Did you know that spices were once used to pay salary and rent?
You will be baffled to know that Roman soldiers were often paid with salt. At one point in the 13th century, nutmeg was more expensive than gold and seven fat cows could be brought in exchange for a pound of nutmeg. When Rome was conquered by the Visigoths in 410 BCE a claim of 3,000 pounds of peppercorns was included as ransom.
Now that spices are cheap and available, it might sound strange to imagine such scenarios. But sometimes facts may seem stranger than fiction. In the ancient world, spices generated vast wealth and were valued no less than precious metals, such as gold. The history of the spice trade is nearly as long as human civilization itself. Spices were amongst the most expensive commodities in the ancient and medieval periods.
The importance of the spice trade cannot be overstated. Some chroniclers even argue that if the modern economy has a definitive beginning, it was hand in hand with the spice trade routes. In its heyday, the spice industry was one of the biggest in the world. In some ways, it laid the foundation for the creation of the modern economy.
The spice trade began in the Middle East over 4,000 years ago. Earlier examples of spice trade can be traced when the middlemen Arabs transported spices from India to the Mediterranean. Those routes connected ancient Asian, African and European civilizations. But they were shrouded in mystery and myths. Myths, stories were spread deliberately to suppress competition in the market. The Arab merchants did so to protect and sustain their monopoly.
2500 years ago, Arab traders talked about a fierce bird, cinnamologus that guarded cinnamon trees and how difficult it was to get a grip on cinnamon. They portrayed danger in every aspect of the spice business. It was a lucrative market in which they composed terrifying stories about how they collected spices from mysterious lands unseen and unheard of to others.
Similar frightening stories were invented to ward off the competition so that the Europeans never knew the source of the treasures of the East. For years, Arabs were successful in keeping the Europeans fooled.
Spices were often called the ancient treasures of the East. Due to the gift of appropriate climate, a variety of spices grew aplenty in India, China, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Indonesia. For millennials, various spices were used in food to enhance the flavour, aroma, colour, and as medical ingredients for healing illnesses. For Europeans, spices were essential to make their bland food tastier. Spices meant higher status, a symbol of affluence to the European upper class. For the Arabs, it was a business opportunity.
Some of the early references can be found in the Indian, Chinese, Persian, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian ancient literature. Some truly international trade routes connecting Asia, Northeast Africa and Europe were built around spice trade, which moulded the modern economy's foundation. In the early period, spice trade was carried out primarily via land routes through Arabian deserts, by camel or donkey caravans. But it was only confined to a few trading ports. Later the addition of sea routes substantially increased spice trade.
The ancient Silk Road was a nexus of land and sea routes stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Japanese Islands during the height of China's Han dynasty. From around 120BC to 1450CE, it was a crucial force in the economic growth of the civilizations in China, India, Egypt, Arabia, Persia and Rome.
Until the beginning of the modern period, Arabian merchants held the position of middlemen between the Europeans and the Orientals. Their domination continued up until the European voyagers discovered and established direct linkages with the Asian spice producing countries.
The growing demand for spices led to the search for new routes as the Europeans sought to break the monopoly of Arab and Northeast African traders. Cutting off the middlemen Arabs, the first direct link between the European and Oriental spice market was established when Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama made his journey through the ocean from Europe to India. It also marked the beginning of transportation via sea rather than the traditional use of lands. As a result, The Arabs suffered a substantial financial blow due to the direct trading. Vasco da Gama kept attacking Arab traders at sea with the desire to establish European monopoly.
Just as the control over gold, other valuable metals and jewels and more recently, oil has been a source of conflict and driver of economic integration, spices stimulated war, conquest, and expedition. The European age of discoveries started with the quest to find new routes to bring spices from the East.
Once considered luxuries as only the richest could afford the taste, they lost their status as exotic commodities in the modern era. We take spices for granted in our everyday dishes. But spices were once a reason for the rise and fall of empires and waging of wars.
The major impact of the spice trade was in knitting the different ancient and medieval economies together. Power and wealth concentrated in the hands of the few who controlled spice routes, transportations. Being globally traded products, spices in turn facilitated the building of an integrated global economic system. The search for flavours was one of the early catalysts of economic globalization. As spices helped form an international economic network from Asia to the Middle East to Europe, other commodities followed the same route.