Trade and Commerce from 200 BC to 300 AD

Trade and Commerce from 200 BC to 300 AD

This article deals with  Trade and Commerce from 200 BC to 300 AD . This is part of our series on ‘Ancient History’ which is an important pillar of GS-1 syllabus. For more articles, you can click here.

Silk Route

Trade and Commerce from 200 BC to 300 AD
  • Silk Route extended was 4,350 km long stretching from Lo-yang on Hwang – He in China to Cteisiphon on Tigris in West Asia.
  • There was flourishing long-distance trade during this period corroborated by
    • Texts: Jataka Stories has stories of trade with Suvarnadvipa (South East Asia) and Ratnadvipa (LANKA) , Sangam Poetry (Indo-Roman trade)  , Periplus Maris Erythraei etc.
    • Archaeology: Dwarka & Bet Dwarka in Gujarat, Kaveripattinam, Muziris etc.
  • A major stimulus to trade was due to
    • The demand for Chinese silk in the Mediterranean Region. Chinese silk was traded through India rather than being sent directly. The reason was the political situation. Parthians were powerful rulers along the North-Western boundary of the Indian subcontinent. There was constant hostility between them & the Roman Empire. Hence, trade routes between China & the Roman Empire were disturbed. (Route : China TO India via Silk Route => Indian Ports of Barbaricum (on Indus) & Baroach => Alexandria)
    • Existence of Kushana rule which provided stability  & safety to trade + reduction in tariffs.
    • Traders started to take advantage of Monsoon winds. Periplus speaks about Hippalus’s discovery of Monsoon winds.
  • Trade with China was disturbed at the end of the 3rd century because of certain reasons like Han Dynasty ended in 220 AD, the Byzantine Empire broke away from Rome and  Kushana Empire collapsed. However trade didn’t end altogether, there were some changes in routes. Trade shifted southward with the main emphasis on oceanic trade (i.e. earlier Silk to India was brought overland and then from India went to the Mediterranean world by Sea but now whole supply route shifted to Sea Route).

Trade with East & South-East Asia 

  • Earlier, the relation between India & South-East Asia seen as political & cultural colonisation of the latter. But that perception has changed now as there were reciprocal links between India & South  Asia.
  • Ancient Sanskrit & Pali Text refer to South Asia as  Suvarnadvipa & Suvarnabhumi i.e. land of gold and associated with riches.
  • Since coinage was absent in SE Asia – trade must have been Barter or with the use of cowrie shells .

Major imports & exports included

Export 1. Cotton Cloth
2. Sugar
3. Certain kind of pottery
Import 1. Gold 
2. Spices (cinnamon & cloves)
3. Aromatics   

Some of these items especially Spices were shipped to the western world. Trade in spices was an attempt to meet the great demand of spices from the Roman world. Indian production alone couldn’t satisfy their needs.

Indo – Roman Trade

Trade increased during this period  because 

  1. By the end of the last century BCE, Rome emerged as the superpower of the Mediterranean world, displacing the Greek kingdoms, and the republic became an empire in 27 BCE under Emperor Augustus. Rome was the largest and wealthiest city in the world and wealth of Rome greatly increased the demand for various products from India, especially the spices and textiles of the Tamil country, resulting in a great expansion of trade.
  2. Discovery of the pattern of monsoon winds in the Arabian Sea in the first century CE by Hippalus, an Egyptian sailor. Till then, only Arabs had the knowledge of these winds giving them monopoly of trade between India and Mediterranean world.
  3. Overland route between India and Roman Empire became vulnerable to attacks by Parthians in Iran due enmity between Romans and Parthians.

Items of Export

  1. Spices (especially Pepper) 
  2. Fragrant woods
  3. Silk came from China to India and from India send to Roman World
  4. Cotton fabric from Madurai
  5. Pearls

Items of Import

  1. Roman wine 
  2. Yavana lamp 
  3. Coins
  4. Coral
  5. wheat for the Graeco-Romans in the Tamil ports.

Roman Coins

  • Indians imported very few goods but were eager to get precious metal, so quest for Roman gold was driving force behind India’s International trade.
  • Large number of Roman coins have been discovered, especially in South India .
  • Roman Kings whose coins found
Maximum – Maximum coins belonged to the reign of Augustus (31 BC -14 AD) and Tiberius (14 AD – 37 AD) . \
Interestingly , their local imitations also found .
Post-Nero Post-Nero (64AD) due to debasement of Roman currency shortage of Roman Coins seen.
  • Issue of Drain of Gold from the Roman Empire
    • Roman Gold was the main item of demand in return for Indian Exports (especially spices) .
    • Periplus  & Sangam poems tell us about the ships of Yavannas coming with gold & returning with black pepper.
    • Romilla Thappar has called Black Pepper as Black Gold of India due to gold India was getting in return for pepper 
    • In fact drain of wealth was so much that Romans became anxious. Roman historian Pliny complained of the trade with the east being a serious drain on the income of Rome. 1/5th of gold used in trade was being sent to India for Spice Trade
Roman and Byzantine Coins

Impact of Trade on other fields

1 . Impact on Science

Two branches  of science were surely impacted

1.1 Astronomy

  • Deep-sea navigation required reliable study of stars. Hence, it received a mercantile patronage.
  • Astronomy also developed due to the exchange of ideas with West Asia where this field was already very much developed.

1.2 Medicine

  • Indian herbal knowledge reached the western world.
  • Greek botanist Theophrastus in ‘History of Plants’ tells about the medicinal use of various Indian plants and herbs  .

2. Impact on Culture

2.1 Western World

North India was very much impacted by Hellenistic ideas as

  • The emergence of Gandhara art.
  • Indian folk-tales and fables travelled westwards (Panchatantra)  .
  • Chaturanga –  chess using four traditional wings of army & played by 4 players reached Persia.   
  • Certain aspects of the life of Christ-like supernatural birth & temptation by Devil influenced by legends of life of Buddha .

2.2 Central Asia

  • Buddhism reached to Central Asia through Traders. 
  • Indian traders patronised Buddhist Monasteries at places like Kashgar, Kucha, Khotan etc.

2.3 China

  • Goods of Chinese origin started to be used in India. Bamboo, Chinese Patta etc. clearly show that they were Chinese. 
  • Buddhist missionaries arrived in China & established themselves at Famous White House Monastery at Lo Yang (starting point of Silk Route) .

2.4 South East Asia

  • Legends about the origin of kingdoms in south-east Asia trace the story back to Indian princes and merchants. Eg: Indian brahman, Kaundinya, is said to have married a Cambodian princess, & introduced Indian culture to Cambodia. 
  • Indian literature narrates the adventures of Indian travellers in these part .

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