2. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.


The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. By an unknown author. With some extracts from Agatharkhides ‘On the Erythraean Sea’. Translated and edited by G. W. B. Huntingford, 2nd series, 151, 1980 (1976).

A system of maritime trading seems to have arisen in the Indian Ocean before any other part of the world. The reason was the pattern of winds, which, once understood, allowed brave mariners to leave their shore-bound courses and take more direct routes across the open sea. The anonymous author, probably an Egyptian-Greek, tells us that this secret was first penetrated by the navigator, Hippalos, about whom we have neither a date nor any further information. But it is likely that he was the first Greek to learn the wind patterns from Indian and Arab seamen. The title of the work may be translated as the ‘Circumnavigation of the Red Sea’. The derivation of the enigmatic Erythraean / Red is discussed in the Introduction. To the Greeks, it referred to the Indian Ocean including the Persian Gulf and what is now called the Red Sea. This is not the only Periplus to survive from the Ancient World, but unlike those that deal with the Mediterranean, this text is addressed primarily to merchants rather than navigators, and lists the goods which were traded at the various ports, often with the names of the rulers and a comment on the disposition of the local people.

The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea

Half the text is devoted to India reflecting its importance for Roman trade. There is a rough tripartite geographical division of the Indian coast which appears later in medieval and renaissance accounts. The important port on the upper west coast was Barugaza on the estuary of the Narbada river. In the south-west was Mouziris, later Cranganore / Kodungallur, and, then further south, Nelkunda / Kottayam. The exaggerated size of Ceylon / Sri Lanka suggests that it was outside the trading routes with which the Periplus was familiar. Information from the east coast concerning the Chola kingdom and up to the Ganges is less specific and may indicate that the voyages were to the west coast and that goods went on to the east coast by smaller ships of the country trade which could pass through the Palk strait.

The translation is from Hjalmar Frisk’s edition, published in 1927, of a tenth century manuscript. The language is koine Greek with numerous uncertainties and difficulties which have provided classical scholars with many bones of contention. The place names are also contentious, and many of the geographical attributions in this volume have been challenged. Appendices discuss the topography, the history and contemporary commerce of the area, and other matters. The Extracts from Agatharkhides ‘On the Erythraean Sea’ (see Hakluyt Society, 2nd series, 172), as epitomised by Photios, do not deal with India. There are several useful indexes.

The editor and translator, G. W. B. Huntingford, an anthropologist with particular expertise in East Africa, had been working on the Periplus for half a century. Ill health, however, delayed publication for some years, during which time other important contributions were appearing of which he was not always able to take full account. In particular, the date of the Periplus is now, as a consequence of work on the sequence of the Nabataean kings, assigned confidently to the middle of the first century A.D. rather than Huntingford’s suggestion of between 95 and 130 A.D. Then, in 1989, Lionel Casson published his Periplus, with the Greek text. His translation has been received as an improvement in some important details, and Casson’s commentary and notes are on a very much larger scale than those of Huntingford, whose edition, though containing much of value, is overall now considered to have been superseded.

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