- Dominic W. Rathbone
The “Muziris” papyrus (PVindob. G40822) provides unique details about the trade between Roman Egypt and India. It was purchased in 1980 for the Austrian National Library, and first published in 1985, and has been much discussed since then.1 Its provenance is unknown, but was probably middle Egypt. It preserves parts of two texts, one on its front (recto) and one on its back (verso), written in two different hands which have both been assigned to the middle decades of the 2nd century ce.
The first text is part of a contract, from near the contract’s end, between a merchant (“I” in the text) and a financier (“you”), who was apparently based in Alexandria; this contract accompanied a separate contract between them for a maritime loan “to Muziris.”2 Muziris was a port in the Malabar region of soutwest India (Kerala), which Periplus of the Red Sea, ch.56, from the mid-1st-century ce, says was visited by large ships from Egypt to acquire pepper and malabathrum (a cinnamon-like plant, whose leaves were pressed to make a perfume), and also pearls, ivory, silk, nard, and gemstones. The financier will have made the maritime loan, or perhaps loans, to the merchant to finance the round trip from Alexandria to Muziris and back, including purchase of an outward cargo (if any) and the return cargo, and all the transport costs of the trip. The extant part of this contract specifies that the merchant is to hire camels to transport the cargo from the Red Sea port across the eastern desert to Koptos, and then have it shipped up the Nile to Alexandria. At Kopto’s the cargo is to be stored in the fiscal warehouse, and at Alexandria in the warehouse for levying the “quarter-tax” (tetarte), the 25% customs levy on imports across the eastern frontiers of the Roman empire. The contract then gives the financier or his agents the option, if the merchant does not repay the loan by the due date, to take ownership of the cargo, pay the quarter-tax and sell it, or to buy it from the merchant at the current price, on condition that any cash surplus to repayment of the loan is returned to the merchant. The text then breaks off, but must be near its end.
One unresolved problem is why this contract, whose terms are those of a maritime loan, refers to a separate contract of loan for the trip. Some scholars think that separate loans and contracts were made for different stages of the trip, and that this contract was for the return leg from Muziris or from the Red Sea port; another possibility is that this was a standard “template,” with the specific details for this trip recorded in a separate document. In any case the text shows how wealthy men of Alexandria could invest in trade with India without direct involvement in any of the organisational infrastructure. That was provided by independent shipowners, camel-drivers, dockers, and so on, and the costs of hiring them created a trickle-down effect from the profits of this trade. The merchant was the entrepreneur who had to organise all the practicalities. It is presumably because his knowledge and skills were so vital that the terms for default after the due date, which are more generous than those for normal debts, oblige the financier, if he took possession of the cargo, to pay to the merchant any surplus profit he made after deducting repayment of the loan and its interest.
The text on the back of the fragment has what is probably the last column, and also end traces of the penultimate column, of a record of the levy of the quarter-tax on a cargo imported on a ship called the Hermapollon, and a cash valuation of the remaining three quarters of the cargo. Scholars agree that this relates to the outcome of a trading trip similar, if not identical, to the one arranged in the contract on the front. However, they do not yet agree on the purpose of the valuation. Some have taken it to record the levy of the quarter-tax, but re-reading of the penultimate column has shown that the levy was recorded prior to the valuation, and that it was made in kind; for most items, this was done by weight, but for nard, a quarter of the boxes holding it were taken. Some adjustment of the amounts levied was made because of a difference between the equivalence to the Roman pound of the so-called weight-standard “of the merchants” and that of the collectors, but this has no agreed explanation yet. The valuation may be the merchant’s final record for himself of the income he had received from gradual sale of the cargo, or possibly, it records the option mentioned in the contract on the front, that the financier could, if not repaid by the due date, purchase the whole cargo from the merchant at the current price.
The cargo comprised five goods, some of whose identities and gross weights (before the quarter-tax) are preserved or can be calculated: the second unknown good weighed over 50 tonnes; the third good, possibly pepper, some 140 tonnes; fourth came 80 boxes of nard; last were 167 elephant tusks weighing 3.3 tonnes and a further 0.5 tonnes of pieces of ivory. The Hermapollon was thus a very large ship of over 250 tonnes burden, capable of making the ocean crossing using the monsoon winds. The total value of the three-quarters of the cargo left after the levy was 6,911,852 drachmas, made up as follows: first unknown good, 2%; second unknown good, 20%; third good, possibly pepper, 67%; nard, 4%; ivory, 7%. In terms of contemporary wealth, the amount of 7 million Alexandrian drachmas was seven times the minimum wealth requirement for a senator of 1 million sesterces, and equivalent or more to the value of a premium estate in central Italy. Presumably, however, when shipped on from Alexandria and marketed at retail level in Rome and other cities, the goods would have sold for substantially higher prices. The Muziris papyrus thus documents the enormous financial scale of the trade between the Roman world and India, which the elder Pliny (NH 6.101) said drained 50 million sesterces a year from Rome, although the figure is restored and its validity uncertain.
- Morelli, Federico. “Dal Mar Rosso ad Alessandria: Il verso (ma anche il recto) del ‘papiro di Muziris’ (SB XVIII 13167).” Tyche 26 (2011): 199–233.
- Rathbone, Dominic W. “The Financing of Maritime Commerce in the Roman Empire, I–II AD.” In Credito e moneta nel mondo romano. Edited by Elio Lo Cascio, 197–229. Bari, Italy: Edipuglia, 2003.
- Tomber, Roberta. Indo-Roman Trade: From Pots to Pepper. London: Duckworth, 2008.
1. For corrections to the text and its meaning, see Federico Morelli. “Dal Mar Rosso ad Alessandria: il verso (ma anche il recto) del ‘papiro di Muziris’ (SB XVIII 13167).” Tyche 26 (2011): 199–233.
2. For the wider context, see Dominic W. Rathbone, “The Financing of Maritime Commerce in the Roman Empire, I–II AD,” in Credito e moneta nel mondo romano, ed. Elio Lo Cascio (Bari, Italy: Edipuglia, 2003), 197–229.