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History of the Periplus Essay

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Updated: Jun 29th, 2020

The manuscript was supposedly written in the middle of the first century A.D. by a merchant of the Egyptian Greek origin (the assumption was made with the help of his descriptions and vocabulary). His experience in traveling is enormous, and his curiosity made him include a broad scope of knowledge into the Periplus. This manuscript was a guide for merchants who were interested in luxury goods trade; therefore, the merchants of Roman Egypt were the likely audience.

The author emphasizes the information related to trade, politics (on the rulers and their trading preferences), and safety; plus he provides additional knowledge that does not fulfill his agenda but appears to be interesting to him (for example, he describes people and flora or fauna of the lands, dwells on the history). The people he met included Rhapta and Syrastrene who he describes as big-bodied people; for the latter he also mentions their dark skin. As he points out, the people of western Arabia used to speak two languages, and the people of the Isle of Sarapis (Masirah) were Arabic-speaking. African, Arabic, and Indian trade routes and markets are described in the book.

Trading Networks and Merchandise

In the time of Periplus, Egypt had become a part of the Roman Empire and was vigorously engaging in trade with India. From the two main Red Sea ports, Myos Hormos and Berenice, the merchandise could be taken along the Africa cost or eastward to India. Those were the primary routes, minor ones, it appears, also existed.

The goods that Periplus was interested in were mostly luxurious goods that would be shipped to the Mediterranean countries. The goods included: ivory, tortoiseshell, rhinoceros horn, myrrh, drugs, and slaves from the African market; aloe, frankincense, myrrh, and white marble from Arabia; various garments, spices, drugs, gems, pearls, ivory and best-quality tortoise shell from India. The commodities trade (copper, foods) did not interest the merchants of Roman Egypt.

At the same time, the goods they could sell abroad depended on the demand of every market. For African route, there was little demand for luxury; they mostly wanted staples (tools, foods, iron). Arabia was also interested in staples, but luxury resources like drugs or cosmetics were also required. Finally, India was mostly interested in luxury products: drugs and ointments, multicolored clothes, slaves, and so on. That is why the Indian market was particularly important for Roman Egypt merchants; half of the manuscript is devoted to it. The key ports of India were the two northwest ones, Barbarikon and Barygaza (a port and an industrial center), as well as the two southwest commercial and industrial centers, Muziris and Nelkynda.

Depiction of Africa

At the time when Periplus was written, the starting and the ending point of the merchants trip from Egypt to India were the ports of Myos Hormos and Berenice; the merchandise from outside Egypt could be shipped to Alexandria and then to Koptos, from where it had to travel by camels to the ports. Both of the ports appear to have been similarly popular, even though Periplus described Berenice was more successful. A shipping company could conduct business in both ports. The primary advantage of Myos Hormos was the fact that the merchandise coming from it to Alexandra had to spend from six to seven days in the desert trip compared to the twelve for Berenice. Berenice, however, it was situated closer to the south: ships that arrived at the port could fight against the winds a few days less.

Apart from that, the east of the African route had two more major stops: the small village of Adulis and the far-side Rhapta. From the Periplus, we learn about the fact that African cultures at the time were much more interested in staples than in luxury although the courts could and wanted to afford silverware and glassware. The Periplus also provides some anthropology-related knowledge (for example, the kind of people in Rhapta: big-bodied farmers; the name of the governor and the origin of his right to rule).

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