Book Review: The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean

The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean: the ancient world economy & the kingdoms of Africa, Arabia, & India, by Raoul McLaughlin. 4.5 out of 5 stars. There are some bits that are repeated between chapters on different kingdoms when the author hits information that applied to more than one area, with no in-text mention of “as seen in Chapter X”. So if you don’t recognize the name or place from a couple chapters back, you might miss the connection. And you have to make connections to see the big picture, because there is an incredible amount of information in this book. Ranging from about 100 BC to about 200 AD, the author uses modern archaeology and sources of the time to cover the extent of Rome’s trade with everything south and east of the Mediterranean. (The bibliography is 3.5 pages of very tiny print.)

A couple of odd interesting points I came away with. First, by any sane economic standards, Rome should have left Britain out of the Empire. Given they financed the imperial government largely by taxes on goods coming across the border from outside the Empire, they would have made more money if Britain was a foreign nation. On top of that the occupied territory was a money sink, providing enough taxes for three legions when it took over four to keep it pacified.

Second, if what you’re trading for is a renewable resources – incense, pearls, silk, etc. – what you’re trading back darn well better be something you can replenish as well. Trading gold and silver for anything else will not work, long term, if the precious metals never come back. (Caches of Roman coins in India, peppercorns in Arabia, and splinters of ivory in Roman warehouses are just some of the contributions archaeology made to this book.)

Third, the tighter a network of trade pulls nations together, the more likely the whole system is to collapse like a house of cards when an unforeseen catastrophe occurs. Long term drought, as seen in 1177 BC: the year civilization collapsed. The Antonine Pandemic in this book, circa 160 AD-189 AD and later. Measles, smallpox, some unholy combination of both; whatever it was, it killed about three out of ten people everywhere from the Han Chinese army to Roman miners in Britain. Many of those who survived were seriously injured; blind, halt, lame, and/or deaf. The resulting collapse may have been worse for average Roman citizens given Rome’s dependence on merchant shipping bringing in grain as well as luxuries from Egypt and beyond, but the Han regime collapsed as well.

Fourth, despite all this, relatively free markets let the Roman Empire exist longer and work more cheaply than the later bureaucratic mess they had to establish to collect taxes directly from citizens. Swarms of merchants after individual profits are much more efficient than top-down one-size-fits-all bureaucratic regulation. A lesson I wish our own government would learn.

Some of the interesting odd tidbits in this book: Buddhist Romans. This was not a thing I was aware had existed.

The human tendency toward graffiti has left interesting archaeological evidence all over the place, including ship designs in Pompeii and international spice shipping across the Eastern Desert of Egypt to Red Sea ports.

The Roman Empire may have had some clue about scurvy on long eastern sea voyages. One pharmakoi (medicine) consignment that kept showing up was jars of quince-flavored honey, that would have been high in Vitamin C.

If you want to write a historical fiction set in ancient Rome with characters from Somalis to Tibetans, yes, they could have been there. Probably as slaves, but there. OTOH if you want to write Romans in India, they were there, too; sometimes as slaves, often as merchants, or mercenaries!

All in all, a fascinating book. I got it to get a picture of how worldwide Iron Age trade might work, and it did not disappoint. So if you’re writing in a similar setting (like, say, the Magi fandom), and you really want to get into the economic nuts and bolts, check it out. And there’s a sequel on the Silk Road!


14 thoughts on “Book Review: The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean

  1. Quince-flavored honey, or the “quince honey” you make by stewing quince and adding lots of honey/sugar? (Which is basically a gooey preserve/jelly, but nifty because it’s pink if you hit the right temperatures at the right time.) I guess that if you wanted it to keep longer than a few months and at higher shelf temperatures, you’d put in more honey than quince.

    And yes, either way it would be full of Vitamin C. The other thing that probably goes back to Roman times is the salt-preserved lemons, limes, etc. Romans loved to put things in layers of salt, because that’s how they made fish for garum. But preserving most things was a less stinky business than preserving fish.

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  2. Ooh! There is indeed a Roman recipe for honeyed quinces: “So that Cydonian apples may be served for a long time…” (Ut mala Cydonia diu serventur) They added defrutum (boiled down grape mustum syrup) which may have ensured a level of pink color consistency. Also more pectin, I guess, although quince is ridiculously full of pectin.

    I’m so excited! I’m a Roman cook and didn’t know it!

    Other recipes included vinegar (which would have made it a sort of quince sekanjabin syrup, which could be easily stored if you boiled it down far enough, or may have just been for the sweet and sour lovers) as well as various ground-up nuts and spices for flavor.

    And of course there’s quince paste (membrillo paste at the froufrou side of the deli or the Spanish section of a supermarket), which lasts a fairly long time in a package, but which might have been harder to keep in a long votage.

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    1. Cotognata is the Sicilian version of membrillo paste or ‘quince cheese.’

      The hilarious thing is that melocoton, the Spanish word for peach, literally means “honey quince,” and is a cognate to one of the Italian words for quince, “mele cotogne.” Cotoneum, another Latin term for quince, is a Latinized form of Cydonia (a Cretan town now called Chania or Canea). (The Roman word for peach was mala persicum or just persicum, “Persian apple.”)

      There’s also some doubt as to whether mala Cydonia were quince, because they were soft and had down on their peels, which comes up in Virgil in some kind of boys with downy cheeks = quinces joke, along the same line as the boys = peaches jokes.

      But quince grown in hotter areas includes fruit breeds you can eat right off the tree and which are softer and less astringent, and Rome was living through a global warming period. Temperate zone quince breeds today never “get ripe” to that extent, so you have to cook them to eat them. But apparently some breeds do have a sort of brown, downy “beard” of fiber, which gets removed by modern grocery stores. So I think the matter is fairly clear, especially since the quince = Cydonia or cotoneum seems pretty consistent in Romance languages.

      Re: the Antonine pandemic, that sounds like something I need to read up on.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, it’s a good thing to have a modern search term, because the various plagues were associated with a lot of local mob persecution of Christians and Jews (because the gods were mad at them for not worshipping, and that’s what caused plagues and famines). And it’s also associated with Christians notoriously sticking around in the neighborhood and providing medical care and basic food and fluids to their pagan neighbors who got sick.

        And there were a lot of Christians who were also physicians, from apostolic times on, and especially in the East. (And it turns out that they started having free Christian hospitals there at least fifty years before St. Fabiola’s free hospital in Rome, which was the first in the West.)

        So yeah, there was a lot of death, but a surprising amount of people did survive if they were given any care at all.

        But there’s also the Decian Plague and some others. All pretty horrible.

        But everybody else was having plagues too, and frankly the framework of the Roman Empire was quite robust. It’s the West that had too much going on; and even then, it was the high taxes and high enslavement rates for falling behind on taxes that did for the Empire. And all the perpetual emperor bids.

        The History of Britain podcast has a lot a lot of in-depth examination of the Empire in the West, and the zombie ghost empires in the West, and how long that went on. There were hundreds of years after the Fall, when Bob down the street might still be sure that he was a citizen of the Empire, and that everything was going to be fine eventually, but hey, maybe I should try to get named Emperor so that we get some law and order around here! Heck, Bob might even be getting paid a salary from Byzantium, or at least be listed on the rolls.


  3. The human tendency toward graffiti has left interesting archaeological evidence all over the place, including ship designs in Pompeii and international spice shipping across the Eastern Desert of Egypt to Red Sea ports.

    :adds more espresso to her coffee:

    I swear, I read that as “interesting archeological evidence all over the place, including ship designs in Pompeii and International Space Station designs across the eastern desert-“

    Liked by 1 person

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