In the Old Testament (supposed to have been written in the 9th century BC), there is the story of a temptress, who invited her beau to a night of pleasure. She writes: ?I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloe and cinnamon; come, let us take our fill of love until the morning.?
In the 6th century BC (age of the Buddha), poet Sappho writes of myrrh, cassia and frankincense being burnt at nuptial ceremonies.
It was not only spices, perfumes and other things which went out from India, but also its civilisation. But, of this, alas, we know almost nothing!
Perhaps the spice trade began a thousand years before Jesus Christ. It could well be two thousand years. And the Arabs must have dominated this trade.
The 3rd and 4th centuries (BC) were known for extensive contacts between East and West. We are reminded of Megasthenes, the Greek orator and ambassador at the court of Chandragupta Maurya (324-207 BC). He has left considerable information. Ashoka sent out embassies to all Greek kingdoms, including Egypt.
Alexander and his men carried with them not only spices and perfumes, when they returned from India, but also the gymnosophists (scholars) of Taxila.
India was the first to produce medicaments out of spices.
The Egyptians used it to embalm the dead. No wonder, the Romans began to use spices for funerary purposes.
By overthrowing the Achaemenid (Persian) empire (once ruled by Darius, Cyrus, Xerxes), Alexander brought a vast area?Egypt, the Middle East, Iran and Afghanistan?under Macedonian rule and Greek culture.
It seemed that the spice trade had gone into the hands of the Greeks. But with the death of Alexander and breakup of his empire, Greek hold on this region weakened. Only Bactria held on and became a major route for the spice trade by land.
(But the way, spice was already a major item of trade within India.)
But soon the Romans conquered Egypt and the Middle East.
Pompey and Luculus, the Roman generals, are reported to have carried spices to Rome. In fact, spice and silk are said to have drained Rome of its wealth.
The Ptolemies (or Hellenic origin) founded their capital at Alexandria (named after Alexander)?built of white marble and facing the Aegean Sea. The city became the cultural capital of the Greeks.
At the crossroads of three continents, Alexandria became a major centre of learning too with its great library and museum. With 100,00 manuscripts (later burnt down by the Muslims), the centre attracted Buddhist teachers as also vast numbers of students. They engaged thousands of copyists. There were also geographers who drew maps of land and sea routes.
At time when Athens was in decline and Rome was yet to start its conquests, Alexandria basked in all its glory as the centre of Hellenistic civilisation. Its great architecture?the Serapion temple, the colossal lighthouse, a true wonder?made Alexandria a great city of the world.
The Ptolemies opened trading centres along the Red Sea coasts and linked them with the Nile river. Until the 15th century Alexandria remained the principal entrepot of the Mediterranean
Saba, another beneficiary of the spice trade, held away over all South Arabian kingdoms. It was undoubtedly the most beautiful city. The royal palace was a wonder of workmanship in gold and silver, encrusted with ivory and gems. The Sabaeans were the wealthiest of all peoples in the region. They were in contact with Kerala (Keralaputra), (Known to them as Keprobotes,) and Tamil Nadu (known to them as Limurika). Both Strabo and Pliny mention one Eudoxus who made repeated voyages to India and then disappeared in an attempt to circumnavigate Africa.
In 408 AD Alaric, chief of the North European tribes, threatened Rome. He called it off only when the Romans gave him 4000 pieces of Chinese silk and 3000 pounds of Indian spices. But in the event he did not spare Rome.
The crusades gave a major boost to the spice trade. But the trade was still controlled by the Arabs. By the 16th century the Arab monopoly over the spice trade was almost broken by the Portuguese. The magnitude of this trade, at this time, can be gauged from the fact that in three months, the Portuguese counted about 1500 Arab and Moorish vessels calling at Calicut for spices.
The significance of the space trade is difficult to assess. It gave a great boost to international trade, encouraged navigation and exploration and, above all, promoted the shipbuilding industry. And with spices, man made a leap in the way he ate.