Romans in India Followup

In the wake of the news from Chennai a few days ago (see: Romans in India Again), the Times of India has a nice little feature:

The discovery of Roman pottery remains in Naduvirapattu, near Tambaram, last week has once again thrown light on the extensive trade between southern India and Rome more than 2,000 years ago. The latest findings seem to indicate that the Roman traders travelled inland and may have had temporary settlements there.

Naduvirapattu may have been a transit point enroute to Kancheepuram, which was a centre for manufacturing textiles, says Jinu Koshy, assistant professor in the history and archaeology department of Madras Christian College who led the team that found the remains. The team dug up pieces of Roman amphoras, or pots, that were used to store wine.

Naduvirapattu is only the most recent instance of Roman contact with ancient Tamil country. Thousands of coins – gold, silver and copper – found in Karur carrying portraits of famous Roman kings showed that the contacts were extensive, says R Nagaswamy, scholar and former director of Archaeological Survey of India. Other notable sites for Roman remains in Tamil Nadu include Arikamedu, Kancheepuram and Alangudi in Pudukkottai.

Tamil country was one of the many teeming marketplaces of the ancient world. While globalization today may be about computers, software and American soda, 2,000 years
ago, it involved silk, spices, ivory and jewellery.

Much of the global trade was through the sea, besides the notable Silk Route over land. Several of these sea routes intersected or converged. Those carrying goods from China and the Far East, especially the Spice Islands, would meet those originating from Europe and headed for south India.

Sailing without the aid of compasses was hazardous and the cargo couldn’t be bulky but should be valuable enough -for the rich who could pay for these goods. South India, especially Tamil Nadu, was a source of the valuable products and a hub for transshipment of cargo, says P D Balaji, head incharge, ancient history and archaeology department of the University of Madras.

The Roman presence in the state has been supported by literary references including in Sangam works. The Yavanas – the term used by Tamils for Romans – left their own mark on Tamil society. They probably taught Tamils to make round coins instead of square ones, says Balaji. Romans were conscious of their India links. Ptolemy referred to Mylapore and Arikamedu in his works.

Pliny wondered why the Romans had to go all the way to India to get pepper. He probably said it tongue in cheek. After all, pepper was an important component of ancient India’s soft power, much like today’s ‘chicken tikka masala’. The Romans used pepper in everything – from their food to wines, sweets and medicines. And they paid for it in gold.

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