BETWEEN PUTEOLI AND THE RED SEA

P. Annius Plocamus

Trade with the East provides a second example of how to rise in society eventually to the level of tax-farming, though this one is spread over several generations.[1] By road from Coptos to Berenice, between the Nile and the Red Sea, across the eastern Egyptian desert, caravans took twelve days to reach the sea. This trek was punctuated by bivouacs near wells if there were any, or mansiones in monte, stops in the open desert, where there were none. On the way from Coptos, between the first two wells,[2] [3] a rock-shelter in the side of the Wadi Menih, opposite the mouth of the Wadi Menih El-Her, gave a little shade; this was the first mansio in monte.27 An image of the god Min makes the little grotto a site sacred to Pan (paneion). The cliffs are covered in inscriptions, composed of names or tokens of worship. One inscription appears twice, in Greek and Latin; it says that, in early July of the year ad 6, Lysas, a slave of P. Annius Plocamus, arrived there.[4] The date is appropriate for someone who was going to take ship for India at the favourable season indicated by Pliny the Elder.[5] P. Annius Plocamus was no doubt sending his agent Lysas across the Red Sea and the Sea of Oman to negotiate purchases of pearls, beryls, pepper, ivory, malabathrum (Malabar leaf), silk from China, and other precious goods.

That the Annii Plocami hailed from Puteoli is indicated by a stone inscription found near there. It makes mention of a P. Annius Eros, a freedman of Plocamus.[6] Eros was careful to spell out the cognomen of his master, because the Annii Plocami were known and distinguishable from the other Annii. To me they look like a branch, of freedman origin, of the gens Annia of Puteoli, who were a great family celebrated for having built the basilica of the Augustan forum and who could boast a duumvir under Tiberius and decurions in the second century ad. This does not necessarily mean that Lysas’ master was a freedman; he might have been a descendant of some earlier freedman.

Pliny the Elder tells us that, during the reign of Claudius, that is some forty years later, the Romans discovered Ceylon (Taprobane Island) thanks to a freedman of one Annius Plocamus. Sailing along the coast of Arabia, he was blown off course and ended up a fortnight later at Taprobane, where he was welcomed with every kindness and hospitality. His patron was known to Pliny because he had farmed from the treasury the revenues arising from the Red Sea taxes.[7] Could this tax farmer be the same man who was the master of Lysas? Late in life, having followed the same trajectory as Cornelius Senecio, he would have eventually combined tendering for public contracts (in these cases, involving huge sums) and trading via the Red Sea and the Sea of Oman. For there is every likelihood either that the freedman travelling round Arabia was acting as a delegate for his patron or, if he was acting on his own account, that the enterprise was funded by a loan from the patron. However, though it is almost certain that there is a link between these two Annii Plocami, the time difference suggests that the tax farmer was the son, if not the grandson, of the first one. The acquisition of the status and the fortune of the Annius Plocamus of the mid-first century ad must have been achieved over several generations of a trading dynasty. Whatever the activities of the gens Annia were,[8] the

Annii Plocami had won their autonomy.33 The Red Sea tax farmer had a versatile range of activities and was served by a large network of agents. His tendering for public contracts is the mark of a man who, like Cornelius Senecio, has climbed to a higher condition. Forty years on, it was the culmination of the expansion of the first P. Annius Plocamus’ business.

  • [1] For all this section, see De Romanis (1993).
  • [2] As explained by Pliny, VI. 102-3. They are Phoinikon, which is a small oasis, and Compasi.
  • [3] De Romanis (1996a: 203-9); Cuvigny (2003); Brun (2008).
  • [4] De Romanis (1996a: 211, no. 5); Cuvigny and Bulow-Jacobsen (1999: nos 2, 3).
  • [5] Pliny, VI. 104. See De Romanis (1996a: 211-12, 247-50).
  • [6] CIL X. 2389; Camodeca (1979: 24-5, fig. 1). 4 Pliny, VI. 24.
  • [7] 32 In Cicero’s In Verrem, a M. Annius is a personage of great importance in Syracuse, aRoman knight (Cicero, Verr. II.v.73-4; 156. However, Cicero says nothing of his city or his
  • [8] livelihood, though he is at times described as negotiator, and it is tempting, by analogy with the
 
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