Winds and Coins. Trade between the Roman Empire and India


No One Discovered the Monsoon

Whenever there is any discussion of trade between the Greco-Roman world and India, the discovery of the monsoon is usually mentioned and generally credited to the pilot Hippalus, who is for many ‘one of the great names in the history of navigation’.1 The term ‘discovery’, however, has long been criticized. Sailors do not discover a wind, and they do not invent anything when they make use of it; they merely sail with it when it takes them where they want to go. As far back as 1879, Kennedy stressed that the monsoon was common knowledge long before the disputed date when the Greeks, towards the end of the Hellenistic era or at the beginning of the Roman Empire, are supposed to have experienced it: ‘The monsoons must have been known from the earliest times to all who sailed along the African and Arabian coast, and the normal trade route from the Persian Gulf to India can never have been along the inhospitable shore of Gedrosia.’2 The two texts on which the idea of a Greek or Roman discovery of the monsoon is built are the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea and the end of book VI of the Elder Pliny’s Natural History. A recent study of the latter, however, has thrown fresh light on the subject—of which the following are the key passages:3

First published under the title ‘Moussons et monnaies: Les Voies du commerce entre le monde greco-romain et l'Inde’, Annales HSS, 5 (September-October 1995), 991-1009. Translation first published in: De Romanis, F. and Tchernia, A. (1997) (eds.), Crossings. Early Mediterranean Contacts with India. New Delhi: Manohar.

  • 1 Wheeler (1954: 126).
  • 2 Kennedy (1898: 272-3). There are several other texts along the same lines including Thapar (1990: 107): ‘There was little to discover, since the Arabs knew of it earlier’, and Curtin (1984: 97). Other authors, aware of the problem, prefer to speak, like Thiel (1966: 12), of a ‘secret of the monsoon’, carefully guarded by the Arabs and the Indians, which is not much more satisfactory.
  • 3 Apart from a few modifications, the text and the translation are those in H. Rackham’s edition, The Loeb Classical Library (1961).

XXVI [96] Sed priusquam generatim haec persequamur, indicari conuenit quae prodidit Onesicritus classe Alexandri circumuectus in mediterranea Persidis ex India, enarrata proxime a Iuba, deinde earn nauigationem quae his annis com- perta seruatur hodie.. . .

[100] ... Postea ab Syagro Arabiae promunturio Patalen fauonio, quem hypalum ibi uocant, peti certissimum uidebatur, XIII (centena milia) XXXII (milia) p(assuum) aestimatione.

[101] Secuta aetas propiorem cursum tutioremque iudicauit, si ab eodem promun- turio Zigerum portum Indiae peteret, diuque ita nauigatum est, donec conpendia inuenit mercator lucroque India admota est: quippe omnibus annis nauigatur. . . . [104] Indos autem petentibus utilissiumum est ab Oceli egredi; inde uento hippalo navigant diebus XL ad primum emporium Indiae Muzirim.

XXVI [96]. But before we go on to a detailed account of these countries, it is suitable to indicate the facts reported by Onesicritus after sailing with the fleet of Alexander round from India to the interior of Persia, and quite recently related in detail by Juba, and then to state the sea route that has been ascertained in recent times and is followed at the present day. . . .

[100] . . . Subsequently, it was thought that the safest line was to start from Ras Fartak in Arabia with the favonius (the native name for which in those parts is Hypalus) and make for Patale, the distance being reckoned at 1,332 miles.

[101] The following period considered it a shorter and safer route to start from the same cape and steer for the Indian harbour of Sigerus, and for a long time this was the course followed, until a merchant discovered a shorter route and the desire for gain brought India nearer; indeed the voyage is made every year. . . .

[104] The most advantageous way of sailing to India is to set out from Ocelis. From that port, it is a 40 days’ voyage, with the Hippalus blowing, to the first trading station in India, Muziris.

In section 100, I have followed Santo Mazzarino4 in adopting the reading Hypalus, based on the combined spelling of two manuscripts, rather than the emendation Hippalus, which has been wrongly accepted by all editors since Hardouin (1685), who was influenced by the double p in vento hippalo in section 104. Calling a wind hypalus means in Greek that it comes ‘from under the sea’, and the idea that a wind can begin from the depths of the sea (as others come from the exhalations of the earth) was not strange in Antiquity. Discussing the ways to predict the weather, the Elder Pliny says: ‘Often also the sea swells in silence and, blown up in unusually high waves, confesses that the winds are now inside it’ (XVIII. 359; trans. H. Rackham). Some winds originate from greater depths than others: for this reason, the auster whips up larger waves than the aquilon (II. 228). In the seventeenth century, Ralph Bohun, in an interesting Discourse Concerning the Origin and Properties of

Mazzarino (1982-7).

Wind (Oxford, 1671), 10), once again considered the generation of winds by the sea or the land to be one of their several origins. As Mazzarino has pointed out, the idea of wind generated by the sea seems to be suitable for the southwest monsoon, which blows from the open sea.

On the other hand, in section 104 the reading hippalus is in all likelihood the correct one. This is because Pliny’s text is based on two different sources, which, as was his habit, he transcribed carefully without trying to reconcile them. In section 96 Pliny announces an account divided in two parts. The first derived from Juba (first century bc), who was making use of older sources— probably Nearchus, towards the end of the fourth century, describing the return voyage of Alexander’s fleet; the second is a description of the voyage towards south India in the time of Pliny. Thanks to Federico De Romanis, we know that this information was furnished to Pliny by traders between AD 49 and ad 52.[1] Between these two parts, Pliny inserts, in sections 100-1, six lines to describe two intermediate voyages that went further northwards. The first (section 100) went to the mouth of the Indus, and the other (section 101) to the western coast of the Deccan. The spelling hypalus, in section 100, means that this section was coupled with the earlier section (sections 96-9), which pushes back its origin to the Hellenistic sources of Juba. Otherwise, Pliny spells it hippalus when he records contemporary information.

In this way Pliny’s text helps us trace the transformation of a term that, because its original components were forgotten, was thought to be derived from a proper noun with a similar spelling. So was born the myth of the pilot Hippalus, about whom the author of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a Greco-Egyptian merchant who sailed in the middle of the first century ad,[2] provides us with the other key:

In the past, smaller vessels sailed along the coast from Kane and Eudaemon Arabia (Aden) following the coastal route that we have just described; the pilot Hippalus was the first, after giving thought to the location of the ports and the shape of the sea, to find the route on the high seas. Thereafter, since in this region Etesian winds coming from the sea blow seasonally just as they do in our countries, the south-west wind seems to be called Hippalos after the first navigator to have discovered the direct sea route.[3]

This passage is an obvious clue to understanding Pliny’s text and constitutes the basis of the traditional interpretation.

However, while the text indicates that Hippalus must have given his name to the wind used for the crossing, neither the existence of this wind nor the way in which it was used was regarded by the author of the Periplus as the discovery of the mythical pilot. His role was that he was the first to open ton dia pelagous ploun (or later ton diaploun), that is, the crossing of the open sea, after observing neither the south-west nor the north-east monsoon seasons, but the ‘location of the ports and the shape of the sea’. Those who wished to interpret this passage as the discovery of the monsoon were obliged to stretch the meaning of the text.[4] That is true of the two pioneering books by Raw- linson and Charlesworth, whose influence was considerable, in which they claimed that Hippalus had observed the periodicity of the monsoon. A more recent example is the book by Sir Mortimer Wheeler,[5] another authoritative work, in which he translated schema thalasses as ‘the condition of the sea’ (although twenty years earlier Warmington had translated the phrase more literally as ‘the shape of the sea’) and wrote that, ‘without [Hippalus’] discovery, or at least his popularization of the monsoon as a dependable aid to deep- sea voyaging, regular trade with India would have beeen impossible’. In reality, no ancient text has ever said any such thing. To repeat Curtin’s particularly scathing criticism: ‘The story is obvious Roman ethnocentric nonsense.’[6] But I would add just one correction: it was not the Romans who indulged in such ethnocentric nonsense but modern commentators.

In point of fact, the Greeks knew of the monsoon independently of the mythical feat of Hippalus, and the oldest Greek sources that describe it are concerned not with navigation but with the climate of India. Alexander’s army experienced the monsoon while coming down from the Paropamisadae and around Taxila. Aristobulos, who took part in the expedition, made a careful study of its features as early as the end of the fourth century bc. ‘In the time of the Etesian winds,’ he says, ‘the rains pour incessantly and violently from the clouds, both day and night, until the rising of Arcturus’ (that is, until mid- September). He also noticed the contrast between the rains of the Himalayan foothills and the drought in Sind. Arrian later showed that Nearchus, while bringing back Alexander’s fleet, was held up at Patala on the Indus by the Etesian winds blowing from the south and the open sea, which prevented him from navigating along the Gedrosian coast.11 Nearchus had to wait for the north-east monsoon before he could set sail.

Though the Greeks had experienced right from the start of the Hellenistic era what the Periplus considered an example of the Etesian winds specific to the Indian Ocean, Pliny’s text, as well as the description in the Periplus of the transition from coastal navigation to ocean navigation and the vague portrayal of the pilot Hippalus, illustrates clearly an important event for Greco-Egyptian traders and sailors: the opening-up of a sea route that no longer went all round the southern coast of Arabia. Instead of just cutting across the Gulf of Oman, it went much more directly towards the Indian coast—either to the Gulf of Cambay or to the Deccan, which meant a long crossing of the open sea—and made possible direct trading between Egypt and India without having to use Arabian ports as transit points.[7]

  • [1] De Romanis (1988: 5-13).
  • [2] See the introduction to Casson’s edition (1989), and, for new arguments in favour of a datecloser to the middle of the first century ad, Fussman (1991).
  • [3] Periplus, 57. The text and translation of the second phrase present problems of detail thatappear to defy all solution. I have given the most traditional translation of the text. A slightlydifferent version can be found in Casson’s edition, but the nuances make no difference to theideas I have accepted subsequently.
  • [4] No doubt carried away by the Latin translation of Muller (Paris, 1853), in which the Greekschema has been translated literally by the Latin habitus, leading us to understand ‘aspect’ ratherthan ‘form’ of the sea; see Tchernia (1994: 131-6).
  • [5] Rawlinson (1916); Warmington (1928); Wheeler (1954).
  • [6] Curtin (1984: 97). 11 Aristobulus cited by Strabo, XV. 1, 17; Arrian, Anab. VI. 21.
  • [7] For the ‘verrou arabe’ and Eudaemon Arabia, see Desanges (1978: 303).
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >