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,
The Great Courses Plus! They’ve been supporting us since we were a small channel and we can’t
recommend them enough. If you don’t know what The Great Courses Plus
is, it’s a subscription on-demand video service that has lectures from top professors all
over the world. There are over 11,000 lectures on any subject, and over 70 courses on history.
We recently watched a course called “Red Dawn: Americans and the Bolshevik Revolution” which
talks about the events of the Bolsheviks taking over the Russian government. It was a really
interested course that we highly recommend to our subscribers. To watch this course and
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.
We would like to express our gratitude to our Patreon supporters and channel members,
who make the creation of our videos possible. Now, you can also support us by buying our
merchandise via the link in the description. This is the Kings and Generals channel, and
we will catch you on the next one.