The Texts

In 1979, Paul Veyne,[1] by way of introduction to his brilliant critique of the theory of an automatic return to equilibrium in international trade, examined the two well-known passages of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History concerning the haemorrhage of gold: ‘In no year does India absorb less than fifty million sesterces of our empire’s wealth, sending back merchandise to be sold with us at a hundred times its prime cost’ (VI. 26, 101, trans. H. Rackham). ‘By the lowest reckoning, India, China, and the Arabian Peninsula take from our Empire 100 million sesterces every year—that is the sum that our luxuries and our women cost us’ (XII. 41, 84). Pliny, Veyne explains, was certainly well informed, and his figures, based on the Roman customs revenues, cannot be seriously called into question. But, while keeping in mind the price of eastern merchandise entering the Roman Empire, Pliny did not take into account the price of goods exported to India, since he was not concerned with the problem of balance of trade. He was thinking as a member of a society in which autarky was highly valued. That is why these passages are not reliable to support the argument that the Roman Empire was suffering from a massive haemorrhage of precious metal.

It is difficult to challenge the basic ideas of this argument. However, they can be, and have been, qualified to some extent. As Veyne has shown, Pliny’s information could have been based only on what he gathered from the customs services. Ever since the publication of the Vienna papyrus P. Vindob. G. 40822,[2] dating from the middle of the second century ad, which has preserved a part of the inventory of an Indian cargo and a part of a loan agreement in connection with its transport, we have evidence that a 25 per cent duty was levied on goods coming from India into Egypt. But we also know that this tax was applied to a conventional price fixed for each product. This was certainly not the price Western traders paid to the Indians, which probably no one on the other side of the Ocean knew exactly. The conventional price must have been closer to the price of the goods at the time they were loaded in Alexandria on Mediterranean ships heading for Rome and the western Mediterranean—in other words, a price much higher than that paid by traders in India. However, custom taxes in the Roman Empire were levied on both imported and exported goods, and there is reason to believe that Pliny’s figure was based on the sum of taxes paid on Roman exports, which provided him the information he needed for his purpose. Rather than from the portorium accounting offices, he probably retrieved it from the amount paid out for the farming of these taxes: this, as he himself says (VI. 84), was the practice for the portorium of the Erythraean Sea.

Bartered goods certainly existed, and the Periplus draws up a list of such goods. But, as Andre and De Romanis have already stressed, the sources leave us in no doubt about the importance of coins in that period. Regarding trade with Arabia, Pliny (VI. 162) makes it clear that the Arabians sold to the Romans and the Parthians without buying anything from them in exchange, and in India there is a Tamil text that speaks of Romans coming with gold and going back with pepper.34 The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea mentions gold and silver coins as one of the recommended goods for trade in all the major Indian ports, especially in the southern ones: ‘mainly, a great amount of money’ (sections 39, 49, 56). I would add that one cannot help comparing Pliny’s second text with the letter attributed by Tacitus to the emperor Tiberius, replying to the Senate in ad 22 asking him to decide on the wisdom of promulgating a new sumptuary law (Ann. III. 53): ‘For on what am I to make my first effort at prohibition and reversion to our ancient standard?... The promiscuous dress of male and female—and especially the female extravagance by which, for the sake of jewels, our wealth is transported to alien or hostile countries?’ Like Tiberius, Pliny too associated the luxury of jewels with the idea of a massive outflow of money, and, while deploring this fact, launched a scathing attack against women. Either Pliny was directly influenced by an idea actually expressed in Tiberius’ discourse, or it was a topos widely used in the middle decades of the first century, or more precisely, an adaptation of an old topos on luxury and autarky to a particular set of circumstances. But in one sense Tiberius was more specific than Pliny: while the latter gives a figure in sesterces alone, which makes one think that he took into account only the value of imports, Tiberius said pecuniae nostrae transferuntur—in other words, it really was a question of money and the transfer of coins. Clearly both Tiberius and Pliny felt, rightly or wrongly, that there was a haemorrhage to the east of silver denarii and aurei from the Roman Empire.


Andre and Filliozat (1980: 135); De Romanis (1982-7: 199).

  • [1] Veyne (1979).
  • [2] Harrauer and Sijpenstein (1985); Thur (1987, 1988); Casson (1990).
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