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Expedition of merchant Alexander

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman relief showing a cart drawn by four horses
Roman relief showing a cart drawn by four horses

From the beginning of the 1st century CE, Roman society, and especially aristocratic families demanded more and more luxury goods imported from India. Among the Romans, pepper, ginger, all kinds of spices and exotic animals in the form of elephants or monkeys were in demand. This resulted in a huge increase in Roman trade expeditions to India, but they focused mainly on the west coast of the peninsula.

In the 2nd century, Roman merchants began reaching the island of Taprobane (today Ceylon), as well as the east coast of India, reaching the mouth of the Ganges. In the city of Tamluk, where the Ganges flows into the Bay of Bengal, the Romans met with Chinese merchants whose main commodity was silk, much sought after in the Mediterranean.

The most courageous of the Roman merchants leaving Egypt for India was a certain Alexander, whose expedition dates back to the beginning of the 2nd century. After reaching Indian ports, he decided to sail around India and then head towards the shores of today’s Burma. When he reached this land, he did not intend to turn back but headed south towards the Malay Peninsula, which was then called Chryse. Alexander circumnavigated the peninsula and then turned north again to the Gulf of Siamese. There he boarded in the port city of Zabae, which is located in today’s Cambodia. He felt that his goal, which is China, was close, so he circumnavigated Cochinchina and finally reached the land called Kattigara, located in today’s Bay of Tonkin. At that time, the region belonged to the Chinese Empire and this is the first documented arrival of a Roman merchant in the Middle Kingdom (referred to by the Romans as Sinae or Thinae from the name of the Chinese Jin dynasty). Alexander obtained silk, desired among the Romans and safely returned to Egypt so that his journey lasted as long as 3 years.

The expedition of a brave merchant of Greek origin made it possible to get to know the coasts east of the Ganges River better and allowed for trade expeditions towards Indonesia and southern China. However, they were still few and far between because the Romans were afraid to venture so far into unknown eastern waters.

Author: Cyprian Herl (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

Based on the book “Starożytni odkrywcy” M. Cary and E. H. Warmington; Chapter 4.10; p. 185-191. The ancient source is “Geography” by Claudius Ptolemy; 1.14.

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