Abstract: West Meets East: Commerce Between Ancient Rome and South Asia

The  Roman Republic (second-first century B.C.E.) and later, the Roman Empire under Augustus, Tiberius (first century C.E.) and their successors had commercial relations with the kingdoms of South Asia, primarily India and Sri Lanka. These trade links, flourished for around six hundred years and, in due course, extended to diplomatic relations and even cultural interactions. The height of the contacts was, however, unquestionably in the first two centuries C.E. The Romans procured gemstones (chiefly beryl or aquamarine), textiles (silk and cotton), ivory, aromatic woods, spices (primarily pepper and cardamom) and peacocks from South Asia. In return, Rome exported wine as well as metals such as gold, silver, copper and antimony to South Asia.  The evidences for these contacts include the limited but significant references to the trade in ancient Greek, Latin, Tamil and Sanskrit literature and the recurrent discoveries of Roman coins, ceramics and a few other types of Roman objects in different parts of India and adjoining regions. The archaeological evidences within Europe are very meager mainly because of the nature of the commerce—most of the trade goods (spices, textiles, ivory, peacocks) reaching Europe were perishable commodities that have not survived for archaeology.

Based on extensive field research in South Asia and Europe, this lecture unfolds the little-known story of the Rome-South Asia contacts. The presentation takes you on a unique voyage across the places through which the Romans travelled in India and the interesting things—coins, ceramics, sculptures –that they left behind in those sites.


Select Bibliography:

S. Suresh, Symbols of Trade: Roman and Pseudo-Roman Objects Found in India, Manohar Publishers and  Distributors, New Delhi, 2004

Richard De Puma, “Review of S. Suresh, Symbols of Trade: Roman and Pseudo-Roman Objects Found in India, (New Delhi, Manohar, 2004)”, The International History Review, XXVIII 1 , 2006, pp. 137-39.

S.Suresh, Arikamedu:Its Place in the Ancient Rome-India Contacts, Development Cooperation Office, Embassy of Italy, New Delhi, 2007.