Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.09.54 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.09.54

Matthew Adam Cobb (ed.), The Indian Ocean Trade in Antiquity: Political, Cultural, and Economic Impacts.   London; New York:  Routledge, 2018.  Pp. xi, 237.  ISBN 9781138738263.  £115.00​.  

Reviewed by Matt Gibbs, University of Winnipeg (


Matthew Adam Cobb’s edited collection, based on a panel held at the Ninth Celtic Conference in Classics in 2016, considers the “impact of the Indian Ocean trade on various societies in the age of Antiquity” (1). Given the time frame considered here—roughly from 300 BCE–700 CE (and much later, in fact, in chapter eight)—this is a bold project, melding interdisciplinary analyses from Classics, Near Eastern Studies, and South Asian Studies, as well as various methodological approaches. But it is certainly a timely one too. As Cobb notes (1–2), there has been a burgeoning interest in Indian Ocean Studies across all historical periods. Given the expanding range of evidence from ancient Indian, East African, and several Arabian sites, academics from a range of disciplines are now in a position to ask new questions and to re-examine earlier theories.

Flanked by an introduction, a brief conclusion, and an index, there are ten chapters. Those chapters, with their own endnotes and bibliography, are divided into three thematic sections: the first deals with developing trade and geographic knowledge in the “western” Indian Ocean; the second considers “cross-cultural engagement” by examining the movement of particular products and concepts, and how these would have affected socio-economic and cultural developments within the societies touched by them; the third and final section assesses the Indian Ocean’s influences on literary culture, and considers the extent to which trade across this expanse influenced cultural and intellectual exchange between particular societies.

In chapter one, which acts as the volume’s introduction, Cobb considers the aims of this collection: first, “to facilitate interdisciplinary exchanges in a range of fields” (1); second, to provide new perspectives for those working on aspects of the Indian Ocean; and third, to allow discourse across disciplinary lines. He explains the chronological parameters of the volume, arguing that 300 BCE–700 CE represents a period of sustained growth across the ocean in terms of travel, in an unprecedented quantity of goods traded, and in the resulting effects on cultural developments in various societies (3–4). A brief foray into the different theories and approaches used by the contributors is followed by a longer discussion of globalisation, which Cobb notes could be redefined—namely by focussing on long distance travel and trade, and the impacts on particular societies—and then applied to the ancient world. The chapter concludes with summaries of the remaining chapters.

The first section begins with chapter two, once again by Cobb, who examines the Hellenistic and early Roman periods of trade between Egypt and India. Basing his argument on an analysis of the development of trade, on the evidence for infrastructure to support trade in Egypt’s Eastern Desert and on the eastern coast, and on the development of officials responsible for administering this trade, Cobb suggests that there was broad continuity between Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt. He notes that while trade contacts already existed by the late Ptolemaic period (24–25), the Roman period did see major developments in construction (at Myos Hormos, for example, [28]) and in administrative and fiscal reforms (30–33). Cobb states that the trade in this area, and Egypt’s transition between Hellenistic kingdom and Roman province, should be seen as one of expansion and progression rather than transformation (32–33).

Leonardo Gregoratti examines the role of the Parthian Empire in the Indian Ocean trade in chapter three. Using evidence from Cassius Dio, the Periplus Maris Erythraei, and several Chinese sources, Gregoratti considers the points of contact across the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf (55–59), noting that the most important trading posts in the region were Apologos, due to its connection to Charax Spasinou (the capital of the Parthian client kingdom of Characene) and its proximity to the Euphrates river, and Ommana, on the southern shore of the Persian Gulf. Ultimately, Gregoratti argues that the Parthian Empire was not simply a facilitator of trading endeavours that originated in the west, but that such trade was actively promoted between east and west (60–61), with the albeit limited archaeological evidence representative of this. Moreover, he believes this trade should be seen as a form of “synergy” (64) between the Arsacids, Palmyrene, and the Characene administration.

The foci of chapter four, by Himanshu Prabha Ray, are the individuals involved in trade. Here Ray examines the significant role that particular communities played in the development of the Indian Ocean trade through their movement between the Red Sea and the Bay of Bengal, both on land and sea. Dealing with a wide chronological scope from the first–ninth centuries CE, Ray aims to “underscore the concept of ritual economy” (74); maintaining that economic development must be contextualised with existing social structures, she argues that the Indian Ocean trade routes were based on earlier socio-economic and religious activities, including visits and donations to religious establishments. Considering the geography of the west coast of India, then the smaller maritime and coastal communities, and traders and travellers, Ray concludes that the Indian Ocean trade was built on a maritime network that involved a wide range of artisans, craftworkers, and transporters, and that this network cannot be separated from the diverse religious landscape that existed in the regions touched by this trade.

The final chapter in this section, Federico De Romanis studies the evidence for the west coast of India within the Periplus Maris Erythraei. Considering the possible profession and experience of the author of the text, De Romanis examines internal differences between different sections of the text and compares them with other geographical treatises of the Roman period, namely those of Pliny the Elder and Claudius Ptolemy (97–106). Sections of the Periplus, he concludes, were the product of experiences not only of the author, but also fellow merchants who travelled to the emporia and communities on the western coast of India.

The first chapter (chapter six) of section two, by Raoul John McLaughlin, focusses on the “Eastern Commercial Revenue Model.” Arguing that Rome’s greatest gains were the revenues derived from taxes on international trade (using the tetarte—the quarter tax on eastern imports), he suggests that Roman prosperity was sustained by “international commerce and… the eastern economies” such as India and China (120). In support of this, McLaughlin uses the evidence from the Muziris papyrus, the Periplus Maris Erythraei, and archaeology from the Egypt’s Red Sea coast as well as data from Indian sites, ultimately concluding that “international commerce supplied the Roman government with up to a third of the revenues that sustained their Empire” (129).

In chapter seven, Pierre Schneider focusses on the Roman consumption of a specific luxury item, in this case, pearls. He examines the historical demand for them and their origins, before considering the social perspective of their consumption, which spread among the Roman middle classes and freed-people (146–48). He argues that the available evidence, ranging from Greek and Latin literature through to documentary papyri, reveals a strong demand for pearls following their discovery. Schneider proposes that this demand was the motivation behind the appearance of specialised craftworkers and retailers (148–52).

In the last chapter of this section, Frederick M. Asher considers the trade links between India and other regions, with particular reference to South East Asia. While his primary focus is generally the latter half of the first millennium CE and the early second, he begins with the admonitions against sea travel that appear in the Brahmin texts (157), before considering documentary evidence dating to between the second and sixth centuries CE, such as that appearing on Socotra Island, in the south Kedah region of Malaysia, and in other regions of South East Asia, confirming the movement of Indian mariners (158). Noting that there is ample literary evidence dating to between 600–1300 CE for Hindu and Buddhist expatriate communities in the eastern part of the Indian Ocean, Asher concludes that, despite religious warnings to the contrary, there was significant movement by Indians, who established communities in the region, and in doing so affected the visual culture of the region.

The third section begins with chapter nine, in which Fiona Mitchell argues that the cultural and intellectual exchange between ancient Greece and India can be seen in specific mythological aspects. Her examination is centred on creation myths involving the splitting of an egg. Suggesting that these represent an underlying narrative, Mitchell argues that elements of this appear prior to direct contact between Greece and India (172), and that post-contact, particular texts which mirror each other closely are evidence of a closer relationship between these areas. She undertakes a detailed examination of two pre-contact texts, the Rigveda and Aristophanes’ Birds (173–77), and then four post-contact texts, namely the Orphic theogonies, the Laws of Manu, the Vishnu Purana, and the Matsya Purana (177–87). In sum, Mitchell deduces that while that the transmission of these mythological ideas is difficult to date, the ever-increasing similarities between the traditions is demonstrative not only of “a sustained level of direct contact” (187), but also an intellectual link through which mythological traditions could influence one another.

Next Juan Pablo Sánchez Hernández examines the effect of the Indian Ocean trade on the ancient novel. He suggests that ancient authors writing in this genre in the first and second centuries CE made use of information from “well-articulated narratives on India” (191) as well as commercial contacts. Comparing Petronius’ Satyrica, Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe and Clitophon, Xenophon of Ephesus’ Ephesiaca, and Heliodorus’ Aethiopica (193–201), Sánchez Hernández proposes that the Roman authors’ conception of the East was linked not only to an array of exotic products that became more commonly available, but also to the notion of decadence through luxury. Such associations he believes were a way for the Roman authors to emphasize their protagonists’ perils and degrading sexual ordeals through allegory. Meanwhile the Greek authors, he supposes, were “more idealistic” (201) and provided a more positive conception of the East.

Finally, Marco Palone discusses the similarities between the ancient Greek and Indian novel. Beginning by considering the allusions to India and Ethiopia in the Greek novels of the Roman Principate, he suggests that the fables underpinning this genre were the result of maritime trade and overland travel (214–15). By examining the structural similarities between the Greek novel and the Indian kathā, he considers the existence of the hierarchical or vertically embedded narratives within both (218–23). Palone determines that both the Greek and Indian genres share these embedded narratives, that there are typically five narrative layers, and that in both cultures narrators within these layers speak in the first person and refer to their experiences of travel and trade across the Indian Ocean. The result, he believes, is that the genre likely originated in “an Indo-Greek cultural and commercial koinè” (225) that flourished under the Pax Romana.

The volume ends with short conclusion by Cobb. He brings together the diverse conclusions and reminds us that the study of the Indian Ocean should not be confined to the sphere of economics alone: networks of exchange do facilitate “the expansion of conceptual horizons… often within the cultural framework of a particular society” (229).

This is an ambitious, wide-ranging collection. The breadth and depth of material is considerable, and this in itself is commendable. But given the broad disciplinary nature of the volume, overall conclusions across some chapters are difficult to draw together, and some conclusions are rather more positivist than one may expect, given the evidence; this is, however, likely the point, and does nothing to detract from the scholarship herein. While the text is accessible, there are several obvious typographical errors and some figures are unclear. Nevertheless, these issues do nothing to hamper the authors’ arguments, and this remains an important contribution to the interdisciplinary study of economic and cultural exchange across the Indian Ocean.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Introduction: The Indian Ocean Trade in Antiquity and Global History. Matthew Adam Cobb

Part 1: The Western Indian Ocean: A Developing Trade
Chapter 2: From the Ptolemies to Augustus: Mediterranean Integration into the Indian Ocean Trade. Matthew Adam Cobb
Chapter 3: Indian Ocean Trade: The Role of Parthia. Leonardo Gregoratti
Chapter 4: Ethnographies of Sailing: From the Red Sea to the Bay of Bengal in Antiquity. Himanshu Prabha Ray
Chapter 5: Patchworking the West Coast of India: Noes of the ‘Periplus of the Erythaean Sea’. Federico De Romanis

Part 2: The Indian Ocean and Cross-Cultural Engagement: People, Commodities, and Society
Chapter 6: Indian Ocean Commerce in Context: The Economic and Revenue Significance of Red Sea Trade in the Ancient World Economy. Raoul John McLaughlin
Chapter 7: Erythaean Pearls in the Roman World: Features and Aspects if Luxury Consumption (late second century BCE – second century CE). Pierre Schneider
Chapter 8: India Abroad: Evidence for Ancient Indian Maritime Activity. Frederick M. Asher

Part 3: The Indian Ocean Influence on Literary Culture
Chapter 9: The Universe from an Egg: Creation Narratives in the Ancient Indian and Greek Texts. Fiona Mitchell
Chapter 10: The Impact of the Indian Ocean Trade on the Ancient Novel. Juan Pablo Sánchez Hernández
Chapter 11: Between Egypt and India: on the Route of the Ancient Novel. Marco Palone
Chapter 12: Conclusion. Matthew Adam Cobb
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