Sunday 26 May 2013
Rome and the Far East
So we know Rome was a big deal in India and India was big deal to Rome - but what about beyond? How much further did Rome reach into Asia? Well, we know the Romans and the Chinese knew about each other, so that's a start. The Romans drew maps of South East Asia, China and the western Pacific Ocean - and the Chinese report several visits from Roman officials and merchants during the second and third century-AD - however Chinese descriptions of Romans looking Chinese, and Pliny's 78AD assertion that the Chinese were blonde and blue-eyed leaves room for some doubt on 'official' contact. It appears almost all the silk and steel trade between Rome and China was carried out by Tamil and Sri Lankan traders.
The same could also be said about the fabulously profitable spice trade to the Malaysian Peninsular and the modern day Indonesian Archipelago - the former Spice Islands. The world's supply of cloves came exclusively from the Maluku Islands - and nutmeg from the Banda Islands. Roman pottery has been found in Sembrian on the island of Bali, still, whether a Roman left it there is pretty much up in the air. However, being closer to the Roman expats living in India - and being where most money was to be made east of India, ancient Europeans probably did visit South East Asia on a semi-regular basis, unlike their few trips to China.
And then there's Japan. Roman glass jewellery has been found in 5th-century AD Japanese tombs - so like the Chinese, the Japanese were probably aware of a 'Western Empire' but their contact too was fleeting and more than likely second or third hand. In the end, it looks like the world was just too big for the Roman Empire to be more than an ephemeral thought in the minds of those in the Far East. For more on Roman sea trade you can read 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links