Where did the Roman money involved in the spice and luxury trade end up?

Where did the Roman money involved in the spice and luxury trade end up?


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In the book "The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean" by McLaughlin, which is a very interesting read, he states that annual bullion going to buy luxuries in India was around 50-100 million sesterces per year between around 60 AD and 160 AD. He mentioned that there have been very large coin hoards found in India, specifically in the Tamil region. He also mentioned how the Indians would use their own currency to buy trade items from further east as they preferred to keep the Roman money as it was a better quality and higher silver content.

That amount of silver/gold exported was pretty large. My question is where did this bullion end up? I realize at the start it went to India, but did it all stay in India? Or did they use it to buy other things further on down the line.


The evidence available suggests that much of the gold and silver coinage which came to India from Rome was (1) melted down to produce local coins and jewelry, (2) defaced by local rulers and used locally, and (3) hoarded for financial or religious reasons.


As noted by the OP's sources, huge amounts of gold and silver were shipped to India to buy luxuries which were then shipped back to Rome. Once in India,

these Roman coins had, at different times and regions, multifarious uses-local currency, jewelry, ritualistic offerings at Hindu and Buddhist shrines. Sometimes, the Roman gold coins were melted to produce local coins and/or jewelry (Suresh, 2004), But a large number of the Roman coins, in all metals, were used as circulation money.

Hermann Kulke & Dietmar Rothermund, in A History of India (4th ed., 2004) note the contrast between southern India and the Kushan north:

The trade with Rome brought large numbers of Roman gold coins to southern India. In contrast with the Kushanas who melted down all Roman coins and reissued them in their own name, the rulers of south India did not do this but simply defaced the coins. A sharp cut across the face of the Roman emperor indicated that his sovereignty was not recognised but his coins were welcome and would be accepted according to their own intrinsic value.

"Roman gold coins excavated in Pudukottai, Tamil Nadu, India. One coin of Caligula (37-41 CE), and two coins of Nero (54-68). British Museum." Source

S. Suresh, in Symbols of Trade: Roman and Pseudo-Roman Objects found in India, notes that coin finds in southern India are far more numerous than elsewhere. This makes sense if Roman coins were melted down elsewhere. In Kushan, for example, Kanishka I (c. 127-150 AD), "melted Roman coins and modelled his on them."

On the hoarding of coins in southern India (during the Sangam period), there is some disagreement among academics as to why this was done. Suresh, in largely dismissing the idea that it was done because of local wars (he notes the time-frames don't fit), suggests that because

the early indigenous coins of south India were invariably thin small pieces of silver or copper whereas the Roman issues in gold and silver were heavier and artistically superior… the latter were often hoarded in large numbers mainly for their bullion value.

Further north, during the Satavahana dynasty, silver punch-marked coins were issued by traders' guilds rather than by the state. However, we lack conclusive evidence that the silver was originally Roman. Roman coins were also melted down into bullion to make jewelry such as imitation Roman coin pendants.

Large hoards have been found buried, including under temples or shrines, in graves and at other sites (though it should be noted here that often only a small percentage of the coins are Roman). Some of this may have been intended for retrieval but much of it was ritualistic offerings.

Also, Raoul McLaughlin, in Rome and the Distant East: Trade Routes to the Ancient Lands of Arabia, India and China notes that India

channelled Roman wealth into the land of the 'Seres', or 'Silk People'.


Other sources:

Himanshu Prabha Ray, Trade in the Western Deccan under the Satavahanas (1985)

A. R. Mukhamedjanov, Economy and social system in central asia in the kushan age (UNESCO, 1996)

Unearthing Roman coins


Ancient and Medieval Indian Kingdoms had a huge appetite for gold. They hoarded it, and probably preferred to export other profitable things. Demand for gold in India made the price so high that late Bactrian kings circa 500 A.D. opted to use copper coins.

Romans traded with both North and South India. The Roman Empire's trading partners in North India weren't Indians, but the Kushan Empire and Satraps. They were nomads from Central Asia who probably weren't as anal retentive about gold as Indians. A lot passed through their hands, and some into Central Asia. The Kushans seemed to have melted all of the Roman coins to make their own currency because there aren't many Roman coins in North India (1). This is contrasted with the Tamils, who were content to strike them for reuse. Many coins like this have been found in hordes in Tamil Nadu.

India amassed gold from trade with the east and west from the time of Ashoka (i.e. Hellenistic) until the modern era. India was also invaded with some regularity. However, much of the gold was amassed by the Tamil kingdoms in the extreme south of India, which was relatively well buffered from these invasions. Tamil Nadu was only complete conquered by the East India company in 1799.

Nader Shah of Persia took a massive amount of plunder from Dehli in 1739, estimated by the historian John Frazer to be worth 85,000,000 in 1739 British pounds. The Times of India refers to the Dehli horde "changing hands en masse" a second time to the British in 1857. This would have been during the Great Rebellion. The British don't seem to have "looted" India as a part of their rule, probably because they didn't control it well enough.

Indian treasure consisted of gold, precious stones, and silver. Indians did produce a lot of gold themselves. Much of it came from trade with the west, and some of it from the Roman Empire.

The Indian subcontinent has large temples that were mostly built from about 1100-1500. It's estimated that these still hold 1 trillion dollars in gold. Prime Minister Modi began a campaign to use these to offset trade imbalances. India still imports 1,000 tons of gold a year.

At the center of this is a dispute between the owners of the Padmanabhaswamy temple, the Tranvancore family, and the Indian government. In 2011, one of the vaults of the temple was opened, revealing $22 billion in treasure. One observer said that there were 100,000 gold coins, including ones from the Roman Empire. In 2015, there was still a legal dispute about opening one of the more sacred chambers, known as "Vault B".

The middle and upper class have done as good a job at hoarding gold as the major temples on the subcontinent. They have an estimated 22-24,000 tons of gold, worth $800 Billion. Gold is the second largest import of India after oil, at 750-1000 tons per year. Together with the 550 tons held by the national reserve, gold accounts for half of India's GDP.

Padmanabhswamy Temple and Vault B.

(1) History of India. Herman Kulke and Dietmar Rothermund.


The Spice That Built Venice

In the year 1173 a bankrupt Venetian merchant by the name of Romano Mairano went looking for a way out of financial ruin. Over a trading career spanning several decades, Mairano had seen his share of ups and downs—latterly, more downs than ups. He could count himself lucky to be alive: Two years earlier, he had escaped a massacre of his compatriots in Constantinople, fleeing as his ships and goods were burned or confiscated. Back in Venice, safe but not sound—at least not in any financial sense—he was desperate. He decided to orchestrate a risky trade that could help him pay off his loans and restore his wealth, a trade for one of the most valuable commodities of the day: pepper.

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Mairano was bold but not crazy. Such schemes had enriched Venetian merchants for generations. Since well before the millennium, his forebears had sailed to Alexandria, the ancient Egyptian trading town at the head of the Nile Delta. By virtue of its access to the Red Sea trade routes leading to Arabia and beyond, Alexandria was the chief entrepôt between East and West, the point where fine luxuries such as silks, perfumes, gems, and, above all, spices arrived from the most remote parts of Asia. For the Venetian merchant courageous or lucky enough, Alexandria was the gateway to riches.

But if the rewards were great, so too were the dangers. Merchants ran the risk of attacks by pirates, and they were at the mercy of the volatile, violent politics of the age. No insurer backed their cargoes no coast guard patrolled the seas. They had to outmaneuver Venice’s perennial enemies and competitors, the Genoese. And Mairano would be doing business in a Muslim country nominally at war with Europe—its ruler none other than Saladin, who would later defeat the Crusaders.

On this occasion, the gods of commerce smiled on Mairano. With money borrowed from a wealthy friend, he shipped a cargo of lumber to Alexandria, and in return he brought back spices. He was finally able to repay his creditors—not in cash, but in pepper. The remainder of the spices he sold in Venice at many times the purchase price.

To understand how Venice became such a glorious city, it pays to look south and east, just as Mairano did. Over the course of a long career, Mairano, like countless other traders, had a stake in many deals: for timber, slaves, textiles, wine, ships, grain, metals, and more. But for reasons of simple economic alchemy, spices were the marquee good. As they moved between the jungles of South and Southeast Asia, where they were harvested, to their final points of sale in Europe, the value of spices mounted exponentially. They were small, readily transferable, durable—and immensely desirable.

Spices harvested in the jungles of Asia were a symbol of wealth and status in medieval Europe. As often as not, the pepper that appeared on a king’s table was sold at some point by a Venetian trader. (David Griffin)

Medieval high society had an insatiable appetite for spiced sauces, sweets, wine, and ale—not, as was long believed, to cover the taste of old and rotting meat, for spices were far too expensive for that. No less than in our day—indeed far more so, given the acutely hierarchical nature of medieval life—eating was as much about making an impression as enjoying flavor. And of all the spices, pepper was far and away the most important, for its consumers and Venice alike.

In Mairano’s era, Venetian traders in London sold a pound of pepper for a sum equivalent to a week’s work for an unskilled laborer. Cost alone ensured that pepper was as much an attribute of high rank as castles and coats of arms. Kings and wealthy prelates cured their ailments with pepper. They carried peppery pomanders to ward off pestilence, and went to their graves embalmed in myrrh and pepper. The most eminent medical authorities of the time insisted that pepper could revive flagging libidos. Around the year 1100, one Duke William of Aquitaine boasted of a week-long ménage à trois, claiming his exertions (188, no less) were fueled by a hearty dose of the spice.

Once spices arrived in Venice, they were unloaded for distribution across Europe. Some were resold directly to merchants arriving from the north. Others were shipped on barges up the Po Valley, and carried on mules across the Alpine passes to Germany and France. Venetian galleys sailed past the Strait of Gibraltar and onward to London and Bruges. As often as not, the cinnamon in a duke’s pomander or the ginger in an abbot’s medicine chest or the pepper appearing on a king’s table was at some point freighted and sold by a Venetian.

As with any successful business, location was key. By virtue of Venice’s ties to Byzantium, from the city’s earliest days Venetian merchants had had privileged access to the overland trade routes to Asia. When the French saint Gerald of Aurillac passed through the northern Italian town of Pavia around 894, he met a small group of Venetian merchants selling cloths and spices from Byzantium.

A king is offered the fruits of a pepper harvest in this 15th-century illustration. (From the Livre des Merveilles du Monde, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, Bridgeman Images)

In due course Byzantium’s energies faltered, and the relationship with Venice became increasingly hostile. By the year 1000, Venice opened another route to the Orient by concluding treaties with the Muslim rulers of Egypt and the Levant, safeguarding the position of its merchants in Islamic lands.

As the medieval European economy grew, the spice trade grew with it. The largely ad hoc voyages of Mairano’s day gave way to a regular system of convoys known as the muda, or state-subsidized galleys auctioned out to the highest bidder. No spices were allowed in the cogs, round ships, or carracks that were the workhorses of maritime trade. Rather, they were whisked across the sea in armed fleets carrying up to 300 metric tons of spice, defended by a contingent of marines, and sped on their way by banks of rowers, swift enough to outrun any pursuer.

Pirates and other raiders were not the only obstacles, however. Venice’s dealings with Muslim rulers sat uneasily with the Roman Catholic powers of Europe and particularly the papacy, which remained, with varying degrees of ardor, wedded to the ideal, if not necessarily the practice, of Crusade. So it was that in 1322 a papal envoy arrived with the news that many of Venice’s leading citizens had been excommunicated as punishment for having violated papal bans on trading with the infidel.

The sequel to this story nicely illustrates the Venetians’ gift for navigating the tricky shoals of religion, geopolitics, and finance. While vigorously protesting the excommunication, the signoria complied with the papal diktat, halting direct voyages to Alexandria. Yet trade was simply diverted to the Armenian port of Lajazzo, a tiny Christian enclave tucked into the angle formed by Anatolia and the Levantine coast. Here the Venetians could acquire the very same spices they had previously purchased directly from the sultan, knowing full well that Lajazzo’s spices had been subjected to the same taxes, tolls, and levies imposed by the region’s Islamic rulers. No matter. Any moral peril was neatly transferred to the Armenians.

Business was business, and Venice’s papal problem was neatly defused. In due course, a few decades after the pope’s envoy had dropped his bombshell, the Venetian galleys were once again loading their precious cargoes of spice at Alexandria. No one was seriously inconvenienced—no one, that is, beyond Europe’s consumers, who for a time paid a little more for their pepper.

At the Drogheria Mascari, aromatics are kept in special drawers to preserve their fragrance. (Fabrizio Giraldi)

Bad news came in 1501, however, when word reached Venetian merchants that the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama had sailed around Africa to India, bypassing the Mediterranean and—so it was feared—diverting the flow of pepper away from Venice. As it happened, it would be another century or so before the rivers of spice would finally run dry, during which time the city became increasingly forgetful of the traffic that had once bankrolled its beauty. In some of the majestic, sun-drenched canvases of Canaletto, you might glimpse merchant galleys in the background, but the 18th-century painter showed no interest in the cargo they bore.

Yet even today in one of the city’s bakeries you might find a peverino, a type of peppered cookie, relative of the better-known panpepato and panforte—spiced, honeyed confections that date to the Middle Ages. Or take a walk down the elegant colonnades of the Ruga dei Spezieri, the “street of the spice merchants.” There in the bustling market, among the tourists and Venetian vendors happily pocketing their money, you may hear the faintest of echoes of the commercial energies that once helped build a glorious city.


A life of spice

STRANDED IN BORNEO for a few days in March, William Penzey Jr. let it be known that he was looking for a new source of white peppercorns for his mail-order spice business. Returning to his hotel room that evening, he found a white, pepper-flavored candy on his pillow. The candy itself wasn't very tasty, but listed on the wrapper were the whereabouts of the elusive Malaysia Pepper Marketing Board. "I ended up finding the nicest white peppercorns you've ever tasted," Penzey beams.

Such are the small adventures and victories that have accumulated over the past decade to make Penzeys, Ltd., Bill Penzey's $4 million (revenues) mail-order spice and seasoning business. Penzey, 34, has scoured India for the most pungent cumin, Madagascar for the most fragrant vanilla beans.

On a trip to India's west coast looking for cardamom, Penzey discovered vindaloo, a potpourri of coriander, garlic, cumin and ginger widely used in the region. He toned it down for American palates and added it to his line at $4.29 for a half-cup jar.

This is an industry dominated by giants. McCormick & Co., Inc. and Specialty Brands with its Spice Islands and Durkee lines together control nearly 60% of the $1.4 billion (retail sales) U.S. spice market. But what Penzey lacks in volume he makes up for with a loyal following of home cooks who wouldn't buy their spices from anyone else, even if they could. Many of the spices Penzey stocks in his new 25,000-square-foot warehouse in Muskego, Wis. cannot easily be obtained elsewhere. Spice Islands, for example, carries only one kind of cinnamon. Penzey stocks four varieties, along with hard-to-find Indian rogan josh, a pungent seasoning used in cooking lamb. Price: $4.49 for a 4-ounce bag.

Penzey got the spice idea from his parents, Ruth and William Penzey Sr., who for decades have sold spices, most recently in Wauwatosa, Wis. At the University of Wisconsin in the early 1980s, son Bill cooked up his own spice major, combining history and food science. He wrote papers on ancient trading routes and spice usage in Roman times.

In 1984, with $14,000 saved from part-time and summer jobs, Penzey opened a small spice shop in Dobbs Ferry, outside New York. But he let his overhead expenses grow beyond the shop's ability to support them.

He returned to Milwaukee to set up a full-fledged mail-order business. He sent a ten-page catalog he had typed himself to 1,800 names on a list he'd bought from a defunct New York spice merchant and to his parents' customers who had moved from Milwaukee.

His timing was good. Cooking was becoming a trendy pastime, and spice consumption among Americans was climbing. By 1995 per capita consumption was 3.1 pounds, up 55% from two decades before.

This time Penzey pinched his overhead pennies until they screamed. He paid $650 a month to rent his first warehouse and tooled around in a $925 used truck. He bought a critical part of his production processthe machine that seals spices in flavor-preserving bagsthird-hand for $45,000. A few years earlier Kraft Foods paid $250,000 for the same machine. The warehouse, where his staff of 55 works, is modest.

Though he shies away from the term "cheapskate," Penzey agrees that keeping his overhead low was a big reason for his success. It has enabled him to keep his prices low: $2.89 for a half-cup jar of cloves, for example, compared to the suggested retail price of $9.90 for a similar Spice Islands product. With costs under control and revenues rising smartly, Penzeys, Ltd. probably earned close to $400,000 pretax last year. Penzey owns the business lock, stock and barrel.

Like most successful small businesspeople, Penzey has made a fetish of customer service. But here he made some initial mistakes. In the early days, when orders were coming in faster than Penzey could restock, the office had so few phone lines that customers had difficulty getting through. A fax from those days is still taped to Penzey's office wall. "Answer your damn phones, you idiots," it reads. That was when Penzey told his staffers to start including personal handwritten notes with every order that went out. The later the delivery, the longer the note.

Today orders generally go out within two days, but even with 120,000 customers Penzey's staffers still enclose handwritten notes with every shipment.

Penzey now mails a 40-page glossy color catalog to around 160,000 namesold customers and prospectsfive times a year. The catalog includes detailed descriptions of different spices and seasonings, more than 300 in all, plus Penzey family recipes. Penzey expects more sales through Williams-Sonoma, which has started carrying a small line of the company's Indian and Chinese spices in its mail order catalogs.

Bill Penzey and his parents aren't the only family members involved in the spice trade. His sister Pamela works with him. Another sister, Patricia, and her husband, Thomas Erd, own small retail spice outlets in downtown Milwaukee and Evanston, Ill. What do they all talk about at family get-togethers?

"Sometimes, after a couple of glasses of wine, someone says, 'I'll match my spices with yours any day,'" says Patricia. "But then the check will come, and we'll say to Bill: 'Here. You're the one with the $4 million business.'"


Henry VII and Overseas Trade

Henry VII equated overseas trade with an extension of his power. A successful trade policy that led to expansion abroad could only make England more wealthy and Henry knew that if he had more wealth, he could use it to expand his own power – especially in the years immediately after 1485 when his position was precarious.

However, if Henry’s overseas trade policy is analysed, there was no obvious pattern to it. Henry was to all intents an opportunist who exploited opportunities as and when they arose. Trade and the expansion of it abroad always took a secondary place to a secure and peaceful, and therefore prosperous, realm.

In 1486, Henry negotiated a treaty with France that removed all restrictions on Franco-English trade. In theory this served a two-fold purpose. First, there was every chance that England would financially prosper from the agreement. Second, those malcontents to Henry being on the throne tended to gather in France. Therefore, if both nations were more closely tied to one another, Henry believed that the French monarchy would no longer give any form of support to those who challenged him for the throne. The treaty was signed with good intentions, but initially failed to deliver as England and France continued to quarrel over Brittany. It was not until 1497 that the treaty fully came into being and English merchants enjoyed unrestricted trade with the French.

Henry was also keen to develop trade in the Mediterranean, especially with Florence. Venice dominated the trade in luxury goods in the Mediterranean and Henry viewed the Venetians as a rival – hence his move to develop stranger ties with Florence. Henry had to encourage merchants to trade in the region, as the Venetians were so dominant. The rewards for success were great and in 1488 a few English merchants ships returned to England with a cargo of malmsey. In retaliation for this encroachment on what the Venetians deemed to be their trade, they imposed very large tariffs on all English goods imported into Venice, effectively killing off any English trade there. Therefore, it became even more important for Henry to develop trade with Florence. In 1490, a treaty was signed that provided for English wool to be imported into Pisa, the main port of Florence. At the same time, Henry restricted the sale of wool to the Venetians. Fearing that they would lose out to Florence in the wool trade in that area, the Venetian government lifted import duties on English goods. This enabled English merchants to carry out more trade with the wealthiest Mediterranean state.

The most important country that England could develop trading relations with was Spain. Spain was pioneering overseas exploration to the ‘New World’ and these voyages opened up exciting possibilities in trade. The negotiations surrounding the marriage between Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon (the Treaty of Medina del Campo of 1489) also allowed for trade talks. Each nation was given the opportunity to trade with the other with duties fixed at an advantageously low rate. From a trade point of view, this was a very successful treaty for Henry. However, the Spanish never allowed the English to become as involved in trade with the ‘New World’ as Henry would have liked.

Henry’s success with the Spanish did not materialise with the Hanseatic League. The League jealously guarded their presence in the Baltic. Edward IV had got the League to promise to agree to allow English merchants free access to Hanse ports – but the promise was never kept. The trading power of the Hanseatic League was too great for Henry to ‘muscle’ in on and he also had to tread carefully as the region could also have become a place where pretenders to the throne gathered. Henry did a great deal to antagonise the Hanse leaders – Hanse merchants were forbidden by Parliamentary law from exporting unfinished cloth from England and a later law forbade them from taking any money out of England. Attacks on Hanse merchants in London and elsewhere went unpunished. Henry believed that his aggressive approach would force Hanse leaders to become more flexible in their approach to trade with England. In this Henry failed.

Henry was successful in certain areas. For example, in 1489 a treaty was signed with Denmark that gave English fishermen the right to fish in Icelandic waters.

An area that did intrigue Henry was overseas exploration. The Royal Council advised him not to finance the voyages of Christopher Columbus, as they believed the plans for the first voyage were too muddled. Henry did, however, finance the voyages of John Cabot. Lured by his belief that he would make a fortune by funding a route to the Far East by sailing west, Henry funded Cabot’s first journey – to the sum of £50. It seems as if Henry’s spirit was willing to support exploration but his desire to keep a close rein on spending curtailed his total investment. In fact, Henry’s caution served him well as Cabot’s first voyage was not a success whereas on the second Cabot landed (probably in Newfoundland) and planted the flag of Henry VII on the land there.

“Henry deserves credit for the encouragement he gave to those brave enough to face the dangers of the North Atlantic. Due to Henry’s patronage, England had more knowledge of North America than any other European country.”

How successful was Henry’s overseas policy? If it is judged on revenue collection (linked with a growth in monarchical power) then custom dues did rise at the start of Henry’s reign. However, this may simply be due to a more effective, aggressive and efficient method of collection and recording as opposed to anything else. Compared to Spain and Venice, the amount of commodities traded abroad was small and overseas trade can only be seen as ‘small scale’ in Henry’s reign.


Western Trade

Vikings raided, traded and settled all along Europe’s coasts. For 300 years, churches would pray to be spared the “wrath of the Norsemen.” The Vikings were equal opportunity traders and raiders. If they found an unprotected church or monastery, they’d raid. If they came to a well-defended town, they would set up trade. Early in the Viking Age, trade was done by direct barter. Eventually, Viking traders obtained a great deal of trade silver and Arabic coins, which then was used to buy goods.

Vikings established home bases and trade centers in both Dublin, Ireland and York, England. Not only did these towns attract international traders, but many Viking craftsmen settled there. Their workshops produced cups, tableware, glass beads, pottery, drinking glasses, bone and antler combs, leather goods, jewelry, and cloth. Blacksmiths and armor makers produced swords, battle axes, chainmail and armor.

During the Viking Age, Norsemen traded all up and down the coasts of Europe, establishing new homes in many locations. They took over and settled Normandy in France and southern Italy. They settled on all the Atlantic islands, the Orkneys, Shetland, Hebrides, Scilly and Isle of Man. Eventually, these Vikings intermarried and settled in permanently.


The Silk Road &ndash Ancient Trading Route Between Europe and Asia

The Silk Road is a name given to the many trade routes that connected Europe and the Mediterranean with the Asian world. The route is over 6,500 km long and got its name because the early Chinese traded silk along it. Although silk was the main trading item there were many other goods that travelled along the Silk Road between Eastern Asia and Europe. In the course of time, medicine, perfumes, spices and livestock found their way between continents.

The Chinese learned to make silk thousands of years ago. For a long time they were the only ones who knew how to make this precious material. Only the emperor, his family and his highest advisers were allowed to wear clothes made of silk. For a long time the Chinese guarded this secret very carefully.

The ancient Romans were the first Europeans who became aware of this wonderful material. Trading started, often with Indians as middlemen who traded silk with the Chinese in exchange for gold and silver which they got from the Romans.

Travelling along the route was dangerous. The hot desert, high mountains and sandstorms made travelling a rough business. Most of the goods along the Silk Road were carried by caravans. Traders sometimes brought goods from one destination on the Silk Road to another, from where the goods would be transported by someone else. Over the centuries people settled along the ancient route and many cities emerged. Later on there were fewer hardships to overcome, but by no means was it easy.

Religion, languages and diseases also spread along the Silk Road. Buddhism, which originated in India, spread to China along this route. European traders probably brought the plague from Asia to Europe along the ancient road.

In the early Middle Ages traffic along the route decreased because of the decline of the Roman Empire. Trading along the Silk Road and became stronger again between the 13th and 14th centuries, when the Mongols controlled central Asia. During the Age of Exploration the Silk Road lost its importance because new sea routes to Asia were discovered.


Beyond frontiers: Ancient Rome and the Eurasian trade networks

During the second half of the 19th century, the Roman Empire was already considered one of the key players inside the Eurasian networks. This research focuses on four relevant points. From a historiographical perspective, the reconstruction of the trading routes represented a central theme in the history of the relationship between the Roman Empire and the Far East. Imagining a plurality of itineraries and combinations of overland and sea routes, it is possible to reconstruct a complex reality in which the Eurasian networks during the Early Roman Empire developed. As far as economics is concerned, new documentation demonstrates the wide range and the extraordinary impact of the Eastern products on Roman markets. A final focus on the process of Chinese silk unravelling and reweaving provides an important clue on how complex and absolutely not mono-directional were the interactions and the exchanges in the Eurasian networks during the first centuries of the Roman Empire.


Portugal and the Age of Exploration

The Iberian Peninsula, today home to Spain and Portugal, was overrun in the 5th century A.D. by the Visigoths, a Teutonic tribe from northern Europe and the conquerors of the Roman Empire. In 711, however, the Visigoths fell to the Moors, North African Muslims of mixed Berber-Arab heritage with roots in Mauritania. Their regime became one of the most culturally advanced in Europe. Religious toleration was established, but many of the indigenous people converted to Islam. In succeeding centuries, Christian princes on the peninsula and neighboring co-religionists took up the cause of expelling the Moors from Europe (the Iberian Reconquista) for many the cause became a major pillar of their faith. This aim became coupled with an interest in exploration. Many Portuguese held a popular belief in the existence of Prester John, a semi-legendary Christian monarch, who was believed to be holding out against surrounding Muslim forces somewhere in Africa. It was hoped that explorations would locate the besieged forces, which would then join with Portuguese armies and expel the Moors from their lands. As a small nation, Portugal may have appeared to be an unlikely leader in exploration and navigational science. Its geographical position, however, helped to shape its course. Surrounded to the east and north by Spain and having no outlets on the Mediterranean, Portugal was compelled to regard the Atlantic Ocean as its main medium of travel. John I of Portugal (reigned 1385-1433) led his people into a period of high achievement and took direct aim at Moorish strength. The North African city of Ceuta (south across the Strait from Gibraltar) fell in 1415, giving a European power its first toehold on the African continent. Prince Henry (the Navigator), son of John and a hero at Ceuta, organized Portuguese resources and information for the purposes of exploration. Voyages were made into the Atlantic to the Madeira Islands and the Azores. Portugal emerged at the leading maritime power in Europe, but interest in exploration diminished after Henry's death in 1460. John II (reigned 1481-95) revived overseas activity and employed two bold, innovative navigators:

  • Bartholomeu Dias headed a venture in 1487 that sought an all-water route to India he was unable to complete his quest, but managed to round the southern tip of Africa and sail into the Indian Ocean.
  • Vasco da Gama extended Dias' journey in 1488, reached India and returned home with an alluring array of jewels and spices.

Ancient Roman Lentils with chestnuts: Italian food before tomatoes

We often think of spices as related to flavor and as a nice addition to food, but spices in the ancient world were more essential. Spices were traded between distant places and enabled cooks to preserve (and often mask the spoiled tasted of) food without refrigeration. Way before “globalization” as we know it, the Apicius cookbook from the Roman Empire indicates a wide-reaching spice trade in the ancient world. Because fresh produce and meats spoiled quickly, the cookbook includes instructions for how to preserve fruits in honey, how to pickle fish, and, disturbingly, how to mask the smell of chicken that has gone bad (we respectfully decided to pass on that recipe).

This desire to keep ingredients fresh might be the reason why the Romans were inventive with their condiments and spices. One hallmark of the Roman table was garum, a fermented fish sauce used on almost anything to add a salty, umami flavor. Roman meals were also flavored with a huge array of spices – some native to Italy, like mint and fennel, and some imported from as far away as India.

Fresco from Pompeii of two cooks gutting a fawn, Getty collection, 50 – 75 CE

This variety of spices might be surprising, but in 30 BCE, the Roman conquest of Egypt expanded Roman trade networks to include the Arabian Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the west coast of India. Cargoes from the East could be unloaded at Egyptian ports and transported overland to the Nile, where they were reloaded on boats and brought up to the Mediterranean. Though this was still a long and expensive journey, it was much faster and cheaper than bringing goods overland, and proved to be a great investment for merchants in the Roman world.

At first glance, the recipes in the Apicius cookbook aren’t what we would expect Italian food to look like. The recipes are quite different from stereotypically Italian food: tomatoes didn’t actually reach Europe until the sixteenth century, so there was no pizza, caprese, or tomato-based pasta dish in ancient Rome. It’s also unlikely that a single man named Apicius actually wrote these recipes. The cookbook was probably created in the late 4th century CE, but the collection seems to have been named after a famous gourmand who lived about three hundred years earlier. Legend has it that he was so devoted to his luxurious diet that when he learned he was running low on money, he killed himself rather than resort to a more modest table. Even with this namesake, the recipes in the collection aren’t over-the-top dishes. Instead, they range from staple foods to relatively attainable delicacies, such as shellfish and complex sauces. We can imagine that cooks used these recipes for families who weren’t part of the lower strata of Roman society, but also weren’t as rich as the emperors, nor as flashy as Apicius himself.

The Apicius manuscript (ca. 900 AD) of the monastery of Fulda in Germany

The spices combinations used here reflect the extent of Roman trading networks – including pepper and cumin from India, the now extinct silphium (or laser) from North Africa, and mint and pennyroyal from Italy.

Spices involved & origins:

  • Pepper – India
  • Cumin – Eastern Mediterranean and India
  • Coriander seed – possibly from Greece or the Near East
  • Mint – native to Italy
  • Rue – Balkans
  • Laser root (=silphium) – North Africa
  • Pennyroyal – native to Italy

*Introduction and recipe translation by Caroline Wazer*

From the archive to the kitchen:

A lentil recipe with no lentils?! Although the title refers to lentils, the recipe itself does not mention the lentils, nor when they should be added or how they should be cooked. Since there are many other Apicius fans online now, we read some forums and discussions by people who had already tried out the recipes We ended up cooking green lentils in water separately and adding them to the cooked chestnuts at the end. This was also when we mixed in more mint and the extra olive oil, which gave the whole dish a fresh, spicy, and flavorful body.

Herbs and spices: Pennyroyal, rue, laser root – this recipe calls for some ingredients that weren’t easy to find. We ended up using more mint instead of combining mint and pennyroyal (the pennyroyal has a minty flavor anyway), and substituted rue with fresh tarragon leaves (rue is actually toxic in large amounts, so we decided not to mess with it). Laser root was a prestigious spice in Roman kitchens, used to create a bitter flavor admired by cooks of the time. It was an incredibly expensive wild plant that grew in North Africa, and vanished in the time of the Empire. Romans continued to write about it, and it is mentioned in Apicius’s book, but they usually used substitutes. Historians say that they probably used Asafoetida, a spice that can now be found as a powder in Indian spice shops or online.

What is Liquamen? Apicius’s recipes frequently call for liquamen, a liquid created from garum. We substituted this with regular fish sauce that can be found today in most Chinese and Vietnamese shops.


How Salt and Pepper Became the Yin and Yang of Condiments

They're staples on every American dining table and the requisite ingredients in virtually every European cuisine, so inseparable that polite society dictates they always be passed together. Salt and pepper are the undisputed champions of condiments—but how did they get so popular?

Everybody Loves Salt

Table salt—aka sodium chloride or NaCl—has been a preferred seasoning since the dawn of time. Our bodies require three to eight grams of NaCl to perform a variety of metabolic functions and, as such, our desire for salt is so intrinsic that "salty" is one of the four elemental types of taste bud (along with sweet, sour, and bitter).

Because we need salt to survive, it has been a highly valued commodity throughout history. Salt has helped build early civilizations, driven empires, and even been used as currency. Roman soldiers were paid in salt, or "sale" in Italian (and "sal" in Spanish), which grew into the modern English word of "salary."

Interestingly, until recently, salt and sugar were often used simultaneously. From Roman times through the Renaissance, chefs routinely served salted and sugared dishes at the same time. It wasn't until the 17th century in France that salt and sugar were separated. It was royal cooks for Louis the XIV that began serving salted dishes throughout the meal to stimulate appetite and only serving sweet foods at the end to satiate the appetite—signifying an end to the meal.

Pepper's Unlikely Rise to Culinary Prominence

Black pepper, though not universally needed like salt, is an equally-valued commodity throughout the West—one so popular that it has arguably changed the course of history. However, it wasn't always this highly prized. You see, black pepper is native to Southeast Asia—specifically Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Malabar Coast of India, where it has been a staple in local cooking since the second century BC.

Like many strong spices, pepper has historically been used as both a condiment and a medicine to treat a variety of illnesses from constipation, hernias, and heart disease to diarrhea, joint pain, and eye infections. However, not all peppers are created equal. During the Roman era, long pepper (piper longum) was the en vogue pepper species—not our familiar black pepper (piper nigrum). And since long pepper was both hotter (thus more potent according to the day's medical establishment) and reputedly reduced phlegm while boosting virility, it was very popular among the upper classes. Long pepper was so popular that other Roman castes began clamoring for similar but less pricey spices, which traders were more than happy to provide in the form of black pepper. And since black pepper grew further West than its longer cousin, the black variety was far easier and cheaper to import back to the Empire.

Over the next few hundred years, black pepper's popularity skyrocketed—so much so that when Alaric the Visigoth sacked Rome in the 5th century, he demanded 3,000 pounds of peppercorns as part of his ransom. It was even used as a form of currency in some cases, much like salt before it.

After the Roman Empire fell, Persian (and later Arab powers) took control of spice export routes from India to the Mediterranean, while Italian powers monopolized the European spice trade. This led directly to the rise of many Italian city-states, and played an important role in the emergence of the Renaissance, thanks to the massive income afforded by the lucrative trade—which also included cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and ginger.

Remember, during the Middle Ages, spices were an ultra-luxury item afforded only by the rich, who were willing to spend big bucks to liven up their meals. What's more, this spice monopoly (both the local Italian-dominated market and the Islamic-controlled overland trade routes) is what enticed Portugal to find a sea route to China, leading to the discovery of the Americas. With countries willing to expend that sort of effort and money on a spice, it's little wonder that pepper was often referred to as Black Gold.

The Dynamic Duo of Haute Cuisine

Black pepper's popularity dropped off a bit in the early 17th century, following the discovery of chili peppers in the New World and the expansion of the European diet beyond gruel. But it came roaring back during the Enlightenment. It was, once again, the royal chefs of Louis XIV's court that elevated black pepper to its current status. Louis the XIV was a notoriously picky eater and preferred his food as lightly seasoned as possible—he considered seasoning a vulgar act. In fact, he banned outright the use of all eastern spices beyond salt, pepper, and parsley (deemed more wholesome and exquisite than ruddy cardamom). Black pepper's spiky, pungent flavor provided just enough kick to the King's meals without overwhelming the taste of the underlying foods to satiate his needs.

The near-exclusive use of salt and pepper as table-side condiments has since spread throughout Europe and the Americas. They still aren't as common in Asia, where ingredients like soy sauce, duck sauce, and oyster sauce are all used during the cooking stage and provide sufficient sodium to the dish (rendering salt and pepper unnecessary). These days, Americans consume more than 6.5 million tons of table salt and some 27,000 tons of black pepper annually. Only sesame and mustard seeds are imported in greater quantities than pepper. But among them, only black pepper is fit for a king. [ Slashfood - Slate - Straight Dope - Wiki - KEW - Image: Jane Rix / Shutterstock, AlexussK / Shutterstock, Krzysztof Slusarczyk / Shutterstock]



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