~ Beyond the Borders of the Empire ~

Passage to India

The ship sets off at the first light of dawn. Conditions on the sea are good and the voyage is proceeding smoothly. The name of the merchant from Pozzuoli is Junius Faustus Florus. He’s one of nine Roman merchants on board, each with goods below deck that are ready to make the transoceanic leap. But the crew is not Roman. In this part of the world, the Romans rely on Egyptian sailors, who in turn rely on navigators from Eritrea. Navigating these routes requires a thorough knowledge of the Indian Ocean. The ship will exit the Red Sea on the south end, make its way along the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, and then, like a platform diver, it will take flight, pointing its bow straight into the ocean, where the only thing on the horizon is water. There is a trick to making it all the way to India, and it’s all in how you play the winds.

For a long time the Arabs and the Indians guarded their secret jealously, but in the Roman era it is widely known: it’s the monsoons. From May to September they blow constantly from the southwest, pushing ships from behind, straight on to India. Then, from November to March, they blow in the opposite direction, from the northeast, bringing the ships back with them. It’s like watching a piece of driftwood being carried back and forth by a wave on the shoreline. This climatic inhaling and exhaling takes a long time. Junius Faustus Florus knows that it’s going to take him a year to make the round-trip voyage from Pozzuoli.

We’ll never know how many ships sank and how many Romans died on these crossings. What we do know is that the ships are big, well-suited to face up to the Indian Ocean: 130 feet long with more than 300 tons of cargo onboard.

After a long and mercifully uneventful journey, our arrival in India happens in the early morning. There’s a light haze caused by the tropical humidity, a constant presence in this part of the world. Everyone on board has the tired look and baggy red eyes that come with too little sleep.

We notice the white sand shore, crowned by a thick forest of palm trees. We also see some dark canoes, each dug out of a single piece of wood. They belong to fishermen who set out in the predawn hours, just as they do everywhere else in the world. One of them passes close to our ship, and we get a good look at the dark skin and gleaming white teeth of the people on board, who in turn point to Junius Faustus Florus and his companions. The sight of fair skin around these parts means only one thing: a Roman has arrived.

The big ship remains offshore to avoid running aground on the sandy bottom. Some boats come out from the harbor to tranship the cargo and passengers, and very soon the water around the ship is animated by a chaotic hustle and bustle, replete with shouting and reprimands.

When Junius Faustus Florus goes ashore he is overjoyed to finally plant his feet on dry land. But his head keeps on spinning from land sickness. It’s not long before another western gentleman approaches him, making his way through the crowd of Indians surrounding the newly arrived Romans. He greets our man with a big smile, and the two of them hug each other in a fraternal embrace. He’s from Pozzuoli too.

In all the Indian ports where their ships dock, the Romans form little communities and set up emporiums along the coast. We are now close to the southern tip of India, on the west coast. The name of this port is Muziris and it appears on the Tabula Peutingeriana, the only map of the Roman Empire that has survived down to the modern era. Actually, what we have is a medieval copy of a lost Roman original. But it is a faithful “photocopy” (the work of monastic amanuenses) that reveals a lot about how Romans used it. It is in the form of one very long sheet stretching out to almost twenty-three feet that was rolled up and kept in a leather tube. So it was a “travel map” designed to be carried on horseback and unrolled with two hands while sitting in the saddle (one hand scrolling up and the other scrolling down as a projector does with a roll of movie film) until you find the section you are interested in. It uses the same principle as modern electronic navigators for cars: it indicates main roads, rivers, cities, postal stations, and roadside inns while totally neglecting the physical geography. Forests and mountains, for example, are merely sketched or stylized. Conceptually, it looks like a map you might sketch on a scrap of paper to help someone who needs directions. The scale is often out of proportion, but the route is perfectly clear and rich in practical detail (landmarks, number of miles, curves, etc.).

Examining the map, it is surprising to see that the Romans know Sri Lanka and also part of the Indian coast, around its southern point. In the 1940s, English excavations conducted in Arikamedu on India’s eastern coast uncovered fragments of ceramics from Arezzo (so-called sealed-earth ceramics) with inscriptions in Latin, and other Roman finds such as oil lamps and glass objects. This would suggest that one or more of the Roman emporiums were located on the east coast of India.

The Tabula Peutingeriana helps us to understand the Romans’ idea of India. They knew the Ganges River and indicated the distances on the roads not only in Roman miles (4,854 feet) but also in Indian miles (9,842 feet), which means not only that they had traveled the roads but that they indicated for potential Roman travelers the various stopping points using local measurements so they would be able to get around better.

The most amazing thing to see on the map, near Muziris, is the drawing of a Roman temple with the inscription Templum Augusti, a religious building dedicated to the memory of Augustus. In the middle of India!

On the map are plenty of inscriptions such as In his locis scorpiones nascuntur (“In these places scorpions are born”) and In his locis elephanti nascuntur (“In these places elephants are born”), and so on. Then there are two words, clearly linked to silk, but slightly enigmatic: seta maior. In all likelihood they indicate China or a part of it.

The story of the silk trade has always been fascinating. Silk reaches Europe by two routes, land and sea. Along the land route (the legendary Silk Road) the silk is controlled and “filtered” by Rome’s most dangerous enemies, the Parthians, inhabitants of present-day Iran and Iraq. On the sea route, Rome’s dominance is greater. This route is much more economical because the ships can hold greater quantities than can be transported on the Silk Road. That’s why the Romans keep pushing eastward, attempting to reach the “source” of silk, China. According to Lionel Casson, at the end of the second century CE the Romans start trading with the Moluccas, Sumatra, and Java.

The Chinese would not sail on the high seas until centuries later, so it was the Romans who went knocking on their door first. We know the official date of this first encounter: 166 CE, when a Roman ambassador was welcomed by the Yellow Emperor, Huangdi. In all likelihood, this meeting did not involve an official ambassador sent by Marcus Aurelius but simple merchants who, like salmon, had swum against the current of the silk stream all the way back to its point of origin. One piece of evidence for this theory is that, as recorded in the Chinese archives, the gifts that they brought with them were not jewels or gold but ivory, rhinoceros horns, and tortoise shells. These are not gifts worthy of an imperial ambassador. In Lionel Casson’s view, the visitors were very probably merchants trying to beat their competition by buying silk directly from China and cutting out the middlemen.

The Return Voyage Toward the Roman Empire

So big commercial battles were fought beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. And traces of this intense economic exchange emerge every now and again through the rediscovery of Roman coins. The farthest flung Roman coin to be unearthed was found in Vietnam, in the Mekong River delta.

In India, at least two thousand gold coins (aurei) and six thousand silver coins (denarii) have been found, to say nothing of smaller coins. It’s striking to note that some of these coins have deep cuts in them, made by the Indians to ensure these were made of real gold and were not just brass farthings.

The port of Muziris, also cited by Pliny the Elder and Ptolemy, and known as a center of trade for other ethnic groups and civilizations, has only recently been identified as the little city of Pattanam, where archaeological digs have unearthed Roman coins, innumerable fragments of Italic and Egyptian ceramics, a twenty-foot canoe, and even an ancient brick landing wharf with mooring fixtures.

And that’s where we are now. Several months have passed, the winds have changed, and Junius Faustus Florus has just boarded a canoe, headed toward a large merchant ship anchored offshore that will take him back to the Red Sea; from there he’ll be able to return to Pozzuoli. The man who is rowing him out to the ship is an Indian, with whom he has struck up a fine friendship and who will act as his contact for future commercial ventures. As he is about to board ship, Junius Faustus Florus turns, embraces his friend, and gives him our sestertius as a sign of his friendship. The evening before, in fact, the man had been curious about the face of Trajan and had asked Junius Faustus Florus to tell him about his “king.” The coin is a nice reminder of the Roman from Pozzuoli, a keepsake.

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