They travelled to make money

Print edition : April 23, 2010

Steven E. Sidebotham.-

Steven E. Sidebotham, Professor of Classical Archaeology and Ancient History at Delaware, is an authority on commercial and cultural contacts between the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean basins from the fourth century B.C. to the seventh century A.D., the period that saw the rise and demise of Muziris. The publication in India of his teams 2009 excavations at Bernike has coincided with the launch of the fourth season of excavations at Pattanam.

In this e-mail interview, he talks about some of the interesting facets of the links between the two ancient worlds, represented by Muziris and Berenike.

How crucial are the archaeological excavations at Pattanam to an understanding of the Indian Ocean trade during the Roman period?

Very important! If Pattanam is Muziris (and I think most specialists now believe that it is), then we have located and identified one of the most important ancient (Roman-era) ports on the west coast of India. Its identification should allow us to locate other ancient ports as well because the Periplus Maris Erythraei (a first century A.D. sailing guide to the ports, products and cultures of the ancient Red Sea and Indian Ocean ports) provides distances among the various ancient ports. We should, thus, be able to locate some of the other ports on Indias west coast, places like Nelkinda, for example.

Do we have evidence of Arabs or those from the coastal regions of India (especially the Malabar coast) using the monsoon winds for Indian Ocean travel and trade, before the Romans? Moreover, after the decline of the Red Sea ports, do you think those from the Middle East or other parts could have filled the vacuum left by the Romans in the Indian Ocean?

Yes, we do on both questions. We know Arabs and others used the monsoons well before the Romans and that people from the kingdoms of Southern Arabia, from the African kingdom of Aksum and others conducted this trade for centuries after the Romans. Evidence from Ayubbid and Mameluk (12th-15th centuries A.D.) levels at Quseir al-Qadim (the ancient Myos Hormos) shows, in fact, that this trade extended as far as China.

Except for evidence that suggests Roman links with South India in general, and Sri Lanka, is there anything to prove Roman links with Muziris in particular?

Yes, lots of pottery. Our ceramic specialist (Dr Roberta Tomber, now at the British Museum) indicates that well over 1,000 sherds of Mediterranean-made amphoras (storage and shipment jars) have been documented from the excavations at Pattanam.

This makes Pattanam the most prolific site in terms of the numbers of Mediterranean-made (that is, Roman-era-manufactured) sherds of any site in India thus far.

Do you think ships were ever built in Muziris/Malabar coast for the traders of Berenike?

Yes. We have the remains of numerous teak timbers with cuttings in them (indicating that they formed parts of ships) that were recycled in the walls of some of the late Roman buildings at Berenike. Teak is from your part of the world. So, at least ship repair, if not actual shipbuilding, took place there in Roman times.

Did Romans visit Muziris or the Malabar coast? Or do you think they employed sailors and slaves from other regions for travel to and trade with Indian Ocean regions?

Yes, the Periplus Maris Erythraei [document noted above] is very clear about Yavana ships (in this case Roman, not Persian) arriving in the Periyar river to trade for sacks of pepper on a regular basis. No doubt they used local pilots to assist their transit up tricky river systems in western India.

Eventually, of course, those sailing frequently between the Red Sea and the western coast of India would have come to know the waters off your coasts quite well.

The Peutinger Map mentions a temple of Augustus near Muziris, which is yet to be found. But what does a temple named after a Roman emperor near Muziris suggest? Were such temples common in those times? Would it indicate the presence of a Roman colony /settlement/ trading post at Muziris?

Lots have been written about this. Templus Augusti (in Latin) is what the Peutinger Table records. However, this could be a misspelling for some local Indian deity. If, however, it is not a misspelling and does indicate some temple to the Roman ruler here, it would be not to a specific Roman emperor, but to the Roman emperor in general.

Such altars and temples to the Roman emperor are known from regions outside the Roman Empire in Parthian territory in Mesopotamia.

Do we have a theory on what those South Indians were doing in Berenike?

No doubt they were there to conduct business. They travelled to make money!

A note: The Peutinger Table is a medieval copy of an ancient Roman road map showing Muziris and other areas in the Malabar coast.

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