Indo-Roman relations began during the reign of
Augustus (23 September
63 BCE – 19 August 14 CE), the first emperor of the Roman Empire.
The presence of Romans in the
Indian Subcontinent and the relations
between these regions during the period of the
Roman Empire are poorly
documented. Before the conquests of Alexander in the Indian
subcontinent, there are no surviving accounts by contemporaries or
near-contemporaries, so modern understanding depends on more abundant
literary, numismatic, and archaeological evidence, mainly relating to
the trade between them.
1 Early contacts
2 The Periplus
3 Pliny's accounts
5 Later references
6 Archaeological record
7 Numismatic record
8 See also
11 External links
An Indian silver coin (c. 1st century BCE) depicting the local ruler
wearing Roman-type helmet with bristles
Kushan ring with portraits of
Septimus Severus and Julia Domna, a
testimony to Indo-Roman relations.
Sino-Roman relations and Indo-Roman trade
Indo-Roman relations were built on trade. Roman trade in the
subcontinent began with overland caravans and later by direct maritime
trade following the conquest of Egypt by
Augustus in 30 BCE.
Strabo (II.5.12), not long after
Augustus took control of
Egypt, while Gallus was Prefect of Egypt (26–24 BCE), up to 120
ships were setting sail every year from
Myos Hormos to modern-day
"At any rate, when Gallus was prefect of Egypt, I accompanied him and
Nile as far as Syene and the frontiers of Ethiopia, and I
learned that as many as one hundred and twenty vessels were sailing
Myos Hormos to India, whereas formerly, under the Ptolemies, only
a very few ventured to undertake the voyage and to carry on traffic in
Strabo II.5.12. 
Augustus maintained the Ptolemaic Red Sea ports and the picket service
from the Red Sea to the Nile, whence goods could be carried downstream
to the ports of
Pelusium and Alexandria. He also replaced the
Ptolemaic patrol fleet on the Red Sea to keep piracy in check. He
received embassies from Indian kings in 26 and 20 BCE and, although
little specific is known about them, as Carey puts it: "These missions
were certainly intended for something more than an exchange of empty
By the time of Augustus, if not before, a sea-captain named Hippalus
had "discovered" (or, rather, brought news to the West of) the
relatively safe and punctual contact over the open sea to India by
Aden on the summer monsoon and returning on the
anti-trade winds of winter. This would be made safer and more
convenient by the Roman sack of
Aden in a naval raid c. 1 BCE.
Cassius Dio (d. sometime after 229 CE) in his Hist. Rom. 54.9 wrote:
Many embassies came to him (Augustus), and the Indians having
previously proclaimed a treaty of alliance, concluded it now with the
presentation, among other gifts, of tigers, animals which the Romans,
and, if I mistake not, the Greeks as well, saw for the first time. . .
The overland caravans would gain more convenient access into the
Indian sub-continent after the expansion of the
northwestern India during the 1st century CE, and then down the Ganges
Valley in the early 2nd century.
"From those land routes at least in the time of
Indian embassies reached Rome. At least four such embassies are
mentioned in the Latin literature, namely 1) the embassy from Puru
country (the territory between the
Jhelum and Beas) took with it to
Rome serpents, monals, tigers and a letter written in Greek language,
2) the embassy from Broach was accompanied by a Buddhist monk named
Germanos, 3) an embassy from the Chera country. It was reported in
Rome that at
Muziris (near Cranganore) was built a temple in honour of
Augustus and 4) and embassy from the Paṇḍya country (Pandya
Kingdom) brought with it precious stones, pearls and an elephant. We
know that in the time of
Augustus commercial relations between India
Rome grew but in this the balance of trade was in favour of India
from the very beginning and as a result of this Roman gold poured into
The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, written by an anonymous
sea-captain in Greek, can now be confidently dated to between 40 and
70 and, probably, between 40 and 50 CE.
The author of the Periplus lists many ports of the Indian subcontinent
Barbarikon at the mouth of the Indus in the west near modern
Karachi in Pakistan, right around the southern tip of the Indian
peninsula and north as far as the mouth of the
Ganges near modern
Kolkata (Calcutta). In contrast to the wealth of information on some
of the west coast ports, the author gives no political information on
the ports up the east coast of India, perhaps indicating that he
had not personally visited them. In fact the text seems to imply that
western vessels normally did not travel beyond the tip of Indian
peninsula, probably leaving onward trade to local boats as the passage
between India and the northern tip of Palaisimundu or Taprobanê (Sri
Lanka) was very shallow for trans-oceanic vessels, while the route
around the island was long and may have forced skippers to pass
another season in the region before the winds were right for the
return to Egypt.
Indian art also found its way into Italy: in 1938 the
was found in the ruins of
Pompeii (destroyed in an eruption of Mount
Vesuvius in 79 CE).
Gaius Plinius Secundus (23 – 25 August 79 CE), generally known as
Pliny the Elder, writing c. 77 CE, left probably the most important
account of India and its trade with
Rome that has survived in
Classical literature. He gives quite a lot of detail about India,
albeit not all accurate, but his observations do more than just
outline the bare bones of history, and help give us some picture of
how intimately Indian culture and trade was becoming known:
"Coral is as highly valued among the Indians as Indian pearls. It is
also found in the Red Sea, but there it is darker in colour. The most
prized is found in the Gallic Gulf around the Stoechades Islands, in
the Sicilian Gulf around the Aeolian Islands, and around Drepanum. . .
. Coral-berries are no less valued by Indian men than specimen Indian
pearls by Roman ladies. Indian soothsayers and seers believe that
coral is potent as a charm for warding off dangers. Accordingly they
delight in its beauty and religious power. Before this became known,
the Gauls used to decorate their swords, shields and helmets with
coral. Now it is very scarce because of the price it commands, and is
rarely seen in its natural habitat." Pliny. Natural History (77 CE)
(XXXII, chaps. 21, 23).
Although his estimate of the value of Rome's trade to the East at some
100 million sesterces annually (Pliny, NH, VI, 26, 6 & NH, XII,
41, 2) has often been thought to be an exaggeration but, if it is
interpreted as referring to the total value of the trade rather than
as coinage, it becomes quite believable:
"For example, just one documented consignment from
kingdom, modern-day South India) to
Alexandria consisted of 700-1,700
pounds of nard (an aromatic balsam), over 4,700 pounds of ivory and
almost 790 pounds of textiles. This has been calculated as worth a
total value of 131 talents, enough to purchase 2,400 acres of the best
farmland in Egypt. When it is borne in mind that an average Roman
cargo ship would have held about 150 such consignments, Pliny's figure
becomes entirely plausible. With such staggering profits it is little
wonder that the Roman government in Egypt encouraged – and profited
by! – the trade: a 25 per cent tax on all goods from India was
levied by the Romans at the Red Sea port of Leuce Come."
Trajan defeated the
Dacians and annexed the
Nabataean Arabs centered in
Petra c. 105 CE, he returned to Rome
"...ever so many embassies came to him from various barbarians,
including the Indi (people of the Indus Valley). And he gave
spectacles on one hundred and twenty-three days, in the course of
which some eleven thousand animals, both wild and tame, were slain,
and ten thousand gladiators fought."
Trajan later defeated
Parthia and, sailing down the Tigris River
(115–116), reached the northern shores of the Persian Gulf.
"Roman troops had beaten the might of
Parthia from the field and had
reached the Persian Gulf; and their victorious Imperator, Trajan, had
dreamed of repeating Alexander's march to the northwestern
subcontinent, only to acquiesce in giving up the project on account of
Muziris, near the southern tip of India, in the Peutinger Table.
The Peutinger Table, a medieval copy of a 4th or early 5th century map
of the world, shows a "Temple to Augustus" at Muziris, one of the main
ports for trade to the
Roman Empire on the southwest coast of
India. This and evidence of agreements for loans between agents,
one of whom most likely lived in Muziris, and a rather oblique
reference in the Periplus, all seem to point to a settlement of Roman
subjects living in the region.
Embassies are recorded as arriving from the "Indians of the East" at
the court of Constantine the Great (c. 272 – 22 May 337):
"Ambassadors from the Indians of the East brought presents . . . .
which they presented to the king (Constantine the Great) as an
acknowledgment that his sovereignty extended to their ocean. They told
him, too, how Princes of India had dedicated pictures and statues in
his honour in token that they had recognised him as their autocrat and
Eusebius of Caesarea
Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 263 – c. 339) De Vita Constant. IV.
More embassies are mentioned from "the Indian nations" in 361 CE:
"Embassies from all quarters flocked to him (the
Emperor Julian in 361
A.D.), the Indian nations vying with emulous zeal in sending their
foremost men with presents, as far as from the Divi (Maldives) and the
Serendivi (Cylonese)[sic]." Ammianus Marcellinus. History
Finally, Johannes Malala or
John Malalas (c. 491 – 578),
p. 477, records that, in 530 CE, "an ambassador of the Indians
was sent to Constantinople."
Roman piece of pottery from
Arezzo in Italy, found at Virampatnam,
Arikamedu (1st century CE).
The best archeological record of Roman presence can be found in
southern India, specifically at Arikamedu.
Arikamedu was a Tamil fishing village which was formerly a major Chola
port dedicated to bead making and trading with Roman traders. It
flourished for centuries until the Romans left in the 5th century CE.
Various Roman artifacts, such as a large number of amphorae bearing
the mark of Roman potter schools VIBII, CAMURI and ITTA, have been
found at the site, supporting the view on a huge ancient trade between
Rome and the ancient Tamil country of present day south India.
Another place full of archeological records is Muziris, in the Kerala
Muziris was a major centre of trade in Tamilakkam between the
Chera Empire and the Roman Empire. Large hoards of coins and
innumerable shards of amphorae found in the town of
elicited recent archeological interest in finding a probable location
of this port city.
Numerous hoards of Roman gold coins from the time of
emperors of the 1st and 2nd centuries CE have been uncovered in India,
predominantly, but not exclusively, from southern India. Attention may
be drawn to the large number of Roman Aureii and Denari of
Nero spanning approximately 120 years, found all along the route from
Mangalore through the
Muziris area and around the southern tip
of India to the south eastern Indian ports.
Under the rule of Augustus, (63 BCE–CE 14) the silver content of the
denarius fell to 3.9 grams. It remained at nearly this weight until
the time of
Nero (CE 37–68). This would also indicate that
the land route from the West coast to the East coast via the Palghat
pass in the Western Ghats was much more popular than the risky or
circuitous sea route rounding the Cape or Sri Lanka.
Indo-Roman trade relations
Periplus Maris Erythraei
^ Carey (1954), p. 496.
^ Carey (1954), pp. 567.
^ Majumdar (1960), pp. 451–452.
^ Hill (2003).
^ Chandra (1977), p. 111.
^ Casson (1989) p. 7.
^ Fussman (1991), pp. 37–38.
^ Casson (1989), p. 47.
^ Casson (1989), pp. 24, 83, 89.
^ Healy (1991), p. 281.
^ Ball (2000), p. 123.
^ Dio Cassius, Roman History Bk. 68 
^ Carey (1954), p. 646.
^ Narain (1968), p. 233.
^ Ball (2000), p. 123
^ Casson (1989), p. 24.
^ a b Majumdar (1960), p. 453.
^ Majumdar (1960), p. 452.
^ BBC News: Search for Muziris
^ George Menachery, 'Kodungallur...' (1987, repr. 2000)
^ George Menachery, 'Kodungallur...' (1987, repr. 2000)
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relationship with the mainland.” Azania Vol. XXXIV, pp. 1–10.
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in the Erythraean Sea." From: Red Sea Trade and Travel. The British
Museum. Organised by The Society for Arabian Studies.
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Private Ltd., Calcutta. Reprint 1981.
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Ed. George Menachery, Vol.I 1982, II 1973, III 2009.
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Nazranies", SARAS, Ollur, 1998.
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to A.D. 641. Oxford University Press.
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Books. 1998. ISBN 0-19-814264-1.
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Narain, A. K. (1968). "The Date of Kaniṣka." In: Papers on the Date
of Kaniṣka. Edited by A. L. Basham. Leiden. E. J. Brill.
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érythrée". Journal Asiatique 279:1–30.
Schoff, Wilfred Harvey, translator (1912). Periplus of the Erythraean
Sea: Travel and Trade in the Indian Ocean by a Merchant of the First
Century, Translated from the Greek and Annotated. (First published
1912, New York, New York: Longmans, Green, and Co.) Reprinted 1995,
New Delhi: Munshiram Monoharlal Publishers, ISBN 81-215-0699-9 .
Smith, Vincent A. (1908). The Early History of India: From 600 B.C. to
the Muhammadan Conquest including the invasion of Alexander the Great.
2nd edition, revised and enlarged. Oxford at the Clarendon Press.
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William H. Schoff, The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea: Travel and
Trade in the Indian Ocean by a Merchant of the First Century (New
York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1912). Some additional commentary
including alternate spellings or translations from Lionel Casson's
more recent edition are given in square brackets."
Ancient history sourcebook: The basic text from Schoff's 1912
Territories with limited
Roman Empire occupation and contact
Armenia(Classical - Medieval)
Crimea(Classical - Medieval)