Black pepper (Piper nigrum) is a flowering vine in the family Piperaceae, cultivated for its fruit, which is usually dried and used as a spice and seasoning.
Pepper has been used as a spice in India since prehistoric times. Pepper is native to India and has been known to Indian cooking since at least 2000 BCE. Peppercorns were a much prized trade good, often referred to as “black gold” and used as a form of commodity money. Until well after the Middle Ages, virtually all of the black pepper found in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa travelled there from India’s Malabar region.
The ancient history of black pepper is often interlinked with (and confused with) that of long pepper, the dried fruit of closely related Piper longum. The Romans knew of both and often referred to either as just “piper”. In fact, it was not until the discovery of the New World and of chile peppers that the popularity of long pepper entirely declined.
Black peppercorns were found stuffed in the nostrils of Ramesses II, placed there as part of the mummification rituals shortly after his death in 1213 BCE. Little else is known about the use of pepper in ancient Egypt and how it reached the Nile from India.
Pepper (both long and black) was known in Greece at least as early as the 4th century BCE, though it was probably an uncommon and expensive item that only the very rich could afford. Trade routes of the time were by land, or in ships which hugged the coastlines of the Arabian Sea. Long pepper, growing in the north-western part of India, was more accessible than the black pepper from further south; this trade advantage, plus long pepper’s greater spiciness, probably made black pepper less popular at the time.
By the time of the early Roman Empire, especially after Rome’s conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE, open-ocean crossing of the Arabian Sea directly to southern India’s Malabar Coast was near routine. Details of this trading across the Indian Ocean have been passed down in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. According to the Roman geographer Strabo, the early Empire sent a fleet of around 120 ships on an annual one-year trip to India and back. The fleet timed its travel across the Arabian Sea to take advantage of the predictable monsoon winds. Returning from India, the ships travelled up the Red Sea, from where the cargo was carried overland or via the Nile Canal to the Nile River, barged to Alexandria, and shipped from there to Italy and Rome. The rough geographical outlines of this same trade route would dominate the pepper trade into Europe for a millennium and a half to come.
With ships sailing directly to the Malabar coast, black pepper was now travelling a shorter trade route than long pepper, and the prices reflected it. Pliny the Elder’s Natural History tells us the prices in Rome around 77 CE: “Long pepper … is fifteen denarii per pound, while that of white pepper is seven, and of black, four.” Pliny also complains “there is no year in which India does not drain the Roman Empire of fifty million sesterces,” and further moralises on pepper:
It is quite surprising that the use of pepper has come so much into fashion, seeing that in other substances which we use, it is sometimes their sweetness, and sometimes their appearance that has attracted our notice; whereas, pepper has nothing in it that can plead as a recommendation to either fruit or berry, its only desirable quality being a certain pungency; and yet it is for this that we import it all the way from India! Who was the first to make trial of it as an article of food? and who, I wonder, was the man that was not content to prepare himself by hunger only for the satisfying of a greedy appetite?
~ Pliny the Elder , Natural History, 12.14
Black pepper was a well-known and widespread, if expensive, seasoning in the Roman Empire. Apicius’ De re coquinaria, a 3rd-century cookbook probably based at least partly on one from the 1st century CE, includes pepper in a majority of its recipes. Edward Gibbon wrote, in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that pepper was “a favourite ingredient of the most expensive Roman cookery”.
Pepper was so valuable that it was often used as collateral or even currency. The taste for pepper (or the appreciation of its monetary value) was passed on to those who would see Rome fall. It is said that Alaric the Visigoth and Attila the Hun each demanded from Rome a ransom of more than a ton of pepper when they besieged the city in 5th century. After the fall of Rome, others took over the middle legs of the spice trade, first the Persians and then the Arabs; Innes Miller cites the account of Cosmas Indicopleustes, who travelled east to India, as proof that “pepper was still being exported from India in the sixth century”.
By the end of the Dark Ages, the central portions of the spice trade were firmly under Islamic control. Once into the Mediterranean, the trade was largely monopolised by Italian powers, especially Venice and Genoa. The rise of these city-states was funded in large part by the spice trade.