By Dario Nappo
Connected Hinterlands. Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on the Peoples of the Red Sea Region, edited by Blue, L. K., Cooper. J., Thomas, R. I. and Whitewright, R. J. (Oxford: BAR International Series, 2009)
Introduction: During the Roman period the Red Sea acted as a gateway for the goods coming from India and other regions of the East. The analysis of the Roman settlements in the area can help us to understand the general lines of the Roman economic policy concerning the commerce with the East. It is known that at the peak of the Roman Imperial age, several ports were operating on the Red Sea coast. Many literary sources help us to reconstruct how this ‘harbour system’ worked during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. The most important are Strabo’s Geography, Pliny’s Naturalis Historia, Ptolemy’s Geography and chiefly the anonymous Periplus Maris Erythraei. According to Ptolemy these ports were from north to south Clysma, Philoteras, Myos Hormos, Leukos Limen, Nechesia and Berenike (on the Egyptian side); Aila and Leuke Kome (on the Arabic side).
How the Romans actually managed their trade relations with India in the same period is equally well known: once a year, Roman ships would depart from the aforementioned ports and sail towards India where they would collect those eastern items (such as spices, silk, pearls, ivory, etc.) for which broad demand existed within the borders of the Empire. The literature on the Red Sea trade in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD is abundant and such topic shall be therefore not discussed here. What I aim to analyse is the evolution of such a system in the late Roman age, from the 4th century AD onwards, with special regard to the period between the emperors Anastasius and Justinian, ie the 6th century AD.