establish its own alterative imperium in the Eastern Mediterranean during the third century.
The most original and arguably ground breaking part of McLaughlin's study is his assessment of the overall impact of external trade on the Roman economy. He refers to Pliny's complaint that "India drains more than 50 million sesterces a year from our empire". This was more than the annual tribute Caesar levied on Gaul. McLaughlin estimates the Indian trade to have been worth about 100 million sesterces per year. Trajan adjusted the gold silver value ratio of Roman currency to more closely resemble Indian standards. Indian produce such as pepper, despite its cost, was widely available in the Empire and affordable in small quantities for ordinary people.
A sophisticated banking and commercial system developed to finance this trade. Trade was commonly conducted by partnerships not dissimilar to the kinds of institutions that gave rise to the joint stock company in early modern times. Partners commonly invested in more than one venture to spread risk, in the same way that share portfolios today are structured to spread risk. Ship owners would rent space to merchants for their cargo although larger enterprises may have owned their own ships. This development of a commercial system was in part made possible by Rome's external trade.
During the early Empire, a new class of super rich emerged due to their lucrative trading ventures to the consternation of the old landed aristocracy. The new class was satirised for example by Petronius in his character Trimalchio. Agents of one such family from Italy, the Anni, reached the Sri Lankan capital Anuradhapura during the Julio-Claudian era, resulting in the Sinhalese king Bhatikabhaya sending an embassy to the Emperor Claudius. Another member of a merchant family involved in the Indian trade and based in Alexandria, backed Vespasian and "was instrumental in the Flavian victory" over its rivals to establish the imperial dynasty that succeeded the Julio-Claudians.
The state taxed goods entering the Empire at 25%. McLaughlin considers that while provincial revenues often just about covered costs of running the province with a small surplus, the wealth and revenue from the eastern trade saved the Empire from "financial crisis", drawing a link between the access to eastern trade that occurred after the Augustan era and the prosperity of the Empire during the era until the end of the Antonine period. He estimates that about a third of imperial revenues came from taxing the eastern trade.
A chapter is devoted to diplomatic relations between Rome and its eastern neighbours. Rome's engagement with Arabian states was deep and intense, and included the annexation of parts of greater Arabia eg Nabataea. Despite the long distances, embassies also arrived in Rome from Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka in South India and from the Kushan state in North Western India. The Kushans representing perhaps the easternmost extent of the Hellenistic world shared in common with the Romans Greek culture. One king from North-eastern India even described himself as the new "Porus", offering an alliance with Rome against Persia. Augustus, Claudius, Trajan and other Antonine rulers all received embassies from India and for them this was an effective way of demonstrating to their subjects the prestige Rome enjoyed at the ends of the earth. When China and Rome got to know of the existence of the other, each attempted to make contact with the other but with limited success on account of the distance and hostile powers between them. To the Romans, the Chinese were the "Seres" or "silk people". The Chinese called Rome "Da Qin" meaning the "Other China" - literally "Great China". The term was used until as late as the fifteenth century to refer to Byzantium.

McLaughlin's study contains a description of the ocean going vessels used in the trade between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Roman freighters were solid and capable vessels that were admired by Indians. Indian ships which travelled largely between India and South East Asia (but also to the Red Sea) appear to have been smaller but better adapted to more difficult waters in and around India. These vessels appear to have included double hulled catamaran type vessels that made the crossing from India to Malaysia and Indonesia.
Rome's commercial relations with the East suffered a decline following the Antonine era. A global pandemic during at the time appears to have wrought devastation throughout the antique world from China to Rome. The time of troubles in Rome after the Antonine era also contributed to the dislocation of its trade. Notably, the debasement of Roman currency impacted badly on the ability of Rome to trade with the East. The revival of Persia under the Sassanids and a period of military conflict between the two empires also contributed to the disruption. Even though trade with the East did not cease, it operated on a reduced scale. The loss of revenue from the eastern trade in McLaughlin's view after these crises was a critical event in the eventual decline of Rome as it was never able to "restore its vital commercial contacts with the distant east". The disruption of trade relations no doubts also affected India. It is suggested that it was the loss of Roman trade that encouraged Indians to "look East" with the resulting process of the "Indianisation" of South East Asia.

McLaughlin's study focuses on trading and diplomatic relations, and importantly, the impact of trading relations on the Roman economy. It does not address in detail cultural exchange along the trade routes. To be clear, this is not a weakness but merely reflects the choice of focus and subject matter. The author does cover these matters in other writings and offers glimpses of these cultural exchanges in the narrative.
It should not be surprising that cultural relations should develop on the back of the extensive trading networks that bound Rome and its...Read more›Rome and the Distant East: Trade Routes to the ancient lands of Arabia, India and China Overview

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