About... Desi Food History

A Spicy Business!

Spices were big business back in the day! And business was booming. We are talking about ancient times here, not like a few years ago. Read below to learn all about the ancient spice trade and how far and wide the Indian spices were in demand. Once you read this – it should become clear why everyone wanted to get a clear trade route to get the spices and control the routes and the trade of spices! You could say things got spicy as more people wanted a lion’s share of the spice business.

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Trade with Ancient Rome

There is evidence that the Romans had trade relations with India as early as the 1st century BCE, as documented in the writings of the Roman historian Pliny the Elder.

Pepper and ginger grow wild in their country, yet here we buy them by weight, using so much gold and silver!

Pliny the Elder

Pliny the Elder was a Roman author and naturalist who lived during the 1st century AD. In his work “Naturalis Historia,” he wrote extensively about the trade between Rome and India. He described the Indian Ocean as “the most peaceful of all seas” and wrote about the trade winds that facilitated travel between India and the Red Sea.

Pliny also wrote about the high value of Indian spices and the Roman empire’s demand for them. He noted that the Romans had to pay in gold and silver to acquire Indian spices, which were highly prized for their taste and medicinal properties.

He also wrote about Indian textiles, pearls, and precious stones that were highly prized by the Romans.

The Roman trade with India was primarily conducted by Indian merchants who traveled by sea along the Red Sea and Indian Ocean trade routes

Historical accounts of 2000+ years ago

Pliny’s accounts provide valuable insight into the economic and cultural exchange between Rome and India during the ancient period.

According to historical accounts, the Roman trade with India was primarily conducted by Indian merchants who traveled by sea along the Red Sea and Indian Ocean trade routes. The trade was driven by a demand for spices and other luxury goods that were not available in the Mediterranean region.

Some notable examples of Roman figures who were known to have been interested in spices and Indian goods include Julius Caesar, who is said to have been a fan of Indian pepper, and Cleopatra, who was known to have imported large quantities of spices into Egypt.

The Roman trade with India is believed to have continued for several centuries, although the exact duration of the trading partnership is not known. Indian spices and other goods were highly sought after in Rome, and the trade was likely a major source of income for Indian merchants.

In terms of the goods that were imported from India to Italy and Greece, spices were certainly among the most highly valued items. Other Indian goods that were popular in Rome included textiles, ivory, and precious stones.

It is not clear what the Indians were taking back from Italy and Greece, as there are few records of the goods that were exported from Rome to India during this period. However, it is likely that the Romans would have exported a range of goods to India, including metals, wine, and olive oil, which were highly prized in the Mediterranean region.

Trade with Ancient Greeks

There is evidence of trade between ancient Greeks and Indians, particularly in the Hellenistic period (323 BCE-31 BCE) when Alexander the Great’s conquests brought the Greeks in contact with various Indian kingdoms.

The Greeks were interested in Indian goods such as textiles, precious stones, ivory, and spices, and Indian exports to Greece included goods such as indigo, pepper, ginger, and cinnamon. The Greek historian Megasthenes, who lived in India during the 4th century BCE, wrote about the Indian exports in his book “Indika.” Greek historian Strabo also mentioned Indian spices in his work “Geographica,” describing their uses in cooking and medicine.

The Greeks also exported their own goods to India, such as wine, olive oil, and textiles. Some Greek colonies were established in northwest India, and archaeological evidence suggests that there was trade between the two regions, with Greek coins and pottery found in India and Indian goods found in Greek settlements.

The Greek-Indian trade relationship was not as significant as the Roman-Indian trade, but there is evidence of cultural and economic exchange between the two regions.

Trade with Ancient Egypt

There is evidence of trade between India and Egypt dating back to ancient times. The Egyptians were known to trade with India for spices, aromatic woods, textiles, and other luxury goods. The ancient Egyptians were also known to have used Indian spices in their embalming practices.

Archaeological excavations at several sites in Egypt have revealed the presence of Indian spices, including black pepper, ginger, and cardamom, which were imported from India. These spices were highly prized by the Egyptians, who used them not only for culinary purposes but also for medicinal and religious purposes.

One of the most significant pieces of evidence for Indian-Egyptian trade is the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a Greek manuscript that dates back to the 1st century CE. The Periplus describes the trade routes between India and the Red Sea, and provides a detailed account of the commodities traded between India and Egypt, including spices, precious stones, ivory, and textiles.

In addition, several ancient Egyptian texts and inscriptions have been found that mention the importation of Indian spices. For example, the temple of Kom Ombo, which dates back to the Ptolemaic era, contains a relief that depicts the transport of Indian spices, including cinnamon and cassia, from the Red Sea to the temple.

Records or artifacts from those times
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Source – In addition to a Buddha statue, Sanskrit inscriptions from 2000 years ago were found, as were coins from the Satavahana empire from Southern India.

There have been several archaeological findings that indicate the trade relationship between India and the ancient Roman and Greek civilizations.

One example of such a finding is the discovery of Roman coins in India, particularly in the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. These coins, dating back to the 1st century BCE, suggest that Roman traders were present in India during that time.

Another important archaeological discovery is the ancient port of Muziris, located in present-day Kerala, which was a major trading center for the Romans and Greeks. Excavations at the site have uncovered several artifacts, including amphorae (a type of container used to transport goods), pottery, and coins, all of which point to a thriving trade relationship between India and the ancient world.

Additionally, the discovery of a Roman glass bowl in Pompeii, Italy, that was made in India is further evidence of the trade relationship between the two civilizations.

In terms of written records, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus mentions the trade relationship between India and the Greeks in his writings, specifically in his book “The Histories.” He writes about the various goods that were traded, including spices, textiles, and precious stones.

Coins from India, Egypt, Greece and Rome

Coins from ancient India, Egypt, Greece, and Rome provide evidence of trade between these regions. For example, Indian coins from the Kushan period (1st-3rd centuries CE) have been found in archaeological excavations in Egypt, suggesting that there was direct trade between the two regions during this time.

Similarly, Greek coins have been found in archaeological sites in India, particularly in the northwestern region, which was once part of the Hellenistic world. These coins indicate that there was some level of trade and exchange between the two regions during the Hellenistic period (4th-1st centuries BCE).

Coins from the Roman period also provide evidence of trade with India. Roman coins have been found in southern India, particularly in the region of Tamil Nadu. These coins suggest that there was direct trade between Rome and India during the early centuries CE, with Indian spices being one of the major commodities exchanged.

The symbols and inscriptions on these coins also provide insights into the political and economic conditions of these regions at the time. For example, some Indian coins from the Kushan period depict rulers such as Kanishka and Vasudeva, who were known for their patronage of Buddhism and the arts.

There is no direct evidence on the costs of spices in these regions at the time, as there are no surviving records or accounts of the prices.

However, we can infer from the fact that spices were traded over long distances that they were valuable commodities that commanded a high price in these regions. It is likely that spices were exchanged for other goods, such as precious metals, textiles, and other luxury items, or simply being directly purchased with gold or silver.

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