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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Vasilief, A History of the Byzantine Empire

Justinian the Great and his successors (518-610)

Commerce during the reign of Justinian 


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Page 2

Cosmas Indicopleustes. During this period a remarkable literary work made its appearance, the Christian Topography or Cosmography, written by Cosmas Indicopleustes in the middle of the sixth century. This work is extremely valuable for the information it contains about the geography of the basins of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean as well as about the commercial relations with India and China.

Cosmas was born in Egypt, very likely in Alexandria. He engaged in commerce from his early youth, but, discontented with the trade conditions in his country, he undertook a number of distant Journeys during which he visited the shores of the Red Sea, the Sinaitic peninsula, Ethiopia (Abyssinia), and perhaps reached as far as Ceylon. He was a Christian of the Nestorian faith, and in his later life became a monk. His Greek surname, Indicopleustes, is found even in very old versions of his work.

The fundamental aim of The Christian Topography is to prove to the Christians that, regardless of the system of Ptolemy, the earth does not have the shape of a globe, but rather that of an oblong rectangular box similar to the sanctuary in the tabernacle of Moses, while the entire universe is analogous in form to the general form of the tabernacle. But it is the great historical importance of this work, which lies in the information about geography and commerce, which is relevant here. The author conscientiously informed his reader about the sources used and evaluated each of them thoroughly. He discriminated between his own observations as an eyewitness and the information obtained from eyewitnesses, and facts learned by hearsay. From his own experience he described the palace of the Abyssinian king in the city of Axum (in the so-called Kingdom of Axum), and gave an accurate account of several interesting inscriptions in Nubia and on the shores of the Red Sea. He told also of Indian and African animals, and, most important of all, gave very valuable information about the island Taprobane (Ceylon), explaining its commercial importance during the early Middle Ages. It appears from this account that in the sixth century Ceylon was the center of world commerce between China on one hand and eastern Africa, Persia, and through Persia the Byzantine Empire, on the other hand. In Cosmas words, the island, being as it is in a central position, is much frequented by ships from all parts of India and from Persia and Ethiopia. The Persian Christians who remained permanently on this island were of the Nestorian faith and had their own church and clergy.

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