Pliny’s account of “A Passage to India”

Introduction: “The Natural History” (Naturalis Historia), the most comprehensive encyclopaedic work of classical Rome, was compiled and partly published by Pliny before AD 79 when he was killed by the volcanic eruption of the Vesuvius. Its detailed description of the voyage from Alexandria to South India on the Nile up to Coptos, through the desert to Berenice at the Red Sea (shortened in the following quotation) and then across the Indian Ocean to Muziris near Cochin was based on earlier and contemporary reports and contains interesting facts, e.g. Rome’s drain of gold for its trade with India and the existence of piracy in the Indian Ocean.
(see also AHOI, Ch.2, section: International Trade and the Roman Connection)

(The Natural History of Pliny, translated by John Bostock and H.T. Riley, Vol. II, London 1855, pp. 62-65)

In later times it has been considered a well-ascertained fact that the voyage from Syagrus, the Promontory of Arabia, to Patale at the Judus Delta reckoned at thirteen hundred and thirty-five miles, can be performed most advantageously with the aid of a westerly wind, which is there known by the name of Hippalus.

The age that followed pointed out a shorter route, and a safer one, to those who might happen to sail from the same promontory for Sigerus to the south of Mumbai a port of India; and for a long time this route was followed, until at last a still shorter cut was discovered by a merchant, and the thirst for gain brought India even still nearer to us. At the present day voyages are made to India every year: and companies of archers are carried on board the vessels, as those seas are greatly infested with pirates.

It will not be amiss too, on the present occasion, to set forth the whole of the route from Egypt, which has been stated to us of late, upon information on which reliance may be placed, and is here published for the first time. The subject is one well worthy of our notice, seeing that in no year does India drain our empire of less than five hundred and fifty millions of sesterces, giving back her own wares in exchange, which are sold among us at fully one hundred times their prime cost.

Two miles distant from Alexandria is the town of Juliopolis. The distance thence to Coptos, up the Nile, is three hundred and eight miles; the voyage is performed, when the Etesian winds are blowing, in twelve days. From Coptos the journey is made with the aid of camels, stations being arranged at intervals for the supply of fresh water. The first of these stations is called Hydreuma, where a detachment is always on guard, with a caravansary that affords lodging for two thousand persons. After leaving it we come to the city of Berenice, situate upon a harbour of the Red Sea, and distant from Coptos two hundred and fifty-seven miles. The greater part of this distance is generally traveled by night, on account of the extreme heat, the day being spent at the stations; in consequence of which it takes twelve days to perform the whole journey from Coptos to Berenice.

Passengers generally set sail at midsummer, before the rising of the Dog-star, or else immediately after, and in about thirty days arrive at Ocelis in Arabia, or else at Cane, in the region which bears frankincense. To those who are bound for India, Ocelis is the best place for embarcation. If the wind, called Hippalus, happens to be blowing, it is possible to arrive in forty days at the nearest mart of India, Muziris by name. This, however, is not a very desirable place for disembarcation, on account of the pirates which frequent its vicinity, where they occupy a place called Nitrias; nor, in fact, is it very rich in articles of merchandize. Besides, the road-stead for shipping is a considerable distance from the shore, and the cargoes have to be conveyed in boats, either for loading or discharging. At the moment that I am writing these pages, the name of the king of this place is Cælobothras. Another port, and a much more convenient one, is that which lies in the territory of the people called Neacyndi, Barace by name. Here king Pandion used to reign, dwelling at a considerable distance from the mart in the interior, at a city known as Modiera. The district from which pepper is carried down to Barace in boats hollowed out of a single tree, is known as Cottonara. None of these names of nations, ports, and cities are to be found in any of the former writers, from which circumstance it would appear that the localities have since changed their names. Travellers set sail from India on their return, at the beginning of the Egyptian month Tybis, which is our December, or at all events before the sixth day of the Egyptian month Mechir, the same as our ides of January: if they do this, they can go and return in the same year. They set sail from India with a south-east wind, and upon entering the Red Sea, catch the south-west or south.


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