Periplus of the Erythraean Sea/Date and Authorship

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The manuscript copies of the Periplus at Heidelberg and London do not enable us to fix either date or authorship. The Heidelberg manuscript attributes the work to Arrian, apparently because in that manuscript this Periplus follows a report of a voyage around the Black Sea made by the historian Arrian, who was governor of Cappadocia about 131 A. D. This is manifestly a mistake, and the London manuscript does not contain that reference.

The only guidance to date or authorship must be found in the Periplus itself.

Hippalus' discovery of the sea-route to India, described in § 57, is fixed by Vincent at about 47 A. D.

Vincent reasons from Pliny's account (VI, 24) of the accidental journey of a freedman of Annius Plocamus who had farmed from the Treasury the revenues arising from the Red Sea. This freedman was carried away by a gale and in fifteen days drifted to Ceylon, where he was hospitably received and after a stay of six months returned home; after which the Ceylonese kings sent an embassy to Rome. Pliny says that this occurred during the reign of Emperor Claudius, which began in the year 41. The discovery of Hippalus must have come very soon after. (The first question suggested by this story is, what the freedman was doing outside the Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb and from whom Annius Plocamus farmed the revenues. As to this Pliny is silent. Can it have been the friendly Abyssinians, or were the Greek colonies in Arabia still in existence?)

The discovery of Hippalus, described in § 57, seems to have occurred not long before the author of the Periplus made his voyage. He evidentally feels a deep respect for the discoverer, and goes on to say that "from that time until now" voyages could be made directly across the ocean by the monsoon.

Pliny has but a passing reference to Hippalus, suggesting that between 73 and 77 A. D. when he was writing, the memory of the discoverer had faded somewhat from view.

Assuming 50 A. D. as a date earlier than that which this Periplus can not have been written, we must look next for a limit on the other side.

In § 38 is mentioned "the sea-coast of Scythia" around the mouth of the Indus, and the metropolis of Scythia, Minnagara, which was "subject to Parthian princes at war among themselves."

In § 41 is mentioned another city Minnagara, which, as indicated in the notes, is simply the Hindu name for "city of the invaders".

§ 47 is mentioned the "very war-like inland nation of the Bactrians."

As explained in the notes, the Scythians of the Periplus are the Saka tribe, who had been driven from Eastern Turkestan by the Yueh-chi, and overran Beluchistan, the lower Indus valley, and adjacent parts of the coast of India itself. They submitted to the Parthian Kingdom, of which they formed an important part. Their southern extension under Sandares, the ruler mentioned in § 52, indicates a growing pressure from the Kushan kingdom on the north, but prior to the conquest of this whole country by the Kushans, which occurred soon after 95 A. D. The "war-like nation of the Bactrians" is the tribe of Yueh-chi or Kushans, formerly subject to China, who, after being driven westward by the Huns, overran the Greek kingdom of Bactria and set up there a powerful kingdom which, early in the second century A. D., conquered most of northern India. The conditions in the text indicate a time before this nation had commences its conquests in the valleys of the Indus and the Ganges, and probably before the great defeat of its king Kadphises by the Chinese general Panchao near Khotan, which occurred in 90 A. D. A defeat of this magnitude must certainly have been reported throughout India and would not have led our author to refer to the nation as "very warlike." Thus we arrive at two dates, 90 and 95 A. D., later than which this Periplus can not have been written.

In §§ 4 and 5 our author mentions the city of the Axumites, and the territory, coast and inland, ruled over by Zoscales; whom Henry Salt identified with the name "Za Hakale" found by him in the Tarik Negusti or Chronicles of the kings of Abyssinia. The duration of this Za Hakale's reign, according to the Chronicle, was thirteen years, and his dates Salt fixes at 76 to 89 A. D., following a note in the Chronicle that the birth of Christ took place in the eighth year of one of Za Hakale's predecessors, Zabaesi Bazen. The date of the accession of this Zabaesi Bazen was 84 years prior to that of Za Hakale. Salt's identification of the name is probably correct, but the dates as they stand in the Chronicles were written some centuries after the events, and can hardly be accepted as safe authority in the absence of other evidence. The fact that nearly all the reigns are given as lasting an even number of years, or else as so many years and six months, shows that shows that the chroniclers were only estimating the time. Salt himself was obliged to rearrange their chronology in order to fit it to known facts, and it is quite possible that his rearrangement has slipped in a whole reign before that of Za Hakale. Obviously Salt's names are worth more than his dates. South Arabian inscriptions discovered by Glaser indicate the separation of Axum from its mother-land, the Habash or Ethiopia of South Arabia, not long before the date of the Periplus; and the fact that there is no mention of Axum in any work earlier than the Periplus, and not even in Pliny, suggests the same conclusion; namely, that the Abyssinian Chronicles are unreliable, at any rate in their earlier portions. They count as independent kings a number of rulers who must have been subject to the Arabian mother-land; the order of events they relate is uncertain, and their dates are merely approximations.

Even if the dates in the Chronicle, and Salt's identification of Zoscales with Za Hakale were strictly correct, the date generally accepted for the birth of Christ, 5 B. C., would bring Za Hakale's accession down to 71 A. D. and his death to 84.

Nearly all the commentators think that the Periplus is earlier than Pliny's Natural History, which is known to have been published between 73 and 77 A. D. The principal indication is their similarity in the description of Arabia Felix, where Pliny seems to condense the Periplus, but he does not mention Axum. He ends the African coast at the Promontory of Mosyllum and says that the Atlantic Sea begins there. In this he follows King Juba; but had he known the Periplus he ought to have included the African coast as far as Zanzibar. He has an account of Mariaba, the royal city of Arabia Felix, which the Periplus has not. He quotes Aelius Gallus, writing in 24 B. C., as stating that the Sabaeans are the richest tribe in southern Arabia. The Periplus, however, has them subject to the Homerites, who receive only passing mention from Aelius Gallus.

One is tempted to imagine that Pliny's account of the voyage to India (VI, 26) in which he refers to "information on which reliance may be placed, here published for the first time," refers to the Periplus, then existing merely as a merchant's diary; and Glaser has based much of his argument as to the authorship of the Periplus on that passage; but Pliny goes on to describe a voyage different in many ways from that of the Periplus, and giving quite a different account of the coast of India. At the time Pliny wrote, the sea-route to India had been opened for nearly thirty years, and he might have had this information from any sea-captain, as indeed he might have had the facts concerning Arabia Felix which seem to be in such close agreement with the Periplus. The argument that Pliny, whose work was dedicated in 77 A. D., borrowed from the Periplus is, then, suggestive and even plausible, but by no means conclusive.

Returning to § 41, the reference to the anarchy in the Indo-Parthian or Saka region does not suggest the consolidated power of that King of Kathiawar and Ujjain who founded the so-called Saka era of 78 A. D.; indicating for the Periplus a date earlier than that era.

Mention of the "land of This" in § 64, is helpful. This seems evidently to be the state of Ts'in in northwest China, at the date of the Periplus the most powerful of the states of China, and actively engaged in pushing Chinese boundaries and influence westward across Turkestan. The capital city is supposed to be the modern Singanfu. The text says that "silk is brought overland from that country to Bactria and India," but that "few men come from there and seldom." This suggests a time when the trade-routes across Turkestan were still in turmoil and before the conquests of the Chinese general Panchao. The route north of the desert of Turkestan was finally opened by him in 94 A. D., while the route south of the desert wsa opened as early as 73 A. D., indicating that the Periplus must be fixed before that date.

In § 19 is mentioned Malichas, king of the Nabataeans. As Fabricius has pointed out, this is one of the most important indications of date contained in the text. Josephus in his Wars of the Jews mentions a Malchus, king of Arabia, under which name he always refers to the Nabataean kingdom, as having assisted Titus in his expedition against Jerusalem, which he destroyed in the year 70 A. D. (Bell. Jud., III, 4, § 2); and Vogüé in his Syrie Centrale, Semitic Inscriptions, p. 107, confirms that a Nabataean king Aretas (Hareth), contemporary with the Emperors Tiberius and Caligular, had a son Malik, or Malchus III, who reigned about 40 to 70 A. D. It was a sister of this Malchus who married Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, and was abandoned by Herod for his brother Philip's wife, Herodias, mother of Salome. (Josephus, Ant. Jud. XVIII, 8). This action of Herod brought him to war with his father-in-law, Aretas, and doubtless explains to some extent the policy of Malichas in assisting Rome against Judea. This must have been the same as the Malichas of the text, and his action against Jerusalem must have been near the end of his reign. It is fair to infer that if the Periplus had been written after that expedition, Malichas would have been called, like Charibael in § 23, a "friend of the Emperor," and therefore that the Periplus was written before Titus' campaign of the year 70.

In §§ 23 and 27 we have the names of Charibael, king of the two tribes, the Homerites and the Sabaites, and of Eleazus, king of the Frankincense Country. It was the opinion of Glaser, based on inscriptions discovered by him in South Arabia, that both these names were titles rather than personal names, and that they were borne by several rulers during the first century A. D. His inscription No. 1619 mentions a king Eleazus who was ruler in 29 A. D., and a king Charibael whose reign was from about 40 to 70 A. D. The mention of Charibael as "a friend of the Emperors" might answer for a date under Vespasian after the succession of short reigns that followed Nero; but the years of turmoil throughout the Roman Empire, for several years after the death of Nero, were not years of prosperous trade such as the Periplus describes. This reference indicates a date early in the reign of Nero, before the memory of his predecessor Claudius had faded; roughly, any time between 54 and 60 A. D.

In § 23 is a reference to the recent destruction of Arabia Eudaemon. Our present knowledge of Arabian history does not give us any positive date for the war leading to the destruction of this Sabaean port, but the inscriptions discovered and commented on by Glaser point to a time after the middle of the first century.

In § 2 our author mentions the city of Meroe. This capital of the Nubian kingdom was severely treated by the Romans soon after their occupation of Egypt; and an expedition sent out against her under Petronius annihilated her army and destroyed many of her cities, including that of Napata. This was in B. C. 22. That another queen Candace of NUbia retained considerable power in the first half of the first century A. D. is shown in Acts VIII, 27. After this Pliny relates, the savage tribes of the neighboring deserts came down, and plundered what was left of the Nubian Kingdom, so that an expedition of inquiry sent by the emperor Nero (Pliny, VI, 35) when he was contemplating a campaign in the South, ventured as far as Meroe and reported that they had met with nothing but deserts on their routes; that the buildings of Meroe itself were but few in number and were still ruled over by a queen named Candace, that name having passed from queen to queen for many years. This state of things can be fixed at about 67 A. D. It is obviously later than the account in the Periplus.

Very soon after Pliny's time Meroe must have been destroyed, as the name does not appear again for several centuries.

A suggestive fact is that the Periplus tells only of the great increase in trade with India, and has no mention of a cessation or decline of that trade consequent upon the burning of Rome, July 19–25 in the year 64. Ten out of the fourteen districts of the city were destroyed. The loss was not equalized; fire insurance did not exist. It is true that this great calamity hardly receives mention in Pliny's work. He refers to the baseless story of Nero's having started the fire, and in several passages to the destruction of buildings, temples and the like, always with some reticence. In many places, however, once in so many words, he mentions the crisis through which Rome passed in the later years of Nero and his short-lived successors, and of the "rest brought to an exhausted empire" by the strong hand of Vespasian. But in a work distinctly of a commercial nature, written far from Rome but relating to a commerce whose sudden expansion was due entirely to Roman demand, some mention of the trade depression that must have followed such a destruction of capital and the ensuing political disorder, would have been most probable. The facts of this conflagration and of its effects upon trade are thought to be states in Revelation, c. XVIII, and, notwithstanding the different point of view of the writer of that book, the circumstances he describes are of importance here.

"And the kings of the earth . . . shall bewail her, and lament for her, when they shall see the smoke of her burning, . . . and the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her; for no man buyeth their merchandise any more: the merchandise of gold, and silver, and precious stones, and of pearls, and fine linen, and purple, and silk, and scarlet, and all sweet wood, and all manner vessels of ivory, and all manner vessels of the most precious wood, and of brass, and iron, and marble, and cinnamon, and odours, and ointments, and frankincense, and wine, and oil, and fine flour, and wheat, and beasts, and sheep, and horses, and chariots, and slaves, and souls of men . . . . The merchants of these things, which were made rich by her, shall stand afar off for the fear of her torment, weeping and wailing, and saying, Alas, alas, that great city, that was clothed in fine linen, and purple, and scarlet, and decked with gold, and precious stones, and pearls! For in one hour so great riches is come to nought. And every shipmaster, and all the company in ships, and sailors, and as many as trade by sea, stood afar off, and cried when they saw the smoke of her burning, saying, What city is like unto this great city! And they cast dust on their heads and cried, weeping and wailing, saying, Alas, alas, that great city, wherein were made rich all that had ships in the sea by reason of her costliness! . . . . For thy merchants were the great men of the earth."

Now our author was one of those same shipmasters trading by sea; but in his account there is no suggestion of standing afar off, weeping and wailing, such as would probably have appeared if he were writing after that great disaster.

Following the discovery of Hippalus there seems to have been a sudden and enormous increase in the Roman trade with India, and particularly in the importation of Indian products. The Periplus, in § 10, refers to the "larger ships" now needed for the cinnamon trade. This increase, particularly in the importation of luxuries, can be ascribed to the fashion of extravagance set by Nero's court, during the ascendancy of his favorite Sabina Poppaea, whose influence lasted from 58 until her death in 65 A. D. Pliny's reference to the enormous quantity of spices used at Poppaea's funeral (XII, 41) indicates such an increased trade; which he further confirms (VI, 26) by stating that specie amounting to about $22,000,000 per year was required to balance the trade, and that these Indian imports sold in Rome at one hundred times their cost. Pliny's figures are untrustworthy, as in XII, 41, he estimates a little over $4,000,000 as the balance of specie required for the entire trade with India, Arabia and China; but a sudden increase in commerce in none the less evident.

The absence of any description in the Periplus of trade with the coasts of the Persian Gulf, then subject to Parthia, suggests that it was written at a time when Rome and Parthia were at war. Our author's descriptions, even of the southern coast of Arabia, stop at the Frankincense Country and its dependency, the island of Masira; and he explains that the coast beyond the islands of Kuria Muria was "subject to Persia" and thus closed to him. According to the account given by Rawlinson, (Sixth Monarchy, XVI,) conflicting claims as to the Armenian succession led Rome to make war on Parthia in 55 A. D., the second year of Nero's reign. The Parthians, at the time occupied with civil war in the South (possibly even in their newly-acquired South Arabian possessions), gave hostages and abandoned their Armenian pretensions; which, however, they reasserted in 58, when war broke out anew. Hostilities continued in a desultory way until 62, when the two powers agreed upon a mutual evacuation of Armenia and a settlement of the dispute by a Parthian embassy which was to visit Rome. This truce occurred in the summer of 62. The embassy made its visit in the autumn and returned without a treaty. The truce was broken the same winter by a Roman invasion of Armenia, which was repulsed and the truce renewed. A second Parthian embassy to Rome in the spring of 63 settled the matter by placing a Parthian prince on the Armenian throne and requiring him to receive investiture from the Roman Emperor. This ceremony occurred in 65 A. D.

Hostilities between the two countries certainly ceased in the winter of 62 and probably, as far as commercial interests were concerned, in the summer of that year. Therefore, the date of the Periplus, or at any rate the date of the voyage on which it was based, can probably be fixed not later than the summer of 62 and not earlier than the summer of 58.

The possibilities are rather in favor of the second or third year of the renewed Roman-Parthian war, when the Parthian power had fully recovered from the disorders in the South.

The nearest single year that suggests itself as the date of the Periplus is, therefore, 60 A. D.

As to the authorship, it is best to admit that nothing is known. Fabricius in his first edition of the Periplus attributed it to an Alexandrian merchant named Arrian, but other editions, and Fabricius' own second edition, remove the name altogether.

Glaser in an article published in Ausland, 1891, pp. 45–46, presents an argument that seems too tempting to be true. He assumes that the sixth book of Pliny quotes from the Periplus; that the "heretofore unpublished account," which Pliny mentions, was that of our author; that his work could have been quoted in no other book of Pliny, and therefore that by comparison of the indices of authorities which Pliny puts at the end of each book, any name appearing in the sixth book only would be the name of our author. By such means Glaser arrives at the name Basilis, and in all his references to the Periplus after the date of that article, he is careful to cite—"Basilis, author of the Periplus, 56 to 67 A. D." But Pliny himself in that same book (VI, 35) refers to Basilis as the author of an acconut of Meroe and the upper Nile, apparently considerably earlier than the expedition of Petronius against Nubia in 24 to 22 B. C.; and a work on India, also by Basilis, is quoted by Agatharchides (Ap. Phot., p. 454 b. 34, ed. Bekker), whose work on the Erythraean Sea was written about 113 B. C., a century and a half before the Periplus. It seems to be this same Basilis, rather than a later writer of like name, whose Indica is quoted by Athenaeus (Deipnos. IX, 390, b), who wrote about 230 A. D. Unless, therefore, Glaser assumes that the Basilis of Pliny's text is a different man from the Basilis of his index, his argument falls.

Then, too, a man of Pliny's standing would have been apt to refrain from mentioning by name a writer with no literary reputation in Roman society. His index would omit an obscure sea-captain, just as his text omits him, referring merely to "information on which reliance can be placed." For the aristocracy of letters was very real in imperial Rome, and the writer of the Periplus did not "belong." The possibility that Pliny may have used his account does not imply the use of his name. Altogether, Glaser's argument is more ingenious than probable.

That the author was an Egyptian Greek, and a merchan in active trade who personally made the voyage to India, is evident by the text itself; that he lived in Berenice rather than Alexandria is indicated by the absence of any account of the journey up the Nile and across the desert from Coptos, which Strabo and Pliny describe at length. It is possible that he made the voyage from Cape Guardafui to Zanzibar, but the text is so vague and uncertain that he seems rather to be quoting from someone else, unless indeed much of this part of the work has been lost in copying. The coast of Arabia east of the Frankincense Country, the entire Persian Gulf and the coasts of Persia and Beluchistan as far as the Indus river, seem to have been known to him only by hearsay. They were subject to Parthia, an enemy of Rome.

That he was not a highly educated man is evident from his frequent confusion of Greek and Latin words and his clumsy and sometimes ungrammatical constructions. The value of his work consists, not in its literary merits, but in its trustworthy account of the trade of the Indian Ocean and of the settlements around its shores; concerning which, until his time, we possess almost nothing of an intelligent and comprehensive nature.

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