Tuesday, August 6, 2019


The following is an essay that I have written years ago. It is about the travels of Roman merchants in what is now "Indochina" and the islands south of this region that are called "Indonesia". These travels to the southeast Asia were done mainly in the first four centuries of the Roman empire.

Romans went further east until China (all these contacts are well documented) and possibly until the Philippines, the Korean peninsula and southern Japan (but only coins have been found in these countries; read for example about the Philippines: http://www.filipinonumismatist.com/2008/09/a-rare-ancient-coin-surfaced-in.html).

Map showing places where Roman coins have been found until 2010

Romans reached India and Ceylon with their trade, but also some Roman merchants have gone further east until the islands of what is now Indonesia and until the Indochina peninsula (actual Birmania, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam). Pliny -the famous Roman historian- wrote that "cinnamon" and other spices from the "Spice islands" (as were called the Moluccans and other islands of Indonesia during the Roman centuries and Middle Ages) reached Rome mainly via East Africa (actual Somalia). Romans also reached China and some historians suggest that in China there was a Roman colony in the first century AD (https://www.academia.edu/1952695/Romans_in_China )!

Indeed in 2016 Warwick Ball wrote ( in his "Rome in the East: Transformation of an Empire") that the scarcity of Roman and Byzantine coins discovered in China, and the greater amounts found in India & Ceylon, suggest that most silk & other items from China purchased by the Romans were from maritime India, largely going through the Indochina & Indonesia seas.

In this essay I am going to write about the Roman presence in Indonesia and Indochina, a topic that has not received a lot of attention from historians (who seems to be attracted mainly to deal with India and China. We still have nearly the same knowledge we had in 1917: read http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Journals/JAOS/37/Navigation_to_the_Far_East_under_the_Roman_Empire*.html#ref16).


According to Kristina Hoppal (et al:http://dissarch.elte.hu/pdf.js/web/viewer.html?file=http://dissarch.elte.hu/index.php/dissarch/article/download/362/341), "apart from a number of Roman interpreted soda natron glass beads excavated in Bali, Indonesia has not yielded convincingly Roman finds so far". She pinpointed that a dozen Roman coins found recently in the Java island (city of Tuban Regency and Brantas river) are not surely related to Roman commerce, but could have been deposited there in the following centuries.

However other academics remember that there are many coins found in Indonesia (too many to have "casually" arrived there) and at least a couple are nearly surely related to Roman merchants, registered historically by Chinese texts. The "Weilüe" (a Chinese historical text written by Yu Huan between 239 and 265 AD) recorded the arrival by ship in 226 AD of a merchant from the Roman Empire (called "Daqin" in Chinese language) at Jiaozhi (Chinese-controlled northern Vietnam). According to the "Weilüe" (and later also the "Book of Liang") Roman merchants were active in Cambodia and Vietnam, a claim supported by modern archaeological finds of ancient Mediterranean goods in the Southeast Asian countries of Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Probably the Roman coins found in Indonesia were used by these merchants to buy spices.

Furthermore, Jeffrey Hays has written an interesting essay about this Roman trade with Indonesia: here there are some excerpts.

"Spices from Indonesia in Ancient and Medieval Europe"

Spices such as "cinnamon" and "pepper" that were known in ancient Rome and traded on the Silk Road originated from India and the East Indies. Pliny wrote of how cinnamon and other spices from Indonesia reached Rome via Madagascar and East Africa. By the A.D. 1st century, spices were making their way to China and India and from there taken by ship and Silk Road caravans to Europe.

Spices were among the most valuable commodities carried on the Silk Road. Without refrigeration food spoiled easily and spices were important for masking the flavor of rancid or spoiled meat. Basil, mint, sage, rosemary and thyme cold be grown in family herb gardens in Europe along with medicinal plants. Among the the spices and seasonings that came from the East--affordable to merchants and burghers but not ordinary people--were pepper, cloves, mace and cumin. Ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and saffron--the most valuable of spices from the East--were worth more than their weight in gold.

Pepper, one of the spices that Columbus was looking for when he landed in the America in 1492, had been coming to Europe along the Silk Road at least since Roman times, when many Roman cookbook recipes called for pepper. In the A.D. first century, the satirist Persius wrote:

"....The greedy merchants, led by lucre, run To the parch'd Indies and the rising sun From thence hot Pepper and rich Drugs they bear, Bart'ring for Spices their Italian ware... "

Spices and the Spice Islands

"Cloves" were the most valuable early spice. They originated from the islands of Ternate, Tidore and Bacan in the Mollucca group in Indonesia. Before the birth of Christ, visitors to the Han Dynasty court in China were only permitted to address the emperor if their breath has been sweetened with “odoriferous pistols”---Javanese cloves. Because of limited geographical range cloves didn’t make their way to Europe until around the first century of the Roman empire. They were introduced by Arab traders who controlled the trade of many spices to Europe.

During the early byzantine times and the Middle Ages, Chinese, Arab and Malay traders purchased "nutmeg" in what is now Indonesia and Southeast Asia and carried it in boats to the Persian Gulf or by camel and pack animal on the Silk Road. From the Gulf the spices made their way to byzantine Constantinople and Damascus and eventually Europe.

Successively, for a long time the same spice trade was controlled by north Moloccan sultanates, name Ternate, founded in 1257, and Tidore, founded in 1109. Both were based on small islands and often fought among themselves. Their most valuable crop was cloves. Protecting their kingdoms were fleets of kora-kora, war canoes manned by over 100 rowers. The sultans relied on Malay, Arab and Javanese merchants to distribute their goods.


Cloves are the dried, unopened flower buds of the cenkeh, or clove tree, an evergreen tree related to myrtle. Grown primarily in Indonesia, Zanzibar and the West Indies, cloves are about a half inch long with a knob at one end with unopened pedals. The word "cloves" is derived from the French word for nail, chou, a reference to the cloves shape.

Strongly aromatic and sweetly pungent, cloves are used as a flavoring and scent for mulled wines, chewing gum, perfumes, toothpaste and Indonesian cigarettes. The oil of cloves, derived by distillation with water, has antiseptic properties and is an ingredient in soaps, ointments and drugs. Synthetic vanilla is made from eugenol an ingredient of clove oil. Cloves are a key ingredient in the British "Worcestershire sauce". In the past they were prescribed as cure for toothache, bad breath and a low sex drive.

Cloves originated from Ternate, Tidore and Bacan, Indonesian islands in the Moluccas. They were mentioned by the Chinese in 400 B.C. During the Han dynasty Chinese were permitted to address their emperor only once their breath has been sweetened with “odoriferous pistols”---a reference to cloves. Cloves were delivered to the Romans by Arab traders and later were prized as a medicament also in medieval times.


Nutmeg is the bright red and black kernel (seed) of a yellow, edible, apricot-like fruit from the nutmeg tree, a large evergreen, native to the Moluccas (the "Spice Islands" in Indonesia). The "filmy" red membrane of fruit that coats the nut is the source of mace, another spice which has a flavor quite different from nutmeg. The nutmeg kernel is an unreal-looking red color that looks hand painted.

Nutmeg takes very little effort to grow. Life was good and easy the islanders that raised it. They had do little but watch the nutmeg grow, collect it from trees and take out the nuts and trade them for food, cloth and all the things they needed with Chinese, Malay, Arab and Bugi spice traders. There was competition between Muslims and Chinese over control of the Indonesian spice trade during the Middle Ages.

Nutmeg itself is poisonous. Only a small amount of it should be eaten. The flavor and fragrance comes from myristica, a mild, poisonous narcotic. Other chemicals are similar to those found in the rave drug ecstacy. Nutmeg has historically been a hypnotic agent. Some people take it to get high. Large amounts can induce hallucinations, epileptic-style seizures and even death. Some 80 percent of the word's nutmeg still comes from Indonesia. Wild nutmeg trees still grow in the forest of Butu and other islands in the Spice Islands.

A Roman merchant ship for ocean trade


In 2nd century AD Egypt, Claudius Ptolemy put the extent of the known world onto paper. From his home in Alexandria, he gathered reports from sailors who had made perilous journeys to India and possibly beyond. Though details were sparse, a voyager named Alexander described a distant port called "Cattigara" on the Sinus Magna (Great Gulf) to the east of the "Golden Chersonese peninsula" – widely considered to be mainland Malaysia (https://books.google.com/books?id=4W5tBQAAQBAJ&pg=PT357&lpg=PT357&dq=romans+in+cattigara&source=bl&ots=pty3ZOqMCu&sig=ACfU3U0tJ_20kXh4r4RmlWL0aJnUJldN-A&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjm5PzEw7fjAhXXWM0KHQsaCRk4ChDoATAEegQIBRAB#v=onepage&q=romans%20in%20cattigara&f=false.)

Halfway across the world around the same time, the bustling seaport "Oc Eo" (located in modern Vietnam’s An Giang province near the Cambodian border) was part of the flourishing "Funan Kingdom", the earliest known pre-Angkorian civilisation and origin of the earliest Khmer-language inscriptions.

Excavation at Oc Eo suggests it was a major centre for international maritime trade: many academics believe it is Cattigara. Unearthed jewellery, pottery statues, coins and gold pieces – including depictions of Hindu deities and Sanskrit inscriptions – indicate busy trade with the Indian subcontinent. The remains found at Óc Eo also include tools, casts for making jewelry and religious statues. Among the finds are gold jewellery imitating coins from the Roman Empire of the Antonine period. Furthermore Roman golden medallions from the reign of Antoninus Pius, and possibly his successor Marcus Aurelius, have been discovered at Óc Eo, which was near Chinese-controlled Jiaozhou and the region where Chinese historical texts claim the Romans first landed before venturing further into China to conduct diplomacy in 166 AD.

Most curious and interesting, however, are the 2nd century AD Roman coins, found by French archaeologist Louis Malleret, who is credited with discovering the archaeological site in 1942.

However, while certainly one of Vietnam’s most important archaeological sites, it is not sure that Oc Eo was Ptolemy’s Cattigara. But it is possible that Roman mariners could have travelled there and encountered Cambodia’s ancient ancestor. This notion was even suggested by the late George Coedes, arguably the most influential historian of ancient Southeast Asia.

“Funan may even have been the terminus of voyages from the Eastern Mediterranean, if it is the case that the Cattigara mentioned by Ptolemy was situated on the western coast of Indochina on the Gulf of Siam,” he wrote in a 1964 article from the Journal of Southeast Asian History.

An important account of Romans in Southeast Asia can be found in the "Hou Hanshu", an official Chinese history compiled by the courts of the Liu Song dynasty in the 5th century AD. The document states that Roman sailors arrived in 166 AD at Rinan – located in modern day northcentral Vietnam – with gifts of ivory and tortoise shells for the Chinese who then ruled the area. The meeting, reads the document, was the first instance of direct communication between the two empires.

But it has yet to be fully demonstrated whether Romans directly met the peoples of East and Southeast Asia or only picked up scattered titbits and artefacts via intermediaries.

However a nice Roman green glass cup (ca. 220 AD) was discovered in a tomb of Guangxi, near northern Vietnam

Cattigara, said professor Miriam Stark, a specialist in the Funan period at the University of Hawaii, could have been as far south as Sumatra or Borneo according to modern peer-reviewed scholarship on the subject.

“I can’t say that Oc Eo (or even the Mekong delta more generally) was the Cattigara that Ptolemy describes,” said Stark in an email, adding that archeologists have yet to find firm evidence confirming Cattigara’s location.

Concordance with multiple sources, she said, was also lacking, and the Roman coins unearthed at Oc Eo were of dubious provenance because Malleret mostly purchased them from locals rather than excavating them himself.

However Oc Eo’s importance in contemporary maritime trade along the Gulf of Thailand, the discovered Roman relics and Ptolemy’s description are compelling evidences in favour of the theory that Cattinara was a trading port for Roman merchants. Furthermore, Sinologists and modern scholars have also come to the consensus that any Roman peoples visiting the Orient east of India-Ceylon were most likely merchants, not official diplomats or military soldiers.

In Cambodia (in Angkor Borei, not far away from Oc Eo) in 1993 have been found a dozen Roman coins ranging from the first to the fourth century (from Augustus to Valenus). But it is very difficult to understand if these coins arrived there in ancient times or -centuries later- in the Middle Ages.

Finally, in the central region of Thailand where there were settlements built next to the waterways which flowed into the Gulf of Siam. Archeological evidence attests the entry of foreign merchants into this region. There are, for example, terracotta figurines from the sites of Khu Bua to Ratchaburi Province, depicted as having long noses and wearing head-dresses resembling those of Roman and Middle Eastern merchants. At U Thong, an imitation of a Roman coin from the reign of Emperor Victorius was found dating between 259 – 210 AD is considered to have been brought in from the west by seamen, but the insufficient amount of archeological data from the location of the port cannot be established.

To the west of Thailand, in Myanmar (called also "Burma" or "Birmania") in 2017 were excavated the sites of Aw Gyi and Maliwan at the south of Thanintaryi region. These are the first ever Silk Road ports to be researched in Myanmar, and they are amongst the oldest in South-East Asia, with occupations from some centuries BC until Roman empire centuries. There are many archeological evidences of roman commerce in these ports, mainly amphorae remains (read https://www.mmtimes.com/news/se-asias-earliest-maritime-silk-road-ports-found-myanmar.html).

Of course, some ancient merchants from the Roman empire may have traveled as far as China in search of profitable commerce. Given that the voyage to India was relatively commonplace in the first century AD, it seems more than plausible that a few sailed further east than Indochina and southeast Asia.

This is supported by chinese court records, that detail visit by Roman traders to Southeast Asia and China. The most famous of these accounts is found in the "Hou Han-Shou", or Annals of the Later Han Dynasty, a far eastern source compiled in the fifth century C.E. by Fan Yeh of the Sung Dynasty (420-477 C.E.). These annals, which cover the period between 23 C.E. and 220 C.E., record that in 166 C.E. an embassy from king An-tun from Ta-chʻin (alternately Ta-ts’in) arrived from Annam (Vietnam) and sent gifts of ivory, rhinoceros horn, and tortoiseshell to the Han court. Ta-chʻin, or Ta-ts’in, has been identified by Friedrich Hirth as the Chinese name for the Roman Empire and An-tun as the Chinese rendering of Antonius. Ferguson additionally comments that the term Ta-ts’in was generally applied to mean those from the Mediterranean and underscores this as applicable to the Seleucid kingdom, to Nabataean traders, to the Egyptian empire of Alexandria, and to Rome and all its domain.

T-chuan, i.e. “traditions regarding Western Countries,” part of the Hou Han-Shou, contains a description of the westernmost countries described in Chinese literature prior to the Ming dynasty. Mentions of storax, glass, and precious stone architectural ornaments, foreign ambassadors, and dangerous road conditions with tigers and lions causing travelers to resort to caravans, suggested to Hirth that Ta-ts’in was not Rome itself, but one of its eastern provinces. Historian Hirth further presumed from such records that goods went by Chinese junks from Annam to Taprobanê, or the coast of Malabar, whence they were shipped to the Red Sea. This account may provide evidence of Roman merchant activity in the area of Southeast Asia, and such activity is additionally attested in later Chinese records.

The Liang shu, which chronicles some of the events of the period following the collapse of the Han Dynasty in 220 C.E., records that in 226 C.E. Chi’in Lun, a merchant from Ta-chʻin, arrived in Chiao-chih (the Han province of northern Vietnam) and was sent on to the court of the Wu Emperor at Nanjing. Although the work’s compilation in the later seventh century C.E. renders its accuracy about events some 400 years earlier somewhat questionable, it is still worth mentioning here. These same annals indicate that merchants from Ta chʻin were active in parts of Cambodia and Vietnam.

As pinpointed before, discoveries of Roman coins & gold medallions at the trading port of Oc-eo, near Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, give greater credibility to Chinese and Roman sources that speak of Roman trading activity in Southeast Asia, especially in the second century C.E. Recent finds of Mediterranean artifacts in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia further support contact between these areas and the Roman empire.

Historian Young ( Young, Gary K. - "Rome's Eastern Trade: International Commerce and Imperial Policy 31 BC - AD 305" ) wrote that in the Antonine period and later, some Roman traders may have begun to journey further than India and Sri Lanka and launched a huge trading activity in the region of Indo-China and perhaps as far as China, although such contacts were “presumably rare.”

Of course there are some good books and researches about the commerce of Roman merchants in the Eurasian trade networks, like the one of M. Galli (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S187936651630032X#f0010)


1) A Roman colony in southern India ( https://researchomnia.blogspot.com/2019/03/a-roman-colony-in-southern-india.html )
2) Romans in Tanzania ( https://researchomnia.blogspot.com/2015/10/romans-in-azaniaraphta.html )