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Ancient India-Europe Maritime Trade Route


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Ancient India-Europe Maritime Trade Route, Port of Muziris

Mains level : Not Much

europe trade

Central Idea

India- Europe: Glimpse into Historical Trade Route

  • Early Discoveries: The trade between Rome and India during antiquity was established by early excavations. Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s work at Arikamedu in the 1930s and 40s confirmed the existence of Indo-Roman trade in the 1st century CE.
  • Recent excavations: Ongoing archaeological excavations, such as those at Muziris in Kerala and Berenike in Egypt, continue to yield new evidence.
  • Revised Understanding: However, early interpretations often overlooked the agency of Indian merchants and ship owners in this trade. Recent discoveries have expanded and corrected our understanding of this ancient trade network.
  • Staggering Scale: Recent estimates, supported by the Muziris Papyrus, reveal the immense scale of the Red Sea trade. Custom taxes on goods from India, Persia, and Ethiopia possibly contributed up to one-third of the Roman exchequer’s income.

Details unveiled by Muziris Excavations

  • Custom Taxes: The Muziris Papyrus detailed a cargo’s value, highlighting its enormous worth, with one cargo alone being equivalent to the purchase of premium farmland in Egypt or a prestigious estate in central Italy.
  • Roman Revenue: The import tax collected on this cargo alone exceeded two million sesterces. Extrapolating from these figures, Indian imports into Egypt were likely worth over a billion sesterces annually, with tax authorities generating 270 million sesterces.
  • Comparative Significance: These revenues surpassed those of entire subject countries, emphasizing the pivotal role of this trade route in sustaining the Roman Empire’s vast conquests and legions.
europe trade ancient muziris
Muziris Papyrus

Trade details

  • Peak Period: During the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, a maritime highway connected the Roman Empire and India through the Red Sea. This route witnessed hundreds of ships travelling in both directions annually.
  • Traded Goods: The Romans had a great demand for Indian luxuries, including perfumes, ivory, pearls, gemstones, and exotic animals like elephants and tigers. Pepper, India’s major export, was particularly sought after, finding its way into Roman cuisine.
  • Trade from Rome: The flow of goods from Rome to India was limited, with gold being a prominent export. Roman wine was one notable exception, appreciated by Indians.

Pre-Common Era Trade

  • Early Indian Diaspora: Evidence suggests the existence of an Indian diaspora in the Middle East during the time of the Indus Valley Civilization (c. 3300-1300 BCE). This early trade was coastal and involved smaller quantities of goods.
  • Roman Period Expansion: The trade expanded significantly during Roman times, facilitated by large cargo ships directly connecting the subcontinent and the Roman Empire. Romans played a key role in industrializing this trade.
  • Post-Conquest Peak: The conquest of Egypt by the Romans in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE opened up the route to India, leading to a substantial increase in trade.

Organization and Duration of Journeys

  • Highly Organized Trade: Contracts were established between Indian merchants in Kerala and shippers in Alexandria. Goods were transported in containers, similar to modern practices, with references to insurance.
  • Understanding Monsoons: Indians recognized the monsoon winds’ seasonal patterns, enabling them to navigate the route efficiently. The journey to Egypt took approximately six to eight weeks, depending on favorable wind conditions.
  • Extended Stays: Indian diaspora rented houses in Egyptian ports while waiting for wind patterns to shift, allowing for the integration of Indian culture into these regions.

Roles of Indians in the Trade

  • Indian Seafaring Culture: Evidence suggests that Indian dynasties were interested in seafaring, as depicted in Ajanta paintings and early Indian coin designs featuring ships.
  • Indian Sailors: Graffiti left by Indian sailors, primarily Gujaratis from Barigaza (modern-day Bharuch), has been discovered in the Hoq caves on the island of Socotra, emphasizing their active participation in the trade network.

Comparing with the Silk Road

  • Indian Centrality: The ancient economic and cultural hub of Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and its ports played a central role in maritime East-West exchange. The concept of the “Silk Road” is relatively recent and inaccurately portrays the ancient trade routes.
  • Historical Invisibility: The Silk Road concept was coined in the late 19th century and did not exist in ancient or medieval times. It gained popularity in the 20th century, fostering romanticized ideas about East-West connectivity.
  • Recent Politicization: Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative has politicized the Silk Road, making it a central component of Chinese foreign policy.

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