Periplus of the Erythraean Sea/Introduction

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The Philadephia Museums came into existence some fifteen years ago with the avowed purpose of aiding the manufacture in taking a larger share in the world’s commerce.

They have lost no opportunity in presenting to the inquirer the trade conditions of all parts of the world.

More than four years ago the Museums undertook the work of making a graphic history of commerce from the earliest dawn of trade and barter down to the present time. The author of this translation was entrusted with the study and preparation of the exhibit, which in its early stages of development was shown at the Jamestown exposition. It was in the preparation of this exhibit that attention was directed to the Periplus, and its interest in the early history of commerce appreciated. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea is the first record of organized trading with the nations of the East, in vessels built and commanded by subjects of the Western world. The notes add great interest, giving as they do an exhaustive survey of the international trade between the great empires of Rome, Parthia, India and China, together with a collection of facts touching the early tade of a number of other countries of much interest.

The whole trade of the world is every day coming more and more under exact laws of demand and supply. When the history of commerce from its earliest dawn to its present tremendous international proportions shall be carefully written, the Periplus will furnish a most interesting part of such early history, and the Commercial Museum will not have to apologize for rescuing this work from obscurity and presenting it to the general public.


The Phidelphia Museums
September, 1911



The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea is one of those human documents, like the journals of Marco Polo and Columbus and Vespucci, which express not only individual enterprise, but the awakening of a whole race towards new fields of geographical discovery and commercial achievement. It is the first record of organized trading with the nations of the East, in vessels built and commanded by subjects of the Western World. It marks the turning of a tide of commerce which had set in one direction, without interruption, from the dawn of history. For thousands of years before the emergence of the Greeks from savagery, or before the exploits of the Phoenicians in the Mediterranean and Atlantic, human culture and commerce had centered in the countries bordering on the Persian Gulf; in Elam and Babylonia, and in the "whole land of Havilah, where there is gold: and the gold of that land is good; there is bdellium and the onyx stone." With the spread of culture in both directions, Egypt and the nations of Ancient India came into being, and a commercial system was developed for the interchange of products within those limits, having its center of exchanges near the head of the Persian Gulf. The peoples of that region, the various Arab tribes and more especially those ancestors of the Phoenicians, the mysterious Red Men, were the active carries or intermediaries. The growth of civilization in India created an active merchange marine, trading to the Euphrates and Africa, and eastward we know not whither. The Arab merchants, apparently, tolerated the presence of Indian traders in Africa, but reserved for themselves the commerce within the Red Sea; that lucrative commerce which supplied precious stones and spices and incense to the ever-increasing service of the gods of Egypt. This prospered according to the prosperity of the Pharaohs. The muslins and spices of India they fetched themselves or received from the Indian traders in their ports on either side of the Gulf of Aden; carrying them in turn over the highlands to the upper Nile, or through the Red Sea and across the desert to Thebes or Memphis. In the rare intervals when the eyes of Egypt were turned eastward, and voyages of commerce and conquest were despatched to the Eastern Ocean, the officers of the Pharaohs found the treasures of all its shores gathered in the nearest ports, and sought no further to trace them to their sources.

As the current of trade gradually flowed beyond the Nile and Euphrates to the peoples of the north, and their curiosity began to trace the better things toward their source in India, new trade-routes were gradually opened. The story of the world for many centuries was that of the struggles of the nations upon the Nile and the Euphrates to win all the territory through which the new routes passed, and so to prevent the northern barbarians from trading with others than themselves. It was early in this struggle that one brance of the people known as the Phoenicians left their home on the Persian Gulf and settled on the Mediterranean, there to win in the West commercial glories which competition in the East was beginning to deny them. The Greek colonies, planted at the terminus of every trade-route, gained for themselves a measure of commercial independence; but never until the overthrow of the East by the great Alexander was the control of the great overland caravan-routes threatened by a western people, and his early death led to no more than a readjustment of conditions as they had always existed.

Meantime the brethren of the Phoenicians and their kinsfolk in Arabia continued in control of the carrying trade of the East, subject to their agreements and alliances with the merchants of India. One Arab kingdom after another retained the great eastern coast of Africa, with its trade in gold and ivory, ostrich feathers and oil; the shores of the Arabian Gulf produced an ever-rising value in frankincense and myrrh; while the cloths and precious stones, the timbers and spices—particularly cinnamon—brought from India largely by Indian vessels, were redistributed at Socotra or Guardafui, and carried to the Nile and the Mediterranean. Gerrha and Obollah, Palmyra and Petra, Sabbath and Mariaba were all partners in this commercial system. The Egyptian nation in its later struggles made no effort to oppose or control it. The trade came and the price was paid. And the infusion of Greek energy after Alexander's day, when the Ptolemies had made Egypt once more mistress of the nations, led to nothing more than the conquest of a few outposts on the Red Sea and at the head of the Gulf of Aden; while the accounts of Agatharchides are sufficient proof of the opulance which came to Southern Arabia with the increase of prosperity in Egypt. Here, indeed, the trade control was more complete than ever; for changes in the topography of India, the westward shifting of the Indus delta, the shoaling of the harbors in the Cutch region, and the disorder incident to great invasions of Asiatic peoples, had sapped the vigor of the Indian sea-trade.

But in Arabia itself there were struggles for the control of all this wealth and power, and in the days of the later Ptolemies kingdoms rose and fell and passed into oblivion with bewildering frequency. The African coast was left to its own people and to the remnants of the Indian trade, and one Arab tribe maintained itself at the Straits, while its defeated adversary, establishing itself in the old "land of Cush," was building up the kingdom of Abyssinia, whose ambitions were bitterly opposed to the state which possessed its former home in the "Frankincense Country" of Arabia.

It was at this juncture that the rule of the Ptolemies came to an end under Cleopatra, and the new ruler of the Western World, the Empire of Rome, came into possession of Egypt, and thus added to its control of the caravan-routes previously won in Asia Minor and Syria, that of a direct sea-route to the East, by way of the Ptolemies' outposts on the Red Sea.

The prize thus within reach of the Roman people was a rich one. Successive conquests and spoliation of all the Mediterranean peoples had brought to Rome treasures as yet unexampled, and a taste for the precious things of the East was developed almost over-night. The public triumphs of the conquerors of Asia Minor and Syria glittered with new treasures, for which the people clamored. Money was plentiful and merchants flocked thither from all quarters. Within a generation the center of exchanges of the Mediterranean was moved from Alexandria to Rome. But a wise decision of the Emperor Augustus, only once departed from and that disastrously, limited the Roman dominion to the bank of the Euphrates; so that all this rich trade that flowed to Rome paid its tolls to the Empire of Parthia and to the Arab kingdoms, unless Rome could develop and control a sea-borne trade to India.

Against such an enterprise all the energy and subtlety of the Arab was called into action. No information was allowed to reach the merchants in Egypt, and every device the imagination could create was directed toward discouraging the least disturbance of the channels of trade that had existed since human memory began. And in an unknown ocean, with only the vaguest ideas of the sources of the products they sought, and the routes that led to them, it might been many years before a Roman vessel, coasting along hostile shores, could reach the goal. But accidents favored Roman ambition. The new kingdom of Axum, smarting under the treatment of its former neighbors in Arabia, was courting the Roman alliance. The old trading-posts at Guardafui, formerly under Arab control, were now free, through the quarrels of their overlords, and their markets were open to who might seek. And then a Roman subject, perhaps in the Abyssinian service, was driven to sea and carried in an open boat to India, whence he returned in a few months with a favorable wind and much information. Then Hippalus, a venturesome navigator whose name deserved as much honor in Roman annals as that of Columbus in modern history, observed the periodic change of the Indian monsoon (doubtless long known to Arab and Hindu), and boldly setting sail at the proper season made a successful trading voyage and returned with a cargo of all those things for which Rome was paying so generously: gems and pearls, ebony and sandalwood, balms and spices, but especially pepper. The old channels of trade were paralleled but not conquered; so strong was the age-long understanding between Arab and Hindu, that cinnamon, which had made the fortune of traders to Egypt in earlier times, was still found by the Romans only at Guardafui and was scrupulously kept from their knowledge in the markets of India, where it was gathered and distributed; while the leaf of the same tree producing that precious bark was freely offered to the Roman merchants throughout the Malabar coast, and as malabathrum formed the basis of one of their most valued ointments.

Great shiftings of national power followed this entry of Roman shipping into the Indian Ocean. One by one Petra and Gerrha, Palmyra and Parthia itself, their revenues sapped by the diversion of accustomed trade, fell into Roman hands. The Homerite Kingdom in South Arabia fell upon hard times, its capital into ruin, and some of its best men migrated northward and as the Ghassanids bowed the neck to Rome. Abyssinia flourished in proportion as its old enemy declined. If this state of things had continued, the whole course of later events might have been changed. Islam might never have appeared, and a greater Rome might have left its system of law and government from the Thames to the Ganges. But the logic of history was too strong. Gradually the treasure that fell to the Roman arms was expended in suppressing insurrections in the conquered provinces, in civil wars at home, and in a constant drain of specie to the east in settlement of adverse trade balances; a drain which was very real and menacing to a nation which made no notable advance in production or industry by means of which new wealth could be created. As the resources of the West diminished the center of exchange shifted to Constantinople. The trade-routes leading to that center were the old routes through Mesopotamia, where a revivified power under the Sassanids was able to conquer every passage to the East, including even the proud Arab states which had not yielded submission to Hammurabi or Esarhaddon, Nebuchadrezzar or Darius the Great. Egypt, no longer in the highway of commerce, became a mere granary for Constantinople, and Abyssinia, driven from its hard-won footholds east of the Red Sea, could offer the Byzantine emperors no effective aid in checking the revival of Eastern power. And the whirlwind of activity let loose by Mohammed welded the Eastern World as no force had yet done, and brought the West for another millennium to its feet. Not until the coming of those vast changes in industry and transportation which marked the nineteenth century did the Western nations find commodities of which the East stood in need, and laying them down in Eastern market on their own terms, turn back the channels of trade from their ancient direction.

The records of the pioneers, who strove during the ages to stem this irresistible current, are of enduring interest in the story of human endeavor; and among them all, one of the most fascinating is this Periplus of the Erythraean Sea—this plain and painstaking log of a Greek in Egypt, a Roman subject, who steered his vessel into the waters of the great ocean and brought back the first detailed record of the imports and exports of its markets, and of the conditions and alliances of its peoples. It is the only record for centuries that speaks with authority on this trade in its entirety, and the gloom which it briefly lighted was not lifted until the wider activities of Islam broke the time-honored custom of Arab secrecy in trading, and by grafting Arab discovery on Greek theory, laid the foundations of modern geography. Not Strabo or Pliny or Ptolemy, however great the store of knowledge they gathered together, can equal in human interest this unknown merchant who wrote merely of the things he dealt in and the peoples he met—those peoples of whom our civilization still knows so little and to whom it owes so much; who brought to the restless West the surplus from the ordered and industrious East, and in so doing ruled the waters of the "Erythraean Sea."