Thursday, 23 May 2013
Ancient Rome and the rest of the world
Since the earliest beginnings of civilisation in the Middle East, trade between Mesopotamia, the Arabian
Peninsular and India has been recorded, so it should be no surprise that India was still a big part of the ancient global economy when Rome came along. Trade between the two regions exploded soon after Augustus annexed Egypt from Cleopatra and Antony - in fact the lovers had been planning an escape to India until Pro-Roman Egyptian rebels burnt their Red Sea fleet. With an independent Egypt removed as a middleman, direct trade between Rome and India was possible for the first time, and within a decade 120 ships were crossing the Indian Ocean between several Indian ports and Myos Hormos - Rome's principle
Red Sea port - each year. Not bad for a shipping season restricted to just seven months by the summer monsoon.
Roman traders settled along the sub-continent's east coast and southern Tamil states at places such as Barbaricum (now Karachi), Barygaza, Muziris, Korkai, and Arikamedu - the latter three all being Tamil. Pliny writes in 78AD that the Tamil economy was built almost entirely on international trade, where Tamil or Sri Lankan ships from Southeast Asia and China met Roman shippers arriving from Egypt. Commodities traded included frankincense, ceramics, gold and silver, coral, linen clothing, glass and wine coming from Europe. The Roman ships returned west loaded with silk yarn, cotton cloth, rice, wheat, sesame oil, spices and Chinese-made steel (goes to show nothing much has changed). Pliny conservatively estimated Rome's annual trade deficit with Asia was some 100-million sesterces ($2.5-billion). And this was no small deal. Two thousand years later India is still littered with the millions of coins shipped into the country during the reign of the Roman Emperors.
It is also likely India had the world's largest population of Roman expats at the time. The Apostle Thomas (the doubting one) travelled to the sub-continent in 52AD to convert a large Jewish population already established in the north and in the Tamil States. It has been suggested he even converted one of the northern kings, Gundaphorus, and established seven and a half churches in the south (yes, I know, I can't explain the half either), some of which continue as places of worship to this day.