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Book Review


Federico De Romanis and Marco Maiuro, eds., Across the Ocean: Nine Essays on Indo-Mediterranean Trade. Columbia Studies in the Classical Tradition 41. Leiden: Brill, 2015. Pp. ix + 204. Bibliography and Index. $128.00 (hardcover).


     This collection of essays is derived from a conference entitled "A Tale of Two Worlds" held at Columbia University in March 2011. The conference aimed to consider the ancient Mediterranean trade with the Indian Ocean in a comparative perspective. The editors begin with a useful overview of the historiography of Indo-Roman trade, emphasizing how the debate over the economic significance of this trade to the Roman Empire came to be shaped by considerations of the supposedly qualitatively and quantitatively more advanced European trade in the Indian Ocean in the early modern period. The editors urge a revivification of comparative studies; hence this collection presents a group of studies on ancient trade in the Red Sea with an additional section of essays on the medieval and early modern trade in the Indian Ocean. The contributions to this volume make use of increasingly available data from papyri and epigraphy, which allows a more quantitative approach in some cases. This procedure enhances the prospects for comparative research on trade in the Indian Ocean area and has resulted in a collection of stimulating papers and a thoughtful afterword by Elio Lo Cascio. I shall briefly consider each contribution in turn.

     Andrew Wilson, "Red Sea Trade and the State." Wilson's paper should help put to rest once and for all the idea that foreign trade was relatively unimportant to the Roman Empire. Wilson argues, in part on the basis of the Muziris papyrus (P. Vindob. G 40822), that the customs revenue generated by the Red Sea trade with India was very significant for the Roman Empire. The high cost for maintenance of infrastructure along the desert roads between the Nile and the Red Sea can be explained by the even greater profits the state reaped on goods brought by private merchants who traveled more securely thanks to state investment. The disposition of these roads also stemmed from the government's procedures for revenue collection. The decline of these roads in the 3rd century resulted from the inability of the Roman state to secure them, and ports at the northern end of the Red Sea were subsequently favored.

     Jean-Jacques Aubert, "Trajan's Canal: River Navigation from the Nile to the Red Sea?" Aubert reviews the evidence for navigation along canals from the Nile to the Red Sea in antiquity. If a canal existed, Aubert reasons, why did the much more arduous desert routes continue in use for commerce with the Red Sea? He argues that the nature of the ancient canal connecting the Nile and the Gulf of Suez is misunderstood; it depended on the changing geology and hydrology of the Nile delta and relied on a high Nile flood which was only present during a portion of the year; this season did not correspond at all with a favorable time for sailing in the Red Sea. Thus Trajan's iteration of this canal may have been intended principally for irrigation and local transportation.

     Katia Schörle, "Pearls, Power, and Profit: Mercantile Networks and Economic Considerations of the Pearl Trade in the Roman Empire." While pearls from the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean were celebrated in Roman literature, Schörle argues for significant pearling in the Red Sea as well. In addition, she proposes that Red Sea pearl production and commerce was vertically integrated, with mercantile networks operated by elite Italian merchants and based in Italy handling the entire organization of this particular aspect of the pearl trade.

     Dario Nappo, "Roman Policy on the Red Sea in the Second Century CE." Nappo affirms the presence of a Roman fleet in the Red Sea from the time of Augustus. He argues that the reign of Trajan began a period of significant Roman efforts to consolidate their hold on the Red Sea. He proposes that Trajan's annexation of provincia Arabia and his efforts on the Nile to Red Sea canal suggest that Trajan sought to better integrate the Red Sea into the Roman economic system. Nappo makes use of recently discovered epigraphic evidence of a Roman detachment (vexillatio) from the Farasan Islands, showing that it indicates the depths of Roman commitment to the region in the second century.

     Taco Terpstra, "Roman Trade with the Far East: Evidence for Nabataean Middlemen in Puteoli." The Nabataeans are mostly thought of in terms of their trade networks of Arabian aromatic resins within the Near East and their city of Petra. Terpstra's paper argues for a more extensive Nabataean presence in the Mediterranean. He surveys the epigraphic evidence for Nabataeans and Nabataean religion, providing a handy table of known inscriptions. Based on the comparatively numerous inscriptions found at Puteoli, he proposes that Nabataean representatives lived as settlers in this city of the Italian peninsula for the purposes of facilitating trade. He suggests that this system of settlers was not exclusive to the Nabataeans, but rather represents their adaptation to local business practices.

     Harry Falk, "Indian Gold Crossing the Indian Ocean through the Millennia." In this paper on metrology, Falk shows that the weight standards of South Asia had relationships with the standards of the Near East and Mediterranean. The Egyptian measure for gold is identical to the Harappan; Falk argues that this is because both exported gold to Mesopotamia. Falk finds parallels between Harappan and Vedic methods of counting weight and shows connections with Mesopotamia. He also argues that the reason that the Kushan gold standard introduced by Vima Kadphises is linked to that of Augustus despite the time lag and subsequent debasement of Roman gold is that Vima Kadphises sought to identify his rule with that of the successful Augustus. Falk's evidence illustrates the dynamic and important connections of ancient South Asia with the Near East and Mediterranean.

     Jairus Banaji, "'Regions that Look Seaward': Changing Fortunes, Submerged Histories, and the Slow Capitalism of the Sea." Banaji's article begins with a survey, based on literary and archaeological evidence, of the ports of South Asia from the first century CE Periplus Maris Erythraei and other Roman sources through Islamic times; unfortunately, he does not provide a map. He argues for continuity of commercial relations by region within South Asia into Islamic times and beyond, despite shifting fortunes of individual ports. Another focus of Banaji's paper is on the trading communities and merchants who conducted Indian Ocean trade. He argues that the South Asian trading communities were effectively merchant capitalists, thus characterizing the trade of the Indian Ocean as a precursor to capitalism.

     Federico De Romanis, "Comparative Perspectives on the Pepper Trade." This important paper compares quantitative data and other accounts of the pepper trade in Roman and Early Modern times and finds many broad similarities. Through his reading of both Roman and Early Modern European sources, De Romanis establishes that the Romans must have used both large and small ships carrying a very high proportion of pepper in their cargoes on the voyage from India. On the basis of recent readings of the Muziris papyrus, he argues that the Hermapollon, a large Roman ship, carried about 620 tons of pepper. De Romanis also considers the impact of the pepper trade on the lands where it was produced; he argues against the household production of pepper in the hinterland of the Western Ghats in favor of large-scale production there, which transformed agriculture within Malabar into a plantation system.

     Martha Howell, "Into the East: European Merchants in Asian Markets during the Early Modern Period." Howell begins her paper with a survey of the entry of European merchants in the Indian Ocean and Asia and then focuses on her main subject: the reasons for the success of the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC). She argues that the success of the VOC in dominating Indian Ocean and Asian trade during the 17th and 18th centuries stemmed from four areas: their own mercantile history, the special nature of the business partnership of the VOC, the brutality of the VOC, and their business model.

The contributions to this book successfully highlight the economic and cultural importance of Indo-Mediterranean commerce in Roman times and offer some significant comparative perspectives as well. It is unfortunate that the period between antiquity and early modern times does not receive more attention in the book. (This may not have been the case at the conference, to judge by the editors' remarks in the introduction.) While the importance of commercial continuity in the Islamic period is acknowledged by the editors in the introduction, no paper other than Banaji's deals with this period, and it is not his focus either. Yet medievalists are making significant advances in the history of Indian Ocean trade in the Islamic period, particularly in light of the vast trove of data from the Cairo Geniza and increasingly available papyri and other documents in Arabic. The casual reader of the book might get the impression that this was not the case.

     In sum, this is a collection of useful and significant papers which should certainly be read by anyone interested in ancient trade and the Indian Ocean. In general, the contributions are perhaps too involved for use by all but the most advanced undergraduates, but their teachers may read this collection with profit. This book contains a wealth of information of great significance for the understanding of ancient trade. Scholars working on later periods may also find this volume's papers and avowed comparative approach useful for their research, but the contributions on later periods are unfortunately fewer though often no less important. The book has one collected bibliography at the end, making the short citations used less convenient for quick consultation. It has a helpful index of sources along with a general index of subjects.

Anya King is an Associate Professor of History at University of Southern Indiana. You may reach her at


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