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Rome and the Indian Ocean: The Classical World in a Global Context

By Craig Wright | 28 Nov 2021 | Economics

Scholarly Review

De Romanis, F. (2015). Comparative Perspectives on the Pepper Trade. F. De Romanis and M. Maiuro (eds.), Across the Ocean: Nine Chapters on Indo-Mediterranean Trade., 127–150. Leiden: Brill.

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De Romanis’ analysis of the Roman pepper trade was published following the compilation of materials presented at the conference at Columbia University in March 2011. The results of the conference, culminating in A Tale of Two Worlds: Comparative Perspectives on Indo-Mediterranean Commerce, had led to a study documenting the Mediterranean pepper trade through the use of an analysis of source evidence of the sixteenth century and Roman trade documents of the first century. Frederico De Romanis (2015) begins with a comprehensive analysis of the Portuguese pepper trade in the sixteenth century. Using an analysis of existing source documents from the period, the author recreates an economic model of the ship inventories and trade impediments, one that arguably provides an unparalleled analysis of the Indian and Roman pepper trade.

            The author has combined fragmentary evidence of trade tally data obtained from the Muziris papyrus and compared it to the trade practice of the sixteenth century (De Romanis, 2015). The evidence on the papyrus is suggestive of goods being exchanged for a rate of 24 or 6 Egyptian drachmae per mina (De Romanis, 2015). The paper is conservative, preferring to use the lower figure and resulting in a cargo manifest of up to 554 metric tons of pepper. Pliny (NH 12.14) is noted to have said that the pepper price of the first century consisted of four dēnāriī per Roman pound (329 grams). Pliny’s price is close enough in value to 24 Egyptian drachmae per mina, matching the price presented by Federico Morelli (De Romanis, 2015; Prange, 2011).

            The author creates a comparison based on the differing commodities complementing Roman and Portuguese pepper cargoes, noting that while Portuguese pepper cargoes were supplemented with other spices, the most voluminous commodity after pepper carried by Roman ships were the leaves of tamāla (malabathron), that were sourced from the Ganges valley (De Romanis, 2015). Although the author ignores the differences in ancillary cargoes, it is noted that many commonalities existed between the Roman trade and the Portuguese trade. The analysis of ships is extended using primary sources such as the Periplus Maris Erythraei (or Periplus of the Erythraean Sea), which documents the use of large ships in the merchant trade with Limyrikê.

            The analysis would require that Roman merchant ships of a size equivalent to later Portuguese galleons existed and were regularly used. De Romanis blends a combination of fictional tales from Philostratus that noted very large ships with existing scholarship documenting the extensive size of ‘Egyptian’ Indiamen, noting that some of them held an amount of cargo equivalent to several ships in tonnage. The correction in the reading of the Muziris papyrus noted by De Romanis is argued to result in something significantly different from the values traded at the time for other commodities, including ivory (De Romanis, 2015). When then compared using the analysis of trade cargo of the sixteenth century, the author’s suggested quantities seem sound.

            A further assumption would necessitate export levels and consumption rates similar to ones found in sixteenth-century Europe. Given such conditions, a total merchant navy consisting of only ten to twelve ships would be required. Such vessels would be engaged in a continual commercial-scale conveyance dedicated to the pepper trade (Warmington, 2014). De Romanis continues with the argument that Roman trade in the first century CE followed a path similar if not parallel to that of the Portuguese trade during the first decades of the sixteenth century (De Romanis, 2015; Goitein, 1954). Noteably, De Romanis demonstrates how pepper production in the Indian Highlands may be assumed to have followed a similar development path and production level in both periods (De Romanis, 2015).

            The pepper production from the sixteenth century to the eighteenth century was formed through a predominantly localised system, where each household produced enough for its consumption, and sold any extra to purchase foodstuffs, treating pepper as currency. The idea is supported by scholarship looking at the hunter-gatherer peoples and the production that would have existed. It is noted that production is thus stimulated through external demand (Morrison & Junker, 2002). De Romanis uses the accounts of Philostratus and Fra Paolino to demonstrate the position that the early modern age involved prodigious exchanges and trade of pepper that required large seagoing vessels and the forest dwellers of the Western Ghats (De Romanis, 2015).

            Although the construction of such an economic trade system is feasible, some scholars have raised concerns and provided alternatives (Warmington, 2014). Early scholarship concerning the trade routes with India and Rome focused on the cotton trade (Mann, 1860). Such cotton trade has been the subject of later scholarship, too. Yet, the majority of the trade is said to come from areas vastly distinct from India (Wild, J.P., Wild, F.C., & Clapham, 2008). Although extensive evidence of trade between India and Rome exists, determining what produce was exchanged remains difficult (Suresh, 2004). But, as Matthew Fitzpatrick noted, even if Roman concepts of trade do not match Adam Smith’s notions, they undoubtedly follow an economic process (Fitzpatrick, 2011). The author’s own scholarship has continued to provide further evidence supporting his thesis (De Romanis, 2020).

            The first-century Periplus of the Erythraean Sea contains reports from its Greek writer saying that the majority of vessels reached as far as the “Strand” in Southern India, opening the possibility that such trade was not for pepper but could have involved cotton (McLaughlin, 2010).

Other questions remain unanswered, such as whether sanctions were imposed in Rome or Alexandria. Additionally, Dutch and Portuguese trading ships were designed to traverse the southern African Capes, requiring a design that allowed them to survive longer and more rigorous voyages. Consequently, they present a difference in terms of the trade routes and the design of ships that needs to be explored further.

            The chapter provides an excellent introduction to the commercial practices in Rome concerned with the pepper trade. Although the evidence is insufficient, it helps provide an ideal framework and hypothesis for further investigation. The argument presented is inferential, but remains tied to unproven premises. Although warranting significant further investigation, the thesis of the paper remains unproven. Yet, pepper and aromatics had become necessities for the Roman way of life (Tomber & Simpson, 2008). The author recognised that because of the secrecy surrounding the trade of goods such as pearls and precious stones, it has come to be challenging to assess the overall economic impact of both the Roman and the Portuguese trade with India.


De Romanis, F. (2015). Comparative Perspectives on the Pepper Trade. F. De Romanis and M. Maiuro (eds.), Across the Ocean: Nine Chapters on Indo-Mediterranean Trade., 127–150. Leiden: Brill.

De Romanis, F. (2020). The Indo-Roman Pepper Trade and the Muziris Papyrus. Oxford University Press.

Fitzpatrick, M. P. (2011). Provincializing Rome: The Indian Ocean trade network and Roman imperialism. Journal of World History, 22, 27–54.

Goitein, S. D. (1954). From the Mediterranean to India: Documents on the trade to India, South Arabia, and East Africa from the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Speculum29(2, Part 1), 181–197.

Mann, J. A. (1860). On the Cotton Trade of India [with Discussion]. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland17, 346–387.

McLaughlin, R. (2010). Rome and the distant east: Trade routes to the ancient lands of Arabia, India and China. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Morrison, K. D. & Junker, L. L. (eds.). (2002). Forager-traders in south and southeast Asia: long-term histories. Cambridge University Press.

Prange, S. R. (2011). ‘Measuring by the bushel’: Reweighing the Indian Ocean pepper trade. Historical Research84(224), 212–235.

Suresh, S. (2004). Symbols of trade: Roman and pseudo-Roman objects found in India. Delhi: Manohar.

Tomber, R. & Simpson, A. (2008). Indo-Roman trade: From pots to pepper. Duckworth.

Warmington, E. H. (2014). The commerce between the Roman Empire and India. Cambridge University Press.

Wild, J. P., Wild, F. C., & Clapham, A. J. (2008). Roman cotton revisited. C. Alfaro & L.

Karali (eds), Vestidos, Textiles y Tintes. Purpurae Vestes II., 143–7.