Περίπλους τῆς Ἐρυθράς Θαλάσσης
Erythraean Sea( Indian Ocean)
Translated from Greek
This term had been applied by Greek and Roman geographers to the Indian Ocean, including its adjuncts, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Erythra means Red, so that the modern name perpetuates the ancient; but we are assured by Agatharchides that it means, not Red Sea, but Sea of King Erythras, following a Persian legend.
“The Persian account is after this manner. There was a man famous for his valor and wealth, by name Erythras, a Persian by birth, son of Myozaeus. His home was by the sea, facing toward islands which are not now desert, but were so at the time of the empire of the Medes, when Eryrhras lived. In the winter-time he used to go to Pasargadae, making the journey at his own cost; and he indulged in these changes of scene now for profit, and now for some pleasure of his own life. On a time the lions charged into a large flock of his mares, and some were slain; while the rest, unharmed but terror-stricken at what they had seen, fled to the sea. A strong wind was blowing from the land, and as they plunged into the waves in their terror, they were carried beyond their footing; and their fear continuing, they swam through the sea and came out on the shore of the island opposite. With them went one of the herdsmen, a youth of marked bravery, who thus reached the shore by clinging to the shoulders of a mare. Now Erythras looked for his mares, and not seeing them, first put together a raft of small size, but secure in the strength of its building; and happening on a favorable wind, he pushed off into the strait, across which he was swiftly carried by the waves, and so found his mares and found their keeper also. And then, being pleased with the island, he built a stronghold at a place well chosen by the shore, and brought hither from the main-land opposite such as were dissatisfied with their life there, and subsequently settled all the other uninhabited islands with a numerous population; and such was the glory ascribed to him by the popular voice because of these his deeds, that even down to our own time they have called that sea, infinite in extent, Erythraean. And so, for the reason here set forth, it is to be well distinguished (for to say Erýthra thálatta, Sea of Erythras, is a very different thing from Thálatta erythrá, Red Sea); for the one commemorates the most illustrious man of that sea, while the other refers to the color of the water. Now the one explanation of the name, as due to the color, is false (for the sea is not red), but the other, ascribing it to the man who ruled there, is the true one, as the Persian story testifies.”
TRAVEL AND TRADE IN THE INDIAN OCEAN BY A MERCHANT OF THE FIRST CENTURY
The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea is one of those human documents, like the journals of Marco Polo and Columbus and Vespucci, which express not only individual enterprise, but the awakening of a whole race towards new fields of geographical discovery and commercial achievement. It is the first record of organized trading with the nations of the East, in vessels built and commanded by subjects of the Western World. It marks the turning of a tide of commerce which had set in one direction, without interruption, from the dawn of history. For thousands of years before the emergence of the Greeks from savagery, or before the exploits of the Phoenicians in the Mediterranean and Atlantic, human culture and commerce had centered in the countries bordering on the Persian Gulf; in Elam and Babylonia, and in the “whole land of Havilah, where there is gold: and the gold of that land is good; there is bdellium and the onyx stone.” With the spread of culture in both directions, Egypt and the nations of Ancient India came into being, and a commercial system was developed for the interchange of products within those limits, having its center of exchanges near the head of the Persian Gulf. The peoples of that region, the various Arab tribes and more especially those ancestors of the Phoenicians, the mysterious Red Men, were the active carries or intermediaries. The growth of civilization in India created an active merchange marine, trading to the Euphrates and Africa, and eastward we know not whither. The Arab merchants, apparently, tolerated the presence of Indian traders in Africa, but reserved for themselves the commerce within the Red Sea; that lucrative commerce which supplied precious stones and spices and incense to the ever-increasing service of the gods of Egypt. This prospered according to the prosperity of the Pharaohs. The muslins and spices of India they fetched themselves or received from the Indian traders in their ports on either side of the Gulf of Aden; carrying them in turn over the highlands to the upper Nile, or through the Red Sea and across the desert to Thebes or Memphis. In the rare intervals when the eyes of Egypt were turned eastward, and voyages of commerce and conquest were despatched to the Eastern Ocean, the officers of the Pharaohs found the treasures of all its shores gathered in the nearest ports, and sought no further to trace them to their sources.
As the current of trade gradually flowed beyond the Nile and Euphrates to the peoples of the north, and their curiosity began to trace the better things toward their source in India, new trade-routes were gradually opened. The story of the world for many centuries was that of the struggles of the nations upon the Nile and the Euphrates to win all the territory through which the new routes passed, and so to prevent the northern barbarians from trading with others than themselves. It was early in this struggle that one brance of the people known as the Phoenicians left their home on the Persian Gulf and settled on the Mediterranean, there to win in the West commercial glories which competition in the East was beginning to deny them. The Greek colonies, planted at the terminus of every trade-route, gained for themselves a measure of commercial independence; but never until the overthrow of the East by the great Alexander was the control of the great overland caravan-routes threatened by a western people, and his early death led to no more than a readjustment of conditions as they had always existed.
Meantime the brethren of the Phoenicians and their kinsfolk in Arabia continued in control of the carrying trade of the East, subject to their agreements and alliances with the merchants of India. One Arab kingdom after another retained the great eastern coast of Africa, with its trade in gold and ivory, ostrich feathers and oil; the shores of the Arabian Gulf produced an ever-rising value in frankincense and myrrh; while the cloths and precious stones, the timbers and spices—particularly cinnamon—brought from India largely by Indian vessels, were redistributed at Socotra or Guardafui, and carried to the Nile and the Mediterranean. Gerrha and Obollah, Palmyra and Petra, Sabbath and Mariaba were all partners in this commercial system. The Egyptian nation in its later struggles made no effort to oppose or control it. The trade came and the price was paid. And the infusion of Greek energy after Alexander’s day, when the Ptolemies had made Egypt once more mistress of the nations, led to nothing more than the conquest of a few outposts on the Red Sea and at the head of the Gulf of Aden; while the accounts of Agatharchides are sufficient proof of the opulance which came to Southern Arabia with the increase of prosperity in Egypt. Here, indeed, the trade control was more complete than ever; for changes in the topography of India, the westward shifting of the Indus delta, the shoaling of the harbors in the Cutch region, and the disorder incident to great invasions of Asiatic peoples, had sapped the vigor of the Indian sea-trade.
But in Arabia itself there were struggles for the control of all this wealth and power, and in the days of the later Ptolemies kingdoms rose and fell and passed into oblivion with bewildering frequency. The African coast was left to its own people and to the remnants of the Indian trade, and one Arab tribe maintained itself at the Straits, while its defeated adversary, establishing itself in the old “land of Cush,” was building up the kingdom of Abyssinia, whose ambitions were bitterly opposed to the state which possessed its former home in the “Frankincense Country” of Arabia.
It was at this juncture that the rule of the Ptolemies came to an end under Cleopatra, and the new ruler of the Western World, the Empire of Rome, came into possession of Egypt, and thus added to its control of the caravan-routes previously won in Asia Minor and Syria, that of a direct sea-route to the East, by way of the Ptolemies’ outposts on the Red Sea.
The prize thus within reach of the Roman people was a rich one. Successive conquests and spoliation of all the Mediterranean peoples had brought to Rome treasures as yet unexampled, and a taste for the precious things of the East was developed almost over-night. The public triumphs of the conquerors of Asia Minor and Syria glittered with new treasures, for which the people clamored. Money was plentiful and merchants flocked thither from all quarters. Within a generation the center of exchanges of the Mediterranean was moved from Alexandria to Rome. But a wise decision of the Emperor Augustus, only once departed from and that disastrously, limited the Roman dominion to the bank of the Euphrates; so that all this rich trade that flowed to Rome paid its tolls to the Empire of Parthia and to the Arab kingdoms, unless Rome could develop and control a sea-borne trade to India.
Against such an enterprise all the energy and subtlety of the Arab was called into action. No information was allowed to reach the merchants in Egypt, and every device the imagination could create was directed toward discouraging the least disturbance of the channels of trade that had existed since human memory began. And in an unknown ocean, with only the vaguest ideas of the sources of the products they sought, and the routes that led to them, it might been many years before a Roman vessel, coasting along hostile shores, could reach the goal. But accidents favored Roman ambition. The new kingdom of Axum, smarting under the treatment of its former neighbors in Arabia, was courting the Roman alliance. The old trading-posts at Guardafui, formerly under Arab control, were now free, through the quarrels of their overlords, and their markets were open to who might seek. And then a Roman subject, perhaps in the Abyssinian service, was driven to sea and carried in an open boat to India, whence he returned in a few months with a favorable wind and much information. Then Hippalus, a venturesome navigator whose name deserved as much honor in Roman annals as that of Columbus in modern history, observed the periodic change of the Indian monsoon (doubtless long known to Arab and Hindu), and boldly setting sail at the proper season made a successful trading voyage and returned with a cargo of all those things for which Rome was paying so generously: gems and pearls, ebony and sandalwood, balms and spices, but especially pepper. The old channels of trade were paralleled but not conquered; so strong was the age-long understanding between Arab and Hindu, that cinnamon, which had made the fortune of traders to Egypt in earlier times, was still found by the Romans only at Guardafui and was scrupulously kept from their knowledge in the markets of India, where it was gathered and distributed; while the leaf of the same tree producing that precious bark was freely offered to the Roman merchants throughout the Malabar coast, and as malabathrum formed the basis of one of their most valued ointments.
Great shiftings of national power followed this entry of Roman shipping into the Indian Ocean. One by one Petra and Gerrha, Palmyra and Parthia itself, their revenues sapped by the diversion of accustomed trade, fell into Roman hands. The Homerite Kingdom in South Arabia fell upon hard times, its capital into ruin, and some of its best men migrated northward and as the Ghassanids bowed the neck to Rome. Abyssinia flourished in proportion as its old enemy declined. If this state of things had continued, the whole course of later events might have been changed. Islam might never have appeared, and a greater Rome might have left its system of law and government from the Thames to the Ganges. But the logic of history was too strong. Gradually the treasure that fell to the Roman arms was expended in suppressing insurrections in the conquered provinces, in civil wars at home, and in a constant drain of specie to the east in settlement of adverse trade balances; a drain which was very real and menacing to a nation which made no notable advance in production or industry by means of which new wealth could be created. As the resources of the West diminished the center of exchange shifted to Constantinople. The trade-routes leading to that center were the old routes through Mesopotamia, where a revivified power under the Sassanids was able to conquer every passage to the East, including even the proud Arab states which had not yielded submission to Hammurabi or Esarhaddon, Nebuchadrezzar or Darius the Great. Egypt, no longer in the highway of commerce, became a mere granary for Constantinople, and Abyssinia, driven from its hard-won footholds east of the Red Sea, could offer the Byzantine emperors no effective aid in checking the revival of Eastern power. And the whirlwind of activity let loose by Mohammed welded the Eastern World as no force had yet done, and brought the West for another millennium to its feet. Not until the coming of those vast changes in industry and transportation which marked the nineteenth century did the Western nations find commodities of which the East stood in need, and laying them down in Eastern market on their own terms, turn back the channels of trade from their ancient direction.
The records of the pioneers, who strove during the ages to stem this irresistible current, are of enduring interest in the story of human endeavor; and among them all, one of the most fascinating is this Periplus of the Erythraean Sea—this plain and painstaking log of a Greek in Egypt, a Roman subject, who steered his vessel into the waters of the great ocean and brought back the first detailed record of the imports and exports of its markets, and of the conditions and alliances of its peoples. It is the only record for centuries that speaks with authority on this trade in its entirety, and the gloom which it briefly lighted was not lifted until the wider activities of Islam broke the time-honored custom of Arab secrecy in trading, and by grafting Arab discovery on Greek theory, laid the foundations of modern geography. Not Strabo or Pliny or Ptolemy, however great the store of knowledge they gathered together, can equal in human interest this unknown merchant who wrote merely of the things he dealt in and the peoples he met—those peoples of whom our civilization still knows so little and to whom it owes so much; who brought to the restless West the surplus from the ordered and industrious East, and in so doing ruled the waters of the “Erythraean Sea.”
THE DATE AND AUTHORSHIP OF THE PERIPLUS
The manuscript copies of the Periplus at Heidelberg and London do not enable us to fix either date or authorship.
The Heidelberg manuscript attributes the work to Arrian, apparently because in that manuscript this Periplus follows a report of a voyage around the Black Sea made by the historian Arrian, who was governor of Cappadocia about 131 CE. This is manifestly a mistake, and the London manuscript does not contain that reference.
The only guidance to date or authorship must be found in the Periplus itself.
Hippalus’ discovery of the sea-route to India, described in para 57, is fixed by Vincent at about 47 CE.
Vincent reasons from Pliny’s account (VI, 24) of the accidental journey of a freedman of Annius Plocamus who had farmed from the Treasury the revenues arising from the Red Sea. This freedman was carried away by a gale and in fifteen days drifted to Ceylon, where he was hospitably received and after a stay of six months returned home; after which the Ceylonese kings sent an embassy to Rome. Pliny says that this occurred during the reign of Emperor Claudius, which began in the year 41. The discovery of Hippalus must have come very soon after.
The discovery of Hippalus, described in para 57, seems to have occurred not long before the author of the Periplus made his voyage. He evidentally feels a deep respect for the discoverer, and goes on to say that “from that time until now” voyages could be made directly across the ocean by the monsoon.
Pliny has but a passing reference to Hippalus, suggesting that between 73 and 77 CE when he was writing, the memory of the discoverer had faded somewhat from view.
Assuming 50 CE as a date earlier than that which this Periplus can not have been written, we must look next for a limit on the other side.
In para 38 is mentioned “the sea-coast of Scythia” around the mouth of the Indus, and the metropolis of Scythia, Minnagara, which was “subject to Parthian princes at war among themselves.”
In para 41 is mentioned another city Minnagara, which, as indicated in the notes, is simply the Hindu name for “city of the invaders”.
In para 47 is mentioned the “very war-like inland nation of the Bactrians.”
As explained in the notes, the Scythians of the Periplus are the Saka tribe, who had been driven from Eastern Turkestan by the Yueh-chi, and overran Beluchistan, the lower Indus valley, and adjacent parts of the coast of India itself. They submitted to the Parthian Kingdom, of which they formed an important part. Their southern extension under Sandares, the ruler mentioned in Para 52, indicates a growing pressure from the Kushan kingdom on the north, but prior to the conquest of this whole country by the Kushans, which occurred soon after 95 CE The “war-like nation of the Bactrians” is the tribe of Yueh-chi or Kushans, formerly subject to China, who, after being driven westward by the Huns, overran the Greek kingdom of Bactria and set up there a powerful kingdom which, early in the second century CE., conquered most of northern India. The conditions in the text indicate a time before this nation had commences its conquests in the valleys of the Indus and the Ganges, and probably before the great defeat of its king Kadphises by the Chinese general Panchao near Khotan, which occurred in 90 CE. A defeat of this magnitude must certainly have been reported throughout India and would not have led our author to refer to the nation as “very warlike.” Thus we arrive at two dates, 90 and 95 CE., later than which this Periplus can not have been written.
In paras 4 and 5 our author mentions the city of the Axumites, and the territory, coast and inland, ruled over by Zoscales; whom Henry Salt identified with the name “Za Hakale” found by him in the Tarik Negusti or Chronicles of the kings of Abyssinia. The duration of this Za Hakale’s reign, according to the Chronicle, was thirteen years, and his dates Salt fixes at 76 to 89 CE. The date of the accession of this Zabaesi Bazen was 84 years prior to that of Za Hakale. Salt’s identification of the name is probably correct, but the dates as they stand in the Chronicles were written some centuries after the events, and can hardly be accepted as safe authority in the absence of other evidence. The fact that nearly all the reigns are given as lasting an even number of years, or else as so many years and six months, shows that shows that the chroniclers were only estimating the time. Salt himself was obliged to rearrange their chronology in order to fit it to known facts, and it is quite possible that his rearrangement has slipped in a whole reign before that of Za Hakale. Obviously Salt’s names are worth more than his dates. South Arabian inscriptions discovered by Glaser indicate the separation of Axum from its mother-land, the Habash or Ethiopia of South Arabia, not long before the date of the Periplus; and the fact that there is no mention of Axum in any work earlier than the Periplus, and not even in Pliny, suggests the same conclusion; namely, that the Abyssinian Chronicles are unreliable, at any rate in their earlier portions. They count as independent kings a number of rulers who must have been subject to the Arabian mother-land; the order of events they relate is uncertain, and their dates are merely approximations.
Even if the dates in the Chronicle, and Salt’s identification of Zoscales with Za Hakale were strictly correct, the date generally accepted for the birth of Christ, 5 BC., would bring Za Hakale’s accession down to 71CE and his death to 84.
Nearly all the commentators think that the Periplus is earlier than Pliny’s Natural History, which is known to have been published between 73 and 77 CE. The principal indication is their similarity in the description of Arabia Felix, where Pliny seems to condense the Periplus, but he does not mention Axum. He ends the African coast at the Promontory of Mosyllum and says that the Atlantic Sea begins there. In this he follows King Juba; but had he known the Periplus he ought to have included the African coast as far as Zanzibar. He has an account of Mariaba, the royal city of Arabia Felix, which the Periplus has not. He quotes Aelius Gallus, writing in 24 B.C., as stating that the Sabaeans are the richest tribe in southern Arabia. The Periplus, however, has them subject to the Homerites, who receive only passing mention from Aelius Gallus.
One is tempted to imagine that Pliny’s account of the voyage to India (VI, 26) in which he refers to “information on which reliance may be placed, here published for the first time,” refers to the Periplus, then existing merely as a merchant’s diary; and Glaser has based much of his argument as to the authorship of the Periplus on that passage; but Pliny goes on to describe a voyage different in many ways from that of the Periplus, and giving quite a different account of the coast of India. At the time Pliny wrote, the sea-route to India had been opened for nearly thirty years, and he might have had this information from any sea-captain, as indeed he might have had the facts concerning Arabia Felix which seem to be in such close agreement with the Periplus. The argument that Pliny, whose work was dedicated in 77 CE, borrowed from the Periplus is, then, suggestive and even plausible, but by no means conclusive.
Returning to para 41, the reference to the anarchy in the Indo-Parthian or Saka region does not suggest the consolidated power of that King of Kathiawar and Ujjain who founded the so-called Saka era of 78 CE; indicating for the Periplus a date earlier than that era.
Mention of the “land of This” in para 64, is helpful. This seems evidently to be the state of Ts’in in northwest China, at the date of the Periplus the most powerful of the states of China, and actively engaged in pushing Chinese boundaries and influence westward across Turkestan. The capital city is supposed to be the modern Singanfu. The text says that “silk is brought overland from that country to Bactria and India,” but that “few men come from there and seldom.” This suggests a time when the trade-routes across Turkestan were still in turmoil and before the conquests of the Chinese general Panchao. The route north of the desert of Turkestan was finally opened by him in 94CE, while the route south of the desert wsa opened as early as 73 CE, indicating that the Periplus must be fixed before that date.
In para 19 is mentioned Malichas, king of the Nabataeans. As Fabricius has pointed out, this is one of the most important indications of date contained in the text. Josephus in his Wars of the Jews mentions a Malchus, king of Arabia, under which name he always refers to the Nabataean kingdom, as having assisted Titus in his expedition against Jerusalem, which he destroyed in the year 70 CE (Bell. Jud., III, 4, § 2); and Vogüé in his Syrie Centrale, Semitic Inscriptions, p. 107, confirms that a Nabataean king Aretas (Hareth), contemporary with the Emperors Tiberius and Caligular, had a son Malik, or Malchus III, who reigned about 40 to 70 CE It was a sister of this Malchus who married Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, and was abandoned by Herod for his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias, mother of Salome. (Josephus, Ant. Jud. XVIII, 8). This action of Herod brought him to war with his father-in-law, Aretas, and doubtless explains to some extent the policy of Malichas in assisting Rome against Judea. This must have been the same as the Malichas of the text, and his action against Jerusalem must have been near the end of his reign. It is fair to infer that if the Periplus had been written after that expedition, Malichas would have been called, like Charibael in para 23, a “friend of the Emperor,” and therefore that the Periplus was written before Titus’ campaign of the year 70.
Again we have the names of Charibael, king of the two tribes, the Homerites and the Sabaites, and of Eleazus, king of the Frankincense Country. It was the opinion of Glaser, based on inscriptions discovered by him in South Arabia, that both these names were titles rather than personal names, and that they were borne by several rulers during the first century A. D. His inscription No. 1619 mentions a king Eleazus who was ruler in 29 CE, and a king Charibael whose reign was from about 40 to 70 CE The mention of Charibael as “a friend of the Emperors” might answer for a date under Vespasian after the succession of short reigns that followed Nero; but the years of turmoil throughout the Roman Empire, for several years after the death of Nero, were not years of prosperous trade such as the Periplus describes. This reference indicates a date early in the reign of Nero, before the memory of his predecessor Claudius had faded; roughly, any time between 54 and 60 CE.
In a reference to the recent destruction of Arabia Eudaemon. Our present knowledge of Arabian history does not give us any positive date for the war leading to the destruction of this Sabaean port, but the inscriptions discovered and commented on by Glaser point to a time after the middle of the first century.
In Para 2 our author mentions the city of Meroe. This capital of the Nubian kingdom was severely treated by the Romans soon after their occupation of Egypt; and an expedition sent out against her under Petronius annihilated her army and destroyed many of her cities, including that of Napata. This was in B.C. 22. That another queen Candace of NUbia retained considerable power in the first half of the first century CE. is shown in Acts VIII, 27. After this Pliny relates, the savage tribes of the neighboring deserts came down, and plundered what was left of the Nubian Kingdom, so that an expedition of inquiry sent by the emperor Nero (Pliny, VI, 35) when he was contemplating a campaign in the South, ventured as far as Meroe and reported that they had met with nothing but deserts on their routes; that the buildings of Meroe itself were but few in number and were still ruled over by a queen named Candace, that name having passed from queen to queen for many years. This state of things can be fixed at about 67 CE. It is obviously later than the account in the Periplus.
Very soon after Pliny’s time Meroe must have been destroyed, as the name does not appear again for several centuries.
A suggestive fact is that the Periplus tells only of the great increase in trade with India, and has no mention of a cessation or decline of that trade consequent upon the burning of Rome, July 19–25 in the year 64. Ten out of the fourteen districts of the city were destroyed. The loss was not equalized; fire insurance did not exist. It is true that this great calamity hardly receives mention in Pliny’s work. He refers to the baseless story of Nero’s having started the fire, and in several passages to the destruction of buildings, temples and the like, always with some reticence. In many places, however, once in so many words, he mentions the crisis through which Rome passed in the later years of Nero and his short-lived successors, and of the “rest brought to an exhausted empire” by the strong hand of Vespasian. But in a work distinctly of a commercial nature, written far from Rome but relating to a commerce whose sudden expansion was due entirely to Roman demand, some mention of the trade depression that must have followed such a destruction of capital and the ensuing political disorder, would have been most probable. The facts of this conflagration and of its effects upon trade are thought to be states in Revelation, c. XVIII, and, notwithstanding the different point of view of the writer of that book, the circumstances he describes are of importance here.
“And the kings of the earth . . . shall bewail her, and lament for her, when they shall see the smoke of her burning, . . . and the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her; for no man buyeth their merchandise any more: the merchandise of gold, and silver, and precious stones, and of pearls, and fine linen, and purple, and silk, and scarlet, and all sweet wood, and all manner vessels of ivory, and all manner vessels of the most precious wood, and of brass, and iron, and marble, and cinnamon, and odours, and ointments, and frankincense, and wine, and oil, and fine flour, and wheat, and beasts, and sheep, and horses, and chariots, and slaves, and souls of men . . . . The merchants of these things, which were made rich by her, shall stand afar off for the fear of her torment, weeping and wailing, and saying, Alas, alas, that great city, that was clothed in fine linen, and purple, and scarlet, and decked with gold, and precious stones, and pearls! For in one hour so great riches is come to nought. And every shipmaster, and all the company in ships, and sailors, and as many as trade by sea, stood afar off, and cried when they saw the smoke of her burning, saying, What city is like unto this great city! And they cast dust on their heads and cried, weeping and wailing, saying, Alas, alas, that great city, wherein were made rich all that had ships in the sea by reason of her costliness! . . . . For thy merchants were the great men of the earth.”
Following the discovery of Hippalus there seems to have been a sudden and enormous increase in the Roman trade with India, and particularly in the importation of Indian products. The Periplus, in para10, refers to the “larger ships” now needed for the cinnamon trade. This increase, particularly in the importation of luxuries, can be ascribed to the fashion of extravagance set by Nero’s court, during the ascendancy of his favorite Sabina Poppaea, whose influence lasted from 58 until her death in 65 CE, Pliny’s reference to the enormous quantity of spices used at Poppaea’s funeral (XII, 41) indicates such an increased trade; which he further confirms (VI, 26) by stating that specie amounting to about $22,000,000 per year was required to balance the trade, and that these Indian imports sold in Rome at one hundred times their cost. Pliny’s figures are untrustworthy, as in XII, 41, he estimates a little over $4,000,000 as the balance of specie required for the entire trade with India, Arabia and China; but a sudden increase in commerce in none the less evident.
The absence of any description in the Periplus of trade with the coasts of the Persian Gulf, then subject to Parthia, suggests that it was written at a time when Rome and Parthia were at war. Our author’s descriptions, even of the southern coast of Arabia, stop at the Frankincense Country and its dependency, the island of Masira; and he explains that the coast beyond the islands of Kuria Muria was “subject to Persia” and thus closed to him. According to the account given by Rawlinson, (Sixth Monarchy, XVI,) conflicting claims as to the Armenian succession led Rome to make war on Parthia in 55 CE., the second year of Nero’s reign. The Parthians, at the time occupied with civil war in the South (possibly even in their newly-acquired South Arabian possessions), gave hostages and abandoned their Armenian pretensions; which, however, they reasserted in 58, when war broke out anew. Hostilities continued in a desultory way until 62, when the two powers agreed upon a mutual evacuation of Armenia and a settlement of the dispute by a Parthian embassy which was to visit Rome. This truce occurred in the summer of 62. The embassy made its visit in the autumn and returned without a treaty. The truce was broken the same winter by a Roman invasion of Armenia, which was repulsed and the truce renewed. A second Parthian embassy to Rome in the spring of 63 settled the matter by placing a Parthian prince on the Armenian throne and requiring him to receive investiture from the Roman Emperor. This ceremony occurred in 65 CE.
The nearest single year that suggests itself as the date of the Periplus is, therefore, 60 CE
As to the authorship, it is best to admit that nothing is known. Fabricius in his first edition of the Periplus attributed it to an Alexandrian merchant named Arrian, but other editions, and Fabricius’ own second edition, remove the name altogether.
That the author was an Egyptian Greek, and a merchan in active trade who personally made the voyage to India, is evident by the text itself; that he lived in Berenice rather than Alexandria is indicated by the absence of any account of the journey up the Nile and across the desert from Coptos, which Strabo and Pliny describe at length. It is possible that he made the voyage from Cape Guardafui to Zanzibar, but the text is so vague and uncertain that he seems rather to be quoting from someone else, unless indeed much of this part of the work has been lost in copying. The coast of Arabia east of the Frankincense Country, the entire Persian Gulf and the coasts of Persia and Beluchistan as far as the Indus river, seem to have been known to him only by hearsay. They were subject to Parthia, an enemy of Rome.
That he was not a highly educated man is evident from his frequent confusion of Greek and Latin words and his clumsy and sometimes ungrammatical constructions. The value of his work consists, not in its literary merits, but in its trustworthy account of the trade of the Indian Ocean and of the settlements around its shores; concerning which, until his time, we possess almost nothing of an intelligent and comprehensive nature.
Source: The present translation is based on Müller’s text, Vincent’s text.