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It can be said that the trade that united India, China, the ancient Middle East and the Mediterranean area can be traced back to the third millennium B.C., with the configuration of the Achaemenid Persian Empire from 600 B.C. onwards being a key factor that led the different states and empires of India to strengthen their commercial ties towards the Mediterranean. Later, the arrival of Alexander the Great and the subsequent changing Hellenistic kingdoms that were situated on the borders of the Maurya Empire.

Despite the period of invasions such as those of the Yuezhi and Saces in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent, these trade routes were not affected in a prolonged manner.

Greco-Buddhist Style - Kushan Empire

Trade and international relations between the Indian empires and Rome

During the second and third centuries A.D. Kushan and the Roman Empire cultivated a cordial and mutually profitable relationship that was of considerable economic importance to both. From the late first century AD to the mid-third century, the Kushans controlled what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, parts of Central Asia and China, as well as much of the Ganges Valley. In turn, the encounter with Rome is the result of the assumption of control of the eastern Mediterranean between the reorganization of the Near East promoted by Pompey the Great around 63 BC and the annexation as personal patrimony of Egypt by Octavian Augustus, to ensure the welfare of Rome, and in passing his ascending power to the Principality, in 30 BC.

The emergence of the Parthian Empire, on the other hand, would drive Kushans and Indians to search for sea routes that would allow them to escape from the control exercised by the former, linking directly to the African routes of the Red Sea and, therefore, to the Roman Empire. Similarly, India not only managed to maintain a significant flow of exports of its own products, as well as imports of products from the Mediterranean and continental Europe, but also became a privileged intermediary in the silk trade with Han China.

The benefits that this trade brought to Indian states made the authorities of these states take special care to protect and improve the existing routes, trying to provide them with optimal infrastructure for their purposes. Fundamental to the functioning of trade in India during the Kushan period, as evidence of the impact of trade between the two empires, were in Kushan the guilds and guilds of merchants, known as shreni. These were associations of professionals, merchants and craftsmen acting as cooperatives, "companies", regulatory organizations and even financial entities, being enthusiastically promoted by the sovereigns.

Coining was another important measure to boost trade: after the fall of the Mauritian Empire, coinage skyrocketed, facilitating transactions beyond the borders of the changing Indian states of the time. The construction of roads and ports, and the maintenance of river routes, made it possible to maintain the flow of products within the Subcontinent itself, as well as their subsequent export over long distances. Many Indian cities developed as a direct result of commercial activity, becoming crossroads or major ports. Places like Nasik and Karad in Maharashtra or Nagarjunakonda in the Adhra region would be a good example. The main trade routes to the outside world started from five major ports: the so-called Barbaricum on the Indus delta, Barygaza on the Gujarat coast, Muziris on the Kerala coast, Arikamedu on the Coromandel coast, and finally Tamralipti on the Ganges delta. These ports concentrated the bulk of India's trade with Arabia, the Near East, the Roman Empire and Southeast Asia.

Resultado de imagen de kushan empireThe main land trade routes of India, on the other hand, started from the region of Taxila towards western Asia and the Iranian Plateau, linking directly first with the domains of the great Hellenistic empires, and later with the space occupied by the Empire, which reached the Mediterranean. Once the Kushans had established their dominance beyond the Oxus River, the Aral Sea and the middle Ganga River valley, land-based trade routes took on a new dimension: under Kushan rule, Buddhist missionaries and Indian merchants would eventually forge a major alliance of interests; where merchants established their colonies and exchange centres, Buddhist missionaries founded monasteries. The expansion of Buddhism and the trade in Indian products, mainly in Central Asia and towards China, often went hand in hand, driving and protecting each other. In turn, from the Chinese point of view, the Han dynasty emperors, aware of the problems that the Empire represented for the regular trade with the Roman Empire, deposited in the hands of the Indian merchants and in the land and sea routes controlled by them (under the protection of the Kushan Empire first and Gupta later) most of the silk trade directed to Rome. In this way, Chinese silk first linked up with the Indian routes in Central Asia to the region of Taxila, from where it descended towards the western coast of India to continue by sea from ports such as Barbaricum towards the Red Sea and Arabia, avoiding at all times the routes controlled by the Empire, which were to be used only for those products that were to end up in the markets of Ctesifonte. The strategic situation of the Kushan Empire making possible the stable maintenance of these routes made the Kushan nobility actively involved in this activity.

The pacification of the Roman State under the rule of Octavian Augustus, and the setting up of the Principality and subsequent imperial system of government meant a notable boost to trade between the Mediterranean World and India, in search not only of satisfying Rome's needs in luxury products from China or India itself, but also of satisfying the demand of the markets of the Indian Subcontinent and the Han Empire for products from Europe, North Africa and the Near East. The annexation of Egypt by Rome around 31 B.C. facilitated the process, putting in the hands of the Roman State a whole series of ports that had a long tradition of contact with India since before the Hellenistic period.

Around 45 A.D., Hippalus, an Alexandrian navigator, studied the seasonal winds and storms of the Indian Ocean (the monsoon), delimiting their patterns and regularity in such a way as to provide other navigators with safe access to routes towards India, and thus helping to intensify commercial contacts. Deposits of Roman coins such as the one found in Arikamedu amply testify to the importance and volume of commercial contacts established between Rome and the states of India. Most of these deposits are also documented in North India.

Amphorae and ceramics of various Roman types have also been found in the Indian subcontinent. Similarly, breaking with the cliché advocated by a purely Western initiative in the implementation of Rome-India trade, papyrology has demonstrated the existence of equal contracts between Indian and Roman merchants, while archaeological research in Egypt has shown the presence of Indian merchants and trade missions on Roman soil.

«Trajano recibe embajadores frente a la representación de la ciudad Drobeta», uno de los relieves de las Columnas de Trajano
«Trajan receives ambassadors in front of the representation of the city Drobeta», - Columns of Trajan

It is possible that Trajan's campaign in Parthia was planned for economic reasons. It is precisely the incorporation of Arabia Petraea by Palma, the governor of Syria, as a province around 106 AD and the arrival of Indian embassies in Rome a year later could be vectors pointing to the emperor's interest in deepening trade relations with India, as stated by Dion Casio (68. 15, 1). If we bear in mind that the Roman Empire was a key market, especially for luxury products, which had to arrive both by sea, through the Red Sea, and by land, through the silk route. In both cases, of course, these routes passed through regions and/or ports that were under the control of the births. Logic indicates that extending Roman influence to the east and destroying the childbirth power would cause a considerable decrease in the price of luxury products, since the taxes imposed by the Empire would disappear. And it is in this sense that, in my opinion, the wars in Trajan's Dacia had several objectives: a) the elimination of a powerful geopolitical ally at a key point in Roman supply and communication routes to Parthia; b) an opportunity to try a complex war against similar, and even better, units in the case of infantry, as well as being able to take on extra experience in besieging cities, fortresses, strong points, etc; c) the wars in Dacia meant relief for the Roman coffers, as well as income from strategic minerals,[1]gaining land on which to plant crops and expand trade routes, and finally having auxiliary contingents useful for the war against the Parthians. All this would be supported by the fact that Trajan's approach to the casus belli does not take into consideration any mitigating factors or any aspect that would allow for negotiations, since he is inflexible with the silver issue raised by Osroes and the request for goodwill for the dismissal of Axiadares, breaking a rule established since the time of Nero.

I think it is possible to conclude that the progress made in Trajan's time could be seen as part of a great strategy towards India on several points, with the desire also to consolidate positions and to move forward, if necessary, in a double pincer by catching the births in the middle. However, I also think that, in some ways, the strategy is incomplete, unless you look at it through the eyes of Julius Caesar: to dominate Dacia, Parthia and close the circle for Germania in order to create a kind of "virtuous circle" by relying on the maritime to enhance and increase the influence of Rome and to secure a silk route of ever greater commercial, cultural and political value.

By the fourth and fifth centuries AD most of northern India experienced a change of hegemonic power led by the rulers of the Gupta dynasty, who came from the Ganga plains, giving rise to a Gupta Empire from the reign of Chandragupta I, the third ruler of this dynasty, who assumed the title of "king over kings" or maharajadhiraja, initiating a process of expansionism in the form of a combination of military campaigns and political-matrimonial alliances.

Skandagupta I
Skandagupta I coin

During the reign of Kumaragupta I (415-455 AD) the Gupta Empire built a phase of affirmation and consolidation of its structure as a superpower, initiating for this purpose a bureaucratic reform and pursuing the establishment of an advanced administration, both of which were put at the service of optimizing the management of a space as extensive as it was heterogeneous, and although at first they escaped the convulsions of those times in Europe, the Near East and Iran, by the middle of the 5th century AD.C. the Huns had crossed the Hindukush by occupying Gandhara in 460 AD, However, a sovereign with the capabilities of Skandagupta I (455-467 AD) would still appear to stop them and keep them away from the Indian subcontinent for three decades. But after the death of Skandagupta I, the decomposition of the Gupta Empire became unstoppable, facing the weaknesses and contradictions of such a decentralized system and with a bureaucracy that had not managed to come together, giving rise to a pleiad of independent states by 550 AD.

This could be counted as an added factor to the concept of samanta. This term refers to the fact of publicly swearing allegiance and promise of support to the Gupta Empire, by allowing access to certain resources, military or political aid, thus exercising dominion over their possessions as vassals or subsidiary sovereigns. This system called samanta was applied to the level of social, economic and political organization. Unlike the great Maurya Empire or the Kushan Empire, the Guptas have to initiate a process of loss of possession of state lands through leases or concessions, which were directed towards Brahmins, either individually or as a group (Brahmadeya); towards religious institutions, in the case of temples and monasteries (devagrahara or devadana); and concessions made to state officials, guilds, guilds and, in some more exceptional cases, to army officers.

One of the main reasons, and why we must count on it to value the decomposition and weakness of the guptas, to undertake this loss of power of an axis with centralising capacity towards groups with centrifugal ambitions would be in the loss of trade towards the West due to the progressive destabilisation of Roman power from the 5th century AD, which would be followed by times of conflict within the Western Roman Empire and its struggle between various territories, as well as the struggle of the Eastern Roman Empire and its struggle in two directions: towards the West, Germanic kingdoms, and towards the East, the Sasanian Persians. This meant a loss of income that was vital to the Indian superpowers and forced them to embark on the aforementioned process of alienation from traditional land ownership, on a temporary or even permanent basis. The Brahmins who were rewarded with land concessions sought, in the face of the constant weakness of power, to consolidate these possessions as hereditary, and in the process to bind the inhabitants of these lands to hereditary possession, which they were supposed to protect on paper, although the reality is that they ended up being a workforce that they could employ at will. On other occasions, entire populations were handed over from royal power to the control of brahmans or temples, free of payment of rent, but with the obligation to collect taxes for the central power and thus alleviate a certain lack of income. The new owners of these populations reacted to this by increasing taxes on the population in order to direct this increase towards the demands of the treasury, while maintaining intact their desire to prosper and strengthen their position of growing power. In the end, the concessions, leases or sales of land and towns to members of the civil administration or the army became the way to pay for their services or their regular salary, creating a class of intermediaries in the "feudal" way in the rural space, increasingly important, and who managed to build and consolidate their own domains of great importance and profitability.


Several focal points or nodes of communication, trade, culture, religion, political thought can be established and would cover, roughly, the Eastern Mediterranean, controlled from Rome; the space of Iran; Central Asia and India; and, finally, China. These heads of power, so to speak, communicated with each other at the time when the trial was drawn up, promoting religious currents which, by the way, did not have their definitive success in their place of origin, but were rather taken to other places, as in the case of Christianity and Buddhism. It has also been possible to observe the importance of the alliance between merchants and religious, and at a certain point, the union of both against the imperial power: the case of Islam or Buddhism, elements that have a certain diffusion in China, but also with social tensions due precisely to the role of Buddhism with the debt and the trade factor, something that did know how to temper or qualify Islam by adding the obligation of alms or azaque, the third pillar of Islam, mentioned on several occasions throughout the Koran, for example in the Sura del Hierro, 57th:7 "Believe in Allaah and His messenger and spend of that which He has delegated to you, for those of you who believe and give generously will have a great reward. ”. Also, and related to this fact, it has much to do with the ability to have a perfect, or almost perfect, machinery, in the case of the Chinese, to survive as an empire. China's ability, despite living through episodes of power concentration and fragmentation, to come back again and again, and to be able to organize hegemonic superpowers and great economic power could have to do with having a complex, efficient and highly qualified bureaucratic administration, in spite of the fact that the same thing happens in all the parts united by this Silk Road: The central state collapsed, the cities went into a deep crisis, the important coinage also experienced a significant setback, but it did not take long for another centralized state to emerge, governed by the Confucianist elite and with an excellent bureaucracy, with a great capacity to have a powerful "internal market", with a certain eagerness to maintain some control over the merchants, with a successful overlap between spiritual and earthly power expressed in the thinking of the followers of Confucius.

Another outstanding aspect that has caught my attention has to do with the fact that perhaps the invasions that Europe suffered from the steppes and beyond at the bottom could be about the fact that these invaders, in the case of the Huns, sought to follow the trail of trade and gold, and this would perhaps explain the movement of groups like the Huns from east to west.

Resultado de imagen de india comercioApplication to current geopolitics

In the case of India, we are dealing with a giant in Asia. Located in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Historically, its power and wealth are fabulous, like those of China and its area of influence. It is the centre of one of the great empires of the so-called axial era, the so-called Maurya Empire (320-180 BC), which reached its peak in the time of Ashoka the Great. But if its great kingdoms and the great Maurya Empire, its trade routes, its wealth and prosperity are proverbial, as well as being the home of one of the great civilizing centers of humanity, located in the Indus Valley and the Punjab, its extraordinary cultural wealth is no less proverbial: it is the cradle of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, and was closely linked to the influential religion linked to the god Mitra and the Vedic spread through Persia and the Roman Empire.

The result of being such a strategic place, rich, powerful, confluence of roads is that India is a place with a great cultural and linguistic plurality. However, its past as a colonial part of the British Empire and the consequences of the decolonization process had two equally traumatic consequences for India: the separation of a part of its territory as a result of a religious conflict with the Muslims: an eastern Pakistan, which would later become Bangladesh, and a western Pakistan, which is the current state of Pakistan; the next process that shapes India is its conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir, a region that was divided between the two states, and aggravated by the nuclear capabilities of both contenders.

Another relevant factor for India is the legacy of the English language, as it serves as an interlingua between communities, opening up the possibility of access to excellent education for the elite and of training and prospering in the field of technology. Its military industry, with great cooperation with Russia, is already very relevant and is boosting its GDP.

One area in which an increasingly strong and vigorous India can excel and even resolve as an example has to do with its enormous capabilities and possibilities for undertaking a powerful agricultural or green revolution. India is beginning to have the capacity to be a counterweight to China, but in return, China also has the capacity to be a counterweight to India and the area: the Naxalite insurgency, a Maoist-inspired guerrilla group with great capacity and whose areas of action are concentrated primarily in the <<Red Corridor>> Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. But the force of Maoism also has influence in Bangladesh, Nepal--where it has begun to triumph politically--and Bhutan. Despite the strategic nature of the Pacific Ocean, another of the planet's key points will be of great importance in the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea and the great Gulf of Bengal. India, if it successfully meets its challenges, will have a decisive influence on Central Asia, the Iranian highlands and will try to balance China in Southeast Asia.

It is precisely from this space, in contact with northern India, China, North Africa and the Greco-Roman world, and then Germanic and Slavic, that our identity comes, using the bridge of Persia.

In short, as has been shown, India has enormous potential in many respects and such a capacity for balance, containment, influence, and that in turn, in a sense, is close to us and part of a widely shared identity.


DION CASIO, Roman History. Book LXVIII. Digital edition.

SCHMITTHENNER, R., “Rome and India: Aspects of Universal History during the Principate”, JRS, 69, 1979, pp. 90-106.

THORLEY, J., “The Roman Empire and the Kushans”, Greece & Rome, Second Series, vol. 26, 2, 1979, pp. 181-190.

[1] The treasure of Decebalus is estimated at 165 tons of gold and 330 tons of silver, in addition to "other objects of great value", as reported by Dion Casio in (68. 14, 5). THORLEY, J. 1979, p. 190, in note 7 estimates that the amount allowed to maintain the entire Roman army for 90 years. In turn, the capture of Dacia and his resources surely stimulated the sending of embassies from India and elsewhere. The commercial exchange between Rome and India included minted gold in exchange for sumptuous goods and silk.

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