The immense trea­su­res of Semiramis,1 which could not have been acqui­red in a day, make us think that the Assyrians had them­sel­ves plun­de­red other weal­thy nations, as other nations plun­de­red them later.

The effect of com­merce is wealth ; after wealth comes luxury, and after luxury per­fec­tion of the arts. The arts car­ried to the point where we find them in the time of Semiramis2 indi­cate to us that consi­de­ra­ble trade was already esta­bli­shed.

There was a great luxury trade in the Asian empi­res. The his­tory of luxury would be a sub­stan­tial part of the his­tory of trade : the luxury of the Persians was the luxury of the Medes, as the luxury of the Medes was that of the Assyrians.

Great chan­ges have taken place in Asia. The part of Persia that is in the nor­theast – Hyrcania, Margiana, Bactria, etc. – used to be filled with flou­ri­shing cities that are no lon­ger3 and the north of that empire,4 that is to say the isth­mus sepa­ra­ting the Caspian Sea from the Euxine Sea,5 was cove­red with cities and nations which also no lon­ger exist.

Eratosthenes and Aristobulus lear­ned from Patrocles that mer­chan­dise from the Indies pas­sed through the Oxus into the Sea of Pontus.6 Marcus Varro tells us it was lear­ned in the time of Pompey, in the war against Mithridates, that it took seven days to go from India to the land of the Bactrians, and to the Icarus river that flows into the Oxus ; that Indian mer­chan­dise could the­reby cross the Caspian Sea, from there enter into the mouth of the Cyrus ; and that from that river it took only an over­land pas­sage of five days to reach the Phasus, which lead into the Euxine Sea.7 It is doubt­less through the nations popu­la­ting these various regions that the great empi­res of the Assyrians, Medes, and Persians had com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the remo­test parts of the Orient and the Occident.

There is no lon­ger any such com­mu­ni­ca­tion. All these coun­tries have been laid waste by the Tartars,8 and that des­truc­tive nation still inha­bits them in order to infest them. The Oxus no lon­ger leads to the Caspian Sea : the Tartars have diver­ted it for their own rea­sons9 ; it comes to an end in arid sands.

The Jaxartes, which once for­med a bar­rier bet­ween the civi­li­zed and bar­ba­ric nations, has like­wise been diver­ted by the Tartars, and no lon­ger rea­ches the sea.

Seleucus Nicator concei­ved a plan to join the Euxine Sea with the Caspian Sea.10 This pro­ject, which would have greatly faci­li­ta­ted the com­merce prac­ti­ced at that time, disap­pea­red with his death.11 It is uncer­tain whe­ther he could have rea­li­zed it in the isth­mus sepa­ra­ting the two seas. Very lit­tle is known today about this region : it is depo­pu­la­ted and filled with forests ; there is no lack of water, for a great num­ber of rivers flow down from Mount Caucasus, but this Caucasus, which forms the north of the isth­mus, and extends what are like arms to the south,12 would have been a great obs­ta­cle, espe­cially in those times when they did not have the art of buil­ding locks.

It could be that Seleucus wan­ted to make the joi­ning of the two seas in the very place where czar Peter I has done it since : that is, in that ton­gue of land where the Tanais approa­ches the Volga ; but the north of the Caspian Sea was not yet dis­co­ve­red.

While there was a luxury trade in the empi­res of Asia, the Tyrians were enga­ged throu­ghout the world in a com­merce of eco­nomy. Bochard devo­ted the first book of his Canaan13 to the enu­me­ra­tion of the colo­nies they sent into every coun­try that is close to the sea ; they went beyond the Pillars of Hercules, and made set­tle­ments on the coasts of the ocean.14

In those times, navi­ga­tors were obli­ged to fol­low the coasts, which were, so to speak, their com­pass. Voyages were long and hard. The labors of Ulysses’ tra­vels were a fer­tile sub­ject for the most beau­ti­ful poem in the world, after the one which is the first of all.15

The lit­tle know­ledge which most peo­ples had of those who were far away favo­red the nations enga­ged in com­merce of eco­nomy. They put into their dea­ling the obs­cu­ri­ties they wan­ted ; they had all the advan­ta­ges which intel­li­gent nations assume over igno­rant peo­ples.

Egypt, by reli­gion and ethos sepa­ra­ted from any com­mu­ni­ca­tion with forei­gners, prac­ti­ced almost no out­side trade ; she enjoyed fer­tile land and extreme abun­dance. She was the Japan of those times : she was self-suf­fi­cient.

So far were the Egyptians from jea­lousy over trade that they aban­do­ned the Red Sea trade to all the small nations that had some port on it. They allo­wed the Idumeans, the Jews, and the Syrians to keep fleets there. For this navi­ga­tion Solomon employed Tyrians who were fami­liar with those waters.16

Josephus says that his nation, solely occu­pied with agri­culture, had lit­tle know­ledge of the sea17 ; thus it was only on occa­sion that the Jews tra­ded in the Red Sea. From the Idumeans they took Elath and Ezion-Geber, which gave them this trade ; they lost those two cities, and lost that trade as well.

Such was not the case of the Phoenicians : they did not engage in luxury trade ; they did not come to trade through conquest ; their fru­ga­lity, their skill, their indus­try, their perils, and their fati­gues made them neces­sary to every nation on earth.

Before Alexander, the nations bor­de­ring on the Red Sea tra­ded only on that sea and the sea of Africa.18 The uni­ver­sal sur­prise at the dis­co­very of the Indian Sea, made under that conque­ror, is suf­fi­cient proof of that. I have said19 that pre­cious metals are always borne to the Indies and none are ever brought back ; the Jewish fleets that retur­ned through the Red Sea with gold and sil­ver were coming from Africa, and not from the Indies.

Moreover, this navi­ga­tion was taking place on the east coast of Africa, and the state of things mari­time at that time pro­ves suf­fi­ciently that they did not sail to very remote pla­ces.

I know that the fleets of Solomon and Jehoshaphat did not return until the third year ; but I do not see that the length of the voyage pro­ves how far they had gone.

Pliny and Strabo tell us that the dis­tance cove­red in twenty days by a ship made of reeds, from the Indies and the Red Sea, could be cove­red by a Greek or Roman ship in seven.20 With this pro­por­tion, one year’s voyage for the Greek and Roman fleets took about three years for Solomon’s.

Two ships of une­qual speed do not make their voyage in a time pro­por­tio­nal to their speed : slow­ness often pro­du­ces grea­ter slow­ness. When you have to fol­low the coasts, and are cons­tantly in a dif­fe­rent posi­tion ; when you have to wait for a good wind to sail out of a gulf, and get ano­ther one to go for­ward, a good sai­ling ship takes advan­tage of all favo­ra­ble moments, whe­reas the other remains in a dif­fi­cult spot and awaits seve­ral days for ano­ther change.

This slow­ness of Indian ships which, in an equal inter­val, could cover only a third of the dis­tance cove­red by Greek and Roman ships, can be explai­ned by what we see in our marine today. The Indian ships which were made of reeds drew less water than the Greek and Roman ves­sels, which were made of wood and joi­ned with iron.

We can com­pare these ships of the Indies with those of some nations today with shal­low ports : such are those of Venice and even of Italy in gene­ral,21 of the Baltic Sea, and of the pro­vince of Holland.22 Their ships, which must leave and re-enter them, are made round and broad on the bot­tom, whe­reas the ships of other nations with good ports have a hull sha­ped to sit dee­per in the water. Thus, for mecha­ni­cal rea­sons, these lat­ter ships sail clo­ser to the wind, and the for­mer sail almost solely when they have the wind to their back. A ship with a deep draft sails in the same direc­tion with almost every wind, because of the water’s resis­tance to the ves­sel being dri­ven by the wind, which pro­vi­des sup­port, and the long shape of the ves­sel, which has its side facing the wind, while by the effect of the rud­der’s shape the prow is tur­ned in the inten­ded direc­tion : so one can sail very close to the wind, in other words very close to the direc­tion from which the wind is coming. But when the ship is round-sha­ped and broad-bot­to­med, and conse­quently has a shal­low draft, it no lon­ger gets any sup­port ; the wind pushes the ship, which can­not resist, nor go much anyw­here except in the direc­tion oppo­site the wind. Whence it fol­lows that ves­sels of roun­ded-bot­tom cons­truc­tion voyage more slowly : first, they lose a good deal of time wai­ting on the wind, espe­cially if they are obli­ged to change direc­tion often ; secondly, they go more slowly, because having no hull sup­port, they can­not manage to carry as many sails as the others. If at a time when the marine has made such pro­gress, when the arts are sha­red, when we cor­rect with art the fai­lings of both nature and of art itself, we per­ceive these dif­fe­ren­ces, what must it have been like in the marine of the Ancients ?

I can­not yet leave this sub­ject. The ships of the Indies were small, and those of the Greeks and Romans, if we except those machi­nes made out of osten­ta­tion, were smal­ler than ours. Now the smal­ler a ship is, the more it is endan­ge­red by heavy wea­ther. The storm that sinks a ship would, if it were lar­ger, do no more than toss it. The more a body exceeds ano­ther in size, the smal­ler is its rela­tive sur­face : whence it fol­lows that in a small ship there is a smal­ler ratio, in other words a grea­ter dif­fe­rence bet­ween the ship’s sur­face and the weight or cargo it can carry, than in a large one. We know from fairly gene­ral prac­tice that we make a ship carry a load equal in weight to half the water it could contain. Supposing a ship could hold eight hun­dred tons of water : its pay­load would be four hun­dred tons ; and that of a ship that held but four hun­dred tons of water would be two hun­dred tons. Thus the size of the first ship would be, to the weight it would carry, as 8 is to 4, and that of the second as 4 is to 2. Suppose the sur­face of the large ves­sel were to the small one as 8 is to 6 : the sur­face of the lat­ter will be, to its weight, as 6 is to 2, whe­reas the sur­face of the for­mer will only be, to its weight, as 8 is to 4 ; and with the winds and waves acting only on its sur­face, the large ves­sel will with its weight bet­ter resist their fury than the small one.

We find in his­tory that before the dis­co­very of the com­pass four attempts were made to cir­cum­na­ti­vate Africa. Phoenicians sent by Necho23 and Eudoxus,24 fleeing the wrath of Ptolemy Lathyrus, left from the Red Sea, and suc­cee­ded. Sataspes, under Xerxes,25 and Hanno, who was sent by the Carthaginians, went out through the Pillars of Hercules, and did not suc­ceed.

The capi­tal point for cir­cum­na­vi­ga­ting Africa was to locate and round the Cape of Good Hope. But if you left from the Red Sea, you found that half-way cape clo­ser than by lea­ving from the Mediterranean. The coast that goes from the Red Sea to the Cape is safer than the one that goes from the Cape to the Pillars of Hercules.26 In order for those lea­ving from the Pillars of Hercules to find the Cape, the com­pass had to be inven­ted, making it pos­si­ble to leave the coast of Africa and sail into the vast ocean in the direc­tion of the island of Saint Helena or the coast of Brazil.27 It was the­re­fore quite pos­si­ble that someone had gone from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean without having retur­ned from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea.

Thus, without making this great cir­cuit, after which one could no lon­ger return, it was more natu­ral to ply the East African trade through the Red Sea, and trade with the wes­tern coast through the Pillars of Hercules.28

Diodorus, book II.

Diodorus, book II.

See Pliny, book VI, ch. xvi, and Strabo, book XI.

Strabo, book XI.

[The Black Sea. The area referred to would be today Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.]


In Pliny, book VI, ch. xvii. See also Strabo, book XI, on the trajectory of merchandise from the Phasis to the Cyrus [rivers].

This is why those who have described these countries for us since the Tartars have wholly disfigured them. The map of the Caspian Sea made in our time by the orders of czar Peter I has revealed the enormous errors of our modern maps on the shape of the Caspian Sea, and turns out to be consistent with what the Ancients said about it. See Pliny, book VI, ch. xii.

See Jenkinson’s relation in Recueil des voyages du nord, vol. IV [p. 103–138]

Claudius Cæsar, in Pliny, book VI, ch. xi.

He was killed by Ptolemy Keraunos [in 281 BCE].

See Strabo, book XI.

[Samuel Bochart, Geographia sacra seu Phaleg et Canaan, 1646).]

They formed Tartessos, and settled in Cadiz.

[I.e., the Odyssey, second to the Iliad.]

III [I] Kings, ch. ix ; II Chronicles, ch. viii.

Against Appion.

[I.e., the Mediterranean ? The Gulf of Aden ?]

In the first chapter of this Book.

See Pliny, book VI, ch. xxii, and Strabo, book XV.

Italy has almost nothing but harbors, but Sicily has some very good ports.

I refer to Holland province, for the ports of the sea of Zeeland are rather deep.

He wished to conquer (Herodotus, book IV).

Pliny, book II, ch. lxvii ; Pomponius Mela, book III, ch. ix.

Herodotus, in Melpomene.

Add to this what I say in ch. viii of this book on Hanno’s navigation.

In the Atlantic Ocean, there is a northeast wind in October, November, December and January. You cross the equator, and to elude the general eastern wind you go southward, or else you enter the torrid zone in places where the wind blows from west to east.

[In the edition of 1758, this chapter is extended by the text of Annex 11.]