Erythraean Sea

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Erythraean Sea
Ἐρυθρὰ Θάλασσα
Rennel map 1799.png
An eighteenth century map showing the Erythraean Sea off the Horn of Africa. Drawn by James Rennell (1799)
LocationNorthwestern Indian Ocean
Coordinates12°0′N 55°0′E / 12.000°N 55.000°E / 12.000; 55.000Coordinates: 12°0′N 55°0′E / 12.000°N 55.000°E / 12.000; 55.000
Basin countriesYemen, Somalia

The Erythraean Sea (Greek: Ἐρυθρὰ Θάλασσα, Erythrà Thálassa, lit. "Red Sea") was a former maritime designation that always included the Gulf of Aden and at times other seas between Arabia Felix and the Horn of Africa. Originally an ancient Greek geography, it was used throughout Europe until the 18-19th century. At times the name frequently extended beyond the Gulf of Aden—as in the famous 1st-century Periplus of the Erythraean Sea—to include the present-day Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and Indian Ocean as a single maritime area.[1]


The Greeks themselves derived the name from an eponymous King Erythras, knowing that the waters so described were deep blue.[2][3][4] Modern scholars sometimes attribute the name to seasonal blooms of the red-hued Trichodesmium erythraeum in the Red Sea.[5]

According to Agatharchides, a Persian man lived near the sea and islands in the time of the Medes under the name of Erostras and became popular and became widely known for calling the sea his name. Strabo considers his tomb on the island of Oguris. Researchers call the island one of the islands of Qeshm or Hormuz.[6][7][8]

Erythraean Sea was the term applied by Greek and Roman geographers to the entire Indian Ocean, including its adjuncts, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Erythra means Red, so that the modern name perpetuates the ancient; but we are assured by Agatharchides that it means, not Red Sea, but Sea of King Erythras, following a Persian legend. The following is the account given by Agatharchides of the origin of the name: (De Mari Erythraeo, § 5.)

"The Persian account is after this manner. There was a man famous for his valor and wealth, by name Erythras, a Persian by birth, son of Myozaeus. His home was by the sea, facing toward islands which are not now desert, but were so at the time of the empire of the Medes, when Eryrhras lived. In the winter-time he used to go to Pasargadae, making the journey at his own cost; and he indulged in these changes of scene now for profit, and now for some pleasure of his own life. On a time the lions charged into a large flock of his mares, and some were slain; while the rest, unharmed but terror-stricken at what they had seen, fled to the sea. A strong wind was blowing from the land, and as they plunged into the waves in their terror, they were carried beyond their footing; and their fear continuing, they swam through the sea and came out on the shore of the island opposite. With them went one of the herdsmen, a youth of marked bravery, who thus reached the shore by clinging to the shoulders of a mare. Now Erythras looked for his mares, and not seeing them, first put together a raft of small size, but secure in the strength of its building; and happening on a favorable wind, he pushed off into the strait, across which he was swiftly carried by the waves, and so found his mares and found their keeper also. And then, being pleased with the island, he built a stronghold at a place well chosen by the shore, and brought hither from the main-land opposite such as were dissatisfied with their life there, and subsequently settled all the other uninhabited islands with a numerous population; and such was the glory ascribed to him by the popular voice because of these his deeds, that even down to our own time they have called that sea, infinite in extent, Erythraean. And so, for the reason here set forth, it is to be well distinguished (for to say Erýthra thálatta, Sea of Erythras, is a very different thing from Thálatta erythrá, Red Sea); for the one commemorates the most illustrious man of that sea, while the other refers to the color of the water. Now the one explanation of the name, as due to the color, is false (for the sea is not red), but the other, ascribing it to the man who ruled there, is the true one, as the Persian story testifies."

Here is manifestly a kernel of truth, referring, however, to a much earlier time than the Empire of the Medes and their capital Pasargadae. It suggest the theory of a Cushite-Elamite migration around Arabia, as set forth by Glaser and Hommel: the story of a people from Elam, who settled in the Bahrein Islands and then spread along South Arabia, leaving their epithet of "Red" or "ruddy" in many places, including the sea that washed their vessels: "Sea of the Red People," or, according to Agatharchides, "of the Red King." See under §§ 4, 23, and 27.

Opone is the remarkable headland now known as Ras Hafun, 10° 25′ N., 51° 25′ E., about 90 miles below Cape Guardafui.

Glaser finds a connection between these names, Pano and Opone, the Egyptian "Land of Punt" or Poen-at, the island Pa-anch of the Egyptians (Socotra), the incense-land Panchaia of Virgil (Georgics, II, 139; "Totaque turiferis Panchaia pinguis arenis,") and the Puni or Phoenicians; who, he thinks, divided as they left their home in the Persian Gulf (the islands of King Erythras in the story quoted by Agatharchides); one branch going to the coasts of Syria, the other to those of South Arabia and East Africa. [9] [10] [11]


The name "Erythraean Sea" has been or is still used for the following places:

  • In the opening sentences of Herodotus's history, written in the 5th century BC, he refers to the Phoenicians having come originally from the Erythraean Sea.
  • In the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, written in the 1st century AD, as well as in some ancient maps, the name of the sea refers to the whole area of the northwestern Indian Ocean, including the Arabian Sea.[12]
  • In centuries past, the name "Erythraean Sea" was applied by cartographers to the NW part of the Indian Ocean, mainly the area around Socotra, between Cape Guardafui and the coast of Hadhramaut. This appellation has now become obsolete and the name Gulf of Aden is used, although for a smaller area. In maps where the NW Indian Ocean is named thus, the Red Sea appears as "Arabian Gulf".
  • The name "Erythraean Sea" was used as well to refer to some gulfs attached to the Indian Ocean, specifically, the Persian Gulf.[13]
  • As a name for the Red Sea, especially after the 19th century. The modern country of Eritrea was named after this ancient Greek name.
  • Since 1895, the name has also been applied to a large dusky region on the surface of planet Mars, known as Mare Erythraeum.
Names, routes and locations of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.
17th-century map depicting the locations of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Somalia - Gulf of Aden | Africa | Peace Operations Update | Publications | ZIF - Center for International Peace Operations".
  2. ^ Agatharchides.
  3. ^ Wilfred H. Schoff, Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, notes on §1.
  4. ^ Flavius Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Book III, chapter 50.
  5. ^ "Red Sea". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2008-01-14. Unknown parameter |encyclopedia= ignored (help)
  6. ^ The Persian Gulf 1928 (Page44) Arnold T Wilson
  7. ^ Strabo 1966 LOEB CLASSICAL LIBRARY Vol 5&7 (Page 3&4) Geographica
  8. ^ Strabo (July 1989). Geography, Volume VII: Books 15-16. ISBN 0674992660.
  9. ^ "Periplus of the Erythraean Sea".
  10. ^ "The Voyage around the Erythraean Sea".
  11. ^ "The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea and the Persian Gulf | SILK ROADS".
  12. ^ 1794, Orbis Veteribus Notus by Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d'Anville
  13. ^ Schoff, Wilfred H. (Wilfred Harvey) (1912-01-01). The Periplus of the Erythræan sea; travel and trade in the Indian Ocean. New York : Longmans, Green, and Co. pp. 50 – via Internet Archive.

External links[edit]