Oxford Roman Economy Project University of Oxford

Terpstra: Roman trade with the Far East - Evidence for Nabataean middlemen in Puteoli


Roman trade with the Far East - Evidence for Nabataean middlemen in Puteoli
Dr. Taco Terpstra, Colombia University.
2012 AIA Annual Meeting (Philadelphia)
Session 7A, January 8, 2012, 8:30 EST

Puteoli, a major Italian harbor town serving Rome, was an important port for trade with the East. It was a central hub for the Alexandrian grain fleet, but apart from grain, high-value goods such as Tyrian purple dye arrived there too. The town probably also saw the movement of products from areas further afield and from outside the Empire: spices, silk, and frankincense from Arabia, China, and India. However, in contrast to Pompeii – where excavations uncovered an Indian ivory statuette representing a voluptuous nude female figure – Puteoli has not yielded such direct evidence for connections with the Far East. Indirect evidence, on the other hand, does exist.

A small but significant body of inscriptions from the Greek world and from Italy provides evidence for trade routes to the West maintained by Nabataeans. These Nabataean merchants likely functioned as middlemen, bringing commodities from the Far East to the markets of the Roman Empire. This paper will investigate this evidence, concentrating most of all on the position of the Nabataean community in Puteoli. The paper will argue that the members of this community served as agents in a commercial supply network that spanned an enormous distance and that facilitated east-west trade.

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