Well it’s possible. Extremely unlikely but possible. We know that there were Roman settlements in India – not formal settlements but groups of merchants clustered together trading with Indian merchants and that the Romans sailed to the south of India by sailing down the Red Sea to what is now Somalia and then turning left, relying on the Monsoon to carry them across.
This of course means that they sometimes missed and could concievably ended up shipwrecked on one of the islands of what is now Indonesia, or even on the coast of WA.
The Romans of course acquired knowledge of the sea route from the Greco-Egyptians of Ptolemaic Egypt, so the idea of oral history in Irian Jaya preserving the memory of Greek or Egyptian sailors king of interesting. Of course the impact of Christianity, and mission schools could have confused matters with Egypt becoming a synonym for ‘far away over the sea’ but we could say it’s possible. Unlikely but possible.
However in terms of historical narrative it’s worth zilch. As I wrote along time ago on a now dead blog server while discussing the impact of the discovery of Homo Floriensis and the thinness of the evidence:
Hobbits – or the Romans invade Broome …
posted Thu, 06 Mar 2008 07:55:12 -0800
Suddenly we’ve another stoush about wether homo floriensis is a new species of human being or a cretin. And why are we having this argument?
Because the sample size is so bloody small.
And because the sample size is so small we have intense arguments about the meaning of the evidence that are based on supposition and precedent. Nothing more.
To put this into context consider the following:
We know the Romans (well probably Graeco-Egyptians living in the Roman period) sailed regularly to India, and that Roman ambassadors, or merchants masquerading as ambassadors got to China in 166 probably coming via South East Asia by boat.
So it’s possible, though there’s no evidence, that the Romans traded as far as Java in search of spices, just as European traders did 1500 years later.
And it’s equally just possible, in the same way as happened to Dutch and Portugese ships, that every now and then one would be caught in a storm, blown south, and end up wrecked on the coast of WA, probably somewhere around Broome, or possibly further south.
If we found eveidence of such a wreck it would be interesting. Just that, Interesting. We already know a lot about Roman commerce. We know pepper was prized. Finding such a wreck would confirm that Roman trading ships sailed as far as what is today Indonesia, rather than relying on goods sold on at ports in India.
It would be a footnote. Homo Floriensis is not a footnote, purely because we know so little. We need more finds, more evidence before we can say either way. For now we have to suffer the clash of egos and reputations
We know (or at least we think we’re reasonably certain) that Roman ships did not sail much further than India and that any Roman merchants who ventured further afield would have sailed on other ships, and that the numbers involved were very small, such that they have left little trace in the historical record.
Equally we can guess that there will be some outliers due to ships blown of course and ending up somewhere they didn’t expect to. This does not mean that the Romans or the Greeks have discovered Australia, or New Zealand. Like Pliny’s Eskimos on the Rhine they’re an intriguing story, a happenstance, but nothing more …