XXI.12 On the commerce of the Romans with Arabia and the Indies

Dealing in Arabia Felix and in the Indies were the two bran­ches, and almost the only ones, of foreign trade. The Arabs were then what they are today, equally devo­ted to dea­ling and to ban­di­try. Their vast deserts on the one hand, and the riches they went to seek there, pro­du­ced these two effects. They found these riches in their seas and in their forests ; and as they sold much and pur­cha­sed lit­tle, they attrac­ted to them­sel­ves the Romans’ gold and sil­ver.1 We still trade with them in the same man­ner : the cara­van from Aleppo and the royal ves­sel from Suez bear immense sums there.2

Their trade with the Indies was consi­de­ra­ble. Strabo had lear­ned in Egypt that they employed one hun­dred twenty ships for it3 ; this trade still main­tai­ned itself only with their sil­ver. Every year they sent fifty mil­lion ses­terc­tii. Pliny says that the mer­chan­dise they brought back sold in Rome for a hun­dred times that.4 I think he speaks too gene­rally : such pro­fit made once, eve­ryone would have wan­ted to do it ; and from that moment no one would have.

One can doubt whe­ther it was advan­ta­geous to the Romans to carry on trade with Arabia and the Indies. They had to send their sil­ver, and they did not have, as we do, the resource of America which makes up for what we send. I am per­sua­ded that one of the things that made them raise the face value of moneys, which is to say to esta­blish alloyed coi­nage, was the rarity of sil­ver cau­sed by its conti­nual ship­ment to the Indies. Now if the mer­chan­dise coming back sold in Rome for a hun­dred times more, the Romans’ pro­fit was made off the Romans them­sel­ves, and did not enrich the empire.

It might be alle­ged, on the other hand, that this com­merce pro­cu­red a great deal of ship­ping, in other words great might, for the Romans ; that the new kinds of mer­chan­dise increa­sed domes­tic trade, favo­red the arts, and sup­por­ted pro­duc­tion ; that the num­ber of citi­zens mul­ti­plied in pro­por­tion to the new means of live­li­hood ; that this new com­merce pro­du­ced the luxury which I have shown to be as favo­ra­ble to the govern­ment of one man alone as fatal to the govern­ment of many ; that this esta­blish­ment occur­red at the same time as the fall of their repu­blic ; that luxury was a neces­sity in Rome ; and that a city which drew in all the wealth in the world had to give it back through its luxury.

5 I will say only a word about domes­tic trade.6 Its prin­ci­pal branch was that of grains that were impor­ted for the sub­sis­tence of the peo­ple of Rome, which was a policy mat­ter rather than an object of com­merce. For this pur­pose the navi­ga­tors recei­ved some pri­vi­le­ges,7 because the sal­va­tion of the empire depen­ded on their vigi­lance.

Pliny, book VI, ch. xxxviii.

The caravans from Aleppo and Suez carry two million in our coin there, and an equal sum is smuggled in ; the royal vessel of Suez also carries two million there.

Book II, p. 81, edition of 1587.

Book VI, ch. xxiii.

[The 1758 edition here inserts Annex 17.]

[The 1758 edition adds Annex 18 beginning here.]

Suetonius, in Claudio, law 7, Theodosian code, De naviculariis.