By Jeremey Simmons

Humans first sailed regularly upon the Indian Ocean roughly 5,000 years ago. They continued to brave the waves over millennia through coastal skips and open sailing with the monsoon winds. By the early centuries of the Common Era, the ocean supported a host of human activity, including individuals from the eastern Mediterranean, Arabian Peninsula, and Indian subcontinent. Despite its perils, maritime travel proved faster and more cost-effective than equivalent overland routes—it was a major contributor to interregional integration in the premodern world.

There are hurdles to understanding human engagement with the Indian Ocean in antiquity. A veritable diversity of evidence linked to maritime activity has been discovered in differing concentrations from the Mediterranean to the South China Sea: literary, papyrological, archaeological, epigraphic, and numismatic. Other issues are historiographic in nature. Scholarship has often proved contentious, representative of colonial, postcolonial, and, more recently, nationalist attitudes. Just who controlled the trade at various points in antiquity holds an oversized importance—was it the Romans? Greeks? Arabians? Indians? In fact, the monsoon reigned supreme, dictating seasonal movement across the sea for all.

My research aims to provide a more nuanced approach to this seascape—a view from the commodities traded across its shores, and the rippling patterns of consumption and industries that contribute to or arise from their importation. Such an approach, making use of anthropological discussions of objects and modes of exchange as well as recent advances in ancient economic history, can expand our understanding of how stable long-distance trade networks enabled wider access to imported products by certain sets of the population in antiquity than previously assumed.

Two case-studies—Roman coins in the Indian subcontinent and Indian Ocean spices throughout the Mediterranean world—demonstrate this quite nicely. They participate in nuanced negotiations between different value-systems within new socio-cultural environments. For instance, spices run up against the heated semantics of luxury in Roman satirical works, all the while serving essential roles in religious rites and a host of medicines. They also inspire imitative industries (e.g., Roman coin medallions produced in India), reflecting how local craftsmen adapt and successfully cater to demand for the real McCoy. If we listen closely, the commodities themselves speak to a multidirectional, multicultural affair—an Afro-Eurasian world linked by sea.

During my time at ISAW, I plan to build upon research I conducted in India, the UK, and Italy thanks to the American Institute of Indian Studies, the Social Science Research Council, and the American Academy in Rome. I am hoping to expand into new commodities (e.g., wine, glass, and semiprecious stones), as well as new areas of focus (e.g., southern Arabia and the Persian Gulf). I am particularly excited to engage more fully with digital tools to model the interrelated phenomena of transoceanic commerce. Such tools are ideally suited to demonstrating how the trade changes over time due to variables such as climate change. Moreover, they can create more accessible platforms for consulting diverse evidence, such as the graffiti of traders, composed in a host of ancient languages, which line the routes from the Indian Ocean littoral to inland commercial centers.

Read more about Jeremy Simmons here.