Pierre Schneider – Local exchange networks in the Horn of Africa: a view from the Mediterranean world (third century B.C. – sixth century A.D.)

Local exchange networks in the Horn of Africa: a view from the Mediterranean world (third century B.C. – sixth century A.D.) – Pierre Schneider (University of Artois, France [UArtois, CREHS, F-62000 Arras, France]

Cite this article : Pierre Schneider,  “Local exchange networks in the Horn of Africa: a view from the Mediterranean world (third century B.C. – sixth century A.D.)”, published in : Les sociétés méditerranéennes antiques et les mondes de l’océan Indien on 8 December 2020. Link: https://median.hypotheses.org/2691.

This version is a preprint; the final version has been published in the journal Indianocéanie. Annales d’histoire de l’Indianocéanie, 2 (2020), p. 9-23.

Key words : Indian Ocean ;Erythraean Sea; Antiquity; Horn of Africa; local trade patterns; Adulis; South Arabia ; Axum


 The ancient history of the Horn of Africa1 is closely tied to to Axum’s glorious destiny. From the first century A.D. onwards this modest polity settled on the Abyssinian plateau gradually evolved into a kingdom whose power extended westward to Nubia and Meroe, and eastward as far as the Red Sea – an anonymous king even boasted of reaching the African coast of the Gulf of Aden. The Axumite authority also expanded across the Red Sea more than once, temporarily subjugating the South Arabian kingdoms of Saba and Ḥimyar2. With the port of Adulis, Axum judiciously took advantage of its position on the Red Sea to become a prominent trading state between the third and the sixth centuries A.D. Axum’s prestige owes much to this key role in the Western Indian Ocean trade system3. Due to this rather understandable bias in favour of Axum’s long-range trade activity, the more humble local forms of trade which flourished throughout the Horn of Africa over centuries are generally overlooked4. These local exchange networks, however, were the building blocks of the whole Indian Ocean commerce, which was entirely supported by this low scale activity and its agents. As such local networks are worth being investigated for their own sake. The longue durée perspective is also required, for they were just as subject to changes and disruptions over centuries as the large scale trade patterns.

This paper aims at extensively collecting the Greek and Latin documents handed down to us5 . The truth is that this evidence does not amount to much, many texts being lost. In spite of not depicting the local trade in the Horn in detail, this material provides nonetheless an acceptable picture of the local inland and maritime circuits (the sea routes between the Horn and southern Arabia obviously fall within the scope of this paper). Thus it is hoped that this paper will properly complement the past and future investigations carried out by archaeologists focusing on the same issue.

  1. First accounts of local exchanges: a conspicuous traffic in the Bab al-Mandab area (third century B.C. – second century B.C.)

Following Alexander the Great’s expedition in India (328-325 B.C.), war elephants began to be incorporated in Greco-Macedonian armies. Indeed, his successors – especially those who found themselves in possession of the most powerful kingdoms, namely the Seleucids and the Ptolemies6 – could not conceive of a battle without this frightening new weapon. Unlike the former who could acquire trained Indian elephants from the neighbouring Mauryan rulers, the latter were practically denied access to this unique source of tamed animal. Thus, in the face of a shortage of war elephants – for those taken from Alexander’s army were now getting older –, Ptolemy II decided to have African elephants captured, brought back to Egypt and trained for war. This is the main, albeit not the only, reason for this extraordinary achievement which caused numerous Greeks – explorers, hunters, carpenters etc. – to venture into the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden as far as the cape Gardafui, between around 270 B.C. and the early second century B.C.7

When the Greeks despatched to the southern part of the Red Sea reached the area of Bab al-Mandab somewhere in the mid-third century B.C., they noticed crafts loaded with aromatics – e. g., myrrh and frankincense – plying between the two sides. A reliable set of documents gives evidence for a local seaborne traffic, important and visible enough to attract the Ptolemaic observers’ attention. Their reports, compiled by later Hellenistic scholars8, provide the earliest information about a local network which certainly, as will be seen below, fuelled the profitable Arabian overland trade in aromatics, and, to some extent, the Mediterranean consumption. Staples of local interest (e. g., foodstuffs, livestock, wood …) which may have been transported along the same routes were apparently ignored.

The earliest piece of evidence comes from the Augustan age geographer Strabo, in a paraphrase of Eratosthenes of Cyrene. The latter, a brillant scientist who settled in Alexandria in the mid-third century and became the director of the Great Library, composed a geographical work comprising a description of the inhabited world. His knowledge relating to the Arabian Gulf – i. e., the Red Sea – benefited from the numerous fresh observations carried out by Ptolemaic officials. With respect to the Bab al-Mandab strait, Strabo writes as follows: “The straits at Deirê [= ras Siyyan] contract to a width of sixty stadia. However, it is not these that are called straits now, but a place farther along on the voyage, where the voyage across the gulf between the two continents is about two hundred stadia, and where are six islands9, which follow one another in close succession, fill up the channel, and leave between them extremely narrow passages ; through these merchandise is transported on rafts from one continent to the other.”10. From somewhere between ras Siyyan and Zeila the Greeks observed a maritime traffic connecting the African side to the Arabian one: light boats, or rafts, would carry goods to and fro, not directly but via the Six Islands, which apparently served as intermediary stops. These small crafts were obviously well suited for short voyages and would put in at moorings with little or no infrastructure – at least on the African side, for no particular settlement was noticed by the Greeks at the final stop. Neither did they mention which African tribes were involved in this trade exchange11. The Arabs coming from the opposite shore may have originated from the kingdom of Qatabân, the authority of which, according to Eratosthenes, reached the eastern side of the strait12.

Further information is provided by Artemidorus of Ephesus and Agatharchides of Cnides, though the latter speaks of this local seaborne traffic somewhat confusingly. Artemidorus was a Greek geographer from the first century B.C. whose geographical treaty has come down to us in a fragmentary form – his Geography is partly known from Strabo’s references.

Agatharchides, a historian and geographer who flourished in the mid-second century B.C., composed a description of the Erythraean Sea –i.e., the Western Indian Ocean –, large excerpts of which have been preserved by the historian Diodorus of Sicily – mid-first century B.C.– and the Byzantine scholar Photios. Both authors emphasize the role of the Sabaeans, as if they played a key role in this system, differing thus from Eratosthenes in being unaware of the presence of Qatabân. It may well be, however, that both nations engaged in shipping aromatics from Africa13. Artemidorus claims: “But the masses [i.e., of Sabaeans] engage partly in farming and partly in the traffic in aromatics, both the local kinds and those from Aithiopia 14; to get the latter they sail across the straits [viz. Bab al-Mandab] in leathern boats.”15 As for Agatharchides, he merely states that “not a few of the Sabaeans also employ boats made of skins. The tides themselves have instructed them in their use, although they live in luxury.”16 While the absence of geographical details renders the latter text elusive, these “boats made of skins” coincide with Artemidorus remarkably, which prompts me to claim that Agatharchides points to the same local exchanges.

According to the more accurate Artemidorus, the Sabaeans fetched some varieties of aromatics which were not produced in their own country, a statement which discloses the raison d’être of this local pattern. Together with the Nabateans, the Minaeans and other Arab tribes, the Sabaeans acted as major agents in the overland trade of spices and aromatics. No doubt they intended to offer for sale a variety of goods, including some higher grades which were solely produced in Africa. These were carried in light boats made of leather. Due to lack of details, we cannot determine whether these crafts were made from sewn pieces of leather or were supported by floats made from animal skin, like the crafts employed by Arabian pirates around Bab al-Mandab17. At any rate, they were suited for transporting relatively light loads. As regards Agatharchides’ puzzling comment (“the tides themselves have instructed them … although they live in luxury”), it mirrors a relatively wide-spread idea among the people of the Mediterranean18: the Sabaeans had the reputation of being extremely affluent and enjoying a luxurious lifestyle, hence Agatharchides’ surprise about their steering humble crafts. Irrespective of this final moral inclusion, it appears that the Arabs were capable of properly using the Red Sea tides and coping with the dangerous currents in the strait. This could match Eratosthenes’ statement that the natives sailed from one island to another no doubt for safety purposes.

The Sabaean agency is confirmed by the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder in a passage of which the sources regrettably cannot be traced – it presumably derives from Hellenistic sources –: “A kind [i. e., of myrrh] highly spoken of is also imported from islands, and the Sabaeans even cross the sea (transitu maris) to the Troglodyte [see above, n. 11] country to procure it.”19 The Latin phrase no doubt points to a “side to side crossing” probably in the vicinity of Bab al-Mandab, given the location of the Sabaean kingdom. As far as can be judged, this myrrh was shipped by the Troglodytes from enigmatic islands, which may have something to do with Suqutra20. Be that as it may, this valuable product was bartered with the Sabaeans, who in turn carried it to a port, either for local consumption or, more plausibly, for re-exporting. Had this text not been flawed, the existence of connected local networks involving at least two agents operating jointly in the Horn of Africa could be established. 

Products sourced from inner parts of East Africa are very likely to have fuelled this side to side traffic in aromatics. The Greeks were not completely unaware of these fundamental connections, as elephant hunters had to penetrate inland to stalk pachyderms. Artemidorus, drawing on official reports by Ptolemaic agents, points to several “riverine districts” in northern Somalia producing myrrh, frankincense and a not clearly identified spice called kinnamômon21. Pliny hints at myrrh being transported from the Troglodyte country – he certainly refers to the Myrrh-bearing country22 – to the Port of Isis, which probably lay at, or near Deirê23. Seemingly the Isidis portus served as an entrepôt supplying local merchants such as Sabaeans and Qatabanians with myrrh, which may have been conveyed to this place by the gatherers themselves.

To conclude, this set of documents brings to light the existence of a well established local exchange system whereby South Arabian people tapped East African aromatics, obviously for re-export. The Greek observers from the third and second centuries B. C. discovered the African link of this complex supply chain. Regrettably what the African producers and middlemen obtained in kind – monetized exchanges are highly implausible at that time – in exchange for their aromatic resins is ignored by our sources. The routine of this pattern, however, was to evolve in the late Hellenistic period: the gradual penetration of Mediterranean merchants in the Western Indian Ocean created a shift in global trading practices. As a consequence, local networks could not remain unchanged.

2. A shift in local networks ? The impact of Mediterranean demand and presence (first century B.C. – second century A.D.)

In the early second century B.C. expeditions for war elephants ceased gradually. Yet the sea routes that had been opened were not to be abandoned, for, in the course of time, hunters were replaced by merchants (Greek: emporoi) based in Egypt, mostly in Alexandria. This, in particular, is attested by a badly preserved papyrus mentioning a maritime loan granted in about 150 B. C. to five Greek individuals sailing to the Aromatophoros – literally: the Aromatics growing country24. The late second century B. C. marks a turning point in the history of Indian Ocean trade: in about 115 B. C. Eudoxus, a citizen of Cyzicus sojourning in Egypt, happened to learn from an Indian castaway how to exploit the monsoon winds. With the support of king Ptolemy VIII, he managed to complete a round-trip voyage to India from the Red Sea25. This pivotal event caused the Mediterranean presence in the Red Sea to gradually increase, even though not many seamen and merchants did dare sail directly over open water to India. The final stage came with the annexation of Egypt by Rome (30 B. C.), after Cleopatra and Mark Antony were defeated by Octavian: a few years later, Augustus despatched an expedition to South Arabia commanded by the prefect Aelius Gallus (circa 25 B. C.). Despite Aelius Gallus’ withdrawal, a shift in the balance of power occured in the southern Red Sea area; hence the Arab control over the traffic through Bab al-Mandab irremediably weakened, making the sea route to India easier. This, combined with the strong Roman demand for Indian Ocean commodities – e. g., pepper and other spices, ivory, pearls, gemstones etc. –, resulted in more and more merchants engaging in a profitable trade – regardless of the heavy 25% tax on imports from outside26.

Much research has been conducted on the basis of both written and archeaological evidence so as to explore the global and regional impact of the Mediterranean presence and activity27. In contrast, the issue of whether, or to what extent, local trade systems were altered has been left aside. Admittedly, assessing local scale changes on the basis of archaeological remains, either non perishable material, or more fragile organic items, is far from easy. This class of evidence (e. g., Roman coins in India, teak wood at Berenikê [in Egypt], Sassanian pottery in Somalia etc.) is better suited to elicit interregional connexions than local circulation of goods. Thus, such an inquiry relies almost solely on the extant written evidence, which fortunately enables us to retrieve interesting facts.

To begin with, the growing demand and high purchasing power of many customers from Rome and other Mediterranean cities must have been an incentive for local economic agents to increase their production. In a passage relating to Arabian frankincense, which certainly reflects the picture of his time, Pliny the Elder states: “It used to be the custom, when there were fewer opportunities of selling frankincense, to collect it only once a year, but, at the present day, trade introduces a second harvesting.”28 Pliny makes it clear that the massive Roman demand caused the supply and demand pattern to change in South Arabia: in the face of new opportunities, local producers endeavoured to meet the Mediterranean demand, in terms of both quantity and quality. Thus, besides the summer crop yielding the purest frankincense, an additional harvest was conducted in the spring, even though “the juice that comes out on this occasion is reddish, and not to be compared with the former”29. That the production of aromatics in the Horn of Africa evolved in a similar way seems to me plausible; regrettably this assumption is backed up by no documents.

More can be said about another commodity, namely tortoise shell30. Tortoise shell was avalaible wherever animals offering this precious matter could be caught. With respect to the present case, sea turtles were found on many coastal parts of the southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Indeed, several tribes of “Fish Eaters” (above, n. 11) and “Turtle Eaters” (Greek: Khelonophagoi) had been observed by Greek explorers and travellers in the third and second centuries B. C., some of them lavishly describing their bewildering customs31. The production of tortoise shell, however, is not reported by Hellenistic documents, implying that it was not particularly sought-after by the Greeks. This stands in striking contrast to the Roman demand: the consumption of tortoise shell, like that of other eastern commodities, increased from the late first century B. C. onwards32. This material had became highly regarded, because of its translucence and marbled pattern especially fitted to adorn furniture. This no doubt triggered a local supply chain, as attested by the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea written around 70 A. D.33: we hear of a local circuit linking the Dahlak Islands with Adulis, a port of trade and entrepot often used by Mediterranean merchants: “Before the harbor of that market-town, out at sea on the right hand, there lie a great many little sandy islands called Alalaei (= Dahlak), yielding tortoise-shell, which is brought to market there by the Fish-Eaters.34 Besides gathering sea food for themselves, the primary producers would bring the raw (?)35 material to a port accommodating Mediterranean ships36. Another interesting, though oblique, indication of this novel local activity comes from Pliny the Elder: “The Trogodytes have horned turtles with broad horns twisted inward, which they use as oars to aid themselves in swimming ; the name for this horn is chelium; it is of tortoise shell of exceptional quality, but it is seldom seen [i. e., in my opinion, not abundantly supplied on Roman markets], as the very sharp rocks frighten the Turtle-Eater tribe, while the Trogodytes, on whose coasts the turtles swim, worship them as sacred.”37This story may be construed as two different reactions to a pressing Roman demand: both tribes refused to engage in hunting a praised species of turtle – whose exact identification escapes us – whatever the price offered by Alexandrian merchants may have been; while religious reason prevented the latter from killing a sacred creature, the former may have not been skilled enough to reach the rocky islands where these animals flocked.

With local producers now interested in matching the Roman demand other zones surrounding Adulis may well have witnessed a similar shift. With respect to long distance exports, Adulis specialised in ivory, tortoise shell and rhinoceros horn38. Accordingly one can infer that rhinoceroses and elephants wandering in the hinterland were tracked down more intensively, although no text mentions it explicitly. Also ignored by the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea is obsidian, occasionally used for jewellery and carved objects in the Roman world39. We know, however, that a source of obsidian was located in the Hauachil Bay, south of the Dahlak archipelago: “After about 800 stades [from the Alalaiou Islands, i. e., Dahlak] comes another, very deep, bay [Hauachil Bay] near whose mouth, on the right, a great amount of sand has accumulated ; under this, deeply buried, obsidian is found, a natural local creation in that spot alone.”40 It is perhaps the natives that dug the sandhill for obsidian which could be conveyed to, and exchanged at Adulis. Be that as it may, there is little doubt that the Mediterranean demand entailed an increasing local circulation of people and goods, due to production developing through local agents in various areas.

So far I have only considered the flow of African commodities conveyed from inner and coastal regions – including islands – to the ports from which they were exported. This system, however, was bidirectional in the sense that primary producers carried what they obtained in exchange for their products back home along the same routes. This point is hinted at by the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, when the author lists the Mediterranean goods imported to Adulis: “In this area there is a market for: articles of clothing for the Barbaroi [i. e., the inhabitants of the region], the kind produced in Egypt (…); numerous types of glass stones, and also of millefiori glass of the kind produced in Diospolis [i. e., the Egyptian city of Thebes]; brass, which they use for ornaments as well as cutting up for coins ; (…) anklets for certain of the women; iron which is expended on spears for elephant and the other wild animals, as well as for war. Likewise there is also a market for: axes, adzes, knives, large round copper drinking vessels.”41 Not all listed items were, in my opinion, destined for local consumption at Adulis, meaning that this place acted as a redistribution centre. In particular, a certain quantity of iron may have reached the tribes hunting elephants and rhinoceroses for their livelihood. Iron either as raw material or as weapons and tools may also have been distributed in Axum, the capital city of a kingdom destined to grow into a major regional state42. The wars alluded to by the Periplus favour the view that the Axumite royal army benefited from this flow of metal43.

The documents examined in the first section converge to suggest that African aromatics were carried to the opposite side in the Hellenistic time. Later on, in the early Roman Imperial period, neither aromatics nor spices were exported from Adulis. A reasonable conclusion may be that these items followed other sea routes to Arabia. This view is backed by two excerpts from classical sources. The first one taken from the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea depicts Aualitês, a small place located close to the African side of Bab al-Mandab which has still not been identified with certainty – Zeila, however, proves to be the best candidate44. The author refers to a “small port of trade … where rafts and small crafts put in (…)45”. Even though Mediterranean ships occasionally put in at Aualitês, this port seems to have been mostly involved in small scale exchanges, as shown by a feature typical of local trade, namely the light boats. Two types are mentioned, the skhediai (“rafts”?) and the skaphê (“small crafts”?) – unfortunately no description accompanies these words. These crafts, the author adds, would ply between Aualitês and the Arabian ports of Mouza and Okêlis: “Exports from here, with the transport across to Okêlis and Mouza on the opposite shore at times carried out by the Barbaroi on rafts, are: aromatics, a little ivory, tortoise shell, a minimal amount of myrrh but finer than any other.”46 Who were the peoples involved in this local traffic? The author vaguely refers to the Barbaroi manning the skhediai. Given that he generally calls the people living on the opposite side as “Arabs” and states that the “Barbaroi who inhabit the place [i.e. Aualitês] are rather unruly”, the name Barbaroi clearly points to the inhabitants of Aualitês, and proves their agency in this local trade network. The Arabs however, are unlikely to be excluded from these activities: maybe the so-called skaphê were operated by them.

Much ink has been spilled on the second document, an account by Pliny the Elder of the cinnamomum trade in which several confusing passages occur with no clue to solve the problems47. For instance, the so-called cinnamomum is beyond identification: it may be either an unidentified but genuine “Ethiopian” spice, or a kind of cinnamon brought from the Indian Ocean area to the Horn of Africa and re-exported from there. Pliny also speaks of a five year trip, which duration is simply unbelievable and contradicts the story itself, as will be seen. In a word some facts were no doubt distorted or misunderstood by Pliny and/or his unknown source. In addition, this local circuit is ignored by Hellenistic authorities. Thus, were it not for the inherent weakness of the ex silentio argument, we could conclude that this route was not used until the late first century B.C.48. Irrespective of these problems, the story reads rather easily: “Cinnamomum grows in Aithiopia, which is linked by intermarriage with the Trogodytes. The latter buy it from their neighbours and convey it over the wide seas in ships that are neither propelled by oars or drawn by sails, nor assisted by any device of art (…). Moreover they choose the winter sea about the time of the shortest day, as an east wind is then chiefly blowing. This carries them on a straight course through the bays, and after rounding a cape a west-north-west wind brings them to the harbour of the Gebbanitae [= Qatabanians] called Ocilia. On this account that is the port most resorted to by these people, and they say that it is almost five years before the traders return home and that many perish on the voyage. In return for their wares they bring back articles of glass and copper, clothing, buckles, bracelets and necklaces.”49

The source of cinnamomum must be located on the northern Somali coast (= Aithiopia) for the following two arguments. First, Pliny claims that this spice was collected in <a part of> Aithiopia “linked by intermarriage with Trogodytes”, which means that this area was not too far from the Trogodyte country – elsewhere Pliny speaks of these Aithiopes as neighbours (Latin: conterminis) of the Trogodytes. Secondly, one must remember that the Cinnamomum bearing country (Kinnamômophoros) had earlier been reported by Ptolemaic explorers, and defined as a part of Aithiopia (above, n. 14). Now the picture drawn by Pliny becomes clearer: in order to obtain this cinnamomum from their neighbours and relatives, the Trogodytes headed to Aithiopia in light boats with no rudders or propelling devices – this reminds us of the Sabaean crafts pushed by currents and winds reported by Agatharchides (see above, p. 4); they were probably carried along the African seashore by the surface currents and by the north-west winds, which prevail in the southern Red Sea from June to September; then they would cross the strait and reach a place somewhere in northern Somalia; having loaded some cinnamomum they directly sailed back across the Gulf of Aden, aided in this by the north-east, or winter monsoon50; then they rounded a cape which must be the ras Sheikh Sa’id; finally, they were carried by a north-west wind to Ocilia (or Okêlis) where the cargoes of cinnamomum were exchanged with manufactured goods, which the Trogodytes transported back home. Irrespective of the aforementioned caveats, this text discloses a kind of “triangular” network enabling the Trogodytes to barter valuable raw products for manufactured goods. The citizens of Qatabân acted as the third partner. They certainly re-exported most of the cinnamomum either from the port of Ocilia, or by overland trade. Immediatly after this narrative Pliny adds that their king exerted a strict control – or a form of monopoly – over the cinnamomum market. Interestingly enough, the same passage possibly shows a form of pressure weighing on the primary producers in Aithiopia: “The right of controlling the sale of cinnamomum is vested solely in the king of the Gebbanitae who opens the market by public proclamation. The prices formerly were 1000 denarii a pound, but this was raised to half as much again after the forests had been burnt, so it is said, by infuriated Barbarians [= Ethiopians], but it is not absolutely certain whether this was incendiarism provoked by injustice on the part of those in power, or was due to accident.”51

Thus the Mediterranean merchants, being more than ever visible in the Horn of Africa, caused the local geography of trade to change – and also piracy to develop around Bab al-Mandab52. Harbours and ports apparently ignored in previous sources emerged, with Adulis standing out from all others – Aualitês, Malaô and Moundou –, called by the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea “the far-side ports of trade of the Barbaroi”, and depicted as “suitable moorings when the occasion calls”53. The author highlights the local scale of their role, in contrast to Adulis which had gained a prominent position by draining a specific array of commodities – ivory, tortoise shell etc. – from the surrounding countries and supplying the Mediterranean merchants with them. It is worth noting that Muza – i. e., Al Mukha –, on the opposite side, specialized in trade in aromatics and spices54: arguably the market of local valuable goods had been shared between these two important places.

This predictably impacted on local political and social organizations, giving rise to what is sometimes termed complex societies55. We hear from the Periplus that some commodities from the Mediterranean world were bought or bartered at Aualitês, Malaô and Moudou, either indirectly through local exchanges with Arabia, or directly from the Mediterranean ships tramping along the north Somali coast: Roman gold and silver money – maybe used as bullion or in jewellery –, cloaks from Arsinoe, “cleaned and dyed”, unripe olives from Diospolis, assorted glass stones etc.56. An increase in the purchasing power of – at least – local elites is implied. There is also little doubt that some individuals found good opportunities and, consequently, a way to success. Here the fascinating figure of Zoskalês really draws attention. The Periplus describes this African ruler as follows: “The ruler of these regions, from the Moskhophagoi [a tribe settled in a coastal part of north Sudan] to the rest of Barbaria, is Zoskalês, a stickler about his possessions and always holding out for getting more, but in other respects a fine person and well versed in reading and writing Greek.”57 This king, maybe of Trogodyte origin, lived in Adulis. He appears as an intelligent and opportunist man, whose political rise is closely connected to the presence of Alexandrian merchants whose freight comprised a number of prestige goods especially intended for the king58. No doubt, this hard bargainer managed to benefit from the redistribution of both imported and local goods.  

3. A partial reshaping of local networks (third century A.D. – early sixth century A.D.)

It is commonly agreed that in various respects the third century A. D. marks a turning point in the Western Indian Ocean trade pattern. For instance, the growing importance of Axumite and Himyarite traders, with the former acting as middlemen from the Red Sea to the island of Taprobanê (Sri Lanka), is often pointed out59. An inscription now lost referred to a third century (?) Axumite king priding himself on fighting piracy60. From an archaeological perspective, the remains and assemblages unearthed at Axum and Adulis underpin the greater role played by the Axumites61. Other changes accompanied this reshuffling of trading agents, such as the spreading of the Christian faith which caused Christian merchants to come together and cooperate62. Now, on the basis of late antiquity written evidence, I take the view that these new conditions entailed a partial reshaping of local networks.

This assumption does not mean that trade patterns existing in previous times were superseded – hence the term “partial” –: for instance the small boats plying the waters of Bab al-Mandab in Hellenistic times are very likely to still travel back and forth. Similarly the sea routes linking Somalia with Arabia are still reported by the sixth-century merchant and writer Cosmas Indicopleustes. The following account, no doubt based on first hand knowledge, even shows that African merchants and seamen were capable of distributing spices and aromatics not only on a local scale – e. g., at Adulis, Aden, or Kanê63 –, but also as far as India – i. e., the Gujarat and/or the Sind –, and Persia – i. e., probably somewhere around the Strait of Hormuz –: “The region which produces frankincense is at the extremities of Aithiopia [i.e. the Horn stricto sensu], and lies inland. Hence the inhabitants of Barbaria [i. e., northern Somalia], being near, go up into the interior and, engaging in traffic with the natives, bring back from them many kinds of aromatics: frankincense, kassia, calamus, and many other items, which they send by sea to Adoulê [= Adulis], to the country of the Homeritai [= Ḥimyar], to “Inner” India (north-west India?), and to Persia. This very fact you will find in the Book of Kings, where it is recorded that the Queen of Saba, that is, of the Homeritai, brought to Solomon spices from this Barbaria, its neighbour beyond <the sea> (…) For the Homeritai are not far distant from Barbaria, as the sea which lies between them can be crossed in a couple of days.”64

Thanks to the same Cosmas, the silent trade in gold conducted at Axum with the land of Sasu has not remained unknown to us. His vivid depiction mirrors an organization going back to the reign of Kaleb, who ruled Axum in the first half of the sixth century A.D. The text, which deserves to be entirely quoted, runs as follows: “The country known as that of Sasou is itself near the Ocean, just as the Ocean is near the frankincense country, in which there are many gold mines65. The king of the Axômitai [= Axumites] accordingly, every other year, through the governor [Greek: arkhôn] of Agau, sends thither special agents to bargain for the gold, and these are accompanied by many other traders (upward, say, of five hundred) bound on the same errand as themselves. They take along with them to the mining district oxen, lumps of salt, and iron, and when they reach its neighbourhood they make a halt at a certain spot and form an encampment, which they fence round with a great hedge of thorns. Within they live, and having slaughtered the oxen, cut them in pieces, and lay the pieces on the top of the thorns, along with the lumps of salt and the iron. Then come the natives bringing gold in nuggets like peas, called tagkhara, and lay one or two or more of these upon what pleases them (the pieces of flesh or the salt or the iron) and then they retire to some distance off. Then the owner of the meat approaches, and if it is satisfied he takes the gold away and upon seeing this the owner comes and takes the flesh or the salt or the iron. If, however, he is not satisfied he leaves the gold, when the native seeing that he has not taken it, comes and either puts down more gold, or takes up what he has laid down, and goes away. Such is the mode in which business is transacted with the people of that country (…). The time thay stay in that country is five days more or less, according as the natives more or less readily coming forward buy up all their wares. On the journey homeward thay all agree to travel well-armed, since some of the tribes through whose country they must pass might threaten to attack them from a desire to rob them of their gold. The space of six months is taken up with this trading expedition, including both the going and the returning. In going they march very slowly because of the cattle, but in returning their quicken their pace (…).”66

One of the most remarkable key data is the high level of state control: not only did a governor subject to the Axumite king arrange the whole expedition67, but there is little doubt that the armed guards protecting the caravan were provided by the governor, or the king. The search for gold may have existed in past times68. Yet it is likely that this local traffic – intimately bound up with the commerce in salt blocks from the Danakil desert – intensified from the third century onwards, in close connection with the introduction of coinage in the kingdom in about 270 A. D. Coinage was first struck by king Endubis, employing the Roman monetary system as a model. As for the gold-based currency, S. Munro-Hay claims that it announced “that the state considered itself on a par with its great neighbours”69. Besides gold and other metals the state control may have targeted other valuable commodities. The aforementioned anonymous Axumite king (above, p. 13) boasted of having subjugated a tribe settled on the Somali coast: “I defeated also the Barbarian people of Rauso who live by the aromatics trade, in immense plains without water, and the Solate, whom I also defeated, imposing on them the task of guarding the sea-lanes.”70 This utterance may be confidently understood as an attempt to share the benefits of the trade in aromatics, if not to make a royal monopoly or divert the trafic to Adulis.

In fact Adulis had now become the great port of the once landlocked kingdom of Axum. On the opposite side stood Himyar, which also turned into a regional polity since the kingdoms of Saba and Hadramawt had been annexed, in respectively about 250 and 300 A.D.71 Thus, it is hardly a surprise to hear of a regular sea traffic linking Adulis and South Arabia: for instance, the Martyrium of Arethas, an anonymous narrative of Kaleb’s wars against Himyar72 points to sea connections between Aithiopia (= Adulis) and the “Homerite country” (= Ḥimyar)73. On the other hand, this resulted in a new sea route pattern involving places of trade so far unheard of. Muza, which had fallen into decline, had been replaced by other places, such as Boulikas – perhaps located close to Ghulayfika74 –, mentioned by the sixth century historian Procopius: “Opposite the Homeritai on the opposite mainland dwell the Aithiopians who are called Auxomitai. And the expanse of sea which lies between is crossed in a voyage of five days and nights, when a favouring wind blows. For here they are used to navigating by night, since there are no shoals in these parts (…) Now the harbour of the Homeritai from which they put to sea for the voyage to Aithiopia is called Boulikas; and at the end of the sail across the sea they always put in at the harbour of the Adulitai.”75

The Martyrium also refers to Madabbân, a mooring which is to be located in the vicinity of Bab al-Mandab and has been equated with Shayk Sa’id76: Kaleb’s war fleet was prevented from landing there with a two stades – about 360 m– metal chain installed by the Ḥimyarite king. The same document also gives evidence of a community of merchants installed further north, on the Farasan Islands: being unable to have his troops transported across the sea by his own means, Kaleb had no option but to requisition merchant ships from various parts of the Red Sea, some coming from the Farasan Islands. Obviously they were operated by merchants – maybe Christian – based there, showing, as Fr. Villeneuve rightly states, that the main Farasan island must have been “un port important de la mer Rouge” in the sixth century77.


The Indian Ocean exchange network was a complex system: local, regional and global scales all interact with each other to form a whole that evolved constantly. Some aspects of this complex organisation are illuminated by archaeological studies; others are disclosed by written sources. With respect to the latter, epigraphical – e. g., the inscriptions from the Eastern Egyptian desert – and papyrological – e. g., the so-called Papyrus of Muziris– documents are rightly held in greater esteem, because of the first hand experience which they embody. However, even if Greek and Roman literary evidence contains second-hand and somehow biased information, it yields invaluable insights into this subject. This investigation, I hope, has brought to light how small-scale exchanges in the Horn of Africa were embedded in large-scale systems. Had these tiny pieces of evidence been wiped out in the course of time, these fundamental interactions between local and inter-regional sytems would have disappeared from history. 



  1. The Horn of Africa must be understood as the region that is home to the countries of Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia. The southern coast of Somalia, however, does not fall within the scope of this study. []
  2. See, e. g., Stuart C. Munro-Hay, Aksum: an African Civilisation of Late Antiquity. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991, 294 p, 69-94. []
  3. See, e.g., Roberta Tomber, Indo-Roman Trade: from Pots to Pepper. London: Duckworth, 2008, 216 p., 88-89. []
  4. R. Pankhurst, “Across the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden: Ethiopia’s historic ties with Yaman”, Africa: Rivista trimestrale di studi e documentazione dell’Istituto italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente, 57:3 (2002), p. 393-419, contents himself with paraphrasing the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. []
  5. My own field of expertise – ancient history – and the sources which I master – Greek and Latin written documents – are the essential justification for this specific approach. []
  6. At its greatest extent the Seleucid Empire (312 – 64 B.C.), founded by Seleucus Nicator, stretched from Thrace to Bactriane, at the borders of India. The Ptolemaic empire, of which Egypt formed the core, was founded by Ptolemy Sôter and ended with the death of Cleopatra (30 B.C.). []
  7. About war elephants and Ptolemaic hunts, see Howard H. Scullard, The Elephant in the Greek and Roman World. London: Thames & Hudson, 1974, 288 p., 64-100; 120-145. []
  8. Conventionally, the Hellenistic period covers the history of the Greek world (including the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East), between Alexander the Great’s death (323 B.C.) and the annexation of Egypt by Rome (30 B.C.). []
  9. The location of the Six Islands still eludes us, but they may be confidently located between ras Siyyan and Zeila. []
  10. Strabo, Geography, 16, 4, 4 (transl. by H. L. Jones). []
  11. The Greeks divided the various peoples settled there into two groups: the “Troglodytes” (sometimes spelled “Trogodytes”), most of them being nomadic breeders who lived on the produce of their flocks, and the “Fish Eaters” (Greek: Ikhthyophagoi) living solely on seafood. []
  12. See Strabo, Geography, 16, 4, 2: “… Kattabaneis, whose territory extends down to the straits and the passage across the Arabian Gulf [= the Red Sea], and whose royal seat is called Tamna.” (transl. by H. L. Jones). The so-called Mercantile code of Qataban (RES 1337) offers epigraphical evidence for Qataban’s involvement in overland trade over an ill-defined period of time. The time frame suggested by Alessandra Avanzini, “L’hégémonie qatabânite”, in Yémen. Au pays de la reine de Saba. Exposition présentée à l’Institut du monde arabe [27 oct. 1997-28 fév. 1998]. Paris: L’Œil, 1997, p. 98-101, 100, extends between the fifth century B.C. and the third century B.C. The Qatabanian presence at the strait is mentioned by no source but Eratosthenes. []
  13. See Jérémie Schiettecatte, “L’Arabie du Sud et la mer du 3e siècle avant au 6e siècle après J.-C.”, Topoi, Suppl. 11 (2012), p. 237-272, 255. An account by Theophrastus, Enquiry into plants, 9, 4, 5, based on Greek sources going back to 324 B.C., also points to the prominent role of the Sabaeans (see Pierre Schneider, “Fauces Rubri maris: the Greco-Roman Bab al-Mandab [5th century B.C. – 2nd century A.D.]”, Orbis Terrarum 12 (2014), p. 193-272, 195-196). []
  14. In this case the name Aithiopia applies to the coastal parts of the Horn of Africa and, to some extent, the hinterland. []
  15. Strabo, Geography, 16, 4, 19 (transl. by H. L. Jones). []
  16. Photius, Bibl. 250, 459a, translated by Stanley M. Burstein (Agatharchides, On the Erythraean Sea, with transl. and comment. by S. M. Burstein. London: The Hakluyt Society, 1989, 202 p., 167). []
  17. Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 6, 176 (transl. by H. Rackham). Also see the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, 27 (with transl. and comment. by L. Casson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989, 320 p.). []
  18. See, e.g., Strabo, Geography, 16, 4, 19; Horace, Epistles, 1, 7, 35-36. []
  19. Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 12, 66 (transl. by H. Rackham). []
  20. An island bearing high-quality frankincense is also reported by Theophrastus, Enquiry into Plants, 9, 4, 10: “Some say that the frankincense-tree is more abundant in Arabia, but finer in the adjacent islands, over which the Arabian bear rule” (transl. by A. Hort). Note that the myrrh tree and the frankincense tree were not clearly distinguished by Mediterranean people, meaning that confusions may have occured. []
  21. Strabo, Geography, 16, 4, 14. []
  22. Strabo, loc. cit. above, n. 21. []
  23. Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 6, 174 (see P. Schneider, op. cit. above, n. 13, 229). []
  24. U. Wilcken, “Punt-Fahrten in der Ptolemäerzeit”, Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache, 60:1 (1925), p. 86-102. The name Aromatophoros was applied to the parts of northern Somalia giving aromatics. []
  25. Eudoxus’ adventures are related and commented on by Strabo, Geography, 2, 3, 4-5. See Johannes H. Thiel, Eudoxus of Cyzicus. A Chapter in the History of the Sea-Route to India and the Route Round the Cape in Ancient Times. Groningen: Noord-Hollandsche Uitgevers Maatschappij, 1939, 62 p. []
  26. About these events, see P. Schneider, op. cit. above, n. 13, 202-204. []
  27. See, e. g., Eivind H. Seland, Ports and Political Power in the Periplus: Complex Societies and Maritime Trade on the Indian Ocean in the First Century A.D. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2012, 97 p., especially 17-46. []
  28. Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 12, 58. []
  29. Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 12, 58-60. See Nigel Groom, Frankincense and Myrrh. A Study of the Arabian Incense Trade. London- New York: Longman, 1981, 285 p., 144-145. []
  30. This ornamental material was obtained from the curved horny shields forming the shell of the hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) and several other species. It has long been valued for manufacture of furniture, jewelry and other items (Encyclopaedia Britannica, s. v. “Tortoiseshell”). []
  31. Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History, 3, 21, 1-5, paraphrasing Agatharchides; Strabo, Geography, 16, 4, 13-14. []
  32. See, e. g., Eric H. Warmington, The Commerce between the Roman Empire and India. Cambridge: University Press, 1928, 417 p., 166-167; L. Casson, op. cit. above, n. 17, 101-102. []
  33. This anonymous document – generally ascribed to the mid-first century A.D. – depicts navigation patterns and trading opportunities throughout the Western Indian Ocean. []
  34. Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, 4. []
  35. Whether the author refers to the carapace or true tortoise shell cannot be determined. []
  36. A similar pattern may have existed at Aualites, a small mart where tortoise shell was exported to Arabia on the opposite side (Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, 8). []
  37. Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 9, 38 (transl. by H. Rackham). []
  38. Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, 6. According to Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 6, 172-173, monkeys, hippopotamus hides and slaves could be acquired there. []
  39. Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 36, 196; Christian Hünemörder & Hans J. Nissen, Brill’s New Pauly Online, s. v. “Obsidian”. []
  40. Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, 5. []
  41. Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, 5. []
  42. On the routes linking Axum to the surrounding countries, see Luisa Sernicola & Laurel Phillipson, “Aksum’s Regional Trade: New Evidence from Archaeological Survey”, Azania 46.2 (2011), p. 190-204, 194-198. []
  43. S. Munro-Hay, op. cit. above, n. 2, 174-175. This imported material has turned up in tomb deposits at Axum. About Axumite army and equipment, see 215-220. []
  44. P. Schneider, op. cit. above, n. 13, 218, n. 167. []
  45. Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, 7 (transl. L. Casson). []
  46. Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, 7 (transl. L. Casson). []
  47. In particular, some scholars have inferred from Pliny’s narrative that the East African coast was visited by Austronesian mariners prior to the Christian era. See, e. g., R. Blench, ‘Evidence for the Austronesian voyages in the Indian Ocean’, in Atholl Anderson, James H. Barrett & Katherine V. Boyle (eds.), The Global Origins and Development of Seafaring. Cambridge: McDonald institute for archaeological research, 2010, p. 239-248, 241. []
  48. It has been argued that this text mirrors a situation dating to the first century A. D. (Federico de Romanis, Cassia, cinnamomo, ossidiana. Uomini e merci tra Oceano Indiano e Mediterraneo. Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 1996, 324 p., 110-111). []
  49. Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 12, 86-88. []
  50. This contrasts with the previous statement that the Trogodyte crafts were not drawn by sails. []
  51. Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 12, 93 (transl. by H. Rackham). []
  52. Pierre Schneider, “Before the Somali Threat: Piracy in the Ancient Indian Ocean”, The Journal of the Hakluyt Society (2014), p. 1-28, 12-15. []
  53. Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, 7. []
  54. Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 6, 104. []
  55. E. H. Seland, op. cit. above, n. 27 , 83-85. []
  56. Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, 7-9. Also see R. Tomber, op. cit. above, n. 3, 93-96. []
  57. Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, 5. []
  58. Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, 6: five items out of sevententh imported to Adulis were reserved for the king – garments, silver and gold objects. []
  59. See, e. g., E. H. Warmington, op. cit. above, n. 32, 137-138; R. Tomber, op. cit. above, n. 3, 88-93. []
  60. S. Munro-Hay, op. cit. above, n. 2, 222. []
  61. See, e. g., R. Tomber, op. cit. above, n. 3, 93. []
  62. For instance, Philostorgius, Church History, 3, 4, speaks of a church built for Christian merchants at Aden. []
  63. J. Schiettecatte, op. cit. above, n. 13, 255-256. []
  64. Cosmas Indicopleustes, Christian Topography, 2, 50 (translated by J. W. M. Mc Crindle). []
  65. Sasu has been located in the Fazogli region, between the Blue Nile and the Sobat River, “on the basis of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century reports of gold deposits in the area, as well as reports of the Agaw obtaining this gold from locals”. Another candidate for the location of Sasu is the westermost part of the modern Ethiopian Gojjam province, where gold is produced (George Hatke, Aksum and Nubia: Warfare, Commerce, and Political Fictions in Ancient Northeast Africa. New York: ISAW, 2013, 145 p., 56-57). []
  66. Cosmas Indicopleustes, Christian Topography, 2, 51-52. []
  67. “These officials, if not members of his own family, or hereditary local ‘kings’, were certainly highly-trusted administrators in Kaleb’s government.” (S. Munro Hay, op. cit. above, n. 2, 146). []
  68. Sasu is mentioned in the aforementioned third century (?) inscription (above, n. 60). []
  69. On Axumite coinage, see S. Munro-Hay, op. cit. above, n. 2, 180-195 (quotation, p. 75). []
  70. S. Munro-Hay, op. cit. above, n. 2, 222. []
  71. J. Schiettecatte, op. cit. above, n. 13, 254. []
  72. These events were long unknown to a wider audience until they were popularized by Glen W. Bowersock, The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam. Oxford-New-York: Oxford University Press, 2013. []
  73. Μartyrium of Arethas, 2. For a recent edition see Marina Detoraki & Joëlle Beaucamp, Le martyre de saint Aréthas et de ses compagnons (BHG 166) [= Le massacre de Najrân I], édition critique, étude et annotation par M. Detoraki, trad. par J. Beaucamp. Paris: Association des amis du Centre d’histoire et civilisation de Byzance, 2007, 317 p. []
  74. J. Schiettecatte, op. cit. above, n. 13, 259. []
  75. Procopius, History of the Wars, 1, 19, 22 (transl. by H. B. Dewing). []
  76. Martyrium of Arethas, 32. See J. Schiettecatte, op. cit. above, n. 13, 258. []
  77. F. Villeneuve, C. Phillips, W. Facey, “Une inscription latine de l’archipel Farasan (sud de la mer Rouge) et son contexte archéologique et historique”, Arabia: revue de sabéologie 2 (2004) 141-192, p. 158. []

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Pierre Schneider (8 décembre 2020). Pierre Schneider – Local exchange networks in the Horn of Africa: a view from the Mediterranean world (third century B.C. – sixth century A.D.). Les sociétés méditerranéennes antiques et les mondes de l'océan Indien. Consulté le 20 juillet 2024 à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/rbp9