Chapter 9

The Commerce of the Greek Kings after the Death of Alexander

September 24, 2021

When Alexander conquered Egypt, they only had an imperfect idea of the Red sea and none of the Indian ocean. They thought it impossible to sail around the Arabian peninsula.

People tried from each side but failed. They said= “How can we navigate to the southern coast of Arabia? Cambyses’s army traversed it on the north side and almost entirely perished. Ptolemy, the son of Lagus, sent forces to aid Seleucus Nicator at Babylon and underwent incredible hardships and could march only at night.”

The Persians were entire-strangers to navigation. When they had subdued Egypt, they also made the Egyptians strangers to navigation. So indifferent were the Persians, that the Greek kings found them strangers to:

  • the commerce of the Tyrians, Idumeans, and the Jews,
  • the ocean
  • the navigation of the Red sea

The destruction of the first Tyre by Nebuchadnezzar, with the subversion of petty nations and towns bordering the Red sea, probably had obliterated all their former knowledge of commerce.

Egypt, at the time of the Persian monarchy, did not front the Red sea. They only covered the area from the Nile to the nearby valleys. They needed a second discovery of the ocean and the Red sea.

The Greek monarchs aimed for this discovery. They ascended the Nile and hunted elephants in the countries between the Nile and the Red sea and traced the sea-coast. The names are all Greek and the temples are consecrated to Greek divinities because the discoveries were made by the Greeks.

Tyre was once the rival of every trading nation. But it was then no more. Egypt replaced it as the centre of the world and the Greeks settled there to command a most extensive commerce. They were masters of all the harbours on the Red sea as they were not constrained by the ancient Egyptian superstitions.

The kings of Syria left the commerce of the south to those of Egypt. They only went for the northern trade through the Oxus and the Caspian sea. They then imagined that this sea was part of the northern ocean.

Alexander, some time before his death, had fitted out a fleet to discover whether it reached the ocean by the Euxine sea, or on some other eastern sea towards India.

After him, Seleucus and Antiochus tried to discover it with their fleets.

  • The part which Seleucus surveyed, was called the Seleucidian sea.
  • The part which Antiochus discovered was called the sea of Antiochus.

They neglected the seas on the south whether it was due to:

  • the Ptolemies and their fleets on the Red sea being already masters of it; or
  • an invincible aversion in the Persians against engaging in maritime affairs.

The southern coasts of Persia supplied them with no seamen. ; there had been none in those parts, except towards the latter end of Alexander’s reign.

But the Egyptian kings were masters of Cyprus, Phœnicia, and many towns on the coast of Asia minor, They had all sorts of conveniencies for undertaking maritime expeditions. However, they only followed the genius of their subjects and did not force it.

The ancients stubbornly believed that the Caspian sea was a part of the Indian ocean. The expeditions of Alexander, the Syrian kings, the Parthians, and the Romans could not make them change their minds.

Those nations described the Caspian sea precisely. But men are generally tenacious of their errors.

When only the south of this sea was known, it was at first taken for the ocean. in proportion as they advanced along the banks of the northern coast, instead of imagining it a great lake, they still believed it to be the ocean, that here made a sort of a bay= surveying the coast, their discoveries never went eastward beyond the Jaxartes, nor westward further than the extremity of Albania.

The sea towards the north was shallow, and of course very unfit for navigation. Hence it was, that they always looked upon this as the ocean.

The land army of Alexander had been on the east only as far as the Hypanis, which is the last of those rivers that fall into the Indus

Thus the first trade which the Greeks carried on to the Indies was confined to a very small part of the country. Seleucus Nicator penetrated as far as the Ganges, and there by discovered the sea into which this river falls, that is to say, the bay of Bengal. The moderns discover countries by voyages at sea; the ancients discovered seas by conquests at land.


Despite the testimony of Apollodorus, Strabo doubts whether the Greek kings of Bactria proceeded farther than Seleucus and Alexander. Nevertheless, they went farther towards the south and discovered Siger and the ports on the coast of Malabar, which gave rise to the navigation to India.

Pliny informs us, that the navigation to India was successively carried on by three ways.

  1. At first, they sailed from the cape of Siagre to the island of Patalena, which is at the mouth of the Indus.

This we find was the course that Alexander’s fleet steered to the Indies.

  1. Then, they took a shorter and more certain course, by sailing from the same cape or promontory to Siger.

The kingdom of Siger was mentioned by Strabo and discovered by the Greek kings of Bactria. This way was faster than the other because of the wind. It meant that Siger was farther than the Indus.

  1. Finally, the merchants took a third way by sailing to Canes, or Ocelis, ports situated at the entrance of the Red sea.

From there, they took a west wind and arrived at Muziris, the first staple town of the Indies, and from thence to the other ports. Instead of sailing to the mouth of the Red sea as far as Siagre, by coasting Arabia Felix to the north-east, they steered directly from west to east, from one side to the other, by means of the monsoons, whose regular course they discovered by sailing in these latitudes. The ancients never lost sight of the coasts, but when they took advantage of these> * and the trade winds, which were to them a kind of compass.

Pliny says that sailed for India in the middle of summer, and returned towards the end of December or the start of January. This is conforms to our naval journals.

There are two monsoons in that part of the Indian ocean between Africa and the Ganges.

  1. The August or September monsoon where winds blow from west to east
  2. The January monsoon where winds blow east

Thus we set sail from Africa for Malabar, at the season of the year that Ptolemy’s fleet used to put to sea from thence; and we return too at the same time as they.

Alexander’s fleet was seven months in sailing from Patala to Susa. It set out in July, at a season when no ship dare go to sea to return from India. Between these two monsoons is an interval when the winds vary ; when a north wind meeting with the common winds, raises, especially near the coasts, the most terrible tempests.

These continue during June, July, and August. Alexander’s fleet, therefore, sailing from Patala in July must have been exposed to many storms. The voyage must have been long because they sailed against the monsoon.

Pliny says that they set out for India at the end of summer. Thus, they spent the time proper for taking advantage of the monsoon, in their passage from Alexandria to the Red sea.

How navigation has gradually become perfected

Darius’s fleet took 2.5 years to sail down the Indus into to the Red sea. Alexander’s fleet sailed down the Indus for 3 months and arrived at Susa after 7 months in the Indian ocean. Finally, sailing from the coast of Malabar to the Red sea took 40 days.

Strabo accounts for their ignorance of the countries between the Hypanis and the Ganges. He says that very few of those who sailed from Egypt to India ever reached so far as the Ganges.

Their fleets, in fact, never went to the Ganges. They sailed with the western monsoons from the mouth of the Red sea to the coast of Malabar. They cast anchor in ports along that coast, and never attempted to get round the peninsula on this side the Ganges by cape Comorin and the coast of Coromandel. The plan of navigation laid down by the kings of Egypt and the Romans was, to set out and return the same year.

Thus. the commerce of the Greeks and Romans to India was much less extensive than ours. We know immense countries, which to them were entirely unknown; we traffic with all the Indian nations; we even manage their trade, and in our bottoms carry on their commerce.

But this commerce of the ancients was carried on with far greater facility than ours.

And if the moderns were to trade only to the coast of Guzarat and Malabar, and, without seeking for the southern isles, were satisfied with what these islanders brought them, they would certainly prefer the way of Egypt to that of the cape of Good-hope. Strabo informs us, that they traded thus with the people of Taprobane.


No comments yet. Post a comment in the form at the bottom.

All Superphysics principles in our books

The Simplified Series