The Global History of Indo-Byzantine Exchange

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A review of Indo-Byzantine Exchange, Fourth–Seventh centuries: A Global History, by Rebecca Darley.

Rebecca Darley’s doctoral dissertation is commendable for bringing to the limelight a period of interaction between the Mediterranean and South Asia that had previously been sidelined in favour of earlier periods of exchange between those regions, in particular the first–second centuries AD. With a keen eye to disciplinary biases, Darley questions throughout her thesis many stubborn assumptions about “Indo-Roman” trading relations that were frequently constructed on the patchiest of evidence, whether literary, archaeological or numismatic. Darley also problematises the term “Indo-Roman/Byzantine trade” and rightly suggests that this should be contextualised in wider Indian Ocean trade connections that stretched the length and breadth of the Indian Ocean, from East Africa to Southeast Asia.

Darley makes the pertinent point that the Roman-Indian trading network has acquired greater visibility in scholarship due to an active interest in scouting for Roman networks, even if they are not the most prominent features in Indian Ocean archaeological landscapes. Mediterranean demand, in truth, was neither a singular nor the most important driving force of trade in the Indian Ocean world. Older narratives of Indian Ocean trade in antiquity, born in the climate of European high imperialism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, foregrounded Roman demand as the paramount agency which shaped trade in the Indian Ocean. Darley’s thesis firmly dispels Romano-centric models and returns the Indian Ocean to local players.

In the introductory chapter Darley outlines the spatial and temporal boundaries of the project and provides a brief survey of the literary and archaeological sources consulted. Darley then effortlessly guides the reader through Roman and Byzantine history, which forms the necessary political backdrop for the project. Chapter 2, no doubt one of the highlights of the work, concentrates on historiographical issues, namely how the surviving evidence for Indo-Byzantine trade has been collected, interpreted and frequently tailored to fit preconceived maximalist interpretations of Indian Ocean trade. Darley underscores the long-lasting negative impact of such interpretative models, which follow the cadences of Roman/Byzantine rather than local history.

Chapter 3 compares and contrasts two key Greek sources for Roman/Byzantine trade with the East: the anonymous Periplus Maris Erythraei of the first century AD and the eleventh book of the Christian Topography of Cosmas, from the sixth century. The focus here is contextualising the texts in their intellectual environment, establishing audience and purpose as well as exploring later receptions of these texts. Darley raises important questions about the purpose of both texts, whose readings and applications for Indian Ocean trade have been overly positivist and maximalist. Somewhat surprisingly, understanding the authorship, intent, literary motifs and transmission of these texts has been sidelined in the quest to reconstruct Rome’s extensive eastern trade networks. Darley draws attention to the likeness of both texts to classical geographical treatises, which also betray tendencies to exoticise the outer limits of the known world by providing a catalogue of wondrous flora, fauna and commodities. While both texts were born out of first-hand travel experiences, Darley emphasises that there is no certainty that they functioned, especially in the case of the Periplus, as practical merchant-mariner manuals–as is frequently assumed.

Chapter 4 offers a case-study of a polity held to be a middleman in the Rome-India network of Late Antiquity, namely the Aksumite kingdom of northern Ethiopia and Eritrea (third–seventh centuries). While Aksum certainly participated in long-distance trade networks, Darley demonstrates that the rise of Aksum was not exclusively tied to maritime trade. On the contrary its economy was grounded on a strong agricultural base and inland trade networks, particularly the supply of gold and ivory from regions further east and south, which were probably of greater interest to the state than the long distance trade with South Asia. The point Darley makes here, again, is that the scholarly emphasis on a heavy-handed Roman commercial and military strategy in the East has distorted readings of the economic history of “middlemen” like Aksum. The tri-metallic coinage of Aksum, rather than serving the needs of foreign trade, was more likely as Darley suggests used to serve the internal economy.

Chapter 5, the result of extensive fieldwork in South India and Sri Lanka, is a thorough analysis of surviving Byzantine coins in South Asia. Darley explores issues of survival, collection and quantification as well as the use of coins as sources for economic and social history. Darley crucially notes that the survival of most Roman/Byzantine coins in India may have impinged upon their ritual and symbolic role rather than a straightforward economic function. This might explain why they have not been found in any substantial numbers at port sites (p. 370). The survival of copper coins aplenty, some 8,000 for Byzantine issues, is rather perplexing and on the whole has been ignored by local numismatic studies in favour of foreign gold and silver issues. Again, their presence in great numbers supports Darley’s contention that these coins fulfilled a ritual rather than economic role.

Chapter 6 summarises the present state of knowledge on Red Sea and Persian Gulf trade networks from archaeological and textual sources. The emphasis here is how Eastern, particularly Persian and Indian, traders rather than Romans determined the contours of the Indian Ocean trading system. While Roman textual sources suggest that Sasanian Iran was a major player and competitor in Indian Ocean trade, Darley notes that the archaeological evidence in support of such a view is not forthcoming. Darley highlights that the Iranian side of the Gulf appears to be an archaeological terra incognita for much of Late Antiquity, unlike sites in the Red Sea that display continuous occupation and mercantile functions from the Ptolemaic period onwards.

 

Chapter 7 seeks to look at the Indian Ocean trade from an avowedly South Indian perspective. Darley examines early Tamil sources that have been used to argue for the presence of Roman traders in the East. Darley questions the usefulness of these sources in light of their disputed chronology as well as semantic problems, which hinder a precise understanding of local taxonomies of foreigners. The chapter also problematises the viewing of South Indian port sites as “Indo-Roman” trading emporia and the privileging of the Roman element in long-distance trade, not least because the Roman element appears to be a minor presence in the archaeology of port sites like Pattanam in Kerala and Arikamedu in Tamil Nadu.

In view of the challenging nature of the evidence invoked in reconstructing Indo-Roman trade, Darley in the concluding chapter cautions against overestimating the importance of long-distance trading in ancient economic networks. She notes that long-distance trade was in the final analysis a “peripheral though socially valuable function of a minority of people” (p. 382). Together with an aptitude for spotting scholarly biases and a sensitive methodological approach, the strength of Darley’s thesis work ultimately lies in the meticulous fieldwork that has tremendously clarified the distribution, typology and use of Roman/Byzantine coins from the Fourth to Seventh centuries, even in the face of difficult access to coin collections in India and Sri Lanka. It is this aspect of the work that will tremendously benefit any scholar interested in Indian Ocean trade networks. Darley’s cautious critical approach in a field of hasty conclusions is also a salutary and welcome trend.

Sureshkumar Muthukumaran
Department of History
University College London
s.muthukumaran@ucl.ac.uk

Primary Sources
Greco-Roman texts (Periplus Maris Erythraei, Christian Topography, Procopius etc)
Tamil Cankam texts
Archaeological finds in the Red Sea, the Horn of Africa (Aksum), the Persian Gulf and South India
Roman/Byzantine coins in South India and Sri Lanka (public and private collections)

Dissertation Information
University of Birmingham. 2013. 536 pp. Supervisors: Professor Leslie Brubaker and Dr Archie Dunn.

Image:  Gold bracteate inspired by Byzantine gold solidi (c. 5th-6th c.), Madras Government Museum, 0.57g., image taken by author.

 

 

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