Few occurrences in antiquity are as widely discussed by a diverse, ancient authorship as transcontinental commerce between the Mediterranean Sea and East Asia. Yet modern historians remain profoundly divided over long-distance trade’s origin, operation and effect with regard to the governance of the Roman Principate. There is broad consensus, however, that the volume and value of this trade consistently increased between the administrations of Augustus and Marcus Aurelius. These two centuries also witness curiously divergent foreign policies between emperors, particularly in Rome’s Near Eastern possessions. It is thus argued that these phenomena are intrinsically connected and further, that emperors considered them so in deliberating policy. These findings throw light on previous topical historiography and propose a different approach to writing—and understanding—a Roman commercial history.
When Emperor Marcus Aurelius died on the banks of the Danube in 180 CE at Vindobona, or Vienna, the Roman Empire he left behind was the largest transcontinental, transcultural, singular political entity in history before the rise of the European nation state some fifteen centuries later. It was an empire that stretched from the Thames to the Euphrates, from the Rhine to the Nile. Thousands of miles from his campaign against the implacable Germanic tribes of the north was Rome’s second most militarily active region, the Near East comprised of Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and the western reaches of Mesopotamia. To Marcus, a disarmingly humble Stoic despite his dictatorial power, one distinction between the two wings of the empire was obvious. While the Atlantic Ocean rendered the western limits all but impenetrable, what lay beyond Rome’s eastern limites was not so shrouded in mystery. Romans, driven by an expansionist tradition, an infatuation with Alexander’s legacy and a simple profit motive, were cognizant of formidable cultures that occupied the other side of the Asian steppes. They were even more fixated by the exotic items that arrived by ship and camelback. Truly, the allure of the scarcely-known Far East made the Roman Near East, as a final departure point, that much more fantastic in the collective Roman imagination.
Senior Thesis, Columbia University, 2010