Black pepper, Indian gold

This article is also available in: Italiano

The history of black pepper, the first “black gold” in history, able to captivate entire empires, forcing them to incredible travels around the world. One of the greatest sources of wealth in Italy and in the Islamic world, with values that we can only imagine today.

Pepper, symbol of Roman power

Pepper has been cultivated since prehistoric times on the coasts of Malabar in southwestern India. Always considered of the highest value due to its rarity and its unique flavor, it has been used since then as a bargaining chip, which attracted many admirers around the world. Anyone who had the opportunity to trade with India, in fact, considered this as “The spice” par excellence, making it a coveted condiment for sovereigns of all kinds; just think that a black pepper grain was found in the mummy of Pharaoh Ramesses II (who died in 1212 BC). The Greeks, with the conquests of Alexander the Great, were also fascinated by it, passing on the wonder to the Romans.

black pepper

It was precisely in the Eternal City that this ingredient became a status symbol, indispensable for the tables of every respectable patrician. It is estimated that the Capitoline people spent 50 million sesterces each year on this trade, a figure that today probably has few equals in the world. Precisely because of the passion of the Romans, this love spread throughout Europe, ending up in the aims of even the Germanic barbarians. In fact, it seems that Attila, among gold, silver and so on, also asked for a ton of black pepper; the first real “black gold”.

The world for a spice

Once the Roman Empire fell, commerce quickly passed into the hands of the Arab world which transformed it into one of the most fruitful of all. Furthermore, once it arrived in the Mediterranean, the spice passed under the control of Genoa and Venice, which allowed the two republics to become among the most influential of the whole sea. Just the Italian power, pushed the Iberian peninsula to find a way to take possession of the precious traffic too, sending explorers all over the world. The Spanish crown found the Americas, that of Portugal, on the other hand, India.

black pepper

If Columbus headed west, the Lusitanian explorer Vasco da Gama preferred to circumnavigate the whole of Africa, becoming the first man to round the Cape of Good Hope, in today’s South Africa. The Portuguese will then be able to reach Malabar, first establishing the ports and then the colonies, thus inaugurating Iberian domination in this trade. In fact, exalted by the recent conquests, the two powers divided the world and the pepper trade with the treaty of Tordesillas of 1494. Unfortunately for them, however, due to the immense imports, pepper suffered an immense deflation. This led to a gradual loss of status, making it affordable for everyone.

A mobile value

Throughout its history, black pepper has had very different values depending on the historical period and political situations, making it an ante litteram ancestor of what oil is today. Initially, in fact, mainly long pepper was exported, coming from the north-west part of India and this because of its connection by land. Nevertheless, black pepper was already known but, due to its very high cost, the first was much preferred. With the Roman conquest of Egypt, however, things changed and the first was gradually replaced with the second, now much more accessible.


To inflict a very heavy blow to the long pepper, it will be the discovery of the Americas, which will introduce chilli pepper to Europe, a plant much more suitable for the Mediterranean. The expansion of the “spicy” will however also be the first step towards the deflation of the black one, destined to lose more and more value.

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