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Roman Antiquities in Tamilnadu (An Old and Rare Book)

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About the Book “In the centuries preceding and succeeding the Christian era, traders from the Roman Empire travelled far across the seas in simple sail boats to trade with India, thousands of miles away”. The commercial links between Rome and the Tamil country constituted an important phase in the economic development of the two regions. The evidence of the Roman presence in India has been found in various sites all over the country, the maximum sites being in Tamilnadu. A...
About the Book

“In the centuries preceding and succeeding the Christian era, traders from the Roman Empire travelled far across the seas in simple sail boats to trade with India, thousands of miles away”.

The commercial links between Rome and the Tamil country constituted an important phase in the economic development of the two regions. The evidence of the Roman presence in India has been found in various sites all over the country, the maximum sites being in Tamilnadu. A study of the subject by S. Suresh was sponsored by the C. P. Ramaswami Aiyar Institute of Indological Research, which has also published this book. It aims to exhaustively document and study all the Roman finds – coins, medals, jewellery, ceramics and sculptures – found in Tamilnadu.

An important section of the book is the series of tables listing all the roman finds in Tamilnadu, together with their detailed deposition and published regerences.

This book should prove useful to both scholars and students of ancient history and archaeology.


In the centuries preceding and succeeding the Christian era, traders from the Roman Empire, travelled far across the seas in simple sail-boats, to trade with India, thousands of miles away. In the beginning, they landed only on the west coast. They travelled on, through the jungles of the Western Ghats, which was tiger and elephant country, crossing the Palghat pass till they reached Coimbatore. Here they bought beryl, crystals and other semi-precious stones.

Even more impressive was the fact that the iron and steel for the Roman Empire was imported from Kodumanal, near Erode. That Indian industry provided iron and steel, which was so essential for the expansion of the Roman Empire, is a little known fact. It speaks very highly for the state of Indian industry that, 2000 years ago, our metal industry was so advanced that it supplied the Roman Empire, which was then ruling much of the known world.

In time, these traders sailed around the southern tip of India upto the eastern coast. The Roman word for cotton carbasina, was derived from the Sanskrit karbasa. In the ports of ancient Tamizhagam and in the land of the Andhras, they traded for cotton textiles, silk, iron and steel. In fact the cotton trade with India was so vigorous that a Roman emperor decried the vanity of the women who craved for Indian muslin, saying that it emptied the emperor's coffers of gold.

What did the Indians gain in return? Gold and silver, the love for which was as great then as it is today. It is this gold and silver which has now been found in various spots in Southern India. Coin and jewellery hoards, buried in pots, make up the major finds at excavations. Most of the gold and silver would have been melted, and we are lucky that some remains, for it tells us so much about the Indo-Roman trade.

The Roman trade tapered off by the 5th century A.D. By this time, the Romans had learnt from Indian technology, and industry in Europe had also developed. Mulberry trees were grown in Europe and the metal industry had developed to a fairly advanced extent. It is also likely that Indian industry did not supply the products required by the Romans due to the growing Indian population and its own demands. Whatever the reason, the Indian trade with Rome soon petered out to a memory and then a forgotten piece of history, till it was left to archaeologists to unearth various coins and artefacts and reconstruct the Indo-Roman trade.

This book is the result of Suresh's study of Roman Antiquities in Tamilnadu which was sponsored by the C. P. Ramaswami Aiyar Institute of lndological Research. We are very happy that it is being released at the inauguration of the exhibition on "Roman Antiquities" organised by the Government Museum, Madras.


Of all the regions of India, Tamilnadu has yielded the maximum number of Roman objects. But there has, so far, been no attempt to study all the finds in a systematic and integrated manner. Piecemeal studies of finds from a single or a small group of sites, however, abound. The present project was therefore envisaged to collate all the available information within the confines of a single volume. Besides exhaustively documenting each of the finds of Roman antiquities within Tamilnadu, some of the problems pertaining to the significance of the uneven distribution pattern of the various objects, the production of Indian imitations of the imported coins and ceramics and the slash-marks and other minute countermarks found on Roman coins in India have also been discussed here.

The focus of the present study is, as the title itself indicates, restricted to the present day state of Tamilnadu. But it is obvious that modern political boundaries have no relevance to studies pertaining to a very early period of history. In fact, the Damirica (Tamil country or Tamilakam) of the Classical writers included besides Tamilnadu, Kerala also, which was the land of the Cheras. Hence, several important sites lying outside modern Tamilnadu have also been referred to and discussed in the text. Of course, the evidences from Arikamedu which is, by far, the best known Indo-Roman trading station on the Coromandel coast and which has influenced the dating of several early historical sites throughout South India, has also formed an integral part of the study.

Many of the finds, especially the coins, discussed here have been physically examined; most of them form part of well- known collections and have been published. The listing has been made as accurate and up-to-date as possible, by including all available details about the recent discoveries which have, till date, not been studied or published. Full use has been made of all the relevant primary and secondary sources dealing with the antiquities.

The lists of Roman finds, appended at the end of the text, contain all necessary details about each of the finds including their present deposition and published references, if any. Hence, Roman antiquities referred to in the text have not been provided with separate footnotes, except in places where the various opinions pertaining to the significance of the objects are dealt with.

The interesting references t6 the early trade furnished by the Tamil Sangam Literature as also by the Classical writers, have been very briefly recalled, to provide the necessary historical background for the study. The emphasis has been to analyse the evidence from field archaeology on the manifold aspects of the maritime commerce between the Mediterranean and the Coromandel coast. In this context, it may be mentioned that there is an urgent need to intensify the excavation work on the coastal sites of Tamilnadu and Kerala, many of which are fast deteriorating due to varied factors such as flooding of the near-by rivers and cultivation.

Roman Trade in Tamil Sangam Literature

The Tamil Sangam works have been attributed to a period ranging from the first century B.C. to the second century A.D. Being bardic literature in praise of kings and heroes, its concern with aspects of economic and cultural life was incidental. Nevertheless, it does provide valuable insight into several little-known features of the Indo-Roman contacts.

The works refer to all foreign traders - Greek, Roman and West Asian - as Yavanas. But the reference to Yavanas bringing wine to the Tamil country (Purananuru 56, 17-20) undoubtedly indicates that the Yavanas were mostly Romans, as wine was one of the chief commodities of export from the Mediterranean world.

The Yavanas were in great demand in Tamilakam owing to their technical abilities (as builders, blacksmiths and carpenters) and also as bodyguards for the sovereigns. Being ignorant of the Tamil language and having no local sampathies, the Yavanas seem to have been ideal gatekeepers (Mullaipattu 59-62). Artisans from distant kingdoms such as Magadha and Avanti worked along with the Yavanas to build the splendid city of Kaveripumpattinam (Manimekalai 19, 107-108). The term yavanatachar may mean carpenters or stone-workers or architects. Western women were often included in the harems of rich princes and have been frequently used as personages in the classical drama of India.

The Yavana lamp, whose wick was capable of giving out a steady flame without a flicker, was also in great demand in South India. It was a novelty to the Indians (Perumbanatruppadai 316- 18). Some of them were like statues of women, bearing in their folded palms, the tahali or bowl to contain the oil for lighting the lamp (NedunaI101-103); these lamps are very similar to the pavai vilakku - a female figure, in metal, holding a lamp in its hands - well- known in Tamilakam even during the later periods. It has been suggested that although the Periplus is silent on the' Roman lamps, the fact that different metals are mentioned as imports (to India) indicates, that some at least would be finished products such as lamps'', Such beautiful Roman lamps have, however, never been found in any of the excavations in India; those reported from Arikamedu are all terracotta specimens and can, in no way, be compared to the lamps described in the Sangam works.

Unlike the Periplus, the Sangam works do not provide clear information about the various commodities imported from Rome to India. Wine is, however, mentioned, and this was one of the chief items of trade. Mediterranean wine, known for its superior quality and fragrance, was very popular among the Tamils and was mainly used by the upper classes of/the society (kings and nobles). In the Purananuru, a poet lauds the Pandya king and requests him to taste the sweet-scented teral (wine), brought in by the lovely ships of the Yavanas and served on trays of chiselled gold, by girls with sparkling wrists (Purananuru 56,17-20). It is a bit surprising to note that Roman coins which came to Tamilakam in large quantities, are hardly mentioned in the Sangam works.

Among the items exported to Rome were spices (mainly pepper and cardamom), fragrant woods, cotton fabrics, pearls, precious and semi-precious stones (including beryl). Again it is strange that there is no reference to the beryl and the cardamom in Tamil literature. Among the forest items exported were eaglewood and sandalwood (Silappadikaram XIV, 104-112). Silk (produced indigenously and also imported from China) and camphor were also sent to Rome (Silappadikaram XIV, 104- 112). Particularly interesting is the description, in Ahananuru, of Yavana ships landing at Muziris with gold, to obtain pepper in exchange (Ahananuru 149, 7-11).

Detailed descriptions of the ports and harbours of South India, as found in Ptolemy's Geography, do not exist in Tamil works, the sole exception being Pattinappalai (second century A.D.?) which deals, at length, about Kaveripumpattinam (orPuhar) built and developed by Karikala Chola. The Silappadikaram also alludes to a Roman settlement (yavanarirukkai) at Kaveripattinam (Silappadikaram 5-10).

Indo-Roman Trade in Graeco-Roman literature

The principal Classical sources are Pliny's Natural History, Strabo's Geography and the Peri plus Maris Erythraei (anonymous author). The Graeco-Roman works are more useful than the Tamil works because they are not only datable but also furnish more detailed and gtaphic descriptions of the nature of the Indo-Roman trade, ports, markets and items 'of export and import.

Of all the western sources, the most important and unique work is the Periplus written in Greek; it was meant to be a guide book for sailors operating in the Indian Ocean. It is believed to have been authored by one who must have travelled from the ports of the Red Sea to the Western coast of India, probably in the second half of the first century A.D.; the date of the work is, however, controversial. Among other things, the Periplus describes the routes from the Red Sea to the upper western coast of the Indian subcontinent and the far south; the major harbours and emporia and the commodities traded have also been discussed.

The lists of the items of trade in the Periplus corroborate and substantially add to the information provided by Sangam literature. The chief items of import from India, as mentioned in the Peri 'plus, include cotton fabrics, pearls, carnelian, agate and other gems, pepper, malabathrum and nard; the forest products - woods of different varieties - are, however, not listed among the imports from the Tamil ports. One of the most interesting references is to the 'Argaritic' muslins exported from Uraiyur (near Tiruchirapalli) (Peri plus 59); archaeological digs at the site have revealed a dyeing vat5, similar to the ones found at Arikamedu and Vasavasamudram7. Large quantities of pearls were exported to the west from the ports of Muziris (Muciri) and Nelcynda (Kottayam) (Periplus 56). The pearls seem to have reached the Malabar ports from the east coast (where pearl- fishing was very popular) through the Palghat pass. Unlike the pearls, carnelian, agate and other gems were sent to Rome not only from the Tamil country but also from Barygaza (Periplus 49). The ships which visited the Malabar ports were very large so that they could carry the pepper grown in that region' (Periplus 56).

Malabathrum - a plant product sometimes identified with cinnamon, was also transported to the Mediterranean from the west coast of India (Periplus 56). Nard, another aromatic plant found along the Ganges and may be in the Chera region also and chiefly used to extract an oil has been referred to, not only in the Periplus but also by Pliny and in the Tamil works (Purananuru 122, 502; Paditnupattu 2; Periplus 56). Ivory, silk, diamonds, sapphires and tortoise-shell either from Chryse island or from one of the islands along the coast of Damirica were other items of export to the Roman world (Periplus 56).

The Periplus lists the following items of Roman import into India (Periplus 56-60): coins (in great quantities), topaz, thin-clothing (not much), figured linens, antimony, coral, crude glass, copper, tin, lead, wine (it is surprising that the import of wine has been described as not much), realgar and orpiment. Wheat also arrived from Rome but it was meant exclusively for the Graeco - Roman sailors as there was no demand for it in South India. Of all these commodities, coral is mentioned by Pliny also; it seems coral was as valuable among the Indians; as Indian pearls were to the Romans (Naturalis Historia, XXXII-XI 21, 23).

Pliny mentions several other items of export from India. One of them is the root of the costus (not correctly identified till date) which has a burning taste and an equisite scent though in other respects, the plant is of no use. In the island of Patale (?) just in the mouth of the River Indus, there seems to have been two varieties of the costus plant - the black and the white. The latter was the superior one and was sold for five and half denarii a pound (Naturalis Historia, XII-XXV 41). Ebony was one of the prized commodities 'from India. It was exhibited at Rome by Pompey the Great on the occasion of his triumph over Mithridates. According to Fabius, ebony would not give out a flame, yet it burnt with an agreeable scent. It was of two kinds - the better one, which grows as a tree was rare and was smooth and free from knots and had a shiny black colour that was pleasing to the eye whereas the other which grows as a shrub was known throughout India. Virgil was all praise for the Indian ebony and stated that the wood does not grow in any other part of the world (Naturalis Historia, XII-VIII, 17; IX, 20). Yet another little-known import from India was macir (?), the red bark of the large root of a tree of the same name; the bark boiled with honey was considered to be a cure for dysentery (Naturalis Historia, XII-XVI, 32). Of course, beryl (Naturalis Historia, XXXVII-XX, 76; XXI, 80) and pepper (Natura/is Historia, XII- XIV, 26,29) have also been listed by Pliny.

A recent discovery which supplements the evidence from the Classical accounts is the papyrus from Vienna which documents the shipment of nard, ivory and textiles (all products of South India) from Muziris to Alexandria.


1 Introduction 1
2 Roman Coins 11
3 Roman Ceramics 37
4 Minor Roman Antiquities 53
5 Conclusion 58
6 Table - I: Roman Coin Finds in Tamilnadu 61
7 Table - Ia&Ib: Roman Coin Finds Outside Tamilnadu 71
8 Table - II: Rouletted Ware Sites 76
9 Table - III: Arretine Ware Sites 79
10 Table - IV: Amphora Finds in Tamilnadu, Arikamedu 80
11 Table - V: Conical Jar Sites 81
12 Table VI: Minor Roman Antiquities 82
13 List of Abbreviations 84
14 Roman Emperors (Genealogy) 86
15 Bibliography 88


Sample Pages

Item Code: NAN322 Author: S. Suresh Cover: Paperback Edition: 1992 Publisher: CP Ramaswami Aiyar Institute of Indological Research, Madras Language: English Size: 11.0 inch X 8.5 inch Pages: 94 (29 B/W Illustrations) Other Details: Weight of the Book: 295 gms
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