The Context of Exploration in European History

How exploration becoming a defining factor in modern European history.

Han Dynasty
Outrigger canoe
Pax Mongolicam
The Moluccas
Banking systems

Ancient Knowledge of the Earth


Ancient civilisations knew far more about the Earth than we might assume. By 500 BC, the Ancient Greeks believed that the Earth was a sphere, with an estimated circumference of around 25,000 miles. This estimate, made by Greek philosopher Eratosthenes, was remarkably close to today’s accepted figure of 24,901 miles.

By contrast, these civilisations’ knowledge of what continents and nations lay beyond their own borders was far more limited, due to limitations in navigation and sea faring. What was known of the global map often traveled by the hearsay of foreigners and crucially through trade routes and exploration voyages.

A man named Pytheas, for example, on a voyage of 325BC, sailed northwards from Greece towards Britain and Scandinavia. His account of the journey provided valuable information about these areas including details about tides, currents, geography and even astronomy.

This account, read with frequency throughout antiquity, is now lost, surviving only in fragments and paraphrases through the commentary of later writers, such as the Roman natural historian, Pliny The Elder.

Ancient Trade Routes and Networks

Trade was an important factor in expanding the horizons of Ancient civilisations. Precious goods such as spices, silk, and precious metals were exchanged between cultures to create a network of trade routes that connected distant lands.

The Silk Road, established during the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 9 AD, 25–220 AD), stretched from China to Rome, allowing for the exchange of goods such as Chinese silk and Indian spices with Roman glassware and wine.

The Phoenicians, who occupied the Levant in around 3000 BC, were also renowned traders who sailed across the Mediterranean Sea trading items like cedar wood from Lebanon, purple dye from Tyre, and tin from Britain.

They even ventured beyond Europe into North Africa where they traded gold for salt with African tribes. This enabled them to establish colonies in places like Carthage which became a major hub for trade between East and West.

Maritime Trade in Southeast Asia

The maritime powers of the ancient world were not limited to the Mediterranean.

The Austronesian trade network in southeast Asia (which would later become the historic ”Maritime Silk Road”) was established as early as 1500 BCE, with evidence of seafaring activity found in Taiwan and the Philippines.

By 500 BCE, Austronesian sailors had reached as far as Madagascar. Key products involved in trade were spices such as cinnamon, bananas, coconuts, and sandalwood.

Southeast Asian sailors utilized distinctive boat designs, such as outrigger canoes. These featured a long, narrow hull with a smaller attached float, or outrigger, on one side providing stability, allowing the boat to handle rough sea conditions while also providing additional space for cargo.

Additionally, sewn plank boats created a strong and flexible vessel that could withstand stress. Catamarans, consisting of two parallel hulls connected by a platform, could sail at high speeds in shallow waters—a design that would eventually be imitated in Europe in the 19th century.

The Importance of the Silk Road in Trade and Cultural Exchange


The overland spice routes of the ancient world were just as important to trade and exploration as maritime voyages. The Pax Mongolicam, or Mongol Peace, was established by Genghis Khan at the beginning of his rule in 1206, and allowed for safe passage of goods across Central Asia.

This enabled merchants from Europe to travel eastward along the Silk Road, trading spices such as pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg with Chinese silk and porcelain.

The Silk Road also served a cultural purpose; it connected East Asian cultures with those of the Middle East and Europe allowing for an exchange of ideas about religion, art and architecture which helped shape many aspects of modern culture today.

Arab Traders and Explorers in European History

The Arabs played a major role in the overland trade, establishing trading routes across North Africa and into Europe.

The Arab traders, along with the Radhanites (a community of medieval Jewish merchants) conveyed goods across the Levant. Between the 7th and 8th century, Arab traders dominated routes originating in Far Eastern “spice islands” (the Moluccas), from which they imported nutmeg and cinnamon, both to trading centers like Baghdad, as well as the Mediterranean.

The Arabs were also keen explorers – the most famous being Ibn Battuta. Between 1325 and 1354 CE, he traveled more extensively than any pre-modern explorer: a total of 117,000 km, and along trade routes between Morocco and China. Battuta gave an account of his travels in his book ‘Rihla’ (Journey).

The Travels of Marco Polo

The travels of a Venetian merchant, Marco Polo, were a major source of knowledge for Europeans during the Middle Ages.

Polo embarked upon a journey from Venice to Beijing in 1271-1295 CE, covering a distance of almost 15,000 miles, through regions such as Persia, India, and China. He recorded his experiences in his book, “The Travels of Marco Polo.”


Polo’s book provided detailed descriptions of the cities and regions he visited, including Hangzhou and Samarkand, which were previously unknown or inaccessible to most in Europe. His accounts of the magnificent cities, exotic customs, and rich trade opportunities were widely read and translated.

Some historians, however, have raised doubts over certain omissions in Polo’s observations, such as foot binding and tea drinking in China – prevalent practices that curiously go without mention in Polo’s accounts. This has led some to question its accuracy and completeness.

The Power and Influence of Venice in the Age of Exploration

Marco Polo’s native land, the Republic of Venice (AD 69 CE – 1797 CE), was one of the most powerful city-states in Europe during the Age of Exploration. Its merchants were renowned for their wealth and influence, and the region came to dominate Mediterranean shipping routes and trade with the East.

Venice’s success as an independent state can be attributed to its strategic location at the head of the Adriatic Sea, which allowed it to control access between Italy and other parts of Europe. This enabled them to establish a network of alliances with other Italian city-states such as Genoa, Florence and Milan that helped maintain their dominance over trade routes throughout the region.

In addition, the Venetians were pioneers of sophisticated banking systems that allowed private individuals and merchants to finance expensive expeditions, venturing into unknown lands in search of new opportunities for commerce.

Luxury Items and Medicinal Substances


Throughout the Medieval and Renaissance periods, wealthy Europeans created demand for luxury items that were not available locally. These included spices, silks, porcelain, and ingredients for perfume, incense, and apothecary.

One prominent example is Opium, which was first introduced to Europeans between the 11th and 13th centuries via soldiers returning home from crusades in the Arab world, where it was used for medicinal purposes. From the 16th century, Anatolian opium was commonplace in Constantinople and widely exported to Europe, where it was acknowledged to be a highly addictive substance.

Opium was also an ingredient of “Theriac”—a medical concoction also including cinnamon and viper flesh that was believed to be a panacea, or a cure-all, during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The Venetians established a monopoly on the production of Theriac, and the compound was produced in the city’s apothecaries and sold throughout Europe.

The Ottoman Empire and the Age of Exploration

The Age of Exploration was shaped by the rise of the Ottoman empire in Europe. Between the 4th century and 15th century CE, Europe was dominated by the Byzantine Empire, a continuation of the Roman Empire that existed in the eastern Mediterranean. It was founded by the Roman Emperor Constantine, who made the city of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) the new capital of the Roman Empire.

From the 13th century, Byzantium came under pressure from the increasingly powerful Ottoman empire. In 1453, the City of Constantinople finally fell to the Ottomans, marking a significant turning point in the history of Europe with far-reaching implications for trade.

Formerly a major hub of trade between Europe and Asia, Constantinople’s fall led to the closure of the overland trade routes that had connected Europe to the markets of the East. This forced European explorers to find new sea routes to reach Asia, which eventually led to the discovery of the Americas and the opening of new trade routes with Asia.

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