Trade in the Indian Ocean

Review of an edited volume

Recent studies, like the edited volume under review, examine the far-reaching trade networks that existed in the Indian Ocean.

Written by Joshua R. Hall on

The subject of this review is The Indian Ocean Trade in Antiquity: Political, Cultural and Economic Impacts, edited by Matthew Adam Cobb and published by Routledge (2019). Like many other scholarly volumes I have received recently, it’s a hardcover book without a dustjacket. Although a superficial observation, it is a handsome binding that feels like it will stand up to a number of re-reads.

The book opens with a thorough introduction on the topic written by the editor, Matthew Cobb. He explores a number of topics key to the volume, such as globalization, and explains the chronological limitations of 300 BC to AD 700. The reader is then presented with a summary of the analytical chapters.

Analytical chapters

Cobb is also responsible for the first of these: “From the Ptolemies to Augustus: Mediterranean integration into the Indian Ocean trade.” His primary aim is to argue against scholarly opinions that see a break in continuity in this trade between the Ptolemaic and Augustan periods. He attacks this in a variety of ways, such as by looking at evidence for continued exchange between the Mediterranean and trading centers along the route to India and construction histories at Red Sea ports on the Egyptian coast.

By reexamining other topics, such as the development of magistracies that oversaw the Red Sea trade in both Ptolemaic and Roman times and the investment in this trade by non-Egyptians even before the Augustan period, Cobb gives us an image of trading patterns that developed over time, rather than ones which were separated by major discontinuities. In addition to the interesting arguments of this chapter, readers are provided with an extensive bibliography and extremely helpful notes.

In the third chapter (second analytical), Leonardo Gregoratti looks at the role played by Parthia in the Indian Ocean trade. He begins by discussing the state of Parthian studies more generally, and then moves into the evidence for that empire’s involvement in the trading networks. He identifies Apologos and Ommana as the two major known ports on the Persian Gulf coast.

By looking at both “Western” (Dio Cassius) and “Eastern” (Hou Han Shou) chronicles, Gregoratti is able to provide eye-witness accounts of this trade. The possible Chinese view that the primary mode of trade between Rome and Parthia was via the sea is interesting – if not entirely conclusive – evidence for the intensity of the trade (pp. 58-59). The addition of a survey of Mesopotamian goods found in Indian archaeological contexts provides further evidence for Parthian participation in the Indian Ocean Trade. Ultimately, Gregoratti makes the case that Parthia was an important element in the east-west trade routes that connected the ancient world.

Next, Himanshu Prabha Ray sets out to identify the various peoples who participated in the Indian Ocean trade. This chapter takes a wide chronological approach, but focuses on the period from the first century AD to the eighth century AD. The case is made that participants in the region’s commercial activity came from many different backgrounds. We should not think only in terms of merchants from the west sailing east. The maritime trade routes were founded upon various other economic and social structures. Rightly, Ray points out that “economic developments need to be contextualized within a social structure” (p. 74): a point that all economic historians should keep in mind.

How did the author of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea assemble their description of India’s west coast? How did that author visualize its geography? These are the questions that Federico De Romanis tackles in his chapter, specifically by looking at islands mentioned in chapter 53 of the Periplus. He accomplishes this by looking at the details provided in the text and contrasting it with notices found in Pliny and Ptolemy.

With the addition of information from the Early Modern period, in particular Portuguese explorers, De Romanis makes an interesting argument that for the coast to Barygaza (and the in-land route from there to Paithana and Tagara), information was obtained from Egyptian merchants who had actually visited these places. For the area beyond Barygaza, however, information came second hand from Egyptian merchants who had gathered it from Indian merchants with whom they interacted.

Cross-cultural engagement

The second part of the book is entitled: “The Indian Ocean and cross-cultural engagement: people, commodities and society.” Trying to determine the real economic impacts of ancient trading networks is not an easy task. In this part’s first chapter, Raoul John McLaughlin discusses his Eastern Commercial Revenue Model and how, through an evidence-based approach, it has been calculated that the Indian Ocean trade generated about one-third of early Imperial revenues for Rome. He takes us through an overview of Roman state revenues and how the Indian Ocean trade contributed. Much of the chapter looks at Roman involvement in this trade and attempts to assign monetary value to it.

This chapter is a summary of a much larger work, as made clear from page 127 to the end. Here we encounter an unusual, though interesting, insertion of two comments from an anonymous reviewer of McLaughlin’s book proposal to Oxford University Press in 2007 that apparently scuttled it. The book wasn’t published until three years later, in 2010, and then by Bloomsbury, rather than Oxford. After repeating the reviewer’s misgivings, McLaughlin goes on to vindicate his own views by citing recent scholarly publications that reach similar conclusions about the significance of the Eastern Trade to Roman state revenues.

Without having read McLaughlin’s monographs, now numbering three on the topic according to the bibliography, I do not feel comfortable criticizing his methodology. I will say, though, that one of the reviewer’s comments instills me with second-hand skepticism: “The tower of quantitative guesswork based on a handful of dubious figures in ancient literary sources will collapse at the first critical breeze” (p. 127).

Pierre Schneider’s chapter attempts something unique in this volume, and quite rare in general, which is to examine the nature of Roman consumption of a specific commodity. In this case that commodity is pearls. His primary goal is to trace changes in the habit of consumption regarding these lustrous little (expensive) baubles. In this, he is very successful.

Schneider creates an interesting and believable history of how Roman obsession with the pearl developed. We see their emergence in the Roman market in the second century BC. From then, a growing demand created a vibrant trade, with the importation of various grades of pearls. This led to the professionalization of pearl merchants, the margaritarii. Importantly, Schneider musters convincing evidence that the craving for pearls was not limited to the upper class, and that people (generally women) from all walks of life sought to acquire them.

Attempting to assess the veracity with which Indians engaged in overseas trade is difficult. This, though, is the aim of Frederick M. Asher’s chapter. By beginning with Brahmin texts that discourage/condemn trade by sea, the author sets an adversarial tone, arguing against these prohibitions as being adhered to.

For this, Asher cites a multitude of epigraphic, artistic, and architectural evidence. He suggests that the existence of these, especially to the east, indicate the existence of both Indian ship-borne traders and Indian merchant communities abroad. There are subtleties which I would like to know more about, such as more detailed information on the contexts for some of the cited inscriptions. But, the argument is still well-made and somewhat convincing. It would have been nice to have more illustrations, though we are provided with two black-and-white photographs.

Literary impact of Indian Ocean trade

The third and final section of the book includes three chapters on an even more elusive topic than the earlier ones. These cover the impact that the Indian Ocean trade had on literature.

In the first of these, Fiona Mitchell attempts to show a connection between Greek and Indian creation stories that use the imagery of an egg. For this, she looks at two of the “Orphic theogonies”: Rhapsodic Theogony and Hieronyman and Hellanicus Theogony. These are compared to creation stories from the Laws of Manu, Vishnu Purana, and Matsya Purana.

The versions of the creation of the universe in all five of these texts are certainly similar in some respects, though I am unconvinced that this is necessarily due to intellectual exchange between India and the Mediterranean world. My major objection to this as a definite conclusion is based in the very loose chronologies associated with the texts under examination. The Hellenic evidence is fragmentary, with the original texts existing in a vacuous chronology. The authors in which they are preserved were writing from the second to sixth century AD. Mitchell argues that the fragments, then, represent philosophical considerations of an era after regular contact with India.

The Indian texts examined in this chapter have even more wide-ranging suggestions for their composition: (1) 200 BC to AD 200; (2) 700 BC to AD 1000, and; (3) 500 BC to AD 300. The first and last do generally fall within the period under study but do hint that hard-conclusions about their creation, and things that may have influenced aspects thereof, are tenuous. Mitchell does note that as they are key texts for the living religion Hinduism they have been “amended and adapted over time” (p. 183).

This makes me wary of her conclusions. But I also feel this way because while the stories do have similarities, the use of the egg as a metaphor for creation feels more like a universally understood image than something which had to have made its way along trade routes. Some of the other similarities between the stories feel like this to me, as well. But, I must concede, I am not an expert on any of the texts under consideration, so I may be missing certain aspects of the argument.

Juan Pablo Sánchez Hernández’ contribution is an interesting look at how the Indian Ocean trade impacted five ancient novels. In Apuleius and Petronius, he identifies imported luxury goods as influencing their “conception of the distant East” (p. 201). In both of these, we also find the oft repeated Roman disdain for luxury, even if that was only for show or presented in a tongue-in-cheek manner.

In the Greek novels, we actually meet characters from the East, and while the characteristic goods are referenced, there is a more human connection to be found. These authors blended “genuine mercantile information with enticing stories of pirates, Indian kings, unbelievable riches and idealized countries in faraway lands” (p. 202).

The final analytical chapter also looks at the ancient novels, but this time exploring possible intellectual connections which led to the emergence of the genre in both Greece and India. Marco Palone identifies a number of shared qualities, namely the use of vertically embedded narratives and first-person narration by narrators who experienced the events in their stories.

There is no denying that the argument is made vigorously and certainly is compelling. But I am still wary, as with Mitchell’s chapter, because of the less than secure chronology of the Indian texts. Rightly, Palone rejects the idea of looking for the precise origin of the genre, but instead that it probably emerged from “an Indo-Greek cultural and commercial koine” (p. 225). It is difficult to totally dismiss this theory, though I would like to see a lengthier analysis.

The volume concludes with a page-and-a-half conclusion by Matthew Cobb. It is succinct and a fitting end to an interesting book. In it, readers will find a number of important statements, such as “The Finley-esque ‘primitivist’ view which sought to marginalize the significance of long-distance exchange (…) needs serious reconsideration in light of the new perspectives that the Indian Ocean trade can offers [sic] us” (p. 228).

Closing thoughts

The Indian Ocean Trade in Antiquity is an interesting and important addition to the ever-increasing number of studies on the topic. The authors have all increased our understanding of how interconnected the world became thanks to this trade.

The hardback will probably only appeal to scholars and libraries due to its price, but when a less expensive paperback is published it would be worth seeking out by general readers with an interest in the topic or in the history of commerce and cross-cultural interaction. I am compelled, however, to point out that there are a number of typographical errors throughout, which should have been caught in the editorial process at some point, but none of them are egregious enough to hinder a reader’s understanding.

In general, I am happy to recommend this book. It is an important collection of essays.