XXI.7 On the commerce of the Greeks and of Egypt after Alexander’s conquest

The early Greeks were all pira­tes. Minos, who had ruled the sea, was per­haps only the most suc­cess­ful in bri­gan­dage ; his domi­na­tion was limi­ted to the sur­roun­dings of his island. But when the Greeks became a peo­ple, the Athenians obtai­ned the true com­mand of the sea, because that com­mer­cial and vic­to­rious nation laid down the law to the most power­ful monarch of that time,1 and hum­bled the mari­time for­ces of Syria, the island of Cyprus, and Phoenicia.

I must say some­thing about this rule of the sea which Athens held. Athens, says Xenophon, “rules the sea ; but since Attica adjoins land, ene­mies ravage her while she is sen­ding expe­di­tions afar. The prin­ci­pals allow their lands to be des­troyed, and secure their pos­ses­sions on some island ; the popu­lace, which has no lands, lives without any worry. But if the Athenians lived on an island, and in addi­tion ruled the sea, they would have the abi­lity to harm others without others being able to harm them, while they would be mas­ters of the sea.”2 You would think Xenophon was mea­ning to speak of England.

Athens, full of glo­rious plans ; Athens, which increa­sed jea­lousy ins­tead of increa­sing influence, more keen on exten­ding its mari­time rule than enjoying it ; with such a poli­ti­cal govern­ment that the popu­lace divi­ded up the public reve­nues while the rich were being oppres­sed ; did not engage in the great trade pro­mi­sed by the work in her mines, her mul­ti­tude of sla­ves, the num­ber of her sea­men, her autho­rity over the Greek cities, and more than all that, Solon’s excel­lent ins­ti­tu­tions. Her dea­ling was almost limi­ted to Greece and the Euxine Sea, from which she drew her sub­sis­tence.

Corinth sepa­ra­ted two seas, ope­ned and clo­sed the Peloponnesus, and ope­ned and clo­sed Greece. She was a city of the grea­test impor­tance at a time when the Greek peo­ple was a world, and the Greek cities nations ; she conduc­ted consi­de­ra­ble trade. She had a port to receive the mer­chan­dise of Asia ; she had ano­ther to receive the mer­chan­dise of Italy : for as the Maleas pro­mon­tory, where oppo­sing winds meet and cause ship­wrecks, could be roun­ded only with great dif­fi­culty,3 they pre­fer­red to go to Corinth, and ves­sels could even be made to pass from one sea to the other over land. In no city were art­ful machi­nes so per­fec­ted. Religion com­ple­ted the cor­rup­tion of what its opu­lence had left in the way of mora­lity. It erec­ted a tem­ple to Venus where more than a thou­sand cour­te­sans were conse­cra­ted. From this semi­nary came most of the cele­bra­ted beau­ties whose his­tory Athenæus dared to write.4

Four great events which occur­red in Alexandria chan­ged the face of com­merce : the cap­ture of Tyre, the conquest of Egypt, the conquest of the Indies, and the dis­co­very of the sea which lies to the south of this coun­try.5 The Greeks of Egypt found them­sel­ves in a posi­tion to trade migh­tily : they were mas­ters of the ports on the Red Sea ; Tyre, the rival of every tra­ding nation, was no lon­ger ; they were not impe­ded by the coun­try’s ancient super­sti­tions6 ; Egypt had become the cen­ter of the uni­verse.

The Persian empire exten­ded as far as the Indus.7 Long before Alexander, Darius8 had sent navi­ga­tors who des­cen­ded that river and went as far as the Red Sea. Why then were the Greeks the first to trade with the Indies by a sou­thern route ? Why had the Persians not done so ear­lier ? What use had they made of seas that were so close to them, even seas that washed their empire ? It is true that Alexander conque­red the Indies, but must one conquor a coun­try in order to trade there ? I shall exa­mine this ques­tion.

Ariana, which exten­ded from the Persian Gulf to the Indus, and from the sou­thern sea to the moun­tains of the Paropamisadæ, was indeed depen­dent in a sense on the Persian empire ; but in its sou­thern part it was arid, par­ched, unculti­va­ted and wild.9 Tradition had it that the armies of Semiramis and of Cyrus had peri­shed in these wil­der­nes­ses ; and Alexander, who had his fleet fol­low him, did not fail to lose a large part of his army there10 The Persians were lea­ving the entire coast in the power of the Icthyophagi,11 the Oreitæ and other bar­ba­rian peo­ples. Moreover, the Persians were not great navi­ga­tors, and their very reli­gion obvia­ted any thought of mari­time trade.12 The navi­ga­tion that Darius sent to the Indus and the Indian Sea was more the fan­tasy of a prince who wants to dis­play his might than the orderly plan of a monarch who wants to use it. It went no far­ther, either for com­merce or for the marine, and they emer­ged from igno­rance only to plunge back into it.

Moreover, it was com­monly thought13 before Alexander’s expe­di­tion that the sou­thern part of the Indies was unin­ha­bi­ta­ble,14 which fol­lo­wed from the tra­di­tion that Semiramis15 had brought back only twenty men from there, and Cyrus only seven.

Alexander ente­red from the north. His plan was to march to the east ; but after fin­ding the sou­thern part filled with great nations, cities, and rivers, he attemp­ted its conquest, and suc­cee­ded.

At that point he concei­ved the plan of uni­ting the Indies with the west through a mari­time trade, as he had uni­ted them by means of the colo­nies he had esta­bli­shed inland.

He had a fleet cons­truc­ted on the Hydaspes, des­cen­ded that river, ente­red the Indus, and navi­ga­ted to its mouth. The fleet fol­lo­wed the coast from the Indus along the shore of the lands of the Oreitæ, the Icthyophagi, of Caramania, and of Persia. He had cities built ; he for­bade the Icthyopagi to live on fish : he wan­ted the sho­res of that sea to be inha­bi­ted by civi­li­zed nations. Onesicritus and Nearchus kept a jour­nal of this voyage, which took ten months. They rea­ched Susa ; there they found Alexander, who was feas­ting his army ; he had left his fleet in Patala16 to conti­nue over­land.

The conque­ror had foun­ded Alexandria for the pur­po­ses of secu­ring Egypt ; it was a key to open it in the very place17 where the kings his pre­de­ces­sors had a key for clo­sing it ; and had no thought about any com­merce, which the dis­co­very of the Indian sea alone could have sug­ges­ted to him.18

The kings of Syria left the sou­thern Indian trade to those kings of Egypt, and adhe­red only to the nor­thern trade which was plied via the Oxus and the Caspian Sea. It was belie­ved in those times that this sea was part of the Northern Ocean.19 Seleucus and Antiochus made a spe­cial point of explo­ring it. They main­tai­ned fleets there.20 What Seleucus explo­red was cal­led sea of Seleucus ; what Antiochus dis­co­ve­red recei­ved the name of sea of Antiochus. Alert to pro­jects they might have in that region, in hopes of taking Europe from the rear through Gaul and Germania, they neglec­ted the sou­thern seas, either because the Ptolemys with their fleets on the Red Sea had already clai­med them for them­sel­ves, or because they had dis­co­ve­red that the Persians were invin­ci­bly unin­te­res­ted in the marine, or finally because the gene­ral sub­mis­sion of all the peo­ples in that region left them no more hope for conquest.

I confess I can­not unders­tand the obs­ti­nacy of the Ancients in belie­ving that the Caspian Sea was part of the ocean. The expe­di­tions of Alexander, of the kings of Syria, of the Parthians and the Romans, could not make them change their thin­king ; and yet they des­cribe the Caspian Sea for us with admi­ra­ble pre­ci­sion, which is because we cor­rect our errors as slowly as we can. At first they knew only the south of the Caspian Sea, and they took it to be the ocean ; as they pro­gres­sed along its sho­res on the nor­thern side, ins­tead of ima­gi­ning a great lake, they again thought it was an ocean inlet ; when they explo­red the nor­thern coast and had almost com­ple­ted the cir­cle, their eyes were open, but they clo­sed : they took the mouths of the Volga for a strait or an exten­sion of the ocean.

Alexander’s land army had gone on the eas­tern side only as far as the Hyphasis, which is the last of the rivers that flow into the Indus. Thus the first com­merce the Greeks had in the Indies took place in a very small part of the coun­try. Seleucus Nicator conti­nued as far as the Ganges21 : and so was dis­co­ve­red the sea to which that river flows, which is the Gulf of Bengal. Today we dis­co­ver lands by sea voya­ges ; there was a time when they dis­co­ve­red seas by conquests of land.

Strabo, des­pite the tes­ti­mony of Apollodorus, seems to doubt that the Greek kings of Bactriana22 had gone far­ther than Seleucus and Alexander.23 I do believe they went no far­ther to the east, and did not cross the Ganges ; but they went far­ther sou­th­wards, and dis­co­ve­red Siger and ports of Malabar, which gave rise to the navi­ga­tion I am about to dis­cuss.

Pliny tells us that they took three rou­tes suc­ces­si­vely to sail to the Indies.24 First they went from the Siagre pro­mon­tory to the island of Patala, which is in the mouth of the Indus ; it is clear that this is the route which Alexander’s fleet had fol­lo­wed. Next they took a shor­ter and surer route, and went from the same pro­mon­tory to Siger.25 This Siger can only be the king­dom of Siger men­tio­ned by Strabo, which the Greek kings of Bactriana dis­co­ve­red.26 Pliny can only say that this route was shor­ter because they cove­red it in less time ; for Siger must have been fur­ther away than the Indus, since the kings of Bactriana dis­co­ve­red it. They must in that way have avoi­ded detou­ring around cer­tain coasts, and taken advan­tage of cer­tain winds. Finally, mer­chants took a third route : they went to Cane or to Cella, ports on the mouth of the Red Sea, from where, with a wes­terly wind, they rea­ched Muziris, the first stop in the Indies, and from there other ports.

We see that ins­tead of going from the mouth of the Red Sea to Siagre by going up the coast of Arabia Felix to the nor­theast, they went directly from west to east, from one side to the other, thanks to the trade winds, whose regu­lar pat­tern was dis­co­ve­red by sai­ling in this vici­nity. The Ancients went off the coasts only when they used these winds, which were a sort of com­pass to them.

Pliny says that they left for the Indies in the middle of sum­mer and retur­ned towards the end of December or at the begin­ning of January.27 That is enti­rely consis­tent with the jour­nals of our navi­ga­tors. In that part of the Indian Sea which is bet­ween the African penin­sula and the penin­sula this side of the Ganges, there are two mon­soons : the first, during which the winds blow from west to east, begins in August and September, and the second, during which the winds blow from east to west, begins in January. Thus we leave Africa for Malabar at the time Ptolemy’s fleets depar­ted, and we return at the same time.

Alexander’s fleet took seven months to go from Patala to Suza. It left in July, in other words during a sea­son when today no ship dares take to sea, to return from the Indies. Between one mon­soon and the other, there is an inter­val of time during which the winds vary, and when a nor­therly wind joi­ning with ordi­nary winds cau­ses dread­ful storms, espe­cially near the coasts. That lasts for the months of June, July, and August. Alexander’s fleet, lea­ving Patala in July, must have wea­the­red many storms ; and the voyage must have been long, because they were sai­ling against the mon­soon.

Pliny says that they left for the Indies at the end of sum­mer : thus they were using the time when the mon­soon was shif­ting to cross from Alexandria to the Red Sea.

Do note how much bet­ter we pro­gres­si­vely became at navi­ga­tion. The voyage of Darius to des­cend the Indus and reach the Red Sea las­ted two and a half years.28 Alexander’s fleet, des­cen­ding the Indus, rea­ched Suza ten months later, having navi­ga­ted three months on the Indus and seven on the Indian Sea29 ; sub­se­quently the voyage from the Malabar Coast to the Red Sea was cove­red in forty days.30

Strabo, who explains their igno­rance of the coun­tries that lie bet­ween Hyphasis and the Ganges, says that among the navi­ga­tors who go from Egypt to the Indies there are few who go as far as the Ganges.31 Indeed we see that the fleets did not go there : they fol­lo­wed the trade winds from west to east from the mouth of the Red Sea to the Malabar coast. They put into what ports there were, and did not try to sail around the penin­sula this side of the Ganges by Cape Comorin and the coast of Coromandel ; the navi­ga­tion plan of the kings of Egypt and of the Romans was to return the same year.32

Thus it is far from the case that the com­merce of the Greeks and Romans to the Indies was as exten­sive as ours, we who know vast coun­tries which they did not know, we who do our tra­ding with all the Indian nations, and even trade and ship for them.

But they plied this trade with grea­ter ease than we do ; and if today we tra­ded only on the coast of Gujarat and Malabar, and if without going to seek the sou­thern islands we conten­ted our­sel­ves with the mer­chan­dise which the islan­ders might bring to us, going by way of Egypt ought to be pre­fer­red to going by way of the Cape of Good Hope. Strabo says that is the way they tra­ded with the peo­ples of Taprobana.33

I shall end this chap­ter with an obser­va­tion. Ptolemy the geo­gra­pher34 extends the known eas­tern Africa to the Prassum pro­mon­tory, and Arrian limits it to the Raptum pro­mon­tory.35 Our best maps place the Prassum pro­mon­tory in Mozambique around ten degrees of that lati­tude. But since, from the coast of the king­dom of Azania, which pro­du­ces no mer­chan­dise at all, the coun­try beco­mes ever richer as one goes south to the land of Sofala, where lies the source of wealth, it at once seems sur­pri­sing that we have thus retro­gres­sed toward the north ins­tead of advan­cing toward the south.

As dis­co­very, navi­ga­tion and com­merce exten­ded in the direc­tion of the Indies, they rece­ded on the African side : a rich and easy trade led peo­ple to neglect a less lucra­tive one full of dif­fi­culties. The eas­tern coast of Africa was less known than in the time of Solomon ; and although Ptolemy speaks of the Prassum pro­mon­tory, it was rather a place that had been known than a place that was still known. Arrian bounds known lands at the Raptum pro­mon­tory because no one went that far any more.36 For if Marcian of Heraclea37 retur­ned to the Prassum pro­mon­tory, his autho­rity is of no impor­tance : he him­self admits that he is copying Artemidorus and that this Artemidorus is copying Ptolemy.38

The king of Persia.

The Athenian Republic.

See Strabo, book VIII.

[In the edition of 1758, the text of Annex 12 appears here.]

[I.e., the Indian Ocean.]

They gave them a horror of strangers.

Strabo, book XV.

Herodotus, in Melpomene.

Strabo, book XV.

Strabo, book XV.

Pliny, book VI, ch. xxiii, and Strabo, book XV.

So as not to soil the elements, they did not sail on the rivers (Mr. Hyde, Historia religionis veterum Persarum). Even today they have no maritime commerce, and treat as atheists those who go to sea.

Strabo, book XV.

Herodotus (in Melpomene) says that Darius conquered the Indies. That can be understood only of Ariana, and again it was only an imaginary conquest.

Strabo, book XV.

A city of the island of Patala, at the mouth of the Indus.

Alexandria was founded on a beach called Rachotes. Ancient kings kept a garrison there to forbid entrance to the country to foreigners, and especially to Greeks (Pliny, book V, ch. x) ; Strabo, book XVIII.

[In the edition of 1758, Annex 13 and Annex 14 appear here.]

Pliny, book VI, ch. xii, and Strabo, book XI, p. 507.

Pliny, book II, ch. lxvii.

Pliny, book VI, ch. xvii.

The Macedonians of Bactria, the Indies, and Ariana, having separated from the kingdom of Syria, formed a large state.

Book XV.

Book VI, ch. xxiii.

Pliny, book VI, ch. xxiii.

Strabo, book XI, Sigertidis regnum.

Book VI, ch. xxiii.

Herodotus, in Melpomene.

Pliny, book VI, ch. xxiii.


Book XV.

Pliny, book VI, ch. xxiii.

Book XV [Taprobana = Sri Lanka].

Book IV, ch. vii, and Book VIII, Table 4 of Africa.

See The Periplus of the Erythræan Sea.

Arian and Ptolemy were near-contemporaries.

His work is found in the anthology of minor Greek geographers, Oxford edition of 1698, vol. I, p. 10.

Ibid., p. 1–2.