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L’influence de la mer dans l’Histoire : sixième table ronde

Textes et enregistrements audio des interventions sur : Commerce maritime (Président : Michel Balard) « Le commerce maritime et fluvial est-il le facteur clé de développement des civilisations ? »


Directeur de recherche, Université pontificale catholique, Argentine

Development of Maritime Trade in the Egyptian World during the Late Bronze Age

To what extent was maritime trade the key factor in the development of civilizations? What factors encouraged or hindered maritime trade in the Ancient Near East? Was access to and/or control of maritime trade a major factor in the economic development of different groups?

My essay analyzes the development of the maritime trade in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Late Bronze Age (ca 1570-1200 BCE) and the interconnections between Egypt and the states in Western Asia (Hatti, Mitanni, Babylon, Assyria, Alashiya/Cyprus and Canaan). Inter-regional trade in the Eastern Mediterranean played a major role in the growth of states, and their rulers began to realize the importance of diplomacy in order to guarantee the exchange of goods and to increase their benefits. The states were engaged in a complex political game, between “independence”, “interdependence” and “interaction” based networks. Trade routes connected centres and enclaves, which spread different cultural influences, including religion, metallurgy, tools, pottery, garments and food.

The Late Bronze Age is marked by important changes in the political and economic organization in the ancient Near East: a) a rise in urbanization and political development, and b) an increase in inter-regional interconnections in the Eastern Mediterranean, facilitated by maritime contacts. There are multiple levels of political and economic interactions between centers in the Eastern Mediterranean, which involved the transfer of bulk goods and manufactures to and from the Aegean, Egypt, the Syro-Canaanite coast, Cyprus and Anatolia. Egypt lacked the majority of resources (such as timber, resins, wine, olive oil, and silver), which were obtained from regions outside the borders of the country or beyond in the “unknown world”.

During the New Kingdom in Egypt, under the Thutmoside pharaohs (XVth century BCE), Egypt architected a structure of economic administration which enabled it to control the Levantine corridor, which was necessary for the passage of its armies, goods and messengers. The Egyptian state obtained its goods and raw materials mainly through the capture of booty, plunder, tribute and obligatory gifts. The status of a merchant was that of a palace dependent and the trade operations were financed by the royal court.

During the Amarna Period (XIVth century BCE), important changes occurred in the politico-economic structures of the Levant. The complex diplomatic and economic contacts included political alliances and the exchange of gifts between the great kings through an intricate chain of messenger-merchants, who travelled between the various courts. These contacts established a balance of power in the Levant and new spheres of interstate interaction based on an exchange of metals, grain, prestige goods and pack-animals. Economic exchanges were embedded in an overall standardized pattern of high-level diplomatic interactions, whose customary metaphor was that of “brotherhood” and “friendship”.

The evidence provided by submarine archaeology suggests the coexistence of royal deliveries of metals and prestige goods from palaces and small enterprises by independent merchants. The wealthy cargo of the Uluburun ship (ca 1300 BCE) indicates that it was probably part of a royal delivery from a Levantine ruler to another in the Aegean. Alternatively, it may have been an enterprise organized by a group of merchants (a new elite), one whose social relations and operations extended beyond the palace. It carried items from eight cultures (Nubian, Egyptian, Canaanite, Kassite, Assyrian, Cypriot, Mycenaean and Eastern European), principally raw materials (copper and tin ingots, glass, ivory, ebony, and resins), but also finished products (jewellery, pottery, and seals).

During the XIIIth century BCE, drastic changes occurred in the politico-economic structures of the Levant. Egyptian centrality was affected by the surrounding pluralistic world. The relationship with the palace underwent some changes, and the merchants enlarged their private activities in order to increase their own profit. The Cape Gelidonya ship (ca 1200 BCE) seems to represent a small trading vessel crewed by a group of seafarers and independent merchants (sub-elite), perhaps with a bronze smith on board. This ship could have served both as a carrier of metals and as a sort of itinerant smithy. The cargo consisted of the ingredients for making bronze implements: scrap bronze tools from Cyprus, intended to be recycled; and ingots of copper and tin meant to be mixed to form new bronze. This boat would have followed a counter-clockwise way, bordering the Eastern Mediterranean coast, from a port in the Levant (in Syria or Cyprus), towards the Aegean.

Between ca 1250-1150 BCE, the stable and prosperous states and kingdoms of the late Second Millennium BCE all collapsed, one after another: those of the Hittites, Egyptians, Assyrians, Kassites, the kingdoms of Syria-Canaan, the citadels of Troy and Mycenaean Greece and the city-states of Cyprus. Two (or more) separate causes were intertwined in these upheavals: the collapse of states and empires and the movements of the so-called Sea Peoples.

In conclusion, the exchange of goods contributed to the reorganization of the Egyptian state. The maintenance of the socio-economic system depended on the income of raw materials and prestige goods (wood, resins, silver and precious stones). Since the majority of these goods entered Egypt through the Levantine corridor, the state implemented diverse control mechanisms, from coercive methods (including sacking, tribute and corvée), to a general warming up of diplomatic ties in a new age of brotherhood between Egypt and its peer powers. In general, the transactions and prices were regulated by the states through their merchants. Nevertheless, several texts provide evidence for the existence of merchants involved in both state and private transactions, carrying out their businesses for their own economic profit.

Egypt's varied and consistent involvement in Mediterranean trade reveals a policy conducted to maintain the Egyptian state and its sphere of influence in the Levant, and reflects the importance of the Mediterranean for the exchange of goods and communications between Late Bronze Age societies.


Serguey KARPOV

Doyen de la faculté d’histoire, Université M.V. Lomonosov, Moscou, Russie

I shall speak mainly about the Black Sea region in the Middle Ages.

            To my mind, maritime commerce was essential for European economy, but also for existence and for survival of the civilizations and state powers located around the Black Sea area in the Middle Ages. Connections between coastal areas and inland were hindered by the mountainous barriers and were more difficult than links between ports. In addition, inland areas of Anatolia from the 11th century onwards and of the Northern Black Sea during the whole period were occupied or controlled by chiefly nomadic tribes or powers as the Cumans, Turks or Tatars, while coastal areas belonged to sedentary civilizations, as Byzantium, for example.

From the economic point of view, maritime trade provided missing vital products for the coastal towns. Northern Black Sea ports imported wine, alums, spices, silk and cotton, luxury goods, while Southern ports imported salt, fish (mainly sturgeon), caviar, furs, grain and so on. It was a supplementary trade based on interdependence of the economies of the opposite shores of the sea, and local civilizations simply could not subsist without it.

From the epochs of the Greek colonization, of the Hellenistic monarchies (as the Pontic kingdom of Mithridates), of the Roman Empire and Byzantium all the named great powers had belongings or territories on the opposite, Northern and Southern, coasts of the Black sea. Maritime connections were the only linkage between them and the only way to transfer not only commodities, but also spiritual values and productive experience. Even more, mainly due to maritime connections the Black Sea zones were integrated into great Mediterranean civilization.

Autres questions annexes :

Quels facteurs ont favorisé ou empêché le commerce maritime au cours de l'Antiquité et du Moyen Age ?

During the Roman and Byzantine periods, up to 1204, the Black Sea was to a certain extent, a closed sea for the foreigners, and the main difficulty in sailing were of natural, geographical origin. Of course, piracy seemed to be an obstacle, but it could be controlled or even annihilated by great powers. The situation changed dramatically in the 13th century, when Crusaders disintegrated Byzantium, when great Mongol Empires came into existence and Italian maritime republics, Genoa and Venice, created their settlements in the terminals of trade routes situated on the Black Sea and Azov Sea shores, as Caffa (Theodosia), Soldaia (Sudak), Tana (Azov), Trebizond and many other minor stations. Rivalry of the republics led to big military conflicts between them, equally existed a frequent confrontation of Italians with local powers (Byzantium, the Empire of Trebizond or even the Golden Horde, for example). All that created an atmosphere of rivalry and sometimes of open hostility. Nevertheless, Italian seaborne trade was of great importance for European economy as a whole, importing essential products and vitals, delivered both by long distance caravan trade with the East, and by the Black Sea areas, as grain and sturgeon, for example. Piracy, especially of the Turkic emirate of Sinope, added some troubles, but was suppressed mainly from the mid-14th century mostly due to the Genoese. Major troubles caused the great international crisis of the mid-14th century with civil wars in the area, Black Death and disintegration of the former great Mongol empires, as the Golden Horde and the Ilkhanate. International maritime trade decreased many times in 1340-1360s and then was gradually redirected mostly to local wares of the area. All those changes affected also slave trade: slaves became more in demand and their prices in Western markets augmented considerably.

Quelle fut la relation entre piraterie et commerce ?

They were deeply interrelated. Wares captured by the pirates frequently appeared in the local markets and sometimes were even sold to the previous owners. Piracy seemed to be efficient while acting against singular vessels, not merchant fleets, and it was wider spread in the Aegean, with its many islands, then in the open Black Sea space. However, sea powers could and did support even private ships, while piracy was not dangerous at all for officially state regulated navigation of the convoys of merchant galleys, protected by military vessels, skilful archers aboard and acting under strict Communal operation, with meticulous instructions given to captains and patrons of the ships. More interesting is the phenomenon of corsairs.  In this case, the state itself authorized its citizens to act at their own discretion against rivals or enemies, having a patent to confiscate goods or values as an indemnity for some previous losses or abuses caused by alien officials or trade partners. It was the so called “droit de marque” or “droit de represailles”, right of retaliation. Such actions caused reflex response, could lead, and did lead to serious international controversies. Nevertheless, opposing such “partners” as the rulers of the Golden Horde, the government of the maritime republics preferred not to sanction such repressive rights against subjects of great khans, but to compensate commercial losses by other means (granting facilities in taxation, special privileges or awarding an income bringing position).

Dans quelle mesure le commerce maritime a-t-il favorisé l'essor économique ?

It was a matter of great importance for both long distance and local trade. Venetian galleys of Romania-the Black Sea in the 14th century, for example, brought cargoes valuing hundreds of thousands gold ducats each. Without alums brought by them, textile industry in the West simply could not exist at all. Only alums fixed dyes. Moreover, alums were chief antiseptics at that period. Without pepper or other spices, it was hardly possible to preserve meat. Grain, salt and fish brought from the Black Sea were badly needed, especially during frequent crop failures and starvations in the West. Economic growth was largely dependent on overseas trade and the 14th century crisis at once revealed this dependency, causing collapse of Italian banks and considerable jump in prices all over Europe. Crisis of maritime trade pushed general economic crisis and broke stability, causing many new conflicts. It seemed to be a match in a powder keg. Gradual reestablishment of maritime trade relations smoothed the crisis and prepared new economic growth of the 15th century.

L'accès et/ou le contrôle du commerce maritime a-t-il été un facteur majeur de l'essor économique de diverses communautés ou États ?

All communities, big and small, tried to control maritime trade and to take advantages out of it. Trade taxation was one of the greatest income items not only for maritime republics, but for local economies of the Black Sea towns as well. That is why the disputes concerning the level of commercial imposts, the kommerkioi, between Italian republics and the Golden Horde, the Ilkhanate or the Empire of Trebizond were so acute and significant. Any reduction or increase of a tax percent share stirred controversy and sometimes created military conflicts. We must take into consideration the fact that a big joint trade market linking medieval Europe and the Black Sea was created in the 13th-15th centuries due to international maritime trade. Even more, economically Italian Renaissance was sponsored and supported by maritime commerce.



Professeur d’histoire, Université de Salzburg, Autriche

Iranian and Arab Merchant Networks in Guangzhou during the Tang-Song, Transition (c. 750-1050)

I wish to address the contemporary role of Arab and Iranian merchants and networks – who, as I have argued elsewhere, may even be considered initiators of the era of maritime trade in China1 – for the rise of China’s maritime commerce.

Trade to the east was mainly carried on from Basra and Sīrāf by Iranian, Arab or Jewish merchants, “on Arab ships sailing to the ports of western India, or beyond; at one time they went as far as China, but after the tenth century they did not go further than ports of southeast Asia”, as Albert Hourani states. 2

As early as 671 we possess some definitive evidence of Persian seafarers in China: TheChinese Buddhist pilgrim Yijing 義淨 records that he met with the owner of a Persian ship at Canton to embark for the south. Another Chinese account from 727 describing Persian commercial activities states that Persians “sail in big craft to the country of Han [China], straight to Canton for silk pieces and like ware.”3 The Japanese monk Kanshin 鋻真 (Chin. Jianzhen) describes in his travel diary that he shipwrecked in southern Hainan in 748, where he encountered a local warlord who reportedly captured “two or three Persian ships” each year and enslaved their crews.4 We also know that Emperor Xuanzong 玄宗(750– 1258) particularly ordered his minister Zhang Jiuling 張九齡 (673–740) to open up the Dayuling pass in order to facilitate commercial transportation between Guangzhou and the hinterland and the inland provinces.5 Persian (Iranian) merchants consequently explicitly made their way to China in order to trade.

During Tang times, thus, especially after the rise of the Abbasids (750–1258) who controlled the trade routes in lower Iraq and Sīrāf on the Iranian coast of the Gulf, merchants from these regions were very active in the China trade. We know that the Abbasids greatly sponsored commercial relations with China and also maintained good political relations. Abū Ǧaʿfar ʿAbd Allāh ibn Muḥammad ibn ʿAlī al-Manṣūr (al-Manṣūr; 714–775; reg. 754–775 [136–158 AH], the second caliph of the Abbasids, emphasized as early as 762 when he laid the cornerstone for his future capital Baġdād: “This is the Tigris, and there will be no obstacle between us and China; everything on the sea can come to us on it.”6

At the same time, recent evidence – a tomb stele of a Chinese diplomat named Yang Liangyao 楊良瑤 (736–806), who was secretly sent to the court of the Abbasid Caliphate in 785 and reportedly took the sea route into the Persian Gulf – may show that also the Chinese emperor at that time actively engaged in diplomatic relations with the “great power in the West”, the Arabs.7 Sources also strongly indicate that the advisor of the then ruling emperor, Dezong 德宗 (Li Gua 李适; 742–805; r. 780–805), was planning the establish an alliance with the Uighurs, the kingdom of Nanzhao 南詔, India and the Arabs “as the most powerful country in the Western regions with a territory reaching from the Pamir to Western Sea, thus covering half of the known world” in order to contain the Tibetans.8

 At the same time, we possess an increasing number of archaeological relics, which attests to Iranian and Arab presence in China. Various turquoise blue-glazed ceramics shards have been excavated in Chinese port cities, most of which originally obviously served as containers not as commodities. The Chinese started to produce for the Arab market around that time. Tang kilns in the Hunanese city of Changsha were using imported Muslim ceramics as prototypes for the mass production of ceramics, including some with Arabic inscriptions, “expressly for [60] export to foreign Muslim markets through the port of Yangzhou.”9 Further archaeological evidence is provided by a recently discovered shipwreck with 60,000 ceramics pieces on board among them porcelain, celadon and stoneware from Changsha.10

The Huang Chao 黄巢 (?–884) rebellion forced many foreigners to migrate to other places in Southeast Asia, such as Champa (Vietnam), Thailand or the Malay Peninsula, such as Kalah (Kedah), which by the tenth century disposed of a significant Iranian and Muslim community. Kedah and Srivijaya (Chin. Sanfoqi 三佛齊) seem to have become the new stopover points between the Western and the Eastern Indian Ocean around that time. According to al-Mas’ūdi Kalah is the place where “nowadays” (i.e. middle of the tenth century) the ships from the Islamic world from Sīrāf and Oman meet with the Chinese.

 But the active promotion of maritime trade during the Nan Han 南漢 (917–971) period, certainly again attracted more foreigners including Arabs and Iranians to south China. Which role, however, did they exactly play in the rise and promotion of maritime trade of the Southern Han Kingdom – especially against the background that we have also evidence that the centre of the Arab and Iranian merchants networks gradually shifted to Srivijaya? Can the Intan wreck, found off South Sumatera in 1997, with a mixed cargo of Chinese ceramics and other artefacts, many of them made from metals and some of West Asian origin, suggest not only that the ship might have come from Srivijaya and perhaps even was a Srivijayan ship11, but that the driving force of Nan Han’s maritime development had shifted from Guangzhou to Srivijaya?

1 Schottenhammer, Angela. Das songzeitliche Quanzhou im Spannungsfeld zwischen Zentralregierun und maritimem Handel. Unerwartete Konsequenzen des zentralstaatlichen Zugriffs auf den Reichtumeiner Küstenregion. Münchener Ostasiatische Studien, 80. Stuttgart: Steiner 2002), 53-39, 57.

2 Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, with a new afterword by Marlise Ruthven (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002), 44.

3 Hourani, Arab Seafaring, 62.

4 J. Takakusu, “Aomi-no Mabito Genkai (779), Le voyage de Kanshin en Orient (742-754)”, Bulletin de l’Ecole Française d’Extrême Orient, Vol. 28 (1928), 462. See John Chaffee, Chapter I, 4.

5 Zhang Jiuling 張九齡 (673–740), “Kai Dayuling lu ji” 開大庾嶺路記, Quan Tangwen, 291.2950.

6 George F. Hourani, Arab Seafaring, 64, with reference to the history of Muḥammad ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabari (839– 923), Annales, ed. by M. J. de Goeie et al. (Leiden: 1879–1901), vol. 1, 272.

7 For details cf. Angela Schottenhammer, Yang Liangyaos Reise von 785 n.Chr. zum Kalifen von Bagdad. Eine Mission im Zeichen einer frühen sino-arabischen Mächte-Allianz? [Yang Liangyao’s Journey of 785 AD to the Caliph of Bagdad. A Mission on Behalf of an Early Sino-Arabic Power Alliance?] Gossenberg: Ostasien Verlag 2014. Reihe Gelbe Erde. 88.

8 Zizhi tongjian 233.1599.

9 Chen Dasheng, “Chinese Islamic Influence on Archaeological Finds in South Asia,” in South East Asia & China: Art, Interaction & Commerce, ed. by Rosemary Scott and John Guy, Colloquies on Art & Archaeology

in Asia, No. 17 (London: University of London Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, 1995), 59-60.

10 Krahl, Regina, John Guy, J. Keith Wilson und Julian Raby (Hg.), Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds (Washington, Singapore: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, National Heritage Board Singapore and

Singapore Tourism Board, 2010).

11 Denis Twitchett, Janice Stargardt. “Chinese Silver Bullion in a Tenth-century Indonesian Shipwreck,” Asia

Major, 3rd Series, vol.15 part 1 (2004), 23-72, here 60, 67.



Archéologue, Université de Naples, Italie

When we consider the history of Rome as the impressive domination of an ancient city over a big part of the world, we cannot overlook the importance of the sea, in the creation of that empire. The army, the legions, made possible a conquest of territories more and more distant from the centre of power, to the deserts of Asia and Africa, and the fog of the Finis Terrae or the frigid northern landscapes. The consequent establishment of a well-organized network of maritime trade routes, taking advantage of these conquests, was at the basis of the success and of the long duration of a millenary empire.

The Mediterranean, once the background of the first prehistoric expeditions, of the Greek colonization, of the Phoenician, Greek and Etruscan trades, became a Mare Nostrum, firmly kept  in the hands of Rome, crossed by an incredible amount of ships carrying goods to the huge population of the capital city, or to the needs of the soldiers.

When a rhetorician like Aelius Aristides would enumerate all the goods coming in great quantities from the four corners of the world into the markets of Rome, he marvelled that the sea had enough space for all the merchant vessels crossing it. If we want to see an archaeological transposition  of this scenery, we can just give a look to the Forum of Corporations in Ostia, with its 61 ‘offices’, all with a black and white mosaic depicting ships, goods or the lighthouse of the harbour, and with epigraphic indications of the merchants from all over the Mediterranean.

Maritime trade made possible the creation and the long life of the Roman Empire. Maritime trade, and the soldiers. Maritime trade, as a result of the conquests obtained by the soldiers.

There is a specific moment in the history of Rome, when we can see clearly these dynamics: the end of the 3rd century B.C., and the period of the Punic Wars.  When Scipio returned victorious from the battlefield of Zama, in 201 B.C., the Senate and the People of Rome granted him a magnificent triumph: after eighteen years of conflict, and the terrible invasion of Italy by Hannibal, the second war against Carthage was finally over, and with a clear success.

The consequences of that victory were impressive: the city of Rome extended its domination over the entire Italian Peninsula, over Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, and over the Mediterranean coast of the Iberian Peninsula, dominating the entire Western Mediterranean. Northern Africa and Greece would be added half a century later, after the end of the Third Punic war and the taking of Corinth (146 B.C.). Within a few decades, all the major Hellenistic kingdoms, which had arisen along the coasts of the Eastern Mediterranean after the fall of the Empire of Alexander the Great, would fall, one after another, into the hands of Rome.

These were the preconditions of the Roman maritime trade network, which reached dimensions never seen before and never overtaken in the whole of the pre-industrial era. The end of the Second Punic war marked the beginning of a great enlargement of horizons, even if the effects of this were gradual, and not as sudden as it is sometimes tempting to imagine.

In the period from the 3rd to the 1st century B.C., a small settlement on a ford of a river was going to become the mistress of a huge territory, lying around a sea now closed like a lake, with almost endless possibilities of gains and with an enormous amount of resources to be managed and organized. It is not surprising that this conversion was something epochal to Rome, changing completely the ancient and traditional system of economic and social growth and enrichment; the contradictions and the uncertainties towards this change were probably at the basis of the famous plebiscitum Claudianum of 218 B.C., which forbade senators to own merchant vessels with a capacity greater than 300 amphoras. This law, easily circumventable through the use of nominee (as actually happened in most cases), contained within it all the doubts and the open opposition of some members of the ancient élite towards the possibility of enrichment (and the heavy perils) of maritime trade, diametrically opposed to the traditional scheme.

In a few decades, the senatorial aristocracy, basing its wealth on the possession of land, was joined by a class of new rich who accumulated great fortunes through the large-scale trade of goods or the activities of ship owning and banking, contributing to the creation of the new ordo equester. Not tied to the simple disposal of the surplus of their possessions, the new mercatores and negotiatores were able to read and understand the market trends and opportunities, and to direct their investments towards the most profitable products, thus contributing to the differentiation of traffics and routes, and always looking for new merchandise and resources. In the course of the time, the most common traded goods, wine, slaves, salted fish and meat, metals, olive oil, were complemented by more and more rare and exotic products, to meet the needs of a society in constant evolution.

In the last years, I had the chance to study the trade in lead ingots from the Iberian Peninsula to Italy, in the Late Republican Age. Through an epigraphic and prosopographic approach, I have been able to highlight the names of all the producers resident in Carthago Nova, and to reconstruct their origins: as I have seen from epigraphy, they were coming, for the most part, from ancient Campania and Southern Latium. It is a good example for our theme: a group of people, Italians (as it was remarked already by the ancient sources), attracted by the possibilities of enrichment offered by the newly conquered territories, moved rapidly to the Far West (or the Far East, as was the case, for example, for the almost parallel slave trade in Delos) and quickly obtained richness and prestige in their new cities.

In a few years, the exploitation of the Iberian mines was so well organized that, as we can see from core drillings made in Greenland and compared with the isotopic records, the greatest part of lead dust circulating in Earth’s atmosphere in the 1st century B.C. actually came from the mines of Carthago Nova. For a few decades, almost all the lead metal for pipes and other objects in the Roman world came from a small group of mines, and reached its destination crossing a sea just conquered, through an efficient maritime network established in a very short time.

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