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Coastal management sourcebooks 2

The greatest emporium in the inhabited world

University of Alexandria

Founded in 332–331 BC, Alexandria was primarily intended to be a new port for Egypt. Up to the time of Alexander the Great (Pella, 356 BC – Babylone, 323 BC), Egypt lacked permanent, suitable harbours on its northern coast, as those landing-places located at the mouth of some branches of the Delta (best known of which were the ones at Canopus and Pelusium) were of a temporary nature. They were at the mercy of the Nile flood and of its annual silt deposits, and every few years they had to be rebuilt where the silt had accumulated. The only permanent harbour that Egypt could boast of on the Mediterranean was the one on the island of Pharos, which had no direct access to the mainland.[1]

Alexander, it is true, was no sailor, but he was an extremely shrewd leader who consulted with experts on practical matters with which he was not familiar. He therefore set up a committee to advise him on the choice of an appropriate site for his new city. Among his advisers were: Cleomenes of Naukratis, the prominent businessman and engineer; Deinokrates of Rhodes, the famous civic engineer; Numenius, the stone-mason and his brother Hyponomos.[2] With their expertise and thorough knowledge of the geographical layout as well as of the climatic and marine conditions (namely the western and northern winds and the west-to-east sea current), they wisely chose a site west of the Delta. The obvious suggestion was made, furthermore, to build a causeway (later on known as the Heptastadium) to connect the island of Pharos with the mainland at Rakotis. In this way, two harbours were created at the same time, the main Portus Magnus to the east of the causeway, and that of Eunostos to the west. Within the latter, close to the Heptastadium, a structure known as the Kibotos (box) was carved out. Reaching south to lake Mariout through a navigable canal, it functioned as a lock to connect the open sea with the lake. In its turn, the lake was connected to the Nile by canals. In this way, an extra harbour was established on the lake-side of Alexandria.[3] Through this complex system of harbours and canals, maritime shipping at Alexandria was linked to the inland waterways of Egypt, thereby greatly increasing the possibilities of transport and trade.

During Alexander’s lifetime, several developments took place which confirmed the function of Alexandria as a trade centre. From the very beginning, Alexander instructed his finance minister, Cleomenes of Naukratis, to transfer to it the emporium (trade-centre) of Canopus (present-day Abu Qir).[4] Cleomenes took full advantage of his important position and established a monopoly of international trade in grain throughout the Mediterranean with Alexandria as his base. In addition, he provided the city with a mint as early as 326 BC. Thus the position of Alexandria as an international trading centre was assured.[5] Under the Ptolemies, the city’s commercial significance advanced by leaps and bounds and foreign merchants and businessmen began to frequent it in increasing numbers. A papyrus, dated October 258 BC, has preserved a prostagma (royal ordinance) of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (308–246 BC, Reign 285–246) establishing control on foreign currency entering the country, which ordained that ‘all foreign merchants were required to exchange their gold and silver for new Ptolemaic silver coins, in order to make their purchases in Alexandria and the rest of the country.’ Furthermore, in the same document, we find a certain Demetrios, who was in charge of the Alexandrian mint, complaining of the difficulties the mint faced to cope with the exchanges required.[6] It is obvious that the amount of foreign gold and silver brought in exceeded the capacity of the Alexandria mint. This situation reflects the great foreign demand on the supplies of the markets in Alexandria and Egypt around the middle of the third century BC.

During the following (second) century BC, the Ptolemaic dynasty gradually grew weaker and increasingly came under the sway of Rome. Paradoxically, this political development reflected favourably on business life in Alexandria. Names of Alexandrian merchants were found in inscriptions from different parts of the Mediterranean; a fact which testifies to the wide range of their trading activities which took them as far as the northern coast of the Black Sea.[7] Yet their trade had to follow lines favoured by Rome and this can be traced in two different areas: the eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea.

In the eastern Mediterranean, the island of Rhodes had developed during the fourth and third centuries BC into a powerful commercial state, due to its position at the crossroads of the principal sea routes in that area. It continued to maintain, with Alexandria, strong ties of friendship and mutual commercial interest both under Cleomenes of Naukratis, whose offices in Rhodes played a vital role in the operation of his trade network,[8] as well as under the early Ptolemies in the third century BC.[9] However, this situation changed drastically with the sudden rise of Rome as the dominant Mediterranean power, after her victory over Hannibal in the west in 202 BC. It was then that Rome adopted a policy of expansion and supremacy over the East. In application of this new policy, Rome looked upon the prosperity of independent Rhodes with disfavour, but not wishing to resort to the use of force against that powerful distant island, Rome launched a policy of economic blockades by inducing other countries to switch their routes and agencies from Rhodes to the nearby poor island of Delos. Under Roman pressure, Alexandrian merchants were accordingly forced to move their depots and agencies and there is ample evidence from the second century BC to testify to the close trade connections between Alexandria and Delos. Significant in this respect is a dedicatory inscription which was set up in Delos by ‘the chiefs of the union of Alexandrian merchants.’[10]

A further development occurred in the direction of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. With the growing awareness in Rome of the possibilities of an oriental and southern trade in incense, spices, aromatics, precious stones (and later on in silk), Roman businessmen sought to invest more in this line of commerce via Alexandria. Consequently, as accumulating evidence demonstrates, more capital was pumped into its market.

A papyrus[11] of the middle of the second century BC informs us that there was in Alexandria, an international company for the importation of aromata from the ‘incense-bearing land’, an area south of the Red Sea known in ancient Egypt as Punt (present day Somaliland). It is a maritime loan contract in which twelve names have partially survived representing the different parties to the agreement: a creditor, a banker, five debtors and five guarantors. Among these twelve persons, we find at least seven different civic affiliations, from Rome, Carthage, Messalia ( = Massalia), Elea, Thessalonica and Macedonia. The others bear regular Greek names. It is significant that the one Roman, whose name is Gnaeus, was the banker through whose bank the transaction was managed. Interest in the importation of ‘precious stones, frankincense and other magnificent objects’ is reported in an inscription dated 130 BC.[12]

Other inscriptions from Delos of the second half of the second century BC, illustrate that Romans and Italians were already firmly established in Alexandria and not in small numbers. In one example, a dedication was made by ‘Italians at Alexandria’ (Alexandreae Italicei).[13] In another we find Roman ship owners and merchants expressing, in a votive dedication to Apollo, their gratitude on the occasion of the recapture of Alexandria by King Ptolemy Euergetes II (127 BC).[14]

This class of Romans and Italians was not confined to Alexandria, as we find evidence of their presence as far south as the island of Philae (near Aswan). A small group of Latin inscriptions lately discovered on that island attest to this fact.[15] Four names have survived:
a) Gaius Acutius (written in Latin and Greek), who proudly adds ‘hoc venit primus’ (‘came here first’)
b) M(arcus) Claudius Varus
c) Sp(urius) Varaeus N(umeri) f(ilius)
d) M(arcus) Ti..trius N(umeri) f(ilius) / Graicanus /Nucrinus
(The first three visitors wrote down the date of their visit according to the Roman calendar [ = 26 August 116 BC]).

No further information is given about their persons or the purpose of their visit. The fact that Ptolemy VIII had died only a couple of months earlier on 28 June 116 BC, may lead one to suspect a political connection. But the period of less than two months does not allow enough time for the Senate to have reacted, followed by a journey from Rome to Alexandria and from thence up the Nile to Philae. There is no indication whatsoever to suggest that these persons had any specific political or military assignment of any sort. It is more probable, like the other examples above, that they were on a business trip to Egypt, like ‘the residents from Italy’ in about 59 BC who, according to Diodorus, seem to have been engaged in business transactions.[16]

The date 116 BC of these Latin inscriptions is of special interest because it coincides with an event of global significance, namely the discovery of the monsoon winds in the Indian Ocean by Alexandrian navigators. The story of the discovery was reported by Poseidonius (c.130–51 BC) and later recorded by Strabo (2.33. 4–5). We are told that a shipwrecked Indian sailor was discovered, half-dead, by coast guards on the Red Sea, and was brought to the King. To gain favour, the Indian promised to guide any of the King’s navigators on a voyage to India. Eudoxus of Cyzicus, an adventurous Greek seaman employed by Ptolemy VIII for navigation up the Nile, was appointed to that mission. Poseidonius reports two direct journeys to India. The first in 118 BC, guided by the Indian sailor, proved successful when Eudoxus returned with a cargo of aromatics and precious stones. The second, under the sole guidance of Eudoxus, occurred in 116 BC, just after the death of Ptolemy VIII and during the reign of Cleopatra III, his wife and queen.

Our main source for this story is Strabo who is very sceptical about it. He goes so far as to accuse Poesidonius of either inventing it wholly himself or of being over-credulous in accepting it on hearsay. He is particularly suspicious of the role played by the Indian sailor. Nevertheless, modern scholarship has considered the facts of Eudoxus’ two voyages seriously.[17] They fit in well with the conditions then prevailing in the Indian Ocean, where Alexandrian merchants controlled sea-borne trade in the Red Sea, Nabataeans and South Arabians controlled overland caravan trade across Arabia. Indian and South Arabian merchants kept strict and complete control of commerce in the Indian Ocean. This delicate balance was maintained and jealously guarded throughout the third and second centuries BC by the South Arabians whose country profited and prospered as the main entrepot centre for the north-south trade. It was in Eudaemon Arabia (Arabia Felix) that Alexandrian merchants could barter their wares with their Indian counterparts as well as purchase equally precious South Arabian goods. This commercial set up is reflected in a statement by Diodorus about the ‘prosperous islands near Eudaemon Arabia which were visited by sailors from every port and especially from Potana, the city which Alexander founded on the Indus river.’[18] A more direct description of the situation is found in the late but important text known as ‘The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea’ by an unknown author. In it we read that ‘Eudaemon Arabia (Aden, is meant here) was once before a fully-fledged city, when vessels from India did not go to Egypt and those of Egypt did not dare sail to places further on, but came only this far.’[19] Any attempts by Alexandrian ships to sail beyond Eudaemon Arabia were strongly discouraged; if they did sail, it was by laboriously hugging the coasts and in the words of Periplus, ‘sailing round the bays’.[20]

This was the situation until Roman financiers entered the Alexandrian money market towards the middle of the 2nd century BC as demonstrated earlier. The ensuing rise of demand for oriental and southern goods in the Mediterranean markets, whetted the appetite of Alexandrian merchants to increase their share in the north-south trade. They realized that their only chance lay in bypassing the Arabian ports and in breaking directly across the ocean to the rich Indian market. Ptolemy VIII, friend of Rome as was his wife after him, demonstrated personal interest and involvement in the project which indicated the great hopes all parties in Alexandria attached to the success of the venture. The expertise of an Indian pilot with a thorough knowledge of the secret of the Monsoon winds, would therefore have been very much in demand.

The discovery of the monsoon winds and their use in navigation by Alexandrian sailors, had a very marked effect on the Egyptian scene.[21] Not long after Eudoxus, a new important office was created for the first time in the Egyptian administration, that of ‘commander of the Red and Indian Seas’, very probably under Ptolemy XII, nicknamed Auletes (80–51 BC).[22] The creation of such an office implies that the utilization of the monsoons led to a marked increase in the regular commercial transactions with India. It is also perhaps not entirely irrelevant that in 55 BC, the Senate decided to send Gabinius at the head of a Roman army to restore Auletes to his throne and remain in Alexandria for the protection of the king against possible future revolts.[23] We can easily detect behind this drastic step, considerable Roman assets at risk in the case of sudden undesirable internal changes in Alexandria. This should warn us against accepting at face value Strabo’s often quoted remark that it was only under ‘the diligent Roman administration that Egypt’s commerce with India and Troglodyte was increased to so great an extent. In earlier times, not so many as twenty vessels would have dared to traverse the Red Sea far enough to get a peep outside the straits (Bab-el-Mandab), but at the present time, even large fleets are dispatched as far as India and the extremities of Aethiopia, from which the most valuable cargoes are brought to Egypt and thence sent forth again to other regions.’[24]

This is clearly an overstatement, intended as a compliment to the new Roman administration, considering that Aelius Gallus, the prefect of Egypt, was Strabo’s personal friend at whose house he stayed as a guest for five years (25–20 BC). Strabo’s statement stands in sharp contrast to the earlier data of the above mentioned inscriptions and to the more matter-of-fact statement of the later author of the Periplus (c. 40 AD), who rightly perceived that the great change in the modes of navigation and the vast expansion of trade were the direct result of the discovery of the Monsoon winds, at least half a century before Augustus conquered Egypt. Strabo himself witnessed the flourishing state of Alexandria only five years after the Roman conquest, and very shrewdly observed the active trade that went through its several harbours. He says, ‘Among the happy advantages of the city, the greatest is the fact that this is the only place in all Aegypt which is by nature well situated with reference to both things, both to commerce by sea, on account of the good harbours, and to commerce by land, because the river easily conveys and brings together everything into a place so situated, the greatest emporium in the inhabited world.’[25] Admittedly, Egypt’s Indian trade continued to flourish more and more in Roman times as the result of other drastic developments. For it is apparent that the same Roman economic interests that had urged Ptolemaic oriental trade to establish direct sea connections with India by circumnavigating Eudaemon Arabia, continued to motivate Augustus’ foreign policy in that region.

Soon after the annexation of Egypt, the Emperor Augustus (Rome 63 BC – Nole 14 AD) in 26 BC commissioned his prefect in Egypt, Aelius Gallus, to invade southern Arabia by land.[26] This land onslaught caused considerable damage to the Sabaeans as far as Ma’ereb, but did not entirely cripple the commercial activity of the Arabian ports on the ocean. Not satisfied with this result, in AD 1 Augustus launched another devastating attack – this time by sea – which resulted, in the words of Periplus,‘in sacking Eudaemon Arabia’ which declined into, ‘a mere village after having been a fully fledged city (polis)’.[27] Now that Eudaemon Arabia (Aden) was out of action, Alexandrian sailors of the Roman period experienced unrivalled dominance of the sea route to India.

Figure 1. Egyptian-Indian trade routes in Hellenistic and Roman times.
Trade routes
[1] Hecateus of Abdera, apud Diod.I.31; Eratosthenes, apud Strabo 17.1.19.
[2] According to Ps. Call. it was on the advice of Hyponomos that a network of channels and drains running into the sea were constructed. ‘Such canals are called Hyponomos after him.’
[3] Strabo, 17.1.7.
[4] Ps. Arist. Oec. II.33 c.
[5] M. El-Abbadi, ‘Cleomenes’, Bull. Fac. of Arts, Alexandria 17 (1964) 65–85 (in Arabic).
[6] P. Cairo Zenon 59021. cf. Cl. Preaux, Économie Royale des Lagides, 271, n.2.
[7] Rev. Et. Gr. 52 (1939) p. 483 no. 235 from Callatis (NW of the Black Sea); B.C.H.5 (1881) p. 461, 1 (Delos); Durrbach, Choix Ins. Delos 108 (127–116 BC). Also cf. P. Roussel, Delos Colonie Athenienne (Paris 1916), pp. 92–3.
[8] [Demosthenes] 56. 7 ff.
[9] Diod. 20.81,4 ; cf. F. W. Walbank, Hellenistic World, Harvard U. Press (1981) p. 101. It was the Rhodians who in 304 BC glorified Ptolemy I as a Saviour God, Soter, Diod. 20.100,4; Paus. 1.8.6. On Amphorae of Rhodes found in Egypt, cf. C.C. Edgar, Annales des Services. 22 (1922) 6.
[10] Durrbach, Choix, 108 (127–116 BC).
[11] Sammelbuch 7169.
[12] Dittenberger, O.G.I.S. 132.
[13] Durrbach, Choix, 107.
[14] Op. cit. 105–6.
[15] A. Roccati, Nuove epigrafi grechi e latine da file, Homage Vermaseren III., pp. 988–96, esp. 994 ff. nos. 5–6 = Année Épigraphique (1977) 838–9; and Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum, 28, no. 1485.
[16] Diod.1.83, 8–9; for this interpretation of the text see E. van’t Dack, ‘Les relations entre l’Égypte Ptolemaïque et l’Italie’, Egypt and the Hellenistic World, Studia Hellenistica 27 (Louvain 1983) 383–406, esp. 393–6.
[17] J. Thiel, Eudoxus of Cyzucus (Groningen 1966) passim, W. Otto & H. Bengtson, Zur Geschichte des Niederganges des Ptolemäerreiches (München 1938) 1–22.
[18] Diod. 3.47.9.
[19] L. Casson, ed. The Periplus Maris Erythraei (Princeton 1989) 26. lines 26–32.
[20] Op. cit. 57; also see editor’s introd. & comm. p. 71–2.
[21] I hereby ignore the seemingly fictitious character of Hippalus, who was assumed by Periplus (57) to have been a later discoverer of the monsoons; the same assumption was made by Pliny, H.N. 6.26 ; and Cl. Ptol., Geogr. 4.7.41.
[22] Sammelbuch, 8036, Coptos (variously dated 110/109 BC or 74/3 BC; and no. 2264 (78 BC); Inscriptions Philae, 52 (62 BC) {as n. 15}.
[23] Caesar, BC. 3. 110.
[24] Strabo, 17.1.13.
[25] ibid.
[26] Strabo, 16.4.23–4.
[27] Periplus, 26; Pliny, H.N. 6.32, 160 & 12.30,55; Also cf. H. MacAdam, ‘Strabo, Pliny and Ptolemy of Alexandria’, in: Arabie Pre-Islamique (Strasbourg 1989) 289–320.
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