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  • Matthew Adam Cobb

The Roman Empire received goods from eastern lands through a variety of overland routes crossing the Arabian Peninsula and Mesopotamia, and through seaborne trade via the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. In particular, the sea routes that utilized the monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean enabled a significant volume of goods to be imported from the East on ships that may often have been of several hundred tons' capacity. The scale of the trade was significant enough for Pliny to claim that 100 million sesterces were being sent annually to India, China, and Arabia. The veracity of these figures has come in for some debate, especially with the publication of a document known as the Muziris Papyrus, which reveals that a shipment of nard, ivory, and textiles received at one of the Egyptian Red Sea ports in the second century ad was valued at the equivalent of roughly 7 million sesterces. It is nevertheless clear, particularly from the archaeological and numismatic evidence, that Roman trade with the East peaked in the first and second centuries ad, followed by subsequent decline and a limited revival in the Late Roman period.

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1 Young, G. K., Rome's Eastern Trade. International Commerce and Imperial Policy, 31 bc–ad 305 (London, 2001); Peripl. M. Rubr. 39, 49, 56; Pliny NH 6.26.99–105.

2 Sidebotham, S. E., Berenike and the Maritime Spice Route (London, 2011), 195–6. See also E. J. Strauss, ‘Roman Cargoes: Underwater Evidence from the Eastern Mediterranean’ (unpublished PhD thesis, University College London, 2007), 100–2, 106–8; M. A. Cobb, ‘Roman Trade in the Indian Ocean during the Principate’ (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Swansea, 2011), 60–78, 147–51.

3 Plin. HN 12.41.84.

4 Casson, L., ‘P.Vindob G 40822 and the Shipping of Goods from India’, BASP 23 (1986); also Rathbone, D., ‘The “Muziris” Papyrus (SB XVIII 13167): Financing Roman Trade with India’, in Abd-El-Ghani, S. and Farag, W. (eds.), Alexandrian Studies in Honour of Mostafa el Abbadi (Alexandria, 2000). For an overview of the debates concerning the veracity of Pliny's figures, see Cobb (n. 2), 259–71.

5 Peacock, D. and Blue, L. (eds.), Myos Hormos – Quseir al-Qadim: Roman and Islamic Ports on the Red Sea (Oxford, 2006); Sidebotham, S. E. and Wendrich, W. Z. (eds.), Report of the 1997 Excavations at Berenike and the Survey of the Egyptian Eastern Desert, Including Shenshef (Lieden, 1999); Sidebotham (n. 2), 63, 244; Cobb (n. 2), 93–4, 98–9, 239–50.

6 See, for example, Warmington, E. H., The Commerce Between the Roman Empire and India (London, 1928) 40–42, 7983; Casson, L. (ed. and trans.), The Periplus Maris Erythraei. Text with Introduction, Translation, and Commentary (Princeton, NJ, 1989) 15, 19; Dalby, A., Dangerous Tastes. The Story of Spices (London, 2000), 156; Wild, F., ‘Sails, Sacking and Packing: Textiles from the First Century Rubbish Dump at Berenike, Egypt’, in Alfaro, C., Wild, J. P., and Costa, B. (eds.), Purpureae Vestes: Textiles y tintes del Mediterráneo en época romana (Valencia, 2004), 61–7; Keay, J., The Spice Route (London, 2005), xxi; Smith, R. L., Trade in World History (London, 2009), 77, 90.

7 Plin. HN 37.10.29 (rock-crystal ladle), 37.21.81–2 (opal ring).

8 Jongman, W. M., ‘The Early Roman Empire: Consumption’, in Scheidel, W., Morris, I., and Saller, R. (eds.), The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World (Cambridge, 2007), 600–1.

9 Sidebotham, S. E., Roman Economic Policy in the Erythra Thalassa 30 b.c.–a.d. 217 (Leiden, 1986), 45, 176.

10 See, for example, Peacock, D. P. S. and Williams, D. (eds.), Food for the Gods. New Light on the Ancient Incense Trade (Oxford, 2007); Tomber, R., Indo-Roman Trade. From Pots to Pepper (London, 2008).

11 Douglas, M. and Isherwood, B., The World of Goods. Towards an Anthropology of Consumption (London, 1978), 72–3; Appadurai, A., ‘Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value’, in Appadurai, A. (ed.), The Social Life of Things. Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge, 1986), 3.

12 Douglas and Isherwood (n. 11), 72–3; Appadurai (n. 11), 3–5, 16. See also I. Kopytoff, ‘The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process’, in Appadurai (n. 11), 76–80.

13 Appadurai (n. 11), 29, 31–2, and esp. 38–40.

14 Douglas and Isherwood (n. 11), 179; Appadurai (n. 11), 38–9.

15 Sekora, J., Luxury. The Concept in Western Thought, Eden to Smollett (Baltimore, MD, 1977) 1, 4, 112–13; see also Wallace-Hadrill, A., Rome's Cultural Revolution (Cambridge, 2008), 319–29.

16 Val. Max. 2.2.6 (corruption of manners); Sen. Ep. 19.10; 82.2 (emasculation); 55.1; 92.10; 95.15, 19; 123.7 (weakening).

17 Val. Max. 9.1.

18 Sekora (n. 15), 48.

19 Apicius 1.1.1–2 (spiced wines), 2.1.1–7, 2.2.1–9 (rissoles, including peacock rissole), 2.3.1; Verg. G. 2.466 (cinnamon olive oil).

20 Apicius 1.13.1–2 (oyster sauce), 1.16.1–2 (silphium sauce), 4.5.1 (turnover stew); for Apicius the gourmet, see Mart. 3.22.

21 Mart. 14.87; Plin. HN 16.8.43 (tortoiseshell veneer), 36.12.7 (onyx feet of chair); Juv. 11.120–1 (citrus and ivory table); Livy 41.20.1 (ivory chair); Sen. Ep. 110.12 (jewelled furniture).

22 Plin. HN 37.6.2, 9–10.2; a rock-crystal drinking cup (skyphos) has been found at Pompeii (now in the Museo Nazionale Archeologico, Naples).

23 Petron. 55.6.9–16.

24 See Lucr. 4.11.31–3; Val. Max. 2.6.1; Sen. Vita Beata. 11.4; Plin. HN 13.1–2.1–2; Juv. 6.297, 303, 9.128–9, 11.121; Suet. Calig. 37; Suet. Ner. 27, 30; though it is important not to forget the food – Mart. 3.12.

25 Griffin, J.Augustan Poetry and the Life of Luxury’, JRS 66 (1976), 93.

26 Plin. HN 12.14.29. Translation from Healy, J. F., Pliny the Elder. Natural History, a Selection (London, 1991).

27 Pers. 6.18–21.

28 Freedman, P., Out of the East. Spices and the Medieval Imagination (London, 2008), 6.

29 Edwards, C., The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome (Cambridge, 1993), 186 (ephemeral nature); Garnsey, P., Food and Society in Classical Antiquity (Cambridge, 1999), 113 (percentage of income).

30 Plut. Mor. 528a. For the peculiarity of extravagant dining without company. see D'Arms, J. H., ‘Performing Culture: Roman Spectacle and the Banquets of the Powerful’, in Bergmann, B. and Kondonleon, C. (eds.), The Art of Ancient Spectacle (London, 1999), 312–13.

31 Mart. 6.48; see also Sen. Ep. 19.11 (attempts to win friends through lavish banquets).

32 Mart. 2.44.

33 Plut. Mor. 524 a.

34 Mart. 10.80; see also 9.59 on Mamurra carefully inspecting many fine objects, such as sardonyx, green gems, and tortoiseshell couches, only to buy a few cheap cups. Sen. Ep. 76.14 also mentions the costliness of couches and cups.

35 Sen. Ep. 95.41.

36 For the interconnection of diet and health in the ancient world, see Wilkins, J. M. and Hill, S., Food in the Ancient World (Oxford, 2006), 213–44; for the medieval world, see Freedman (n. 28), 4–5, 60; generally, see Dalby (n. 6), 16.

37 Olson, K., Dress and the Roman Woman. Self-presentation and Society (London, 2008), 67.

38 Theophr. De odoribus, 59.

39 Plin. HN 13.4–5.3. However, Theophrastus notes that sometimes perfumes could be added to wine because they had a sweet flavour (De odoribus, 51). See also Reger, G.The Manufacture and Distribution of Perfume’, in Archibald, Z. H., Davies, J. K., and Gabrielsen, V. (eds.), Making, Moving, and Managing. The New World of Ancient Economies 323–31 bc (Oxford, 2005), 260.

40 Plin. HN 24.1.4–5.

41 Ibid., 12.38.77–8. Translation from Rackham, H., Pliny. Natural History (London, 1945).

42 Celsus, Med. 5.2.1.

43 Dioscorides, De materia medica, 1.5 (cardamom), 1.12 (cassia).

44 Mart. 1.87 (drinkers' breath); Plin. HN 23.48.4 (malabathrum mouth freshener).

45 Dioscorides, De materia medica, 1.5.

46 Olson (n. 37), 69; Ov. Nux, 23; see also Prop. 2.15.21–2; Ov. Ars am. 3.81–2, 785–6; Sen. Helv. 16.3; Sor. Gyn. 160; Gell. NA 12.1.8 (mother's refusal to breastfeed).

47 Plin. HN 24.1.4–5; Wilkins and Hill (n. 36), 224. Compare with the modern use of homeopathy and chiropractors.

48 Lucr. 5.1197–1203. While not going as far as Lucretius, Seneca (Ep. 95.41) questioned aspects of ritual, including the throngs of devotes attracted by temple ceremonies.

49 Plin. HN 37.7.18.

50 Ibid., 12.42.19. However, Ovid claims that Augustus was the first to offer up cinnamon to Jupiter (Fast. 3.731–2).

51 Plin. HN 12.41.18; Ov. Fast. 1.337–42; though at Fast 4.145–6 Ovid says that Fortuna Virilis assures prayers after a little incense, and at Fast. 5.303 he says that he has often seen Jupiter hold back from throwing thunderbolts when incense is offered. Contrast Val. Max. 1.1.15, who mentions women offering incense to Ceres during the Second Punic War.

52 Keay (n. 6), 32; C. Singer, ‘The Incense Kingdom of Yemen: An Outline History of the South Arabian Incense Trade’, in Peacock and Williams (n. 10), 6–7; Groom, N., Frankincense and Myrrh. A Study of the Arabian Incense Trade (London, 1981), 56. For mid-Republican uses of incense, see Plautus, and also Cato, Agr. 134, where he advises addressing Janus, Jove, and Juno with incense and wine.

53 See Isager, J., Pliny on Art and Society. The Elder Pliny's Chapters on the History of Art (London, 1991); Murphy, T., Pliny the Elder's Natural History. The Empire in the Encyclopedia (Oxford, 2004); Parker, G., ‘Ex Oriente Luxuria: Indian Commodities and Roman Experience’, JESHO 45 (2002), 4095; Ramage, E. S., Urbanitas. Ancient Sophistication and Refinement (Norman, OK, 1973); Wallace-Hadrill, A., ‘Pliny the Elder and Man's Unnatural History’, G&R 37 (1990), 8096.

54 For the value of novelty and price to display status, see Wallace-Hadrill (n. 15), 347–8; and Petrain, D.Gems, Metapoetics, and Value: Greek and Roman Responses to a Third-century Discourse on Precious Stones’, TAPhA 135 (2005), 348.

55 Suet. Calig. 22.2–3. See also Suet. Vit. 13, where a gigantic dish was offered up to Minerva, including peacock brains among other expensive items.

56 Plut. Mor. 527d.

57 See Philostr. V A. 1.10.1 and 2.40.3.

58 Mart. 7.54.

59 Edwards, C., Death in Ancient Rome (London, 2007), 144; Kyle, D. G., Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome (London, 1998), 128.

60 Singer (n. 52), 21; Groom (n. 52), 8; Bodel, J.Death on Display: Looking at Roman Funerals’, in Bergmann and Kondonleon (n. 30), The Art of Ancient Spectacle (London, 1999), 267, and see also 265 for examples of burning incense on funerary reliefs.

61 Plin. HN 12.41.83.

62 App. Mith. 17.117; Bodel (n. 60), 261.

63 Plut. Vit. Sull. 38.3.

64 Plin. HN 12.41.83–4.

65 Stat. Silv. 2.1.157–62, 5.1.208–22.

66 Hor. Sat. 2.5.105–6.

67 Plin. HN 33.47.135. Compare this with the funeral of Vespasian, which is said to have cost 10 million sesterces – Suet. Vesp. 19.2.

68 Sen. Ep. 12.8–9; Bodel (n. 60), 262.

69 Prop. 4.7.18–19.

70 Hor. Sat. 1.2.4–11; Sen. Ep. 120.8; Edwards (n. 29), 202; see also Suet. Tib. 37.3; Bodel (n. 60), 261.

71 Pers. 6.33–37.

72 Wallace-Hadrill, A., Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum (Princeton, NJ, 1994), 4, points out the particular example of Cic. Off. 1.138–9. See also Sen. Ep. 69.4, who mentions that luxury appears to offer pleasure and influence; and Juv. 11.21–2, who mentions how, for Ventidius, expense enhances reputation, though for Rutilus it is called extravagance.

73 Stoneman, R., ‘You Are What You Eat: Diet and Philosophical Dianta in Athenaeus' Deipnosophistae’, in Braund, D. and Wilkins, J. (eds.), Athenaeus and His World. Reading Greek Culture in the Roman Empire (Exeter, 2000), 418; Wyetzner, P., ‘Sulla's Law on Prices and the Roman Definition of Luxury’, in Aubert, J.-J. and Sirks, B. (eds.), Specvlvm Ivris. Roman Law as a Reflection of Social and Economic Life in Antiquity (Ann Arbor, MI, 2002), 19; J. Sekora (n. 15), 52–5; Keay (n. 6), 72–3.

74 Hor. Epod. 8.13–20.

75 Wallace-Hadrill (n. 53), 80–96.

76 Sen. Ep. 31.10 (mocking self-display), 110.17 (attracting attention).

77 Edwards (n. 29), 142; Sen. Ep. 122.14, 18; see also Wallace-Hadrill (n. 15), 376.

78 Suet. Ner. 30.1.

79 Mart. 1.99 (Calenus), see also 1.103 (Scaevola, a shabbily dressed knight), 2.44 (Sextus, appearing miserly in offering loans/gifts), and 4.51 (Caecilianus, appearing miserly as a result of ceasing to use a litter despite becoming wealthier).

80 Suet. Ner. 27.3; D'Arms (n. 30), 306. See also Suet. Vit. 13.1–2, noting that Vitellius used to have himself invited to the dinners of many men on the same day, and that the cost each time never went below 400,000 sesterces.

81 Tac. Ann. 6.14.47. See also Juv. 7.141–5, who notes a lawyer hiring a sardonyx ring in order to impress his clients and receive higher fees.

82 Tac. Ann. 3.54; see Edwards (n. 29), 202.

83 Plin. HN 33.12.3, who notes that they were worn instead of the stola as a status marker. However, Olson (n. 37), 36, notes that the stola, while considered a status indicator, does not seem to have been popular or widespread.

84 Claud. Cons. Hon. Cons. Stil. 6.523–30; Olson (n. 37), 5, 20. See also Mart. 8.81, who describes how Gellia loves her pearls more than her children; Livy 34.7.8–9 states that, as women were denied access to offices that provided status, fashion, adornment, and make-up were a means of acquiring status for themselves.

85 Olson (n. 37), 47; Cod. Theod. 15.7.11.

86 Plut. Mor. 528a; translation from D'Arms (n. 30), 313. See also Plut. Vit. Cat. Mai. 18.3.

87 Sen. Ep. 110.17.

88 Edwards (n. 29), 190; Sen. Ep. 122.14; Mart. 12.41.

89 Juv. 11.16; Edwards (n. 29), 189.

90 Plin. HN 9.117.

91 Wyetzner (n. 73), 24–5.

92 See Petron. 30–42. See also Sen. Ep. 27.5, who looks down upon Calvisius Sabinus, a wealthy freedman, whom he regards as uncultured.

93 Mart. 2.29; See also Plut. Mor. 523e.

94 Tac. Ann. 16.18–19; Dalby, A., Empire of Pleasure. Luxury and Indulgence in the Roman World (London, 2000), 1011, 268. See also Wallace-Hadrill (n. 15), 318, 440.

95 Mart. 3.62.

96 Plin. HN 16.232.

97 Wallace-Hadrill (n. 72), 90, 146; Wallace-Hadrill (n. 15), 353–4, 440, 449–54. For the desire for emulation as a general facet of human societies, see Clark, G., Symbols of Excellence. Precious Materials as Expression of Status (Cambridge, 1986).

98 Olson (n. 37), 46. See Plin. HN 37.75–76.197–200, for imitation gemstones.

99 Sen. Ep. 95.27–28, also 114.9 for the spread of luxury from appearance to furniture to the dinner table. See also Val. Max. 9.1.3, on how expensive novelties were being added every day to feminine display.

100 Ath. 6.275b.

101 Jongman (n. 8), 615–17.

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