Roman Trade with Africa DOCUMENTARY


In our previous videos on the ancient economy
and trade of the Roman world and beyond, we discussed the importance of Egypt and its
Red Sea trade, and the various plentiful goods which flowed into the empire from foreign
lands unknown to the regular Roman citizen. It is commonly thought that Roman influence
ended in Egypt, but there were economic and political connections between Romans and Africans
far, far to the south. Join us as we follow the ancient Roman sailors and pioneers down
the coast of East Africa and explore the goods and peoples of this region. A big shout-out to one of our long time sponsors,
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help support our channel, go to thegreatcoursesplus.com/kingsandgenerals, or click the link the description below Ever since the 15th century BC reign of Pharaoh
Queen Hatshepsut during the New Kingdom, Ancient Egyptians had used the Red Sea to bypass their
southern neighbors in Nubia and deal directly with those even further south in trade and
commerce. Over a millennium later, this was also the route that the Ptolemaic kings of
Egypt used to stage elephant hunting expeditions down the east coast of Africa. Subsequently,
the Romans inherited these ancient lanes of commerce.
With the transport of goods by sea being almost 30 times cheaper than land haulage, it was
clear that the Red Sea routes would be the most beneficial artery through which the myriad
Roman merchants could make contact with the profitable and relatively untapped markets
of Sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, cargo vessels taking part in this trade did not need to
be especially large in order to make a profit, as a significant portion of the local produce
was light and relatively easy to transport, an example being Somalian Myrrh.
The weather made it possible to set sail down the African East coast at any time from January
to September, but most captains chose the latter end – two months after their counterparts
had set sail for India using the monsoon winds. As we follow a Roman merchant vessel on their
southerly course, the first truly familiar settlement which they would encounter was
the trading station known as Ptolemais Theron – ‘Ptolemais of the Hunts’- founded by
Ptolemy II Philadelphus as one of his many hunting stations. It is said that a Greek
general named Eumedes first established this outpost by cordoning off a rare stretch of
fertile land. At first he was attacked by the natives, however, he answered with generosity
and kindness, and they eventually began to engage in friendly relations.
This is where we encounter our first large sub-Saharan state – the Kingdom of Axum, located
roughly in modern day Ethiopia. At the dawn of the first century AD, it was Axum that
held sovereignty over Theron. While this kingdom was a primarily inland one at this time, it
also had a primary maritime trading post at a town called Adulis – 340 miles, or 5 days
sail, south of Theron. There were legends that it was founded by slaves fled from Egypt,
but in reality it was probably another formerly Ptolemaic hunting station which had blossomed
into a vibrant trading centre, similar to Theron.
In the Augustan era, native Africans would bring large amounts of ivory, rhinoceros horn,
hippopotamus hides, tortoise shells, slaves and other marketable goods to the site for
sale. The Romans first set up their main enclave on a small landmass near the bay known as
Didoros Island, named after the Greek captains who had discovered them. However, it quickly
proved vulnerable to being overrun during plundering raids by native tribes. The fact
that these raids did not immediately discourage commerce, gives further credence to the idea
that the potential profits were worth the risk. Nevertheless, the Roman response was
to move their operations 20 miles offshore to an island named Oreine. This outpost could
only be reached by boat, and was therefore far better shielded from raids. Oreine and
Adulis housed year-round Roman inhabitants and temporary merchants.
During the first century AD, ancient texts and records tells us that one of the main
products shipped from Adulis was turtle-shell, brought to the trading port by the so-called
‘Ichthyophagoi’ natives – or ‘fish-eaters’ – from the nearby coastline. Turtle and tortoise
shells were lucrative prime exports from Axum due to the increasing Roman desire to possess
expensive craft items made from this exotic material.
In the Republican period, senior magistrates of the state would conduct state business
whilst seated on lavishly decorated chairs known as curule seats. This trend had widened
in scope by the Imperial dawn of the first century AD, and the practice of fitting one’s
home with lavish ornaments, as well as ivory and turtleshell furnishings, had spread among
the wealthy. Poet Martial for example, wrote about a certain
wealthy acquaintance named Amoenus, who had purchased a property for the price of 100,000
Sesterces. He then decorated it so richly that, upon selling the property, he demanded
200,000 as the sale price, showing us the value that expensive adornments could have.
Examples of such decoration might have included: ‘doorposts inlaid with beautiful tortoiseshell’
and ornamental furniture ‘embellished with bright turtleshell veneers’. According to
the sources, the price of the turtleshells was 6 Denarii per pound.
Axum also had a tightly state-controlled ivory trade, which was a main source of revenue
for the kingdom. It sent the valuable product to Adulis via an Ethiopian city known as Koloe,
described as the ‘first trading station for ivory’ – three days’ travel inland
from the coastal trading centre. 5 days further inland from this was the capital of the Kingdom
of Axum – the City of Axum itself. Labelled as a ‘metropolis’ by our primary sources,
it stood on the fertile highlands of northern Ethiopia, in a region commonly grazed by herds
of forest elephants and white rhino. It was at this urban centre the Ethiopian
king Zoskales controlled the valuable ivory traffic, which probably entered the treasury
initially as taxes from subject communities, tribute from vassals or as income from royal
hunts. Throughout the kingdom, royal agents controlled the bulk of ivory stocks, and most
of the valuable exchange goods sent into Axum were ultimately destined for the king.
King Zoskales was on good terms with the various Roman merchants and diplomats who visited
the royal court, but was apparently a notoriously hard bargainer when it came to making deals
with them. Sources state that “Zoskales is astute about his possessions and in his
dealings with us he is always holding out. But, in all other respects he is a fine person
and he is well versed in Greek reading and writing.” The goods which he was expertly
bartering for included gold and silver tableware from the Empire, fashioned in the Axumite
manner. This was important to the locals, due to the fact that communal feasting and
drinking was a common social tradition, and therefore expensive tableware was a status
symbol. The Axumite ruler also accepted batches of heavy Roman cloaks, as well as Indian iron
and steel, produced using ‘eastern techniques unknown to Roman metalworkers’.
Ivory was also a much-demanded product far to the north in the Roman Empire, as it could
be used for fashionable decoration in a similar manner to the aforementioned shells. As an
example, we know that ‘ivory ceilings with gilded beams’ were present in aristocratic
estates, in addition to table-legs and ivory dinner-couches combined with an adornment
of tortoiseshell. Ivory was also used in religious rituals, as flutes and musical pipes crafted
from the material were used ceremonially during animal sacrifices.
Smaller practical items such as writing styluses, combs, hairpins and even backscratchers were
crafted and sold to wealthy buyers. Some Roman legionaries also paid for their personal swords
to be enhanced with ivory hilts, but these were likely the more wealthy soldiers, such
as centurions or tribunes. Costing even more than the pricing for turtle and tortoise shells,
the 9 Denarii per pound cost for ivory shows us just why the Axumite monarch sought to
control this industry so much. The natural environment of the region of Axum
and sub-saharan Africa also provided unique goods which the Romans prized. A rather vaguely
described ‘large beach’ around 90 miles south of Adulis was the source of the famous
volcanic glass known as Obsidian. This material, which would have almost seemed magical to
the ancients, was quarried from black volcanic rocks deep beneath the surface of the sand,
and was supposedly ‘a natural creation of that place alone’. Pliny tells that the
Roman people would use this strange material to make cult statues for their gods, craft
dark mirrors which reflected ‘shadows rather than clear images’ and to test precious
stones, which would not be damaged if scratched by a flake of Obsidian, while glass copies
would be left with a white mark. Though this beach was nominally under the control of the
Axumite monarchy, emphasis is placed on the assertion that they did not fully exploit
the area for this precious resource. In exchange for the luxury ivory, turtle and
tortoise-shell goods provided by the native peoples, Roman traders offered common and
inexpensive goods from the Empire which were, however, in high demand in the Axumite kingdom.
Large quantities of Egyptian fabric were traded, including linens, scarves from Arsinoe and
coloured cloaks made from printed cloth. There was also a market for low-value Roman
metals in the sub-saharan regions of Africa. Aksumite traders would accept brass and copper
pans, as well as drinking vessels, due to the fact that they could be cut apart in order
to make decorative armlets for local women. In addition, their materials were also repurposed
in order to serve as a form of coinage. As local Aksumite iron supplies were also
of low quantity and quality, Roman merchants provided locals with stocks from the Empire,
with which they could manufacture higher quality woodcutting tools, weapons and hunting equipment.
It is even noted that Roman iron was commonplace in spears crafted for felling elephants.
A final export commodity on the Roman export list to Axum was Indian lac-dye, which the
state would use in order to equip its soldiers and bureaucrats with scarlet coloured uniforms.
In addition, we mentioned before how there was a permanent Roman mercantile presence
in the Aksumite kingdom. In order to engage in commerce with these migrants, traders from
the empire were therefore often advised to bring essential Mediterranean goods such as
Italian wine and olive oil to trade as an alternative to cash, as they could not be
grown in Africa. Now having learned all of this, we must now
depart Axum and sail even further down the eastern coast of Africa. At this point, Roman
ships prepared to leave the Red Sea and make contact with markets in Somalia. Beyond the
flat and barren Somalian coastal plains there were arid mountains and a large inland plateau,
on which a variety of exotic aromatic trees grew wild. The trading stations in this distant
land were known by the Romans as the ‘Far-Side ports’ and were more traditionally ‘uncivilised’
than those regions closer to the Empire. There were no cities or indigenous kingdoms
in this part of Africa, and the natives instead lived in small, self governing tribal communities.
Each of the coastal trade stations here were not ruled by an overarching king, but were
each ruled by its own chief, or tyrannida. Each of these ‘far-side markets’ was known
to have its own distinct character, some were considered unruly and rowdy while others generally
had a peaceful reputation. Whatever their behavior, Roman traders generally referred
to these Africans as Barbaroi – or Barbarians. These longer distance trading expeditions
now began to require larger and more specialised ships which would travel specifically to the
far-side markets to acquire their unique incense products – whereas some other vessels merely
sailed along the coast, taking advantage of opportunities where they came.
The first of the ‘far-side’ markets reached by Roman ships was the small port town of
Avalites, which stood on the narrow, choke-point-like entrance to the Red Sea, and possessed one
of the populations known to be ‘unruly’. Rafts and small craft from other parts of
the African east coast and Arabia would routinely come to this settlement, along with the Romans.
In return for low value goods such as colourful glass baubles, Egyptian olives, Roman clothing,
grain and tin, local traders provided small amounts of ivory, turtle-shell, and an extremely
high quality Myrrh which was valued at 16 Denarii per pound of weight – more than a
labourer earned in two weeks. Sailing further, the first Somali port on
the Horn of Africa was Malao, a settlement which offered plentiful Myrrh supplies, and
an extremely valuable product known as cassia: a type of cinnamon, which was sold for 50
Denarii per pound. In return for these highly sought after products and other fragrant woods,
Romans exchanged objects similar to those at Avalites.
It was at this point on the coastal voyage that Arabic traders became a common sight,
and Romans had to compete with them for business. Two days sail further east was the port of
Mundu, and it offered similar goods to Malao in return for Roman clothing, food, glassware,
iron and money. We know that glassware was a popular exchange item here because shards
of it have been found in archaeological expeditions. Similar to the Axumite king, the native dealers
at this port also had a thrifty and hard bargaining reputation.
Two or three days even further east was Mosyllon, almost at the very point of East Africa’s
horn. This settlement had close access to different inland regions, which in turn, offered
unique natural products. This included large quantities of the aforementioned valuable
cassia, and this location was so famed for that particular high-demand, high-value product
that larger Roman ships would go specifically to Mosyllon to trade in it. Due to the very
expensive nature of the cassia, Roman traders offered native traders silverware and precious
stones. Further ports in the Somalia region offered
similar products and traded them for similar Roman exports. Rounding the Horn of Africa
and then sailing south, specialised trading ships would eventually reach a trading post
known as Opone, which was especially known for its good quality African slaves. After
skipping by several other smaller trading stations such as Sarapion, Nikon and the island
of Menuthias, a Roman trader would reach ‘the very last port of trade on the coast of East
Africa.’ – Rhapta. At this point, the enterprising sailor was around 3,000 miles away from the
Imperial borders. If they looked further south, they would see an uncharted, unknown territory
and had no incentives to explore further. We are planning to make more videos on the
Roman economy, so make sure you are subscribed to our channel and have pressed the bell button.
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100 thoughts on “Roman Trade with Africa DOCUMENTARY

  1. Ancient world trade is suprisingly the most interesting topic in my opinion. Would like to see more videos like this one, thanks Kings and Generals!

  2. I can somehow feel that being a roman merchant in those times are full of adventures going into the unknown. Also, the dangers that goes along with it. Perhaps having a 3 or 4 ex-praetorian would be good as bodyguards.

    Thank you for the video Kings & Generals! It was full of educational information and fun to watch too.

  3. Can you do historical total war gameplay to reenact history with ingame footage. That would look great.

  4. Great video lots of useful information, maybe consider not referring to people as “native” when discussing Africans. It’s particularly redundant and carries very little useful information. It creates an unnecessary and somewhat problematic split. IE if it was the other way around it would sound odd to say Nubians traded with “native” Romans right?

  5. Love the vid and the channel, but can I get the source for your claim at 4:00 that Aksum was a former hunting station? I've literally never heard this theory before, and I'm skeptical since, like you said, Aksum was a mostly inland kingdom with its own culture and customs. Unless there's significant evidence for colonization/founding by Greeks imma take that claim with a hefty grain of salt. Keep up the awesome work 🙂

  6. As an Abyssinian, I appreciate the mention of Aksum. Little is known about Da’mot and Aksum and a lot of subsaharan African history is often misrepresented or ignored.

    Perhaps touching on the Aksumite expansion into Himyarite territory is in order?

  7. Nice video about the Roman trade with the kingdom of Axum and East African cities. The most valuable East African export to Rome was myrh that 16 denari per pound and cassia that cost 50 dinar per pound. The West African Akan chiefs stool seats and togas remind me of the Roman magistrate curule seats and togas The Romans also explored the interior of Africa. In 19 BC Roman Cornelius Balbinus crossed the Sahara and explored the Niger river. in 41 CE Roman consul Paulinus traveled from Morocco to the Senegal river. In 50 CE Roman Flaccus crossed the Sahara and reached Lake Chad in Nigeria. Roman merchants also traveled to Zanzibar in Tanzania coast.

  8. There's just so much history that we don't know about subsaharan Africa. Wish we knew more about the various civilizations and cultures of Africa

  9. I thank you for having quality videos and weekly uploads, the episodes on economy are terrific. Keep up the great work!

  10. Maybe a video about amber trade from Bronze Age to Roman times? Very interesting subject.

  11. This series is extraordinary!!! Its far beyond any other historical documentary in youtube! It helps us to understand ancient world like never before and make us think about nowdays economy. Thank you for this great work! I cant wait for the next video!

  12. great video i knew that the ancient rome and egypt had trade relations with african kingdoms south of the sahara but not in India

  13. Wonderful video. I have always been fascinated by the trade networks of the Roman Empire, and look forward to learning more about these frontier regions.

  14. @03:50
    Excuse me but you are wrong in saying that adulis was founded by ptolemaic king.

    I know that you didn't had any bad intentions when saying so, but it is indicative of you subconscious thoughts of "Africans can't build such an amazing civilised nation, it was probably a white king/guy that build it for them."

    Again I can't pass without mentioning that I mean no disrespect, but as a person from the area that you mentioned, I feel deeply disrespected.

    Pls next time use archeological proof when saying such an outrageous comment.

    Have a nice day.

  15. The region was called bilad el berbera by the ancient Arabs, meaning land of berbers that’s why the roman called it berberio. The inhabitant did not call them selves by that name

  16. The Askum Kings were Semetic people the same as the Carthaginians were… Not Sub Saharan as you portray them

  17. I absolutely love the focus on economy and trade when looking at history. Back when I was a child, schools used to focus solely on battles, years and names. Adding economy brings so much more context and makes thing so much more interesting!

  18. እዚ እዩ ከኣ ቃንቅኦም ክትፈልጥዎ this is Aksumite language it’s called ga’ze the best civilization ever

  19. Wait what about that time when Roman trader or general, found lake Chad and traded with natives? Were they trading later or that route was forgotten.

  20. Idea for more videos: how did commerce affect Roman's world view. Did they think there was something beyond their known trading posts? What did Roman's think of Africa, Arabia or India? Were they just "barbarians" or was somebody interested in other's civilization's culture? Where there explorers that visited southern Africa o East Asia?

  21. the name of the city Adulis comes from the saho words of Ado and lay. Ado means white and lay means water. So the name of the city was white water. Koloe is also know as Qohaito which means stone city. Both Adulis and Qohaito are saho cities
    Saho is a kushitic language in the horn of africa Spoken by the saho people who live mainly in Eritrea

  22. I would love to live in them times imgane the exploitations you would go on no passport just a horse and a supply off water and food and your off

  23. Bravo! Phenomenal video.

    Having deployed to East Africa twice I really appreciated this production. I learned quite a bit

  24. Love these economics videos! Can you make WW2 economics videos? Everyone talks about the war but almost no one talks about the economics

  25. the use of pound as a measurement in this video greatly confuses me. Inst pound an exclusively English measurement?

  26. the best channel on youtube .Please make video about ancient tribes in Africa ,warriors,also ,please ,make about ancient Ethiopia.

  27. And I always thought the Indian Ocean trade network wasn't broken into by Europeans until the Portuguese in the 15th century. I never knew Romans sailed so far from Egypt!

    But now it makes much more sense to me how St. Thomas established a small Christian enclave in India around 50AD. He just hopped a ship and transferred a few times.

  28. So many people are Ichtyophagoi even today
    Ichtyophagocosmos
    Ichtyophagopolai
    Ichtyofagot haha, i couldn’t resist

  29. as a student and angst ridden teen back in the days my dream had always been to discover 'Raphta' on the coast of Tanzania like a "Tanzaniana Juma'' (my swahilized version of Indiana Jones) but alas life intervened. Seeing it shrouded in darkness around

    @16:48 almost got me tearing up… Great video as always

  30. dude axum was not founded by slaves or Greeks it originated from a civilization called dmat was founded by people called agaw people

  31. Euro centric BULLSHIT and lies
    The AFRICANS where advanced at this point and where in cities.
    When he said rhat bullshit about the Somali confirmed my suspensions

  32. Wait….wait…. they sold hippo hides? What did they use them for and did the Romans used them for war? If not, Why the F*ck not!? Don't give me that excuse it is too expensive. So was metal but they used them.

  33. I am guessing the raids did not try to do anything potentially destroy any way for locals to sell at the port. Maybe it was seen like a valuable resource most opponents wished to fight for ownership. It's like how some African places fight each over resources they can use to make a living off of or help their war effort.

  34. I guess in this case, "We wuz Kangs and sheet" actually applies here. But seriously i'm impressed with the kingdom of "Axum".

  35. Where would you buy slaves in Rome? Was there a thriving slave market?
    Did slaves come from all conquered territories?

  36. @Kings and Generals by the way you got one thing WRONG, you said there were no Somali cities in Somalia in this time period and that these places they traded in were "trade-post" or "villages", that was not the case a as there have been archeological evidence of great thriving cities where these market towns use to be. Mosylon, Malao, Avalites, Mundus, Opone etc etc, these were Somali city-states.

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