In studying any long period of history, one frequently realizes that great ‘discoveries’ which have profoundly influenced civilization are, after all, only rediscoveries—though the later discoverers showed every whit as much brain and courage as their predecessors.
It may happen, owing to the state of the times, that the earlier discovery is without immediate influence and is utterly forgotten; or it may exercise a potent influence for a time and then, owing to causes unforeseen and unexpected, it also passes away among forgotten, or half-forgotten, things. …
The work of a discoverer of the second class is, in the main, the subject of this essay—the voyage of Hippalus to India in the latter half of the first century A.D., and its results.
A few notes are in order, so I’ll quote the first footnote:
First, the term ‘Periplus’ is used in three senses. Originally meaning a ‘sailing-round,’ it is applied to a geographical description of coasts like the Periplus of Scylax or that of the Euxine by Arrian. Then it is used for the record of an individual voyage, like that of Nearchus or of Hanno. Finally, it may denote a manual for the instruction of navigators or traders, such as the work we are discussing. The second point to be noted is that by the ‘Red’ or ‘Erythraean’ Sea, the Greeks denoted not only the modern Red Sea, but also the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea.
Kaeppel opens with a discussion on the main routes of communication between the ‘classical world’ and the Far East (while avoiding, in large part, the migrations of people). The overland (jade) route, from China to India and over land to Europe, was popular but depended on several factors. Incursions by Mongol tribes disrupted use of this route. The climate along the route can be brutal, varying wildly at times during the year. And the changing geography of several of the major rivers, particularly the Oxus, has hindered or helped trade (and with this point Kaeppel corrects one of my earlier complaints about not considering such changes). Strabo, writing in the first century B.C. and relying heavily on Aristobulus, gives a valuable account of the existing overland route. There were two routes by sea—one keeping close to the coast, using the overland caravan route once reaching Mesopotamia, the other a direct course across the Indian Ocean to the Gulf of Aden and up the Red Sea. Even in this route goods were unloaded and hauled overland.
“Hippalus was the first man of the classical world to sail his own ship direct into Indian waters, the first to open up direct trade relations with the Far East.” His achievement’s practical purposes for direct trade ended before too long, though, due to the fall of the western Roman empire, the reliance on the caravan route by Constantinople, and the rise of Islam a few centuries later.
The Periplus can be found online here or here. It reads as a trader’s log, giving details on what a voyager would find sailing from the head of the Red Sea, along the east coast of Africa and then along the west and south coasts of ‘Arabia,’ then to India and Sri Lanka (Ceylon for Kaeppel). The importance isn’t in the literary story (because there is very little there) but because it marks a new era. The journey took place around 50 A.D. and written about 10 years later. Hippalus discovers the change of weather (which, of course, others had taken advantage before him, of the change in weather that comes with the monsoons:
57. This whole voyage as above described, from Cana and Eudaemon Arabia, they used to make in small vessels, sailing close around the shores of the gulfs; and Hippalus was the pilot who by observing the location of the ports and the conditions of the sea, first discovered how to lay his course straight across the ocean. For at the same time when with us the Etesian winds are blowing, on the shores of India the wind sets in from the ocean, and this southwest wind is called Hippalus, from the name of him who first discovered the passage across.
These changes make sailing in one direction easy for half of the year and returning easier in the other half. The Periplus is a quick read so I won’t quote anything more from it. The pieces I found most interesting in the Periplus were the descriptions of the trading cities, emphasizing the impact of trade on these ports. I found Kaeppel's discussion on the long-term impact from such trade the most important part of the essay. After describing products that flowed from east to west, he asks:
And what did the East take in return? A few products, chiefly coral and wine, but the main payment was made in gold in silver. For nearly two thousand years the drain of specie to the East had gone on. It has always been a problem; even to-day [mid-1930s], with a favourable trade balance, over two million pounds disappear every year out of circulation into unproductive treasure houses; but in the Roman world its effect was calamitous and the spice-silk trade must certainly be regarded as one of the contributory causes of the decay of the classical world. From the time of Tiberius far-seeing men realized the danger to financial stability, and Pliny (VI, 23) was not a voice crying in the wilderness when he wrote: ‘The subject is one worthy of attention, there being no year in which India does not drain our empire of at least fifty-five million of sesterces, sending us in return wares which are sold for a hundred times their original value.’ The great hoards of Roman coins, both gold and silver, discovered in the mine districts and in the marts can represent only an infinitesimal portion of the ‘drain.’
Funny how little has changed. Kaeppel ends with a bibliography for classical and historical geography—his bibliographies provide a great starting point for anyone interested in delving into these topics.