Maldives Culture - www.maldivesculture.com
Maldives Culture - maldives island
Latest Updates arrow Buddhist period arrow The Roman View of India - C.R. Whittaker 1998
Latest Updates
Advanced Search
Free Dhivehi-English Dictionary
=========
Presidency of Mohamed Nasheed
Gayyoom's Dictatorship 1978-2008
=========
Buddhism and Islam
Ibn Battuta 1343-45
Pyrard 1602-07
Rosset 1885
Maldives 1900-1922
Maldives 1924-1953
Majlis rule 1954-57
Suvadive Republic 1959-1963
President Nasir 1969-1978
Abdul Hakeem Hussein Manik
=========
Maldives History
Maldives Art
Scripts of Maldives
Maps of Maldives
=========
Traditional Stories
Magic - Fanditha
Photographs - Modern
Photographs - Historic
Ships of the Indian Ocean
Social Customs
Modern Stories
PDF Print E-mail
'To reach out to India and pursue the dawn' - The Roman View of India
C.R. Whittaker
University of Cambridge
from Studies in History, 14, 1, Sage Publications 1998


roman emperor augustus commissioning four greek geographers to map the world
Roman Emperor Augustus commissioning three Greek geographers to map the world.
Hereford mappa mundi c.1300


 
India Submissa
On the medieval mappamundi, or map of the world (drawn c. 1300), which hangs today in Hereford Cathedral in England, you can see on the bottom left-hand corner a portrait of Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, commissioning three geographers to survey the world. The picture derives its subject from various geographic world lists, or cosmographies, some of them anonymous, which were circulating in the later Roman Empire, and refers to the time when Julius Caesar, after the defeat of all his enemies, commissioned four Greek geographers to go to the four corners of the earth and collect information to draw a map of the whole world.

The work was completed between 30 and 24 B.C., by which time Julius Caesar was dead and his adopted son, the Emperor Augustus, had taken on the project. Augustus had just made himself ruler of the Roman world, following his great naval victory at Actium in 31 B.C. off the west coast of Greece. The battle was, in reality, the last in a bloody civil war between Augustus and his arch Roman rival, Antony, who had enlisted the help of Egypt.

But the victory was subsequently publicized not as a civil war but as the triumph of Roman Italy, led by a constitutional ruler, over an oriental, barbarian queen, Cleopatra. That was how the Augustan poet, Virgil, described the scene (supposedly engraved on the shield of Aeneas, founder of Rome):
'There stood Antony with barbaric wealth and strange weapons, victor over the people of the Dawn and the Erythrean shore, bringing with him Egypt, the strength of the East and furthest Bactria—while following him (for shame!) his Egyptian wife .... And when Apollo, god of Actium, saw all this from above and was bending his bow, all Egypt turned tail in terror, as did the Indians and all Arabia and the Sabaeans.'

The poet's message was clear. Augustus had conquered the East. The 'People of the Dawn' were Indians; the Erythrean Sea was the Indian Ocean. Bactria was a part of north-west India, and Indians had now been defeated by Rome. It was soon after this climactic battle that the map of Caesar was completed. We do not know what form it first took, and it was probably ultimately absorbed into the famous map designed by Augustus' lieutenant, Agrippa. But we know from the cosmographies of the later empire what features it contained, since they are set out in catalogue lists, under headings such as Mountains, Seas and Rivers. One of the lists is that of Roman provinciae extending to the four quarters of the world where Oceanus, the great river, encircled the earth. Many of these provinciae, such as Gaul (France) or Africa are what one would expect; i.e. they were 'provinces' of the Roman Empire, or what we would now call 'colonies', conquered or acquired by Rome. But under the heading in the section headed Oceanus Orientalis it is a surprise to find India, together with what the list calls 'gentes [that is, peoples or tribes] stretching to Oceanus on its outer edge'. This must mean that India was considered a 'province', literally a 'field of action', which the Romans claimed to control.

Maps are political constructs, encapsulating visions of imperial power, of which globes and orbs are symbols. Alexander the Great understood the importance of taking map-makers in his train when conquering the world. Augustus' map, the information for which was organized by his lieutenant Agrippa, was set up in a public portico in the centre of Rome near the Pantheon. The Elder Pliny, who was a near-contemporary, called this map 'an image of the orb of the world for the city to see' - in other words, a proclamation of Empire. The coins of Augustus show him seated on a globe, and the poet Virgil speaks of Augustus taking his imperium (which in Latin means both 'empire' and 'rule') past the Indians to where the giant Atlas 'turns the pole on his shoulders'.

quinarius coin of Augustus with Victory sitting on globe
Quinarius gold coin.
Augustus (left) and Goddess Victory (right) wearing sleeveless chiton, seated on globe, holding wreath with both her hands.
Source: Joe Geranio, Flickr


 
There is nothing unusual about such imagery, now or later. The same imperial glory was expressed when Cardinal d'Estrees gave Louis XIV a gift of globes of the earth and the sky, accompanied by the inscription, 'Where a thousand great deeds have been executed by him and by his orders, to the astonishment of so many nations.' Mercator's Atlas, published in an English translation in the seventeenth century, was intended to 'English-ize' the world for her imperial design. In British India, images abounded of Victoria seated with an orb in her hand, while more recently, Mussolini illustrated his new Roman Empire with a set of maps set up in the middle of ancient, imperial Rome.

Augustan rule and empire, therefore, was worldwide, 'an imperium without end', to use a much-quoted phrase of Virgil. The same idea of world rule is voiced by another contemporary poet, Ovid, when he says, 'For the city its space is the same as the world',' and this became a dominant theme of the age, specifically including rule over India, reflected in the title of this essay: 'They are preparing with their hands to reach out to India and pursue the Dawn.' ( 'Caesar, who is already victorious on the furthest shores of Asia, now drives the warlike Indians from Roman citadels.' Virgil.) The theme was repeated in the next generation by writers like the Elder Pliny, also in the context of the route to India. Pliny records that Augustus was greater than Pompey who had explored the land route to India, according to the contemporary writer Varro.

To dismiss it all as literary rhetoric is of course possible, but that would be to misunderstand the current cosmological view. The Romans believed that, whether or not a territory of the outer gentes (peoples) was formally organized within the boundaries of administration, Roman sovereignty extended to them, and that Rome had a suzerain's right to expect obedience or to intervene, if this right was challenged. The embassies 'frequently sent' by Indian kings had never been seen before, wrote Augustus in an account of his own achievements. This implied submission in Roman eyes: 'Now the Scythians and proud Indians seek his ruling', says Horace, an Augustan poet. (It may well be that the Ethiopian expeditions in 24 and 22 B.C. were also considered to have been defeats of the Indians, with whom they were often confused.)

Whether the submission was also accompanied by grants of specific port rights for Romans, is much disputed by modern historians. Our sources do, in fact, refer to some kind of privileges conceded to Roman ships by certain Indian kings - the Pandya kings in Tamil Nadu, for example, and the king who controlled Barygaza (Bharuch) in Gujarat. There is no reason to think that every ruler in the Indian continent would have acted identically, but the notion of kings concerned with port rights is perfectly plausible. One Roman source noted that some Indian kings had direct control of traders entering their ports, while Indian sources show that there was close royal patronage of trade guilds and their associated Buddhist monastries, which acted as staging posts for voyagers. Inscriptions of the period also record most-favoured-nation status being granted by their rulers to certain traders in some South Arabian ports. For example, the Mercantile Code of Timna (Qataban) of the late second or early first century granting the Gebbanites special trading status; and Pliny notes the monopoly operated by the Gebbanite king over cinnamon.

All this, however, is to some extent detail compared with the central principle that the Romans viewed Indians as subjects. In many ways the Parthians, east of the Euphrates, provide a comparative model. Although never part of the administered empire, the Parthians were deemed to have submitted to Augustus when they made a diplomatic return of captured standards, and in Roman iconography they are depicted kneeling, often in a religious setting. There is a not too dissimilar reference to India when Virgil imagined the carving on a temple door showing 'The battle of the Gangarides [the people of Ganga] and the weapons of conquering Quirinus [i.e., Augustus]. It is even possible India's submission was publicly displayed in the great temple of Mars the Avenger in the centre of Rome. This can be no more than a conjecture, since the temple is today a ruin. But we know that Augustus placed within the building female figures representing all the provinciae - in which, as we have seen, India was included - to glorify his military achievements, and that they were subsequently repeated in the temples of Augustus in the provinces.

This sense of the rights of Roman overlordship of India persisted after Augustus. Seneca, imperial adviser to the Emperor Nero, wrote a geography of India (now lost), which has been seen as an encouragement for an Indian expedition in the mid-first century A.D., and the Emperor Domitian possibly intended the same in the later first century A.D. The Emperor Trajan, in the early second century, was visited by Indian delegations and wistfully pondered over an Indian expedition in his old age - a desire that persisted into the later Empire, when emperors continued to regard India as a Roman fiefdom. However, the numerous references in the biographies of emperors contained in the Historia Augusta may not be historically valid for the third century but they betray a climate of opinion of the fourth century, when they were written.

The 'other' India
Just how much Augustus actually knew about India, or what he thought about India, we can only guess, based upon the extensive contemporary literature of his rule from poets such as Virgil, Horace and Ovid, quoted earlier, or from prose writers such as Diodorus the Sicilian. Above all, we can judge by Strabo, a Greek-speaking Roman from Asia, who was undoubtedly the finest geographer of the age, and whose views are thought to reflect those of Augustus. He was writing just as trade between Rome and India had opened up after the annexation of Egypt. These authors were not, of course, apologists employed by an imperial propaganda department, but they do represent a 'network of discourses' within the new regime, and reflect the attitudes of westerners in contact with the other world of India. It is this view that must be examined. A good many studies within the last decade have discussed the concept of alterity or 'otherness', stimulated by the binary polarities perceived by structural anthropologists as an explanation of myth. The concept was adopted into historiography by books such as Edward Said's Orientalism (1985) and Francois Hartog's Mirror of Herodotus (1988) as a tool to dissect the ideological fantasies held by one group of people about another. The conclusion of these studies is that such binary oppositions - raw/cooked, barbarian/civilized, etc. - usually serve the purpose of self-identity. They hold up a 'mirror' to one's own society, which shows how people 'represent themselves and others to themselves', thereby creating 'communities of interpretation', which are non-existent by themselves. Most of such studies have concerned western views of the eastern outsider, although Indian scholars have now begun to reverse the perspective. The perceptions of India, therefore, held by the Greeks and later by the Romans as they became Hellenized, are not straightforward cocktails of fact and fancy, but images with a subtext or subtexts, at several and different levels.

Some of the Roman accounts of India indeed mirror a different world. Pliny, for instance, says the Sinhalese were called antichthones - 'other-landers' in Greek - and Strabo continually stresses that the customs of India 'are very unusual compared to our own'. Strabo's Greek word for 'unusual' is a-etheia meaning 'oppositive of customary'. We see the classic polarities of 'otherness' when Indians are described as barbarians who eat raw flesh, including that of humans, or as those who could not speak the language of westerners. Speaking Greek had always been the prime way that Greeks differentiated themselves from barbarian 'others', particularly from those who distorted the sacred names. This was much as in India, where mlecca outsiders were distinguished from Brahman aryas by their alien pronunciation and exclusion from sacred Sanskrit rituals. In a music hall mime, popular in Roman Alexandria during the second century A.D. (to which I shall refer later), great amusement was had from Indian women babbling an unintelligible language; and in another popular tale the Indian king, although able to speak Greek, would not, because, he said, 'I am a barbarian by decree of fate.'

This theme of opposites was all pervasive. India was a land where 'animals that are tame in other countries are wild'; where some marriage and burial customs are bizarre and unusual, 'a thing quite different from what is customary among Greeks.' There the world was upside-down and unnatural. When others had snow, said the Roman writer Curtius Rufus, India was hot, and vice-versa; and then he added the significant words, 'The reason why nature has inverted her order like this is not apparent.' It was not nature, of course, who had inverted her order but the Romans. They had invented India to become, what Said calls, an 'ante-type of Europe'.

Such polarity, however, was not only self-identification of insiders against barbarians outside, but also an instrument to underline the primitiveness of India, which thus became a Utopia of Rome's own past frozen in the present, the relics of the Golden Age when men lived to phenomenal ages - of 130, 200 or even 400 years. The Jewish-Roman historian, Josephus, in the first century A.D., associated India with the Garden of Eden from where a river 'runs towards India and falls into the sea, called by the Greeks the Ganges.' And the second-century orator, Dio Chrysostom, described India as the land most favoured by fortune, where rivers ran with milk and honey and olive oil, and every day was a feast day. This image of fantastic fertility, where trees grew so tall they threw a shadow five furlongs, higher than any archer could shoot, where tigers were twice the size of lions and the jungles teemed with exotic beasts and enormous snakes, and where even the monkeys helped to collect the pepper, was not just a fairyland of myth and monsters. No doubt popular imagination was fuelled by 'magic carpet' tales and legends of the gods Dionysus and Herakles, who lived in or went to India. But these were also self-identifying images that served a different purpose.

The intention and perspective behind such texts about India was precisely that displayed towards other lands on the Roman periphery. In Tacitus' Germania (early second century), Germany was presented as a single land. Here, too, the German tribes were no more an ethno-geographic entity than India was. They were an imaginary Roman construct, imposed by 'the rhetoric of identity and the rhetoric of alterity' on a bewildering variety of groups beyond what we normally call the Roman frontiers. But, like Indians, they were people whom Rome considered within her sphere of power. Like India, Germany became a land of fabulous monsters and forests, paradoxically and simultaneously peopled by gross caricatures and models of noble savagery. Germans, just as Indians, were supposedly free men who possessed no slaves, who used no silver or gold, and so on.

Alterity, in short, was applied as a critique of a lost purity and openness in western society. Itserviced, for example, the well-known classical discourse on nurture versus nature, the oppositions of law against custom (nomos/physis) familiar in Greek philosophic debate. The nobility, bravery and simple life of the Brahman philosophers, who did not cling to life, deeply impressed almost every westerner, since as one writer says, 'We from the first have been taught the opposite.' Mandaris, the Brahman leader, in one encounter with a westerner, supposedly intervened directly in the philosophic debate by declaring that the Greeks were wrong to prefer convention to nature.

An interesting angle to the Brahman encounters is its adoption by early Christians, which illustrates perfectly the theme of India as the mirror of western Roman society. In the papers of the greatest of all Roman bishops of the fourth century, Ambrose of Milan, was found a work called 'Concerning the people of India and the Brahmans', attributed to an unknown Christian bishop of Helenopolis in Asia Minor. It seems to be an amalgam of various texts circulating in the Roman-Greek East, based upon the famous meeting between Alexander the Great and the Brahman philosopher Dandamis, as told by Hellenistic writers. What is important is the fact that this work is a late Roman, Latin translation, into which had been woven a violent and obviously anachronistic attack, supposedly by the Brahman guru, upon the follies of Rome - the filth and luxury of the city, the wild beast and gladiatorial shows, the feasting, drunkenness and sexual deviation. But, says Dandamis in conclusion, 'The Brahmans appear to be free from all these evils we have named.'

It comes as no surprise, in the light of what has been said about the function of alterity, to find that Ambrose was the champion of a new ascetic movement in the Church. Another contemporary Latin translation of the same work was made by Jerome, also a Christian ascetic, but this time the scourge of corrupt monks. In his translation, the message of Dandamis, the Brahman, is made to condemn the monastic style of life of the Brahmans and the luxuries of paganism. The Brahman episode and their monotheism was equally used by the Arians to support their theological attack on the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity. What we witness in the later Roman Empire, therefore, is the re-silvering of the Indian mirror by each spectator for his own objective.

Indians, living in a state of nature, had no thieves, no lawsuits, no borrowing or lending, and always respected the truth. It did not matter that many of the antitheses were untrue and known to be untrue. India did have slaves (Sanskrit dasa) and debt-slaves, while money and gold transactions were certainly practised from an early period; what counted, however, was the ideological rhetoric, for which India served as a 'laboratory of mankind', to use the phrase of a nineteenth century anthropologist referring to India. But, as in the nineteenth century, anthropology was the handmaid of imperialism, used to impose order upon a land that lay on the edge of western imperial aspirations. And it is this third, political, aspect of alterity that returns to the subject with which this essay began.

We must, says Said in response to critics of the theory of alterity, go 'beyond the polarities and binary oppositions' of 'othering', to the more political subtext of orientalism in modern historiography. The subtext was drawn originally from Greek and Roman sources. The nature-versus-law debate of Greek philosophy, referred to earlier as a means of reinforcing Utopian arguments, was also read as an opposition between a legally organized and controlled West against a libidinous and corrupt East; a civilized land against not just a barbarian, but a barbarous, people. India, as the mythical birthplace of Dionysus/Bacchus, the leader of the wild pyrrhic dance and inventor of wine, became the land of drinking to excess and outlandish dance. In the Alexandrian mime, noted earlier, one character says, 'Wine is not for sale in this country [India]... so they drink it neat' - a sign to Romans of drunkards; and the Indian king leads a dance to the moon, described as 'intemperate in rhythm... a frenzied seric step.' 'Indian revels and drinking bouts' were a byword in Republican Rome, we are told. Such stereotypes have been used in history by every colonizing master against 'the natives'.

With dancing and drinking went gold, jewels and corruption of morals. The fabulous gold of India is one of the earliest topoi (or literary set pieces) about India. It included the extraordinarily persistent myth of a gold-digging ant, which, even if sometimes regarded with scepticism, was nevertheless repeated in almost every ancient description of India from the fifth century B.C. to the later Roman Empire. Interestingly, the ant, sometimes the size of a fox and with a hide like a panther, reappears in medieval stories of Prester John; and we are told Suleiman the Magnificent received the gift of an Indian ant the size of a dog. But such tales of luxurious dress, enormous jewels and corruption mirror, more than anything else, the preoccupations of the external reporters.

'The sea', says the Roman writer Curtius Rufus, writing about India in the second century A.D., 'casts upon the shore precious stones and pearls and nothing has contributed more to the opulence of the natives.' But, he adds - and this is where the author reveals himself - 'they spread the common evil to foreign nations.' The moral obsession with the corrupting influence of Indian imports was a critique not of Indian but of Roman society, a theme that is favoured by Roman satirists. The Indian despot who dared not sleep in the same bed all night for fear of plots, looks remarkably like a Greek tyrant or a Roman emperor.

Ancient Orientalism, therefore, like its modern counterpart, was a tool of racial domination, often combined with gender domination and sexual degradation, as also in more modern epochs. Robert Calasso's intriguing book, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, begins with the rape of Europa, an Asian maiden (despite her name), by Zeus in the form of a bull, incarnation of western masculinity. 'If it is history we want', says Calasso, 'then it is a history of conflict.' have already suggested that an allegorical female Caryatid figure of India may have stood in the Temple of Mars in Rome as one of the exempla servitutis (examples of slavery), placed around the central statue of the victorious male figure of Augustus. The account of the emperor's victory at Actium, with which I began, was told not as defeat of a Roman rival but conquest over an erotic, Asian harlot, a theme reinforced by contemporary Roman oracles and a long tradition of mistrust. Many of the Indian stories current in Rome focused on lax, barbarian sexual practices in India: copulation took place like animals, in the open air; marriage contests were held for women; all Indian wives were would-be prostitutes; and so on. Roman satire associated scents and ointments with Indian prostitutes on the streets of Rome. And in the Alexandrian mime, the women archers attending the barbarian king were called by the Greek clown 'daughters of pigs' to raise a laugh.

Gender domination was only one aspect of western imperial rights. For the people of Rome, ever since Aristotle, those who lived in Asia, although intelligent and skilful, were 'in continuous subjection and slavery'. Indian slaves, eunuchs and prostitutes were evidently a familiar sight in Rome, even if not every slave with the name 'Indus' or 'Indicus' really came from India. The theme has subsequently been repeated by Montesquieu's belief in Asia's 'spirit of servitude' and Marx's 'Asiatic' exceptionalism as explanations of its stagnation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, just as the notion of the unique superiority of the western economy, fed by Adam Smith, Hegel and Weber, was also inherited from Greco-Roman binary comparisons. Even Lord James Bryce's distinguished work on law in 1914 concluded that Indians were beyond cultural assimilation with the West because they were 'intellectually backward'.

It is, however, important to stress the reasons behind the crises of identity which stimulated the need to distinguish self from the barbarian in history. They were always closely connected vyith military conflict and domination. Such polarities were unknown in Greece before the tensions of the Persian Wars of the fifth century B.C., after which came a rapid Greek expansion into the Persian empire. The bulk of 'othering' literature about Indians in Rome took their origin from Greek writers who accompanied Alexander's military expansion and followed his imperial ambitions - ambitions inherited by the successor Hellenistic Seleucid and Ptolemaic dynasties. It was this latter period which produced the anthropologies of India by Megasthenes, Demarches and others. It cannot be coincidence that these Hellenistic writers were then culled and collected in the new imperial age of Augustus by Juba, Strabo and the poets, just when the emperor was reinventing the concept of Romanitas and claiming to follow in Alexander's footsteps. In the century after Augustus, the Emperor Trajan took Alexander as his role model in the context of his Indian ambitions and diplomacy, and there were even contemporary rumours that an army of 70,000 could take control of the land.

It is perhaps not too fanciful, therefore, to associate this new phase of imperialism with the work of a number of writers who were contemporaries of Trajan: Ptolemy, who richly enlarged the cosmic and geographic information about India; Aelian, who assembled a dictionary of curious Indian animals; or Arrian, who wrote an anthropology of India derived from that of Megasthenes. New histories and lives of Alexander were produced by Arrian, Curtius Rufus and Plutarch. But if we ask what lay behind this new burst of interest in the East, we remember that Trajan had inherited an empire racked by factions at home and uncertainties on the frontiers. The invention of the barbarian has always been a means of resolving internal tensions. Barbarians are, as Cavafy says in his poem Waiting for the Barbarian, 'Some sort of solution.'

The Orient of antiquity, therefore, existed much as it has been described in later periods, as Europe's 'silent partner', over which the West's right to rule was defined (to use Said's phrase) by 'paradigmatic fossilization' and by a belief in superior western rationality. Once we recognize this fact, we should be suspicious about many Greco-Roman assertions of primacy. Perhaps the best known example of this is Europe's so-called discovery of the monsoon, much as western explorers later claimed to have discovered the Nile or the Victoria Falls. In the Indian case, the different accounts about who precisely made the discovery, whether it was Eudoxus at the court of Ptolemy Euergetes, c. 116 B.C., relying on information from a half-dead Indian castaway, or an unknown ship's captain called Hippalus, the stories have rightly been regarded with scepticism, even for reasons of internal inconsistencies.

Hippalus was almost certainly invented from the Greek sailors' name of Hipalus, given to the southwest monsoon, and Strabo himself believed Eudoxus' voyage was nonsense. But our conclusions here lead us to add that the stories depended heavily on the stereotypes of the silent 'other' of India, its primitive fossilization and inferior rationality. Despite this, the view persists that it was westerners who first understood how to use the winds for commerce. We never hear of Indian shipping and sailors coming to the West, - so it was argued, since they would not, or could not, use the monsoon winds. Their ships were too small or too fragile or incorrectly rigged, and their trade too underdeveloped. It is hard to know whether this is true or not; but it is a dangerous argument from silence and should cause us to pause.

In fact, sailors of northwest India had long been familiar with the Greco-Indian tradition of ship-building, since Alexander had built a fleet at the mouth of the Indus, and Megasthenes reported on the ship-builders of Chandragupta's navy, who hired ships to traders. The existence of large ocean-going ships is apparently supported by Vedic texts and Buddhist Jatakas. The Periplus early in the Roman period says that merchants of Barygaza were sending large ships to Arabia carrying heavy teak beams and metals, while large ocean-going ships, called Kolandiphonta, were sailing the South Asian seas.

There is also the archaeological and literary evidence, however scant, of an Indian presence on the island of Socotra - the ancient Dioscurides - which lies conveniently on the 12th parallel latitude for ships steering by the stars across the open sea, the monsoon route between Cape Gardafui in Africa and the Malabar coast. Use of the gentler prevailing northeast winds in winter to cross from India to the West is no problem, even for small ships, which, if they had been too fragile to manage the return strong Sou'westers of summer, could have returned along the Arabian coastal route. In sum, if there is a lack of evidence of Indian ships in the West, it was not because they did not know how to reach the West; Indian ships clearly did sometimes use the coastal route. Possibly, there were religious taboos in India on overseas travel. More probably, there were political impediments on the Yemen coast and fierce restrictions on entering Ptolemaic Egypt, as our ancient sources testify. But I doubt if we have sufficiently considered the possibility that the lack of epigraphic evidence of Indian sailors in Ptolemaic Egypt is concealed by the fact that Indo-Greeks of northwest India spoke Greek and were, therefore, indistinguishable from Egyptian Greeks. Even in the Roman period the evidence of Indians in the West is minute, but much of it refers to Indians speaking Greek.

As for commercial activity, no one, surely, can believe in the lack of sophistication of Indian trade, when confronted with the evidence assembled by recent research; evidence of Indian terms for commercial transactions in the sutras of Panini, probably dating from the third century B.C., the role of the Buddhist and Jain institutions in trading guilds, and the existence of commercially oriented economies long before the arrival of the Romans, who profited from them. All this contrasts starkly with the statement by Pausanias, the Greek tourist of the second century A.D., who claimed to have heard from sailors going to India that they engaged in primitive barter; this, if true, probably reflected a Roman, not Indian desire to avoid transactions in coin. Barter, in any case, is no index of the levels or character of trade transactions.

Just one footnote before we leave the silent 'other' of India. We cannot ignore the Indian view of the outsider yavanas in the equation, ably analyzed by Indian scholars. Indians were just as exclusive, and distorted reality because of their own internal tensions as much as did the Greek and Roman mirror. The term yavana as mlechcha does not appear before the first century B.C. Purana texts, after they had become resident intruders in Aryavarta, thus provoking a formalization of arya norms. One spin-off from such exclusivity was the way that Indian sources fed Greco-Roman prejudices about their exotic and barbaric 'otherness'. Bizarre tales of one-eyed Indian men or people with ears so big they touched the ground, were, says Megasthenes, 'described to him by the [Brahman] philosophers.' They may have just been having a good laugh at his expense, but one suspects an element of resentment at outsider curiosity. Pliny cynically suggested that reports about the origin of cinnamon and casia from birds' nests or from marshes guarded by bats and snakes were 'tales invented by natives to raise the price of the goods.' So much for supposed Indian lack of business acumen!

Frozen India
In view of the distorting effect of alterity, it is not surprising how persistent, how deeply frozen, the information on India was for the Roman world. This despite the supposed trade boom of the first century A.D. and continuous contacts thereafter. In all the four hundred years of Roman-Indian relations, it was as though the clock had stopped in the third century B.C., where the hands had been set by Hellenistic historians and geographers - the followers of Alexander the Great, Megasthenes the Seleucid ambassador who is said to have gone to the court of Chandragupta, and the geographer of Alexandria, Eratosthenes. So, for example, Arrian, a Roman commander in the second century A.D., who wrote two works on India, says, 'Beyond the River Hyphasis [Beas] I cannot speak for certain, since Alexander did not go beyond it' or, 'I shall now give the dimensions of India, following Eratosthenes... as the most trustworthy authority.'

Eratosthenes lived 400 years before Arrian, and countless traders had gone beyond the River Beas. It is not as though further information was not available. Strabo, the Augustan geographer, had read later writers about south India, including Poseidonius c. 100 B.C., who had given the correct orientation of India which every sailor could verify. Yet Strabo rejects them in favour of Megasthenes and Eratosthenes. The same applies to later writers, such as the second century A.D. writer Dionysius, called Periegetes ('the guide book writer') whose popularity led to a translation into verse by a Roman senator, Avienus, in the fourth century, and who was still read in the sixth century. Yet, the information he peddles is still the same tired old 'Wonders of India' from Hellenistic times. Embalming of all things Indian is even more striking when placed alongside the frequent references to first-hand information available to authors like Strabo and Arrian from sailors and traders - 'the busy merchant' who 'hastens to the far-away Indias by sea.'

An important exception to this tradition was the Elder Pliny. He was a Roman admiral, which may be important, who died in A.D. 70. Among the various and varied information he collected in his massive Natural History there are over two hundred references to India. But even Pliny's work is a curious hotch-potch of frozen Hellenistic miracula and monsters mixed up with absolutely up-to-date information about winds and sailing routes or the value of coral in India, more like a journalist than a scientist, says one modern commentator.

Just to give one example, almost every Hellenistic writer says that the two constellations around the North Pole, Ursa Major and Minor (the Roman Septentriones) were invisible from India, either one or both, for all or part of the year, and from various latitudes. The information is repeated by Pliny four times in various contexts, talking about both Sri Lanka and northern India. In antiquity, however, the celestial North Pole lay midway between its present position and the star Alpha Draconis. The effect of this was that the Pole Star itself (of Ursa Minor), which today lies only 4° above the northern horizon at Sri Lanka and is difficult to see, was easily visible in antiquity at 15° above the horizon. All the other principal stars of the two constellations, moreover, which circled around the Pole Star, while less visible at certain periods, would have been more visible at others, especially in the higher Indian latitudes, where they never fell below the horizon. So Pliny was perhaps half-right to say, as he does, that the constellation stars could not be seen from Sri Lanka, yet quite wrong about the invisibility of Ursa Minor in more northerly latitudes.

The main point, however, is this. Pliny could easily have verified his information from sailors, who must have used stars to sail the latitude of 12 degrees in the open sea from the Horn of Africa to Nelkynda on the Malabar Coast. But he did not. So Pliny stands between the high culture of the poets or Hellenistic-dominated litterateurs and the technical or scientific writings deriving from practical experience of sailors and traders. Of the latter we have two important examples. The first is the anonymous Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, almost certainly written, just before Pliny, in the mid-first century A.D.; the second is the work of the mathematician, astronomer and cosmic geographer, Ptolemy, who lived probably in Alexandria in the mid-second century A.D. It is not necessary here to discuss these two authors who themselves lived in different worlds, one of traders and the other of armchair scholars, except to say that they show how much Roman travellers knew about the Indian coast and even about some inland political conditions, very little of which reached the literary salons.

The question, however, we have to answer is why? Why this determination to keep India in the deep-freeze? Before answering, we must remind ourselves that beneath the surface of high classical, conservative literature in any culture there always lies almost concealed a layer of culture of the streets, the bars and the theatre, what we would today call 'pop' culture, which plays an important part in the lives of the poor, and never more than in the busy cosmopolitan environment of capital cities and sea ports. Not surprisingly, what the ordinary Roman knew most about when India was mentioned were the fortunetellers, slaves and prostitutes using fancy, exotic scents, whom they met on the street; or the freaks and pictures of strange animals that were shown in public shows; or the exotic plants like cinpamon, and spices like pepper, which were displayed in public ceremonies or occupied the huge market warehouses.

But popular culture has a habit of becoming the high culture of the succeeding age. The Roman East in the second and third centuries was just such an age of transition, especially in the huge ports of Antioch, Carthage and Alexandria. Alexandria was the chief depot for the India trade via the Red Sea ports and the Nile. It was here that ointments and drugs were manufactured from Indian ingredients, where the bonded warehouses held goods in transit for the West, and where sailors and merchants and Indian travellers congregated on the streets and theatres. By chance one of the mimes performed in the theatre at Alexandria has survived on papyrus, to which several references have been made. It is the romantic story of Charition, who was caught by pirates and fell into the hands of Indian barbarians, until rescued by her brother. The Indian king speaks Greek but his followers speak a comic 'double-dutch' - words that sounded like an Indian language but distorted to be funny. That meant there must have been people in the audience who could recognize the distortions and hence were familiar with an Indian language.

Another piece of 'pop' literature of the Roman East in the late second or early third century is the romantic novel by Xenophon of Ephesus, again a story of pirates who capture two lovers and sell them as slaves in Alexandria; the girl, Anthea, is bought by a wealthy Indian prince, who has arrived, we are told, 'for sight-seeing in the city and transacting business'. On his return trip to India following the route up the Nile to Coptos, 'with many camels and asses and pack-horses, as well as lots of gold and silver', he is killed by robbers who operate on 'the route which was much used by merchants who travelled regularly to Ethiopia and India'.

These are only romantic stories but there is no mistaking the genuine mercantile information they contain, which formed the popular view of India - pirates, wealthy rulers and gold - the information you could find in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, written by the anonymous pilot in the first century. It was similar, too, to the kind of remarks made in the popular dialogues of Lucian in the late second century, who also lived in Alexandria as a petty government official. In Lucian we meet again the old stereotypes, luxuries, exotic animals and Brahman philosophers; and there are some interesting, mocking remarks about phoney historians who promise 'to write about future happening in India and a Periplus of the Outer Sea'. Filtering into these imaginary dialogues are genuine details about travellers and traders - a letter from Muziris (Cranganore, Malabar Coast) or from the Oxydraci (Punjab), catching the boat for India at Clysma (near Suez), and so on.

Lucian, in this respect, is not unlike another Eastern Greco-Roman, Philostratus, who wrote an almost certainly fictitious tale about a popular miracle-worker, Apollonius of Tyana, making a journey overland to India to consult Brahman philosophers. Most of it is the usual Hellenistic rubbish of popular imagination, but mixed up with it are references to ships bringing back tigers, and to pirates (twice), who were clearly an obsession for western sailors; and there is a particularly informative remark about a pilot of an Egyptian ship who was one of four shareholders of the cargo.

Last, but by no means the least in this line-up of popular culture, comes Christianity, which was very much a symptom of the age of transition in the late second and third centuries - in Egypt and in Alexandria, in particular, where men were trying to formulate a philosophic basis for a religion that had begun as a popular cult of revelations and miracles. The subject of Christianity in India has been much studied, so it is only necessary to underline a point that has often been noticed. Christianity, from its origin, was popular among a very different social class from that of the more sophisticated readers of Greco-Roman classical literature - a class which included sailors and traders; and this origin is reflected in sources used by Christian texts.

One of the major figures in this early movement was Clement, another inhabitant of Alexandria, who lived in the mid-second century. Scholars are divided as to how much his Christianity was influenced by Buddhists, especially by their concept of the stewardship of wealth, but although he included some standard stories about India that went back to Megasthenes, he also made the first clear reference to Buddhism, which we know was closely associated with yavana traders. Eusebius, who is a fairly reliable Christian Church historian, says, that Clement's teacher, Pantaenus, had travelled to India, where he found the Christian gospel was already known, presumably brought by traders, as so often happened.

If we had to sum up popular western perceptions of India, therefore, we could say that, while there was some overlap with classical heritage from Hellenistic culture, albeit a culture vulgarized by street gossip and public spectacles, there was another distinct channel of information that came from below through travellers' tales. How do we explain, I asked earlier, this dichotomy between the receptivity of the upper class and lower class cultures to intelligence that was manifestly available about India? One reason, as I have tried to show, was that the elite preferred the mirror of barbarian Orientalism to be unclouded by the truth, in order to justify their own imperial ambitions and to reflect an image of their own superiority.

But a second reason was respectability and snobbery. Remember Lucian's comment that you could not trust those who wrote a Periplus, since it was all lies. Traders were cheats and villains. The attitude of Strabo was typical. 'Only a few traders,' he says, 'have sailed as far as the Ganges and they are idiotai people who are no use for the historia of places'. Both Greek words are ambiguous since idiotai meant ignorant as well as private; historia meant enquiry as well as history. The sense, however, is clear that a trader cannot be relied upon for respectable geography. Marinos of Tyre, the source of Ptolemy's information, is explicit as to why they must not be trusted: 'they are too engrossed in their own business to care about finding the truth, and from sheer boasting they exaggerate the truth.' That probably explains why Ptolemy's geography is mainly confined to an uncomplicated list of port names and does not contain much information about the interior. For, says, Dio Chrysostom, 'only a few go there [to India] in pursuit of trade and they mix only with people of the coast, who are Indian people and are of low repute.'

Such social stigmas, that traders were untrustworthy, ignorant men, and that not many went to India, anyway, serve as comments on the economy of Roman trade with India, about which much excellent work has recently been written. But it would take another essay to explain why I believe there may be dangers in exaggerating the size and importance of such trade.










<Previous   Next>
top of page

Maldives Culture, Powered by Joomla!; free resources by SG web hosting