Rome 107 A.D. Emperor Trajan had just returned from the conquest of Dacia ( soon to be renamed Romania ). In his wake came wagon trains carrying hundreds of tons each of Dacian gold and silver. More was to come from Dacia’s gold and silver mines. Just a hundred and thirty eight years earlier Egypt was added to the Roman empire . It’s treasures were its limitless grain supplies and access to its Red sea ports – the gateway to the riches of the East.
image attribute: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12107882
If the populace had the money, roman traders certainly had the time …… to descend on the egyptian port of Alexandria, make their way 1000 kilometres south to Coptos and then to the ports of Myos Hormos and Berenice . At the start of the Indian monsoon season, fleets of ships, sometimes over a hundred strong, would sail down the Red sea to refueling stations in Saudi Arabia and Aden. Thereafter , a short voyage of 40 days brought them to the nearest Indian ports of Barygaza (Bharuch), Sopara (Nala Sopara), Kalyan (Mumbai), and Muziris ( Patanam, in Kerala) on the west coast . Some ships proceeded further to skirt Cape Comorin and reach the east coast ports – all the way upto Bengal.
Today , if one walks the short length of the Roman Forum in Rome and climbs a few steps, one arrives at the column of Trajan. The scenes of the Dacian campaign depicted thereon are so absorbing that the visitor tends to pay scant attention to the ruins of the large building complex across the road. This used to be Trajan’s market. Goods from all over the empire – especially luxury goods – filled this market . It is said that shop-keepers would tell their customers ‘if you can’t find it here, it can’t be bought’. It is also said that goods from India were often purchased at a hundred time the price at which they were originally acquired . The most popular were pepper and other spices, ivory, indigo, conch-shell bangles, and medicinal plants . Fine muslin from the east coast was so much in demand by roman ladies that it was said that one ounce of it sold for one ounce of gold in Rome.
However there were goods produced in parts of India that were even rarer – and costlier. About 250 kilometres east of where I live – in western Maharashtra – lies the small town of Paithan . For several millennia the weavers of this town have specialized in inter-weaving gold and silver strands with silk thread produced in south india. Large quantities of these goods were transported by caravans to the west coast ports mentioned above (except Muziris). Many of the caravan routes and their rock-cut store-houses ( usually near monastery complexes ), are still to be seen around the locality in which I live, and in the entire western Maharashtra region .
South of the state of Maharashtra is Tamilnadu – where extraordinarily gifted iron smelters in the town of Kodumanal were producing refined iron with high carbon content, called ‘wootz steel’, two and a half millennia ago. This steel , imported into Rome and, centuries later into Damascus, produced the world’s finest swords . It had the ability of being forged and folded over several times, and tempered thereafter, to produce the toughest, sharpest swords . On-going excavations at their smelting sites are revealing new information regularly.
image credit : Frontline magazine
Also in the state of Tamilnadu, in the town of Porunthal, there existed at the same time, extraordinarily gifted manufacturers of semi-precious stone jewellery . The raw material – carnelian , agate , amethyst, beryl, onyx, lapis lazuli and more – came from all over India and Afghanistan . They were made into beads in this and other towns, polished, drilled, and strung into chains so fine that some of them had beads less than one and a half millimeter in diameter! Thousands of these beads are being regularly un-earthed during on-going excavations at the sites .
A few years ago I had driven into the state of Kerala from the adjoining state of Tamilnadu, through a pass in the western ghats called the Pallakad gap — the ancient trade route through which the above mentioned goods reached their final destination on the Indian land mass . This was the port of Muziris at the confluence of the Periyar river and the Arabian sea. A half kilometer off the national highway, near the port city of Kochi, remains of this port are today being excavated by the Archeological Survey of India. It was here that the roman ships collected most of the luxury goods in demand in Rome. They returned to the Red sea ports at the end of the monsoon in October / November.
At all the above mentioned sites, are being found considerable quantities of Roman gold coins. It was the value of the gold – not the numismatic value – that purchased the goods. According to Pliny – writer, philosopher and fleet commander in the roman navy – ‘for us and our women, each year a hundred million sesterces are being pumped out of the roman economy into trade markets abroad– nearly half the annual mint output of the empire’. This could not go on indefinitely.
Today times have changed. Skill sets have changed. The roman empire is extinct. India carries on, pretty much the same civilisation it was two millenia ago. In this story lies one of history’s great lessons.
(This blog is the second of a three part series on ‘Indians’ of different parts of the world.Stay posted for the next blog — on the riches of the indians of central America).