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H - 153 : The Roman Craze for Tortoise

These Tortoise Objects are only 300 Years old - Romans

used the Material the same Way

On a sunny July afternoon, in the Port of Alexandria, just below the windows of Cleopatra’s Palace, the Julia Sexta, a corbita merchant ship gets ready. The agent of its cargo owners carefully checks what is already on board and makes notes on his wax tablet. The captain plans to leave the harbor with the evening breeze to set sail for Caesarea. The agent wants to buy pearls which should have arrived from the Persian Gulf via Damascus. It is the year 10 BC. For 20 years now, Egypt is a Roman Province. Trade with the wealthy customers in Rome is thriving. The sea lanes are safe under the Pax Augusta.

Cleopatra's Palace seals the Peninsula on the left-hand-side from the Mainland


There are lots of precious goods from Asia below deck. Bags of pepper and other spices, rolled silk from China, folded cotton fabric from the Indus Valley, Cinnamon from Ceylon, semi-precious stones from Rajasthan and Lapis Lazuli from Afghanistan. The ship also carries sacks of wheat from the Nile valley which are carefully arranged to keep the ship in balance. The agent plans to sell them in Sidon and Tyre and exchange them for delicious wine from Phoenicia. One quarter of the lower deck is filled with goods from Africa. A few boxes with golden nuggets, a pile of giant ivory tusks , bags with Rhino horns, Frankincense and Myrrh plus several hundred Hippo hides are neatly stacked. There were also several dozen tortoise shells and carefully wrapped ostrich eggs in woven baskets.


Trading between Egypt and Africa started around 3'000 BC - often in the Form of Tribute

Occasionally the Julia Sixta would carry a consignment of two dozen young African slaves who would squat on the front deck, wondering what was going to happen next. These young boys were sold by their elders for gold or Roman iron. African hunters loved Rome’s high-quality iron and used it for making spears for hunting big game. The previous summer, the Julia Sixta also carried three cages of frightened and angry lions which were ordered by the Circus in Rome. Nobody was fond of this cargo. Goats had to be butchered to feed them. The lions made a big mess and tried to attack any sailor who came close.


Roman Gold Coins were found in several Places on Africa's East Coast

The most precious cargo on board though were the tortoise shells and ostrich eggs below deck. Romans were crazy for them.  Thanks to the Periplus Maris Erythraei (Voyage around the Indian Ocean), we know pretty well where they came from. Written in 50 AD by an anonymous Greek speaking merchant from Egypt, the Periplus describes the maritime trade route from Egypt to Tanzania in great detail.

Roman Tortoise Necklace

Many dozen Roman ships sailed every August from Berenice or Myos Hormoz down the Red Sea to reach the African coast. Roman ships ventured as far as today’s Zanzibar. We know this from Roman gold coins found during excavations. The Periplus also mentions that the African coast turns west further south to merge with the western seas (Atlantic) but given the absence of lucrative business, Roman merchants returned in Zanzibar. They were already 5’000 kilometers away from Alexandria. This way they could be back the next summer.


Ptolemy's Map of Africa's East Coast documents well

What the Romans knew - this is a 15th Century Copy

The elites in Rome were crazy for tortoise shells. They bought them as furniture inlays, for combs, jewellery, trinkets and other decorative objects.  Could not find the reference anymore but Romans spent big amounts of money on tortoise. The craving may sound crazy until we consider that most of our rims for eye glasses were made from tortoise until the 1970s. The demand was so high that turtles got almost extinct. In the US and Europe we now use synthetic tortoise materials or plastics. There is still a lot of illegal tortoise trading going on though, specifically with Japan.


Romans would decorate their Benches with Tortoise

Inlays - this is a restored Original from 161 AD from the

Imperial Villa of Lucius Verus outside Rome

The Romans also were “hungry” for ostrich eggs. Ostrich eggs were first used as containers. Their strong shells allowed people to store liquids well before water proofing of terra cotta (glazing) was invented. In Egypt, hunting ostriches was a royal sport. The big birds were also hunted for meat. Giving ostrich eggs as presents started well before 1’000 BC. Often, these eggs were carved and beautifully decorated. We know that first Etruscans, then the Romans continued this tradition. The Roman ostrich eggs became more and more elaborated and expensive. A few survived to today and shine light on this interesting custom. Wonder whether our Easter egg tradition is based on this custom. Something to research further.


This carved Ostrich Egg was found in an Etruscan Tomb

Near the Town of Vulci and dates back to 550 BC

Back to our Julia Sixta. With a crew of five (Captain, two deckhands, a navigator and the cargo agent), she will – in the few weeks to come - sail north along the Sinai coast and stop in Caesarea, Sidon and Tyre. From there the captain will try to go directly to Knidos for taking fresh water and provisions. Then following the coast of Rhodes and Crete, she aims to reach the Peloponnese and stop in Methoni with its wide, natural harbor. With the wind mostly blowing from the north, the ship can now head straight west until it reaches the coast of Sicily near Syracuse. Rome is only 14 days away. The precious cargo will be unloaded in Ostia and stored in one of the many warehouses until sold.

Our fictitious Merchant Ship, the Julia Sixth, second boat from the right, in Alexandria's Port















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