The cover of Kasper Evers’ new book displays the image of a well-known Indian ivory discovered at Pompeii superimposed on a map of the Indian subcontinent. The ivory has long been hailed as evidence of an interconnected ancient world, albeit as an outlier of a largely luxury trade of gold, spices, and gems, but the female represented (as Evers discusses at length, pp. 22–36) has long been misunderstood: it is often called Lakshmi, despite the fact that her iconography is not at all comparable to that of the Indian goddess. The map (one of 16 Google Earth images appended to this book) has labels identifying significant emporia and the commercial routes connecting them by land and sea. Image and map together represent neatly two approaches to the study of what has been termed “Indo-Roman” trade, one entangled in the semantics of luxury and the tyranny of distance, the other with an eye to the global, the quantitative, and the promises of the digital. It is a field ripe for innovation.
Evers’ work, a published version of his 2016 Copenhagen dissertation, seeks to move the discussion of Indian Ocean commerce in a new direction. His “bottom-up” approach, explained in the Introduction and first two chapters, challenges the narrative of “Indo-Roman” trade gleaned from textual sources of Roman (and to a lesser extent Indian) elites by focusing on the Roman demand for Indian Ocean products and tracing the specific organizations of individuals involved in the long-distance commerce that supplied it. Evers builds on the recent surge of interest in corporate associations and trader networks in Roman economic history, extending this treatment through space and time, covering six centuries of the ancient world. He treats in depth the business associations and partnerships involved in the trade, processing, and sale of Indian Ocean commodities, ranging from the Roman collegium to the Egyptian koinon to the Indian śreṇi and nigama. In so doing, the author displays an impressive command not only of epigraphic sources pertinent to the organization of long-distance trade, but also of recent archaeological evidence, such as the finds from the Egyptian port of Berenike and the recently published Hoq cave graffiti from the Yemeni island of Socotra.1 Along the way, the reader is treated to epigraphic boons, including an English translation of a collegium inscription from Trastevere (CIL 6.33885; pp. 19–20) and a very welcome critical reassessment of the epigraphy at Buddhist sites in western India (pp. 158–162).2
The author makes some very provocative claims: he suggests that much of the initial use of New Institutional Economics in the study of the ancient economy merely dressed Moses Finley in the guise of Douglass North (p. 8),3 and that despite much of the focus in studies of trading groups on their ability to self-regulate and punish malpractice, the carrots offered by these associations often worked more effectively than their sticks (pp. 66–67). He offers a more conservative reading of the Muziris Papyrus at a moment when scholarly attention has turned to reconstructing its lacunae (pp. 99–109), and while some of his readings are probably too restrictive, his caution is welcome. Perhaps most important is Evers’ repeated claim that the label “Indo-Roman” not only incorporates the colonial framework of British scholarship under the Raj, but drastically oversimplifies the image of ancient trade: “India” was not one entity, and it incorporated (as did other areas of Asia) sufficiently complex economies and corporate structures to finance and operate transoceanic trading ventures on their own initiative. This effort to bring Indian associations in particular into a more balanced dialogue with their Roman and Near Eastern counterparts stands as one of the most significant aspects of this book.
Evers achieves a great deal in this volume; he also opens important avenues for future research. The author’s narrative reveals not one “Rome” trading with one “India,” but rather a patchwork of different trading ventures and organized communities, each with its own priorities and meticulously cultivated networks.4 Evers aims to create a balanced discussion of trader organization, but the overall “west to east narrative” (p. 2) of the work still seems to place too much emphasis on Rome: it suggests that Roman demand emanated from the urban sensibilities at Rome and its skilled craftsmen and vendors (Chapter 3–4), and spread widely to provincial centers of consumption (Chapter 5); that in turn prompted a steady supply guaranteed by corporate bodies throughout the eastern Mediterranean and Near East (Chapter 6–7), and most importantly, in India (Chapter 8). One wonders whether this ventures too close to a form of “Indo-Roman” trade under another label—one of Roman dominance through market forces, rather than direct control over Indian resources at trading stations in India (as assumed by the likes of Warmington and Wheeler).5 This implicit emphasis on the Roman side appears also in Evers’ less thorough treatment of Indian evidence (and scholarship),6 and while the Indian agents of commerce have their day in this work—no small feat—perhaps an even more balanced view of the trade requires treating Western and Indian evidence side-by-side, with careful consideration of just why such comparison is necessary.
The bottom-up approach of the work is designed to serve as a corrective to the top-down narratives supplied by textual sources; Evers therefore confidently dismisses the politics of trade. However, much still needs to be done to articulate the role of the state in international commerce, and it is unwise to throw aside the infrastructure and security frameworks provided by states, much of which lowered transaction costs for long-distance trading ventures. The author quickly passes over ways in which the state may have been quite visible even from a bottom-up perspective: the role of the familia Caesaris in the shipment of supplies in Egypt, including wine for export (pp. 123–124); the collection of the Tetarte tariff in-kind by contracted publicani in Egypt and the increasing role of procuratorial agencies in this collection at the expense of tax-farmers (pp. 110–111); the political title kṣatrapa (not to be conflated with the ethnonym śaka, as on p. 154) present in graffiti on the island of Socotra (p. 137); and the way in which traders served their “Tamil masters” in long-distance ventures, in what we might assume to be a form of Polanyian administered trade (pp. 164–171, 175).7
That is not to say that the state burdened itself with actually transporting Indian Ocean goods—especially in the context of their distribution in the Roman provinces, Evers’ case for private commerce is quite convincing. Nevertheless, we should further investigate the relationship between trade under imperial contract (e.g., the annona, military provisions to the frontiers, etc.) and that of low-weight, but high-value commodities available from the Indian Ocean network, which seem to have occurred side-by-side or even in the same shipments. Further consideration on the interplay between the state and commerce on the Indian side of things, beyond the brief consideration of the normative precepts of the Arthaśāstra (pp. 148–150) and the potential role of tax-farming (p. 145), would also be welcome.8 It is here among other places that top-down and bottom-up approaches messily collide.
Corporations operating at the edges of the western Indian Ocean, involved in the movement of raw materials and their manufacture into final products, can now be linked to the transmission of visual motifs across vast geographic distances, as Evers convincingly shows for ivory furniture adornments in Chapter 3. Especially tantalizing is the spread of intaglio techniques for working Indian gemstones, whether it be technologies (such as the spread of diamond-tipped drills, p. 53) or certain motifs transmitted by Mediterranean or northern Indian artists across the Indian Ocean (pp. 168–170). Following this lead, we may even be able to link similar artistic industries associated with this commerce otherwise viewed in isolation—namely, the carvers of gems and the cutters of coin-dies—or even cross-media translations through such artistic engagement in these contact-zones (as recently explored by Elizabeth Rosen Stone at the Buddhist stupa at Amaravati).9
At the same time, even in a bottom-up approach there is a risk of ignoring the individual in favor of the collective, with traders merely becoming automata of corporate bodies, the machines that followed the monsoon winds before an age of true mechanization. But traders had stomachs; they held tenets of faith and cultural prerogatives; they possessed social relationships outside their collegium or śreṇi or less-formalized commercial affiliations. They also found innovative ways to disseminate information over vast distances, often thanks to multilingualism.10 Trader graffiti serve as a source of positive evidence for trading activities throughout the work, but we should look to these forms of writing as part of explicit communicative strategies. Thus, while Evers has certainly populated the world of transoceanic trade with human agents, and alludes to many of these considerations in passing, much can still be done to tease out the “micro-strategies” of organization, which were employed together with the corporate structures at the heart of this work.11
Evers states his case with an engaging prose, and the few editorial lapses do little to hamper his argument. In a relatively short space (176 pages of text) the author has provided a concise and firm basis for future inquiry. He has commendably outlined the organization of commerce throughout the ancient world and whittled away the old ways of viewing transoceanic long-distance trade in antiquity from the Mediterranean perspective alone. With the death of a label, “Indo-Roman,” we can now address the bigger picture: the history of Indian Ocean commodities trafficked by these groups, and the lives of the human beings they transformed.
1. Sidebotham, S. 2011. Berenike and the ancient maritime spice route. Berkeley; Strauch, I. (ed.). 2012. Foreign sailors on Socotra: the inscriptions and drawings from the cave Hoq. Bremen.
2. Since the author provides a photograph taken from a visit to the caitya hall at Karle, which contains the inscriptions made by yavanas (or “westerners”) so central to his case, one wonders why he did not provide photographs of the inscriptions themselves—especially in that he (rightly) challenges the corrective readings of the great Indian epigraphers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
3. Finley, M. 1999 . The Ancient Economy. Updated with a new Forward by Ian Morris. Berkeley; North, D. C. 1990. Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance. Cambridge.
4. The subtitle of the author’s dissertation (the organization of long-distance trade between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean), in fact, gets closer to the view outlined in the book—namely an interregional trade between the Mediterranean Basin and the Indian subcontinent.
5. Warmington, E. H. 1928. The Commerce between the Roman Empire and India. Cambridge; Wheeler, R. E. M. 1954. Rome beyond the Imperial Frontiers. London.
6. E.g., a passing reference to Kālidāsa’s Raghuvaṃśa without immediate context (p. 35). H. P. Ray, whose many works on ancient Indian business associations and maritime trade underpin much of the Indian material in this book, receives little explicit treatment outside of footnotes.
7. Polanyi, K. 1971 . “The Economy as Instituted Process.” In K. Polanyi et al. (eds.), Trade and Market in the Early Empires. Chicago.
8. The political scene in western India is only mentioned briefly on pp. 28–29 and 44; elsewhere, the political history is explicitly left unexamined (e.g., p. 151).
9. Rosen Stone, E. 2016. “Reflections of Roman Art in Southern India.” In A. Shimada and M. Willis (eds.), Amaravati: The Art of an Early Buddhist Monument in Context. London.
10. For such an approach, one might look at Talbert, R. and F. Naiden (eds.). 2017. Mercury’s Wings: Exploring Modes of Communication in the Ancient World. Oxford.
11. For instance, food importation and acquisition of provisions by traders to Egypt and India are mentioned in passing (e.g., pp. 127 and 165), but mainly as positive evidence for the presence trading communities abroad. The movement of other family members of traders receive similar passing treatment (p. 125).