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Return to the Roman Routes

State of the Union: The new trade route between India and Europe, through the Middle East, marks the return to a historic norm.

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Credit: George Tsiagalakis

“Every year India, the silk-growing country of northern China, and the Arabian peninsula take from our Empire. Such is the cost to us of our exquisites and our women,” the philosopher Pliny once wrote, channelling his inner Ross Perot to describe how Roman ladies are bankrupting the empire by indulging in Indian clothes. The trade imbalance between the East and Europe isn’t something new. In fact, the East being the powerhouse has been the historic norm: Things were different only when parts of the East were under direct governing of the West. The growth of sea routes was a sign of two specific historic developments: The rapid rise of seafaring technology and maritime great powers of Europe, and the lawlessness and disorder of the land routes due to the power vacuum in Asia. 

The Periplus Maris Erythraei, written in first century AD, voices an anonymous author charting the activity of a bunch of Roman and Greek trading partners, including from places as far as the land next to the Ganges, and of all places, a distant land of Thina (the Th pronounced as a lispy C), which was a closed but powerful and expansive empire producing silk and yarn. The Romans needed olives, glassware, amber, corals, and heavy metals such as lead and copper; as well as exotic animals including peacocks, tigers, and Indian elephants; and, of course, spices and stones, including but not limited to amethysts, beryl, sapphire, ruby, pearls, ivory tusks, cotton, indigo dye, south Indian pepper, betel leaves, ginger, and turmeric. 


Historic evidence suggests that upper caste Indians from the Greco-Bactrian as well as Kushana times loved Roman wine, as evident from Roman coins and Roman artefacts excavated in various parts of the subcontinent. (They called the land India, east of Indus, and not Bharat, just for the sake of historical record.) It was also a time when the Hans were aggressively expanding in the Central Asian vacuum. That brought them into repeated contact with the West, as they started exporting fine expensive Chinese silk. The East was bigger in size and produced more. The West consumed and conquered. 

A memorandum of understanding signed at the recent G-20 summit states that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the European Union, the Republic of India, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the French Republic, the Federal Republic of Germany, the Italian Republic, and the United States of America pledge to “commit to work together to establish the India–Middle East–Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC).” Bypassing China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, it would have two segments: One from India to the Middle East, and from the Middle East to Europe. It would cut down time and generate jobs, but mostly, it would create an alternative to the Chinese Belt and Road initiatives. Almost immediately upon election, the current rulers of Rome decided to softly drift away from their commitment to Chinese infrastructure development. 

My colleague, Jude Russo, is inclined to rightly demonstrate how history rhymes. With China returning to its historic form, it was interesting to see how Europe (and the U.S.) are returning to the historic partnerships as well, except, this time the trade with India is purely to balance the rise of China. 

The actors might change; however, the game remains familiar. 


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