Born in Pontus, in Turkey, in 64 BCE, this aristocratically connected young Greek, who spent much of his life in Rome and travelling the Roman Empire, was conspicuously well educated. As well has having extraordinarily good connections both in Rome, and throughout the burgeoning Empire.
His interest to any student of the history of Bangladesh revolves, particularly, around his ‘Rerum Geographicarum’, completed probably in about 17CE, during the reign of Tiberius.
In his discourses he states: ‘Regarding these merchants who now sail from Egypt...as far as the Ganges, they are only private citizens and they are of no use regarding the history of the places they have seen’.
That the merchants who travelled to the Ganges Delta should be ‘only private citizens’ is unsurprising; Augustus Caesar was one of the first rulers to pass a ‘Sumptuary Law’, forbidding the wearing of silk in Rome.
Strabo’s dismissiveness of ‘private citizens’, who were, basically not to be relied upon for information, may also not be surprising given his very strong academic background. Much travelled himself, to a degree (including visits to Egypt, Ethiopia, the Mediterranean, and the Near East); his own experience meant he brought meticulous research to his writing, certainly an early example of excellent academic publication.
|Map of the world according to Strabo|
We know, from the ‘Periplus of the Erythraean Sea’, published perhaps 25 years after Strabo, that one of the attractions of the Ganges Delta to traders was raw silk from what the merchants believed was, ‘the inland city of Thina’. Clearly, Strabo was right to suspect the information of such merchants, if they understood the source of their silk to be an inland city!
The Roman Empire’s concern with silk was largely due to the drain of such trade on the economy. In a prescient echo of the 21st Century perhaps, historians have assessed that China, under the Han Emperors, were doing a brisk and successful business selling silk, which was cheap for them to produce, at a high premium, thereby transferring the wealth of Rome to the coffers of China.
It is clear that awareness of the wealth and opportunities for trade in the Ganges was, indeed, widespread in the ancient world; Strabo, just one of many clarifying that knowledge.