Pepper in Ancient Times


Pepper in Rome (and South Asia)
The trash heaps of Roman soldiers contain olive pits, coriander seeds, and black Pepper, whether near the Rhine River in continental Europe or at Hadrian’s Wall, the border between Roman Britannia and Scottish Caledonia (more than 5000 miles from where the pepper had been grown). Prior to the Roman Empire’s expansion, pepper was too expensive for all but the richest people in the Mediterranean basin. Once Egypt and the access to the Red Sea were in Roman hands (after the famous Cleopatra committed suicide) following 30 BCE, the price of shipping for Roman citizens and subjects--and consequently the price of pepper--dropped. By the first century CE more than a hundred ships sailed annually across the western Indian Ocean to supply the South Asian spice to Persians, Egyptians, and especially Romans. Taking advantage of monsoon wind routes developed by earlier sailors, these spice merchants were able to make one leg of the trip in as few as twenty days. Between May and September, tropical monsoon winds blow from the southwest to the northeast, making it efficient to cross from East Africa or the mouth of the Red Sea to India. From December through March the winds reverse directions; the only catch was the layover.

Goods moving from Rome to East Africa, India, and Arabia typically were glassware, tin, and silver and gold (bullion), but included artwork and wine (purchased by the richest South Asian elites). From India came precious stones, wild animals (for arena slaughtering), and pepper, as well as other spices trans-shipped from Southeast Asia and Silks from China. (See below for East African and Arabian exports.) Indian pepper-growers were perfectly happy to take manufactures and coins in exchange for their peppercorns. Roman elites were quite happy to wear jewelry fashioned from gems that could only come from mines thousands of miles away; pepper became cheap enough that ordinary citizens could afford at least a little bit of the spice, though fancy pepper pots remained the purview of elites.

In the Roman era (3rd century BCE - 5th century CE), Italian cuisine had no tomatoes. (They used olive oils, vinegar, and fermented fish sauce as their gravies.) The wealthy certainly ate (and in some wines, drank) pepper, among other spices. These included cinnamon (from Sri Lanka, China or Southeast Asia), cloves, and ginger, which all remained out of the reach of ordinary shoppers. Spices were also used as medicine (some Romans thought cinnamon cured impotence), perfumes, in sacrifices, and funerals. Romans proud of their own impact on the rest of the world bragged,

“From every land and sea all the crops of the seasons, all the produce of each province, river, and lake, all the products of Greeks and barbarians, are brought to Rome. … So many ships arrive here every hour and every day, loaded with every kind of goods from every people that the city is like a market for the whole earth. We see so many cargoes from India and Arabia that one imagines their trees must be stripped bare: if they need something of their own produce, they will have to come and beg for it here.”

Another boasted “Rhine [Germans] shall plow for you, Nile shall flood for you, the fruitful world shall nourish its nurse, for ever …. [North] Africa, rich in her own sun, richer by Roman rain, shall offer you her fertile harvests.”

The spice trade was initially what built the maritime Long-Distance Trade routes that linked Outer Eurasia by the Common Era. Pepper can only be grown in tropical conditions, so consumers in the temperate zones can only acquire the luxury via great effort on someone's part.

In China (and South and Southeast Asia)
Chinese elites during the Han period (3rd century BCE - 3rd century CE) consumed Pepper as well, with linguistic evidence (the first pictograph for pepper signifies Inner Eurasians) suggesting that they first received pepper overland across the Silk Road through Inner Eurasia. Eventually pepper was shipped from the island of Java (in Southeast Asia), where it might have been transplanted by South Asian colonists (Southernization) around 100 BCE (or perhaps a few centuries later); the pepper might also have been transshipped (still grown in South Asia). In the centuries after the fall of the Han (4th-8th centuries, CE), Persian, South Asian, and eventually Arabic-speaking merchant sailors brought pepper to Chinese ports, and Chinese sailors repaid the favor by sailing deep into the Indian Ocean, to the Malabar coast themselves by the 800s CE (where they would continue to sail until the fifteenth century). Southeast Asians--Malay speakers--became master sailors among their islands and beyond, partly as a result of carrying spices as long distance cargoes. By roughly 500 CE, a group of these Southeast Asians sailed all the way across the Indian Ocean to settle on Madagascar, an island off the southeastern coast of Africa, and as yet unsettled by farmers (recent evidence suggests foragers from Africa had been living on the island).

Pepper in China was sometimes hoarded by those who possessed it. Just as in Roman culture, pepper wasn’t merely a food, it was a medicine for digestion and relief from gas, according to classical Chinese texts. To these older texts, newer medical knowledge was added from South Asian sources (Southernization), and merchants who were Buddhist helped begin to spread that religion in China as the Han Dynasty was ending. The large Chinese population's demand for pepper encouraged more production around the Indian Ocean.

Sources: Jack Turner, Spice: The History of a Temptation (2004), 57-72; Andrew Dalby, Empire of Pleasures (2000), 191-99 and 272; Fred Czarra, Spices: A Global History (2009), 27-34; Gilbert and Reynolds, Trading Tastes (2006); Ts'Ao Yung-Ho( 曹永,) "Pepper Trade in East Asia,"T'oung Pao , Second Series, Vol. 68, Livr. 4/5 (1982) , pp. 221-247.

Periplus of the Erythraean Sea

Below are several excerpts of the Periplus, a trading guide written by a Greek-speaking Egyptian sailor. Each entry describes a port (and its trade goods and inhabitants) on the Indian Ocean or its neighboring seas. Remember that not all of the remarks are necessarily true, the traveler had his own prejudices and was far more credulous about exaggerations than we might be. My clarifications are [in brackets].

Here are two maps that show the places described:
A home-made detailed effort from wikipedia
A schematic of the Monsoon Winds
A less-detailed map with an animation of the Monsoon winds

What does this tell you about long distance exchange ca. 100 CE? What does it tell you about the movement of people and products?

What kind of goods were transported? What do those items that tell you about the buyers' and sellers' communities? What sort of economies manufactured these goods?

How did the Monsoon shape the trading patterns?


2. On the right-hand coast next below Berenice is the country of the Berbers [Northeast Africa]. Along the shore are the Fish-Eaters, living in scattered caves in the narrow valleys. Further inland are the Berbers, and beyond them the Wild-flesh-Eaters and Calf-Eaters, each tribe governed by its chief; and behind them, further inland, in the country towards the west, there lies a city called Meroe.

4. Below Ptolemais of the Hunts, at a distance of about three thousand stadia, there is Adulis, a port established by law, lying at the inner end of a bay that runs in toward the south. Before the harbor lies the so-called Mountain Island, about two hundred stadia [very very roughly: 10 stadia equal 1 mile] seaward from the very head of the bay, with the shores of the mainland close to it on both sides. Ships bound for this port now anchor here because of attacks from the land. They used formerly to anchor at the very head of the bay, by an island called Diodorus, close to the shore, which could be reached on foot from the land; by which means the barbarous natives attacked the island. Opposite Mountain Island, on the mainland twenty stadia from shore, lies Adulis, a fair-sized village, from which there is a three-days' journey to Coloe, an inland town and the first market for ivory. From that place to the city of the people called Auxumites there is a five days' journey more; to that place all the ivory is brought from the country beyond the Nile through the district called Cyeneum, and thence to Adulis. Practically the whole number of elephants and rhinoceros that are killed live in the places inland, although at rare intervals they are hunted on the seacoast even near Adulis. Before the harbor of that market-town, out at sea on the right hand, there lie a great many little sandy islands called Alalaei, yielding tortoise-shell, which is brought to market there by the Fish-Eaters.

5. And about eight hundred stadia beyond there is another very deep bay, with a great mound of sand piled up at the right of the entrance; at the bottom of which the opsian stone is found, and this is the only place where it is produced. These places, from the Calf-Eaters to the other Berber country, are governed by Zoscales; who is miserly in his ways and always striving for more, but otherwise upright, and acquainted with Greek literature.

7. From this place the Arabian Gulf trends toward the east and becomes narrowest just before the Gulf of Avalites. After about four thousand stadia, for those sailing eastward along the same coast, there are other Berber market-towns, known as the 'far-side' ports; lying at intervals one after the other, without harbors but having roadsteads where ships can anchor and lie in good weather. The first is called Avalites; to this place the voyage from Arabia to the far-side coast is the shortest. Here there is a small market-town called Avalites, which must be reached by boats and rafts. There are imported into this place, flint glass, assorted; juice of sour grapes from Diospolis; dressed cloth, assorted, made for the Berbers; wheat, wine, and a little tin. There are exported from the same place, and sometimes by the Berbers themselves crossing on rafts to Ocelis and Muza on the opposite shore, spices, a little ivory, tortoise-shell, and a very little myrrh, but better than the rest. And the Berbers who live in the place are very unruly.

15. Beyond Opone, the shore trending more toward the south, first there are the small and great bluffs of Azania; this coast is destitute of harbors, but there are places where ships can lie at anchor, the shore being abrupt; and this course is of six days, the direction being south-west. Then come the small and great beach for another six days' course and after that in order, the Courses of Azania [East Africa], the first being called Sarapion and the next Nicon; and after that several rivers and other anchorages, one after the other, separately a rest and a run for each day, seven in all, until the Pyralax islands and what is called the channel; beyond which, a little to the south of south-west, after two courses of a day and night along the Ausanitic coast, is the island Menuthias, about three hundred stadia from the mainland, low and and wooded, in which there are rivers and many kinds of birds and the mountain-tortoise. There are no wild beasts except the crocodiles; but there they do not attack men. In this place there are sewed boats, and canoes hollowed from single logs, which they use for fishing and catching tortoise. In this island they also catch them in a peculiar wav, in wicker baskets, which they fasten across the channel-opening between the breakers.

16. Two days' sail beyond, there lies the very last market-town of the continent of Azania [East Africa], which is called Rhapta; which has its name from the sewed boats (rhapton ploiarion) already mentioned; in which there is ivory in great quantity, and tortoise-shell. Along this coast live men of piratical habits, very great in stature, and under separate chiefs for each place. The Mapharitic chief governs it under some ancient right that subjects it to the sovereignty of the state that is become first in Arabia. And the people of Muza now hold it under his authority, and send thither many large ships; using Arab captains and agents, who are familiar with the natives and intermarry with them, and who know the whole coast and understand the language.

17. There are imported into these markets the lances made at Muza especially for this trade, and hatchets and daggers and awls, and various kinds of glass; and at some places a little wine, and wheat, not for trade, but to serve for getting the good-will of the savages. There are exported from these places a great quantity of ivory, but inferior to that of Adulis, and rhinoceros-horn and tortoise-shell (which is in best demand after that from India), and a little palm-oil.

18. And these markets of Azania are the very last of the continent that stretches down on the right hand from Berenice; for beyond these places the unexplored ocean curves around toward the west, and running along by the regions to the south of Aethiopia and Libya and Africa, it mingles with the western sea.

24. The market-town of Muza [in present-day Yemen] is without a harbor, but has a good roadstead and anchorage because of the sandy bottom thereabouts, where the anchors hold safely. The merchandise imported there consists of purple cloths, both fine and coarse; clothing in the Arabian style, with sleeves; plain, ordinary, embroidered, or interwoven with gold; saffron, sweet rush, muslins, cloaks, blankets (not many), some plain and others made in the local fashion; sashes of different colors, fragrant ointments in moderate quantity, wine and wheat, not much. For the country produces grain in moderate amount, and a great deal of wine. And to the King and the Chief are given horses and sumpter-mules, vessels of gold and polished silver, finely woven clothing and copper vessels. There are exported from the same place the things produced in the country: selected myrrh, and the Gebanite-Minaean stacte, alabaster and all the things already mentioned from Avalites and the far-side coast. The voyage to this place is made best about the month of September, that is Thoth; but there is nothing to prevent it even earlier.

26. Beyond Ocelis, the sea widening again toward the east and soon giving a view of the open ocean, after about twelve hundred stadia there is Eudaemon Arabia, a village by the shore, also of the Kingdom of Charibael, and having convenient anchorages, and watering places, sweeter and better than those at Ocelis; it lies at the entrance of a bay, and the land recedes from it. It was called Eudaemon, because in the early days of the city when the voyage was not yet made from India to Egypt, and when they did not dare to sail from Egypt to the ports across this ocean, but all came together at this place, it received the cargoes from both countries, just as Alexandria now receives the things brought both from abroad and from Egypt. But not long before our own time Charibael destroyed the place.

30. On this bay there is a very great promontory facing the east, called Syagrus; on which is a fort for the defence of the country, and a harbor and storehouse for the frankincense that is collected; and opposite this cape, well out at sea, there is an island, lying between it and the Cape of Spices opposite, but nearer Syagrus: it is called Dioscorida, and is very large but desert and marshy, having rivers in it and crocodiles and many snakes and great lizards, of which the flesh is eaten and the fat melted and used instead of olive oil. The island yields no fruit, neither vine nor grain. The inhabitants are few and they live on the coast toward the north, which from this side faces the continent. They are foreigners, a mixture of Arabs and Indians and Greeks, who have emigrated to carry on trade there. The island produces the true sea-tortoise, and the land-tortoise, and the white tortoise which is very numerous and preferred for its large shells; and the mountain-tortoise, which is largest of all and has the thickest shell; of which the worthless specimens cannot be cut apart on the under side, because they are even too hard; but those of value are cut apart and the shells made whole into caskets and small plates and cake-dishes and that sort of ware. There is also produced in this island cinnabar, that called Indian, which is collected in drops from the trees.

36. Sailing through the mouth of the Gulf, after a six-days' course there is another market-town of Persia called Ommana. To both of these market-towns large vessels are regularly sent from Barygaza, loaded with copper and sandalwood and timbers of teakwood and logs of blackwood and ebony. To Ommana frankincense is also brought from Cana, and from Ommana to Arabia boats sewed together after the fashion of the place; these are known as madarata. From each of these market-towns, there are exported to Barygaza and also to Arabia, many pearls, but inferior to those of lndia; purple, clothing after the fashion of the place, wine, a great quantity of dates, gold and slaves.

41. Beyond the gulf of Baraca is that of Barygaza [today: northern India's west coast] and the coast of the country of Ariaca, which is the beginning of the Kingdom of Nambanus and of all India. That part of it lying inland and adjoining Scythia is called Abiria, but the coast is called Syrastrene. It is a fertile country, yielding wheat and rice and sesame oil and clarified butter, cotton and the Indian cloths made therefrom, of the coarser sorts. Very many cattle are pastured there, and the men are of great stature and black in color. The metropolis of this country is Minnagara, from which much cotton cloth is brought down to Barygaza. In these places there remain even to the present time signs of the expedition of Alexander, such as ancient shrines, walls of forts and great wells. The sailing course along this coast, from Barbaricum to the promontory called Papica opposite Barygaza, and before Astacampra, is of three thousand stadia.

49. There are imported into this market-town, wine, Italian preferred, also Laodicean and Arabian; copper, tin, and lead; coral and topaz; thin clothing and inferior sorts of all kinds; bright-colored girdles a cubit wide; storax, sweet clover, flint glass, realgar, antimony, gold and silver coin, on which there is a profit when exchanged for the money of the country; and ointment, but not very costly and not much. And for the King there are brought into those places very costly vessels of silver, singing boys, beautiful maidens for the harem, fine wines, thin clothing of the finest weaves, and the choicest ointments. There are exported from these places spikenard, costus, bdellium, ivory, agate and carnelian, lycium, cotton cloth of all kinds, silk cloth, mallow cloth, yarn, long pepper and such other things as are brought here from the various market-towns. Those bound for this market-town from Egypt make the voyage favorably about the month of July, that is Epiphi.

56. They send large ships to these market-towns on account of the great quantity and bulk of pepper and malabathrum. There are imported here, in the first place, a great quantity of coin; topaz, thin clothing, not much; figured linens, antimony, coral, crude glass, copper, tin, lead; wine, not much, but as much as at Barygaza; realgar and orpiment; and wheat enough for the sailors, for this is not dealt in by the merchants there. There is exported pepper, which is produced in quantity in only one region near these markets, a district called Cottonara. Besides this there are exported great quantities of fine pearls, ivory, silk cloth, spikenard from the Ganges, malabathrum from the places in the interior, transparent stones of' all kinds, diamonds and sapphires, and tortoise-shell; that from Chryse Island, and that taken among the islands along the coast of Damirica [southern India]. They make the voyage to this place in a favorable season who set out from Egypt about the month of July, that is Epiphi.

64. After this region under the very north [“Bangladesh”], the sea outside ending in a land called This, there is a very great inland city called Thinae [China] from which raw silk and silk yarn and silk cloth are brought on foot through Bactria to Barygaza, and are also exported to Damirica by way of the river Ganges. But the land of This is not easy of access; few men come from there, and seldom. The country lies under the Lesser Bear, and is said to border on the farthest parts of Pontus and the Caspian Sea, next to which lies Lake Maeotis; all of which empty into the ocean.

65. Every year on the borders of the land of This there comes together a tribe of men with short bodies and broad, flat faces, and by nature peaceable; they are called Besatae, and are almost entirely uncivilized. They come with their wives and children, carrying great packs and plaited baskets of what looks like green grape-leaves. They meet in a place between their own country and the land of This. There they hold a feast for several days, spreading out the baskets under themselves as mats, and then return to their own places in the interior. And then the natives watching them come into that place and gather up their mats; and they pick out from the braids the fibers which they call petri. They lay the leaves closely together in several layers and make them into balls, which they pierce with the fibers from the mats. And there are three sorts; those made of the largest leaves are called the large-ball malabathrum; those of the smaller, the medium-ball; and those of the smallest, the small-ball. Thus there exist three sorts of malabathrum, and it is brought into India by those who prepare it.

66. The regions beyond these places are either difficult of access because of their excessive winters and great cold, or else cannot be sought out because, of some divine influence of the gods.

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