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.
- 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
- 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.
- See, e. g., Stuart C. Munro-Hay, Aksum: an African Civilisation of Late Antiquity. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991, 294 p, 69-94.
- See, e.g., Roberta Tomber, Indo-Roman Trade: from Pots to Pepper. London: Duckworth, 2008, 216 p., 88-89.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.).
- 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.