The Ancient Spice Trade
By Chris Mundigler
Labyrinth, Issues 82-85 (2003-2005)
Introduction: Spices may have been what drove the Portuguese, Spanish, English and Dutch to discover the far reaches of planet Earth, but for the civilization around the Mediterranean the world was a much smaller place.
Colonization and conquest may have been the driving forces behind the expansion of the Greek and Roman worlds, but long before these civilizations, networks of trade routes had been established in the ancient world and one of the main commodities traded were spices.
Introduction: Spices, oils and fragrances were traded in Egypt and North Africa much as they were further east in the region of Mesopotamia we investigated in the last issue of Labyrinth. Trade routes had been established very early on with the East for the import of commodities such as frankincense and myrrh from Arabia and more exotic goods such as cinnamon, cassia, scented oils and woods from India and beyond. These aromatics and oils made their way west to Egypt for both the living and the deceased, and on as far as Morocco where spices such as saffron were used to please the discerning palates there.
Introduction: While most spices in the ancient world were either grown in the Near East, or were traded through the region, Greece and Rome also benefited from this lucrative commodity. From the time of the ancient Greek civilization – when the spice trade between the Mediterranean region and the Far East was firmly established – to the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD – when this same trade between Europe and the Far East virtually dried up – spices and oils were used for a variety of reasons: personally, commercially and religiously.
Introduction: In the last few issues of Labyrinth, we’ve looked at the role spices and the spice trade played in the building of empires for the many and the extravagance of the few. Alongside exploration, military campaigns and cultural expansion, spices were a ready companion to finance, enhance and flavour the lives and lifestyles of the people of the ancient world.