How the Roman Empire traded with the Nomads in India

During the last episode in our series on the
economic and trading history of the Roman Empire, we observed the fascinating interactions
between Romans, travelling down from the Red Sea, and the people of the eastern coast of
Africa. As those sailors were casting off to the south, others were preparing to ride
the monsoon winds east. These ancient routes, used for millennia by even the most ancient
civilisations, would eventually lead Rome to make contact with some of the most sophisticated
regions. Welcome to our video on Roman trade in the Northern Indian Kingdoms. Roman vessels bound for the enigmatic and
prosperous lands of India departed their Red Sea bases in the month of July, when seasonal
northerly winds blew down the gulf. From these ports, ships embarked on a 700 mile long initial
voyage to an Arabian port known as Ocelis, where they would rest and recuperate before
moving on. An old manuscript listing ports and harbours – a periplus – describes this
settlement as ‘not so much a port of trade as harbour and a watering station, the first
stopping place for those sailing on’ – a point of view Pliny also verifies. It was
located near the Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb where the Red Sea met the Gulf of Aden, and
was roughly 30 miles south of Muza. The long eastern voyage was initially made
by Greek ships following the coast of Iran in the first century BC; according to the
periplus: ‘men formerly used to sail in smaller vessels, following the curves of the
bay’. However, when later Greek captains charted the shape of India’s coast, they
discovered that shorter open-ocean crossings were possible. Legends emerged that the very
first trans-ocean voyages to India were made and mapped by a sea captain named Hippalos,
and it was for him that the crucial southwest monsoon winds were named. As we once again accompany the Roman ships
on their journey, we see that they usually entered the Gulf of Aden in early August at
the dawn of the southwest monsoon winds. Some ships would follow the Arabian coast as far
as Qana, while others sailed south to the point of the Horn of Africa, and would then
set out into the open ocean from either of these points.
From here, captains and their crews trusted that the monsoon winds would carry them to
their destination. These winds were often incredibly powerful, usually blowing at around
40 miles per hour, but would commonly intensify, increasing to around 60 miles per hour in
speed, and were accompanied by high, overhanging waves. Roman captains making this trip timed
their voyages so that they would arrive in September, spending 2 months in India until
the return winds came in early November. As they approached the subcontinent, Roman merchants
had taken 70 days on their Egypt to India journey and were now roughly 3,000 miles away
from their empire. The famous Indus River was known widely as
the ‘mightiest of all rivers along the Indian Ocean. Its delta’s seven outlets expelled
a vast quantity of freshwater, which Roman pilots could recognise in seawater due to
its pale hue compared to the rest of the ocean water, and the increase in the eel population.
During the first century AD, the Indus region was ruled by a series of Indo-Parthian warlords,
who controlled the main cities in the Sindh region. One of the most well known kings of
this lesser known state was Gondophares. When they reached these lands, Roman ships
moored at a port named Barbaricon on the central mouth of the Indus, but most trade was conducted
further inland, at the royal city of Minnagar. This was the district capital of southern
Indo-Parthia, and the periplus tells us that ‘all cargoes are taken up the river to the
king at the metropolis’ – the ‘metropolis’ being Minnagar. At this stage, as the Roman merchants unloaded
their cargo, they would begin to experience what appears in hindsight to be a sophisticated
and highly organised process of bureaucratic organisation – outlined to us in the arthashastra.
Firstly, Roman cargo unloaded at Barbaricon was assessed and catalogued by a customs officer,
known as the Antapala, or the ‘Officer in Charge of the Boundaries’. This person would
examine the quality of incoming cargo and verify it by stamping his own personal seal
on it. He also collected road and ferry tolls on merchants, kept customs records and maintained
a network of spies to keep information on incoming cargo, and to keep an eye on suspicious
mercantile activity. As the merchants and their cargo arrived at
the grand gates of Minnagar, another official known as the ‘Superintendent of Tolls’
operated a customs station, marked by a distinctive banner which signified his presence. His staff
would, according to the Arthashastra, record ‘who the merchants are, where they come
from, how much merchandise they bring and where they received their first customs seal’.
Details taken at both Barbaricon and Minnagar were routinely compared to ensure taxes were
not being avoided somehow. Goods without a seal mark were likely subject to double tax
rates, while those having counterfeited a seal would have their entire cargo forfeited.
Despite the necessary taxes, natives who imported foreign goods were favoured by having their
taxes cut. Roman merchants visiting the great city at
Indo-Parthian Minnagar offloaded bulk clothing, multicultural textiles and printed cloth.
Dealers also offered products as diverse as expensive storax resin perfumes, crystal clear
glass vessels and expensive silverware for luxury dining. It is interesting to note that
the high demand for Roman glass in Minnagar and the east in general was due to its high
quality and pure nature, whereas glass ornaments produced in India and China were small, heavy
and filled with opaque impurities. Higher value deals were often conducted by
Roman traders with Imperial coinage, extremely high demand red coral or peridot gemstones
known as chrysolithon – or ‘golden stones’. Furthermore, Romans would trade incense products,
which had been obtained on the journey to India when the traders stopped off at trading
centres in Africa and Arabia. The Mediterranean variety of red coral is
worth a more detailed examination, as it is incredibly interesting in many ways. Most
types of this coral would become brittle or discolour when brought to the surface, but
the mediterranean variety did not. To both the Roman people and the populations in India,
Mediterranean red coral had practical, mythical, religious and supernatural ‘uses’ which
increased its desirability. It was, for example, used for things as broad as a decoration for
jewellery and ornaments, an adornment for Celtic swords, and as an amulet which supposedly
protected the wearer from poison. It is said that Roman authorities were amazed at how
much Indians desired this niche good. The Arthashastra even advises rulers to stockpile
this magical substance in the royal treasuries alongside such precious items as pearls, rubies
and diamonds. At the turn of the first century AD, the Indo-Parthian
kingdom’s territory extended north into the Hindu Kush, often receiving trade goods
from both sides of the Himalayan mountains, and from the Bactrian region as trading caravans
left the Central Asian Silk Road. Roman traders could therefore exchange their own goods for
a variety of exotic Indian, Afghan, Iranian, Scythian and Chinese goods at Minnagar.
Perhaps the most important export market in this bustling trade centre involved spices,
aromatics and plant-based drugs. Roman merchants received locally grown Bdellium (a fragrant
resin), Nard (an aromatic amber) and Lyceum from the Himalayas, as well as costus from
Kashmir. From the Silk Road traffic that reached the Indus region, Barbaricon offered valuable
silk from China, as well as exotic animal furs, including mink and sable. Interestingly,
it was a gift of a valuable ‘sable’ fur cloak that the young Genghis Khan gave to
Toghrul as a gift, in order to win his favour. Also received were natively produced indigo
dyes, turquoise stones from Iran and Lapis Lazuli from Afghanistan. Departing Indo-Parthia, Roman ships sailed
hundreds of miles to the south along the coast, heading for a Gujurati port known as Barygaza.
These sea routes were notoriously dangerous for the deep-hulled Roman ships, as the vessels
would routinely run aground on invisible underwater hazards, or would be pulled back and forth
by powerful currents. The port of Barygaza was ruled by a dynasty
of formerly nomadic Saka kings, who swept down onto the Indian subcontinent from their
homeland on the Asian steppe during the first century BC. It it said that in 26BC, while
Augustus was campaigning in Hispania, the Princeps received his first emissaries from
these ‘Indo-Scythian’ peoples. This embassy was sent during a period where the Sakas still
ruled most of the Indus region, but were being progressively threatened by Parthia’s eastern
expansion. Therefore, it is likely that these Saka emissaries came to Augustus seeking a
military alliance, by which they and the Romans could pincer the Parthians from both east
and west. Likely having heard of the former conflict between the two empires, the Saka
probably had the impression that Rome was going to attempt a conquest of Parthia.
This diplomatic mission was likely the product of the last true Indo-Scythian king, known
as Azes, who was also responsible for sending yet another embassy in 22BC. This time, Saka
ambassadors delivered a letter to Augustus which had been written in Greek by Azes himself.
It again asked for an alliance against the Parthians and contained other diplomatic requests.
However, at this point the Romans were concluding peace with Persia and therefore only agreed
to a ‘treaty of friendship’ between themselves and the Indo-Scythian Saka kingdom.
With this embassy came a number of exotic gifts for the Romans, such as a one-armed
Indian youth, a Himalayan Monal Pheasant, and tigers. On top of these extravagances,
a Buddhist or Jain missionary also accompanied the emissaries from India, who sought to establish
a religious site in Rome itself. While this request was denied by Augustus, the missionary
in question remained with Augustus well into 21BC. There were few good quality natural harbours
on India’s western coast and Barygaza was the closest alternative, being roughly 30
miles upstream along the Narmada River. Strong currents, shoals and reefs in the gulf and
in the river made the approach to this centre dangerous for ships, especially those of foreigners
who were not familiar with the local perils. The Saka king Nahapana, who ruled during the
late 1st or early 2nd century, realised these risks, and arranged for local rowing boats
to guide and tow Roman freighters past the sandbanks and other obstacles. This service
was likely paid for by the Roman traders, with the acquired funds going to the royal
treasury. After reaching Barygaza, ships would dock
in the river next to the city and their merchant crews would proceed to trade in the city’s
port district. One of the main commodities which attracted Roman merchants to northern
India was the diverse and plentiful range of colourful, precious gemstones produced
at inland mines. In contrast, only a few mines of this sort existed in the Roman Empire,
and these mines did not produce nearly the quality and variety of gems to satiate the
Roman consumer base’s desire for luxury. Eastern gemstones were prized for their beauty
and expense, and they quickly became an essential feature in widespread Roman fashions. Affluent
Roman women wore gems in their rings, necklaces, earrings, hair clasps, tiaras and much more.
The status garnered by possessing these precious objects was enough that, in the first century
AD, a single rare and costly jewel was enough to attract male attention and draw envy from
other women. However, not all Romans were keen on this
newfangled expensive fad. Clement of Alexandria, for example, criticised ‘foolish women’
who wore such Indian gems, while Martial called it ‘their cunning plunder, levied from us
for the sake of infatuation’. It was not only women who adorned themselves
in these stones – men increasingly wore larger amounts of rings encrusted with eastern gemstones
as an ostentatious status symbol and display of wealth. From engravings on drinking vessels
to ear pendants, the usage of these gemstones was almost endless, justifying their high
price. Further inland from Barygaza was a city that
it served called Minnagara, which was the capital city of the Saka kingdom in Gujurat.
The city’s name might sound familiar, as we did indeed just mention Minnagar in this
Indus Region. This is because the indigenous Indian civilisations called the ‘Saka’
nomads the ‘Min’, and their capitals were therefore known as ‘Minnagara’, or ‘City
of the Min’. When Minnagar on the Indus was eventually captured by the Parthians,
the new capital of Minnagara was created in Gujurat as a replacement.
The Saka kingdom centralised the revered gemstone mines under their control, and placed prohibitions
on private dealers who sought to bring stocks of crystals and gems into designated trade
cities. These measures ensured that foreign merchants were forced to buy precious stones
from Saka government agents, meaning that the revenue would flow into state treasuries.
Valuable goods, including these gemstones, were collected at a secondary royal court
at a city named Ujjain in central India. They were collected as royal tribute there by the
Sakas, and were then sent to Barygaza in order to be sold by state agents to visiting maritime
traders. The periplus explains that ‘From this place – Ujjain – came things that contributed
to the region’s prosperity and supplied trade with us.’
Goods sent the 200 miles from Ujjain to Barygaza included onyx, agate, Indian cotton garments,
and large quantities of cloth. Stocks of cotton and spices, chinese silk yarn, silk cloth,
ivory and precious stones were also taken aboard Roman ships at Barygaza, ready for
transport back to the bustling Roman markets. Also ready for transport back to the Empire
were new crop varieties, which were imported from the Saka-dominated region of India for
their own cultivation. An example of this process was a variety of black, reed-like
stalked millet which was successfully transplanted to Italy, and produced a yield which was far
greater than traditional mediterranean crops. The main export brought by the Romans to Barygaza
was Italian wine, accompanied by Laodicean wine from Asia Minor, and Arabian wine acquired
on their outbound voyage. Lucian – a Syrian satirist, suggested that ‘owing to climate,
when the Indians drink wine they quickly become drunk, and behave twice as mad as any Greek
or Roman’. This unfamiliarity with and sensitivity to wine might be inferred as a lack of much
wine produced natively in India. Other Roman exports to the Saka kingdom included
raw glass, copper, tin and lead, in addition to the aforementioned plain clothing, printed
fabrics, red coral, and peridot gemstones, which were also exported to the Suren Kingdom
of Indo-Parthia. The Saka would also encourage Roman traders
to exchange their Imperial money to the state for native Indian coins before they did business.
This was because the Roman Empire was rich in precious metals such as gold and silver,
and Roman currency was considered a reliable one throughout Eurasia. Roman Denarii were
therefore minted on a pure silver standard, and Aureii – gold coins – were issued in solid
gold. By contrast, most Indian kingdoms, though
they were prosperous in terms of exotix trade goods, had no gold coinage, and their silver
currency was often impure and contained a large portion of base metals. Saka rulers
therefore imposed favourable currency exchange rates for Roman merchants in order to draw
these precious metals from the Roman economy, and to enrich the silver reserves of their
own kingdom. During his reign, King Nahapana began to mint
new Saka coins with a superior silver content, and modern metal analysis has verified that
these coins were minted from silver melted down from Roman Denarii. Therefore, trade
with India increased the continual drain of silver from the Roman economy, one of the
negative impacts of international trade which ran parallel to the many positives. We are planning to make more videos on the
Roman economy, so make sure you are subscribed to our channel and have pressed the bell button.
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100 thoughts on “How the Roman Empire traded with the Nomads in India”

  1. Roses are red, violets are blue, become our patron, so you can get the early access, too:
    I am sorry.

  2. Amazing video, thanks for making. Did the traders all use Greek as language to conduct trade in? Did they use interpreters or did they Speak and Write in Greek themselves?

  3. This video held and kept my attention like my best college lecturer did; refreshing indeed and I learned thinks I never thought about before.

  4. Not to insult your channel, but I do not like the artwork for these non-battle videos. It’s too simple, dark and crude, especially when compared to the art of the battle analysis videos. Oh, and the Gökturk video was awful in that regard! Several of the persons in that video were in (what looked like to me) ahistorical clothing/armor. And many of the characters looked like they were from the Middle East, rather than North Asia!

  5. Love the great detail about the tradegoods and bureaucracy (and the coral.. etc.)! Great video!

  6. These videos are amazing, a big fan of antiquity and videos of this quality on niche subjects like this are unfortunately rare, please keep it up

  7. I believe that hemp añd cannabis was first traded in large quantities at this time, not being widespread in Europe at the time.

  8. I love these economic vids. I wonder if you'll ever trick us and have a battle break out suddenly near the end. Seriously tho, awesome content that provides rare context and detail.

  9. Guess what Ujjain still exists, exactly where the Romans used to trade. It's one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on Earth. It's a thriving city of millions of people now. Fascinating isn't it !!! A city which traded with people who were roaming Rome when Pliny was giving his speeches there.

  10. (Hears Ghandi's theme from Civ 5)


  11. Liked the work so much.
    But I don't get the idea of setting Rome as the center of your stories. Didn't other nations have Kings and Generals?

  12. What an excellent video thank you. By the way I know ancient greek and that text you showed from the emissary to Augustus at 10:26 is the begining of a poem probably the Odyssey not an actual diplomatic document.

  13. This one was extremely nice..
    Please also do documentaries on the trade of medieval italian republics, like venice, genoa, pisa and amalfi…

  14. Best seagulls shrieks of the entire YT sphere! Love this series.
    Wait a sec, a one-armed Indian youth was considered an exotic gift? Maybe some sort of "token" of friendship then? Don't know the message behind this to be honest.

  15. Thank you for going into details of the Roman merchant and trade. They were a huge part of what made Rome the power it was, but little of it is covered. Rome wasn't just wealthy from conquest, they were hugely successful traders as well.

  16. I sucked in some breath when you talked about India and started saying "designated…". Because I was expecting something else.

  17. So versatile the channel jas become. You guys should really get some special prize from YT for your educational effort. Thanks for yet another great informative video!

  18. It was a nice video to watch, but does the title really fit? Yes, the rulers of the realms were or were the desentdents of nomads, but since they settled down…
    Better name it Roman-Indian Trade Part 2. ^^

  19. When I've read "trade with the nomads" I imagined that we were talking about the Eurasian Scythian tribes. Weird to see India and Indo-Parthia being denominated as such

  20. Why the fk we weren't taught all this!!? All we know is Taj Mahal and Mahatma Gandhi and rest of the history in maybe 2 pages.

  21. I wonder, even with diesel powered cargo ships today, a following wind would reduce fuel costs, so do the logistics of container companies use these winds and factor them into their scheduling?

  22. Can you please do a video on the great Maratha empire ? (1674 – 1818) which made Mughals their puppet and ruled 80% of India in the late 18th century before the arrival of the British and the Marathas even defeated the British twice in the first and second Anglo-Maratha wars before finally got conquered by the Brits in 1818.

  23. Ahhh India, now all they are known for is the 80 scam Indian phone calls received daily trying to scam elderly people. How far they have fallen.

  24. Please guy's create more content like these. It's realy refreashing and useful to hear about trade, economy, technologies, state organization… We had a lot battle's. Let's see what fueld armies, empires, what is that worth fighting for?!
    (sorry for bit bad english)

  25. Has always, your video make me wonder why no one have your level of accuracy when the do historic video. Good work my friend.

  26. Wow man, it is your niche to make videos about specific and narrow topic in history that you make them so professional and colorful! If I were a history teacher in middle or high school, I would show your videos in my classes, of course with your permission and copyright 😀 Keep it up! I enjoyed this video and awed on illustrations, music (especially whispering in spy moment), and most important abundance of information that I longed to know when I was at history classes (because they told us what they traded, but never showed how it looked like) thank you man ?

  27. Loving these videos on ancient economies. It's nice to see history (especially ancient history) approached from a non-military/political perspective. As in, events other than constant warfare actually took place.

  28. Great content and work as always. However I should note that At 1:38 and at 10:30 The Periplus an after the letter of Azes is just a presentation not the actual words of since it is the Beginning paragraph of the Odyssey.

  29. Excuse me? Romans traded with tamils in South India, who speak the oldest language on earth and we're never conquered by the steppe Invaders… India was more than a bunch of steppe barbarians, and the goods of North and South India were traded across southeast Asia, East Africa, and the Mediterranean… The influence of the Tamil kingdoms was much more than some steppe tribes and their raiding… Please do not disrespect what was historically the richest nation on earth, historically a land of great trade…

  30. Oh hell yes! I love these videos on trade and economics.

    If you guys could ever make a video on Venetian trade, that would be amazing!

  31. Haha do you have any respect. How you mentioned nomad of india or nomadic king.
    There are much older civilization from roman

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