Friday, March 8, 2019

Fascinating but flawed.

Anyone doing a historical political or trading game should have this in ther Appendix N.

   A well written account of the foreign trade of the Roman Empire through Egypt and the Red Sea. It explores the products associated with it's trading partners, the difficulties merchants faced in obtaining these products and the internal and external taxation policies effecting foreign trade.
While concentrating on the goods obtained from East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian subcontinent, it book also includes valuable information on balm from Judea, the Nile to Red Sea caravan route supporting the Indian Ocean trade and the Roman trade goods sent to the east.
   Well organized, the book starts with tables of common abbreviations, comparisons of Greek, Egyptian, and Roman currencies and estimate of Roman government expenditures, especially the costs of maintaining the legions. He follows this up with an enlightening description of the various trade routes before moving into chapters discussing the trade with the individual regions and countries. He relies mostly on Pliny and the Periplus of Erythean Sea for these areas, but adds insights from a number of modern secondary sources, as well as nuggets of information and colorful illustrations from other sources from antiquity, such as Martial, Philostratus and Strabo. The book ends with a brief discussion of the Antonin embassy to China, the authors conclusions and appendices showing the author's economic calculations.
   His overall thesis is that many of the Roman provinces, such as Gaul and Britania did not produce enough tax revenue to support the legions stationed within their bounds. That these local shortfalls were made up by taxation on foreign trade. That the foreign trade was imbalanced in that Rome was exporting bullion acquired from previous conquests and mining in exchange for luxury consumables and that the foreign trade collapsed due to running out of bullion and this in turn caused the collapse of or significantly contributed to the collapse of the Empire.
   McLaughlin is a gifted author who writes in a clear, engaging style. He takes what could easily be a dry scholarly dissertation and creates a readable narrative, supported by copious footnotes. I find that his conclusion, while plausible, is not convincing for a number of reasons.
   First is a stylistic reason concerning his footnotes. There are many, but he only uses the an abbreviation of the name of the work, never including the edition nor in the case of sources from Antiquity, the translation if he used them. This makes researching his footnotes a matter of deduction and selecting an edition and translation. For example, the very first footnote is simply Res Gesta, 15. I can infer that he means the funeral inscription of the Emperor Augustus - Res Gesta Div Augusti, as opposed to the Res Gestae of Ammianus Marcellinus or other such works. I used the translation available at the Internet Classics Archive (
   While this might seem minor, his whole conclusion rests on the statement “Pliny confirms over 100 million sesterces of Roman bullion was exported from the Empire every year.” The footnote supporting that statement reads Pliny 12.41. Now, we can infer that by Pliny, McLaughlin means Pliny the Elder Natural History as the likely reference. Looking up editions we find that Henry T Riley's translation (H. G. Bohn, 1855) is available at and Philomon Holland's 1601 translation (Desfontaines, Paris, 1829) is available at . Holland's translation can not be the source of the assertion, as he does not have 41 chapters in Book 12. Now in Riley's translation we find Pliny writes “At the very lowest computation, India, the Seres, and the Arabian Peninsula, withdraw from our empire one hundred millions of sesterces every year “, looking for a similar statement in Holland's translation we find Book 12, Chapter 18 “ India, the Seres, and that demy-Iland of Arabia, standeth us at the least in an hundred millions of Sesterces, and so much fetch they from us in good money“. This one does mention money, which would have included bullion in it's composition, but what is the original Latin text? From bibleotheca Augusta ( we find : “minimaque computatione miliens centena milia sestertium annis omnibus India et Seres et paeninsula illa imperio nostro adimunt” Which tracks with Riley's translation much better than Holland's.
   “Sesterium” referring to money would indicate the large brass coins worth ¼ of a silver Denarius or 1/100 of a gold Aureus. However it's most common use in Latin literature is as a unit of accounting, indicating value. As brass is not an alloy of precious metals, then assuming it to refer to the coin itself would not support McLaughlin's conclusion. As a unit of accounting, we then need to determine if goods other than silver and gold coins were exported from Rome. And the author helpfully supplies us with multiple references to the export of red coral, wool and grain to India. Thi conclusively disproves the author's interpolation of bullion into Pliny's statement. While gold and silver coins, particularly the high quality early imperial coins were used for commerce, we are unable to demonstrate the proportion of the trade value they accounted for. Therefore, we can nly conclude that McLaughlin's contention is plausible, not certain.
   One other flaw, that contributes to taking a close look at his conclusion is his unquestioning use of the legendary Syracusia as an example of the technology available and used by Roman merchant ships. Our source for information about the Syracusa is Athenaeus of Naucratis text Deipnosophistae ( – also known as the world's first cookbook. It recounts a series of tales told at banquets; in the case of the Syracusia or Hieron's ship; it is told third hand repeating a tale told by a man named Moschion.
   Now the Deipnosophistae was written in the early third century AD and Hieron lived in the early third century BC; so any information has passed down generations before it was written down. What caught my attention was the description of a device called a raven “ iron ravens, as they were called, all round the ship, which, being shot forth by engines, seized on the vessels of the enemy, and brought them round so as to expose them to blows “; I immediately recognized the term and knew it to be wrong. For the raven or corvus was a Roman invention from the Punic Wars described clearly by Polybius as a hinged gangplank with a spike on the end that was dropped on enemy ships in order to facilitate boarding by Roman infantry. Quite sensible in galley based sea battles – completely useless as a defense against pirates as McLaughlin postulates. The last thing a merchant wants to do is attach his vessel with a pirate ship full of armed men. I then started looking at the description of the ship itself and started laughing at the idea of towers with rocks and weights to drop down on other ships, as well as gardens and tile roofed pavilions on the deck – for so much weight above the waterline will raise reduce the stability of the vessel and increase the risk of capsizing. As happened with the Vasa in 1628. The ship was said to have been built in two sections which were launched separately – unlikely but possible. I served on the USS Tarawa (LHA-1) which was constructed in that manner and had a step in the middle of the passageway where the builder had misaligned the decks. Having been launched separately, by necessity it would have needed to be moored somewhere while the halves were joined, yet Athenaeus goes on to relate that the ship was too large for an harbor in Sicily so it was given to Ptolomey in Egypt. I've seen two estimates for the size of the ship 55 or 110 meters; I've also driven an Anchorage class LSD (169 meters) into Syracuse. The Grand Harbor although less sheltered than the little harbor, has always been of ample size. The more sheltered little harbor is still almost 500 meters from it's base to the current breakwater. Such uncritical acceptance by the author detracts from the work.
   I've pointed out the flaws in the book, but it's still a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the Roman Empire and I recommend it as a launching point into the sources so the reader can draw their own conclusions.