These lines from an ancient Tamil poem “The Lay of the Anklet”, believed to have been written around 200 AD, tell of Greek triremes and trade ships arriving and departing from the rivers of south India. However it remains tantalizingly uncertain today whether these same Greek or Roman trade ships ever came that bit further west to trade directly with the west coast ports of the Malay Peninsula.
Certainly there is evidence the Greeks were well aware of the existence of the Malay Peninsula. The first known Greek reference to the peninsula is around 100 BC, when it is referred to as “the Golden Khersonese”, which was a direct translation of “Suvarnabhumi” (Golden Island), the Indian name for the peninsula at the time.
There is ample archaeological and chronicled evidence that both the Greek and Roman empires traded directly with India and China. Early in the first century ad it is recorded that a Greco-Egyptian sea captain, Hippalus, learned from Indian sailors how to use the monsoon winds to sail directly from the Red Sea across to India. Thereafter trade with the East boomed.
The Greek geographer Strabo, writing around 20 BC, tells us that most years a huge Greek trade fleet, numbering up to 120 ships, set off from the Red Sea to make the year-long trip to the Indies and because of this great trade, Strabo noted, “These regions have become better known to us today”.
The Greeks and the Romans established a series of permanent trade colonies in India. One was at Arikamedu on India’s Coromandel (southeastern) coast just a couple of weeks’ sail across the Bay of Bengal from Phuket, and was probably also regularly visited by Malay trading prows crossing over from the peninsula.
Indeed Malay sailors may also have directly visited Greek and Roman ports such as Berenike on the Red Sea. The Romans used the word “Seres” for Chinese or Asians from further east than India. A report from the Roman historian Julius Flores as early as the reign of the first Roman emperor Augustus (27 BC– 14 AD) describes some “Seres” visiting the city of Rome itself: “Even the nations of the world not subject to the imperial sway were sensible of its grandeur … Thus the Scythians sent envoys … nay the Seres came likewise, and the Indians, bringing with them presents of pearls and elephants.”
However, according to the Chinese annals, the first Chinese man ever to reach the West was Gan Ying and this was in 97 AD, over a century after Flores’s account. So who were these earlier Seres in Rome with their “gifts of pearls and elephants”? (Both were common export items from the Malay Peninsula.) They may well have been Malays from the western peninsula – the nearest part of eastern Asia to Rome.
Around 140 AD the Greco-Egyptian geographer Claudius Ptolemy wrote his compendium Geographia, which was essentially a travel guide for Greek sailors heading east to trade. In the Geographia some of the physical features of the western Malay peninsular coast are described (although all with the wrong longitudes and latitudes). Ptolemy was a scholar not a sailor and most probably gathered his information in Egypt from returning Arab and Greek or possibly visiting Asian sailors. Ptolemy did note that the main trade emporium on the western Malay peninsular coast was a port called “Takola”. Takola is presumed by many scholars today to have been Takuapa, in Phang Nga, a Roman gold embossed cape province, just north of Phuket.
Ptolemy also makes mention of an island on the west of the peninsula called “Saline” which may have derived from Phuket’s old name of “Salang” or “Salon”. He noted that “In this Island there are a large number of shellfish and the inhabitants are always naked.”
The Romans were certainly huge consumers of eastern spices and luxuries and it was the maritime trade with Asia, not the better known overland “silk road”, via which the bulk of this trade was carried. Chinese silk, for example, was so popular in Rome it was at times worth more than its weight in gold. In 78 AD the Emperor Vespasian even had to make an edict prohibiting the export of gold to the East, for this trade was bankrupting the empire. The Roman noble Pliny the Elder complained that, “by the lowest reckoning Indians, Seres and Arabs take from our empire millions of sesterces every year … that is how much our luxuries and women cost us”.
His son Pliny the Younger also noted that “India is brought near to us by [the Roman traders’] lust for gain.” It is therefore quite possible that, to try to cut out the probably voracious Indian middlemen, these profit-seeking Greco-Arab and Roman ship captains would have sailed their ships a couple of weeks further east from India to try to reach the markets of the Malay Peninsula directly.
As early as 520 AD, when Cosmos Indicopluestes, a Nestorian Christian trader from Egypt, traveled to India, he wrote that Christian communities already existed in Burma and the Malay Peninsula further east. It therefore remains likely, but still frustratingly unproven, whether Greek or Roman triremes or galleons ever appeared in Tharua, Patong or Phang Nga bays or indeed in any other ports on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula.
No Roman items are recorded as having been found on Phuket Island to date, although, as a form of “kwan fa” they may have been found and eaten long ago. Ancient glass beads of Mediterranean design, however, were unearthed from mounds on Ko Kaew Island in Phang Nga Bay just off Phuket. Also in Klong Thom, south of Krabi, presumed to be an ancient river port, large quantities of glass beads of Roman and Mediterranean design have also been dug up along with three gold Roman carnelian seals dating from the second century AD. These invaluable golden seals were on public show at the sleepy local museum in Wat Klong Thom until late 2007 when an enterprising thief broke through the wat’s flimsy corrugated asbestos roof one night and stole the lot.
These glass bead mounds unearthed at Klong Thom and Ko Kaew however may just be evidence of an overseas Indian manufacturing trade base, rather like a modern export trade zone. The nearby Indian port (and Roman colony) of Arikamedu was known to be a major bead manufacturer and trade center at the time. In the old riverbed at Klong Thom, near these bead mounds, two ancient wooden ship hulls dating to around the second century AD and presumed to be of Indian origin, have also been dug up. Further official excavation needs to be done at this site where the locals still dig up beads and possibly other artifacts, often apparently unrecorded, to sell to the few visitors who stop off at this important but little-known historical site.
Roman artifacts however, have been found in other parts of Thailand, such as Kanchanburi. These include a metal lamp, a Roman ivory comb and a German coin minted in Cologne from the time of emperor Victorinus (268–70 AD). Roman coins from the time of Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius (138–80 AD) have also been unearthed further east in Vietnam. But such Greco-Roman artifact discoveries in Thailand are paltry compared to those from India where over 6,000 Roman coins have been found.
It is also possible that these Roman items arrived in the peninsula only as trade “carry”. That is, they may have been brought over by Indian, Arab and Persian middlemen to trade. In sum, Manfred Raschke, a leading scholar on Roman commerce in Asia, best summarizes this enigmatic issue of whether the Greeks or Romans ever appeared in the Malay Peninsula by stating that, “Much is asserted, but little is yet proven.”
Adapted with kind permission from the book ‘A History of Phuket and the Surrounding Region’ by Colin Mackay. Available from good bookshops and Amazon.com. Order the softcover 2nd edition directly at: www.historyofphuket.com