The Romans traded for spices, pepper and cotton from India. Caravans loaded with perfumes from Arabia, spices and rare woods from India, and silk from China passed through Palmyra in Syria and other oasis towns and made their way to the Roman Empire. along what would later be called the Silk Road. Travel by sea between India and the West depended on the prevailing winds of the Indian Ocean, the monsoons, which blow from the southwest during the summer months and from the northeast in the fall.

Shashi Tharoor wrote in Project Syndicate:“India has a long history of relations with Europe, going back to the days of the Roman Empire. Its southwestern state of Kerala boasted a Roman port, Muziris, centuries before Jesus Christ was born; excavations are now revealing even more about its reach and influence. The discovery of ancient amphorae has confirmed that India used to import products such as olive oil, wine, and glass from Italy, in exchange for exotic items like ivory and spices. Interestingly, an ivory statue of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, dating back to the first century B.C., was found during excavations of the ruins of Pompeii in southern Italy. [Source: Shashi Tharoor, Project Syndicate, November 2011]

A network of sea routes linked the incense ports of South Arabia and Somalia with ports in the Persian Gulf and India in the east, and also with ports on the Red Sea, from which merchandise was transported overland to the Nile and then to Alexandria, from where it was dispersed throughout the Roman Empire. Roman artifacts dated to around 2,000 years ago found in the ancient port of Muziris in Kerala include glass, iron and copper nails, terra cotta lamps, sandles, toys and what appears to be a pottery toilet.

Indian Spices in the Roman Empire

According to PBS: “In the first century CE, India's spices—especially black pepper and malabathrum (a type of cinnamon)—became an important commodity in trade with the eastern Mediterranean. Demand for spices used in seasoning and preservation in the West spurred trade with India for cardamom, ginger, turmeric, saffron, nutmeg, and clove. In 1498, Vasco da Gama's sea route to India opened the spice trade to Europe, and for the next 200 years the Portuguese, Dutch, French, and English would vie for control of the spice trade. By the 19th century, the spread of spice plants to other areas of the world and the development of artificial refrigeration led to a decline in the overall need for India spices.” [Source: PBS, The Story of India,]

Pepper was widely used in ancient Rome and quite valuable as it originated from India. The best Roman cookbooks required pepper for nearly every recipe. Pliny believed that pepper was a stimulant. In the first century A.D, the satirist Persius wrote:
“The greedy merchants, led by lucre, run
To the parch'd Indies and the rising sun;
From thence hot Pepper and rich Drugs they bear, Pepper is the world's most commonly used spice. It accounts for 60 percent of the spice trade and comes from the dried berry (peppercorn) of the Piper nigrum , a climbing vine that originated in the tropical forests of the Malabar coast of the southwestern India and was introduced from there to other tropical places. The Malabar Coast of India and the islands of Indonesia have traditionally been the sources of peppercorns for pepper. The best pepper is said to come extra large peppercorns named after Tellicherry on the Arabian Sea.

Ginger was a popular spice in ancient Greece and Rome. Ginger shakers were often placed on the table along with those for salt and pepper. The word "ginger" came to mean spices in general. Ginger is one of the earliest spices known in Western Europe. It was imported from India as far back as Greek times. The ancient Egyptians chewed cardamom as a tooth cleaner. The Greeks and Romans used it as perfume. Vikings who traveled through Russia to Constantinople brought it back to Scandinavia, where it remains popular today. Arabs ascribed aphrodisiac qualities to it and cardamon is mentioned a number of times in the Arabian Nights.

Arikamedu: Ancient Roman Site in India

Arikamedu, Early Historic Site (near Pondocherry on the east coast of southern India) was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site as one of the Silk Road Sites in India in 2010 . According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Arikamedu is one of the biggest ancient Roman trade centers in India (appro-34 acres). Unlike many other Roman trade centers including those on India's Malabar coast, Arikamedu has been properly identified and is to a large extent, well-documented. The site of Arikamedu enjoys the distinction of being the first site in the whole of India to provide evidence, through archaeological digs, for the export of variety of Indian objects, viz Glass beads, Shell, Terracotta objects, besides Muslin cloths . Most of the other roman trade sites of India have been dated on the basis of the chronology of Arikamedu. [Source: Archaeological Survey of India]

“Identification of Arikamedu with Poduke emporium mentioned in the Periplus maris Erythraei is accepted by historians, as the excavation at Arikamedu yielded all the features of Port town. .The literary records also makes its clear that Indo-Roman trade remained brisk until long after the middle of the first century A.D through sea.

“Among all the Roman trade sites in India, Arikamedu has yielded the largest number of Mediterranean amphora jars,terra sigillata and Rouletted ware. Arikamedu is the only site in India that has yielded pottery with inscriptions in atleast four different languages-Prakrit, Tamil, Old Sinhalese and Latin.

“Besides, remains of building with an oblong shell, massively built and with rough foundation bricks and with a ramp or staircase on the northern side of this building is identified with ware house and the two tanks involving a constant inflow and out flow of water justify their identification as cisterns or Vats for dyeing Muslin. These two structures are outstanding example of a type of building and technological ensemble during 1st. cen. B.C.

“Emerged as a trading colony where Romans settled to trade with the west through sea and introduced ceram9ic tradition of the Mediterranean which further evolved the pottery of similar nature in the Indian context. The settlement flourished with residential colonies , craft workshops and shopping centers which is visible after excavations. It bears a unique testimony to the trading settlement of the past during early historic period. The trade methodology is described into details in the early classical literature of Greece and Rome and corroborated by archaeological finds.”

Muziris: an Indian Port That Trade with Romans

Muziris (Muchiri, Makotai, Mahodayapuram) was an ancient seaport and urban center on the Malabar Coast in the present-day Indian state of Kerala. It dates at least to the 1st century B.C., and probably goes back much further than that. Although it exact location is not known it was described in bardic Tamil Sangam literature and a number of classical European historical sources. [Source: Wikipedia]Muziris wasan important link for trade between southern India and the Phoenicians, the Persians, the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Roman Empire. Among the commodities exported from Muziris were spices (such as black pepper and malabathron), semi-precious stones (such as beryl), pearls, diamonds, sapphires, ivory, Chinese silk, Gangetic spikenard and tortoise shells. Among the things brought by the Roman were gold coins, peridots, thin clothing, figured linens, multicoloured textiles, sulfide of antimony, copper, tin, lead, coral, raw glass, wine, realgar and orpiment. At least in some cases it seems the Chera chiefs regarded their contacts with the Roman traders as a form of gift exchange rather than straightforward commercial dealings. [Source: 17]

According to PBS: “The Periplus, a Greek merchant's guide to the Indian trade from the 1st century A.D. notes twenty major ports on India's west coast. Muziris, the Graeco-Roman pronounciation of Muchiripattanam, was apparently the most important. It is mentioned in papyrus contracts dating back to the 2nd century A.D. in the West, and is recorded in Tamil poetry of that time. It was the first stop for ships on the direct route from the Red Sea and became a home away from home for many traders. Muziris is where trade began and flourished between India and the Mediterranean, primarily in spices. The trade lasted until the 4th century when it was taken over first by the Persians, and then by Arabs and Arabic-speaking Jews in the 7th century. [Source: PBS, The Story of India,]

Historians speculate that Muziris was situated around present day Kodungallur, a town 30 kilometers north of Cochin. In ancient times, Kodungallur was a vibrant urban hub and home of the Chera rulers. The derivation of the name "Muziris" is said to be from the native Tamil name to the port, "Muciri". It is frequently referred to as Muciri in Sangam poems, Muracippattanam in the Sanskrit epic Ramayana, and as Muyirikkottu in a copper plate of an 11th-century Chera ruler. There have been efforts to re-enact the ancient Muziris-Red Sea voyages since the 1970s by George Menachery and others. The locations of unearthed coin-hoards suggest an inland trade link from Muziris via the Palghat Gap and along the Kaveri Valley to the east coast of India. Though the Roman trade declined from the 5th century AD, after that Muziris was used by Persians, Chinese and the Arabs, presumably until the devastating floods of Periyar in the 14th century.

Muziris Trade

Muziris “was a centre of paramount importance for Roman trade,” Federico De Romanis, associate professor of Roman history at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, told The Guardian. “What made it absolutely unique was the considerable amounts of black pepper exported from Muziris. We are talking about thousands of tons.” [Source: Srinath Perur, The Guardian, August 10, 2016]

The Guardian reports: In addition to pepper, De Romanis says, exports included both local products – ivory, pearls, spices such as malabathron – and those from other parts of India, including semi-precious stones, silks and the aromatic root nard. “These attest to commercial relationships nurtured with the Gangetic valley and east Himalayan regions.”

“In the other direction, ships arrived with gold, coral, fine glassware, amphorae of wine, olive oil and the fermented fish sauce called garum. But the value of this trade was lopsided: De Romanis says Pliny the Elder estimated Rome’s annual deficit caused by imbalanced trade with India at 50m sesterces (500,000 gold coins of a little less than eight grammes), with “Muziris representing the lion’s share of it”.

“Maritime trade between Muziris and Rome started in the first century B.C., when it became known that sailing through the Red Sea to the horn of Africa, then due east along the 12th latitude, led to the Kerala coast. “Muziris was entirely dependent on foreign, especially Roman, demand for pepper,” De Romanis says. So when the Roman empire’s economy began to struggle in the third century AD, he believes the trade in pepper reconfigured itself, and Muziris lost its importance.”

Descriptions of Muziris in Tamil Literature

One tantalizing description of Muziris is in Akananuru, an anthology of early Tamil bardic poems (poem number 149.7-11) in Ettuttokai: “The city where the beautiful vessels, the masterpieces of the Yavanas [Westerners], stir white foam on the Culli [Periyar], river of the Chera, arriving with gold and departing with pepper-when that Muciri, brimming with prosperity, was besieged by the din of war." [Source: Wikipedia]

The Purananuru described Muziris as a bustling port city where interior goods were exchanged for imported gold. "With its streets, its houses, its covered fishing boats, where they sell fish, where they pile up rice-with the shifting and mingling crowd of a boisterous river-bank were the sacks of pepper are heaped up-with its gold deliveries, carried by the ocean-going ships and brought to the river bank by local boats, the city of the gold-collared Kuttuvan (Chera chief), the city that bestows wealth to its visitors indiscriminately, and the merchants of the mountains, and the merchants of the sea, the city where liquor abounds, yes, this Muciri, were the rumbling ocean roars, is give to me like a marvel, a treasure. ."

Akananuru describes Pandya attacks on the Chera port of Muciri. This episode is impossible to date, but the attack seems to have succeeded in diverting Roman trade from Muziris. "It is suffering like that experienced by the warriors who were mortally wounded and slain by the war elephants. Suffering that was seen when the Pandya prince came to besiege the port of Muciri on his flag-bearing chariot with decorated horses....Riding on his great and superior war elephant the Pandya prince has conquered in battle. He has seized the sacred images after winning the battle for rich Muciri."

Descriptions of Muziris in Greek and Roman Literature

The Greek travel book Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (1st century AD) provides a description of the Chera Kingdom."Then come Naura and Tyndis, the first markets of Lymrike, and then Muziris and Nelkynda, which are now of leading importance. Tyndis is of the Kingdom of Cerobothra; it is a village in plain sight by the sea. Muziris, in the same Kingdom, abounds in ships sent there with cargoes from Arabia, and by the Greeks; it is located on a river, distant from Tyndis by river and sea 500 stadia, and up the river from the shore 20 stadia..."There is exported pepper, which is produced in only one region near these markets, a district called Cottonara." [Source: Wikipedia]

The Periplus describes how Muziris became the main trade port for the Chera chiefdom. It says it was a large settlement that owed its prosperity to foreign commerce, including trade with northern India and the Roman empire. Black pepper from the hills was brought to the port by the local producers and stacked high in warehouses to await the arrival of Roman merchants. As the shallows at Muziris prevented deep-hulled vessels from sailing upriver to the port, Roman freighters were forced to shelter at the edge of the lagoon while their cargoes were transferred upstream on smaller craft.The Periplus records that special consignments of grain were sent to places like Muziris. Scholars suggest that these deliveries may have been intended Romans who wanted something other than rice to ear.

Ptolemy placed Muziris emporium north of the mouth of the Pseudostomus river in his Geographia. Pseudostomus (literally "false mouth") is generally identified with modern-day Periyar river. The Muziris papyrus is Greek papyrus of the 2nd century AD that documents a contract involving an Alexandrian merchant importer and a financier that concerns cargoes, especially of pepper and spices from Muziris. The fragmentary papyrus records details about a cargo consignment (valued at around nine million sesterces) brought back from Muziris on board a Roman merchant ship called the Hermapollon.

The Peutinger Map is a medieval copy of an ancient Roman road map, “with information which could date back to 2nd century AD”, in which both Muziris and Tondis are well marked, “with a large lake indicated behind Muziris.” An icon marked a “Temple of Augustus”. It is presumed a large number of Romans must have spent months in India waiting for favourable winds to allow ships to sail back to the Roman Empire.

Archaeological Excavations Related to Muziris

In 1983, a large hoard of Roman coins was found at a site around 10 kilometers from the village of Pattanam in North Paravur. Excavations at Pattanam conducted at by Kerala Council for Historical Research in 2006-07 led to the claim the site was of Muziris. Historians raised doubts about the certainty of the claims. [Source: Wikipedia] According to PBS says: In 2005, an archaeologist from Cochin University, Dr.Shajan and his team found Muziris exactly where it was supposed to be—4 miles inland, behind a double line of backwaters near the modern town of Cranganore (Kodungallar). Coins of Roman emperors Nero and Tiberius have been found, along with Roman amphorae and Mediterranean glass ornaments. In fact, Roman coins have long been a common sight at local antique dealers' shops. And even today it is the custom in southern Indian weddings to give the bride a necklace of small coins.”

Historian and academic Rajan Gurukkal thinks it [ancient Muziris] was no more than a colony of merchants from the Mediterranean. “The abundance of material from the Mediterranean suggests that traders arrived here using favourable monsoon winds and returned using the next after short sojourns,” he says. Feeder vessels transported them between their ships and the wharf, but it would be incorrect to say that it was a sophisticated port in an urban setting. The place did not have any evolved administration nor any sophistication. I believe it [Pattanam] was Muziris. Had it been elsewhere, Pattanam wharf and colony would’ve found a mention in available records, he says.

Archaeological research has shown that Pattanam was a port frequented by Romans and it has a long history of habitation dating back to 10th century B.C. Its trade links with Rome peaked between 1st century B.C. and 4th century AD. A large quantity of artifacts represents the maritime contacts of the site with Mediterranean, Red Sea and Indian Ocean rims. Among the items from were Mediterranean dated 100 B.C. to A.D. 400 were amphora, terra sigillata sherds, Roman glass fragments and gaming counters. From West Asian, South Arabian and Mesopotamian dated to 300 B.C. to A.D. 1000 are Turquoise glazed pottery, torpedo jar fragments and frankincense crumbs. Important discoveries from Pattanam include thousands of beads (made of semi-precious stone), sherds of Roman amphora, Chera-era coins made of copper alloys and lead, fragments of Roman glass pillar bowls, terra sigillata, remains of a long wooden boat and associated bollards made of teak and a wharf made of fired brick.

Others like Dr PJ Cherian, director of the Kerala Council for Historical Research, believe the site is an urban area. “The Guardian reports: The excavations have revealed what appear to be toilets, drains and terracotta ring wells, and these – along with raised foundations aligned in one direction – suggest a planned settlement. Cherian also thinks the level of technological accomplishment – the quality of mortar in a wharf structure; evidence of intricate glass and stone work – and the high density of potsherds (some 4.5 million have been recovered so far) all point to a settlement that was urban in character. The local coins suggest a monetised economy and a degree of political organisation.

The most remarkable find at Pattanam excavations in 2007 was a brick structural wharf complex, with nine bollards to harbour boats and in the midst of this, a highly decayed canoe, all perfectly mummified in mud. The canoe (6 meters long) was made of Artocarpus hirsutus, a tree common in Malabar Coast, out of which boats are made. The bollards some of which are still in satisfactory condition was made of teak.

What Caused the Demise of Muziris

The Guardian reports: Cherian “confirms there are few references to Muziris after the fifth century AD. It had been generally assumed that Muziris referred to the port of Kodungallur, which had been put out of commission by devastating floods in 1341 – but excavations there did not turn up anything older than the 13th century. [Source: Srinath Perur, The Guardian, August 10, 2016]

“Tathagata Neogi, of the Indian Institute of Archaeology, explains the stages of occupation in Pattanam using a large photograph of an excavated trench’s cross-section. Human habitation began there around 1000BC, marked by characteristic Iron Age black and redware pottery, while the period between 500 and 300BC marks a mixed phase.

““We think this is when Pattanam began making the transition from a village to a trade hub,” Neogi says. The period from 300BC to AD500 is densely packed with evidence for trade both within and outside India. Burnt bricks and tiles, terracotta ring wells and coins suggest a thriving settlement. Small amounts of west Asian pottery in the earlier portions of this segment provide evidence for pre-Roman maritime trade. After AD500 the record thins out – until AD1500, when Chinese and European ceramics are found.

Goddess Lakshmi Statue in Pompeii

Mysterious India reports: “In 1939, Italian archeologist Prof Maiuri, discovered an artifact in the ruins of ancient Pompeii, that had a very Indian origin. This ivory statuette which survived the disaster and lasted all these 2000 years was identified by Prof Maiuri as that of the Goddess Lakshmi and dated to around 1AD. [Source: Mysterious India, February 14, 2017]

“The statue portrays Lakshmi, Indian divinity of feminine beauty and fertility. It wears scanty, transparent clothing that accentuates the contours of her body and sharply contrasts with her abundant jewelry. Her body is adorned with heavy jewels: a diadem on her forehead, a necklace on her chest and large and numerous rings on her ankles and wrists. Her long hair, also richly embellished, flows over her shoulders down to her waist. In this respect she compares closely with female figures sculpted on Buddhist monuments at prominent monastic sites such as Bharhut (late 2nd c. B.C..) and Sanchi (50-25 B.C.) in central India as well as Karle (50-75 CE) in western India.

“She seems to raise her left hand in order to support the enormous weight of the conical earring in her left ear. Similar earrings are depicted on terracotta figurines that circulated in eastern India during the 3rd-2nd centuries B.C.E. and a shell example has been discovered at the site of Kausambi in northern India. “A heavy, multi-chained necklace with a triangular pendant shaped like a lotus blossom falls in between her breasts, while two more lotus forms protrude from the necklace immediately below each shoulder. In ancient Indian mythology, lotuses were considered to be symbols of the cyclical nature of creation and perfect embodiments of the cosmos. The letter ‘si’, which is inscribed on the statuette’s base in kharoshthi (a script commonly used in northwest India), together with the emphasis on adornment may lead us to identify this figure as Sri Lakshmi, the goddess of beauty, prosperity, and abundance. “Moeller (The wool trade of ancient Pompeii Walter O. Moeller Pg 76) feels that there existed a trade of dye stuff between Indian and Pompeii based on the fact that the building next door to the one that housed the statuette was a dye house. So he feels that the statue perhaps came together with a shipment of Indigo dyes. Researcher K. V. Ramakrishna Rao feels that the statue is much older. He contends in his paper (Ganges Valley Civilization to Indus Valley Civilization to Saraswati Valley civilization) that the statuette could perhaps be dated to an older pre-Mauryan period i.e., before 300 B.C..

St. Thomas and Early Christianity in India During the Roman Era

It is said that Christ's apostle, St. Thomas, went to India during the Roman era although there is little evidence to back up the assertion. According to tradition he landed in A.D. 52 at Maliankara near Cranganore on the Malabar Coast of India. It is said he preached the gospels, traveled through southern Indian and converted many Hindu, including some upper-caste Brahmins. After evangelizing and performing miracles in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, he is believed to have been martyred in Madras and buried on the site of San Thomé Cathedral..

Saint Thomas is the famous "doubting Thomas" of the New Testament. He reportedly left Palestine for Asia after the crucifixion of Jesus with a mission to covert India's Jews. He is said have founded seven churches in Kerala. The present population of Syrian Christians claims to be descendant of the people that attended these churches. There are a number of other stories with connections to Christianity in India. According to traditional, St Thomas is said to have visited the court of the Parthian King Gondophares in Taxila in about A.D. 40. Kashmiri Christians believe that Christ died in Srinagar. A synagogue in Cochin contains scrolls of the New Testament.

Christianity is believed to have been introduced to Kerala around the A.D. 4th century by Syrian merchants. Nestorian Christianity is believed to have been introduced by missionaries to same region in the 6th century. One of the first Europeans to reach India was Cosmmas Indicopleutes ("India Traveler"), a well traveled Christian mystic. He visited India in the 6th century. Members of the Syro-Malabar Church, an eastern branch of the Roman Catholic Church, adopted the Syriac liturgy dating from fourth century Antioch. They practiced what is also known as the Malabar rite until the arrival of the Portuguese in the late fifteenth century.

Syrian Christians thrived in Kerala under the liberal and tolerant rulers of Travancore, Cochin and Malabar. Impressed by the behavior of these Christians, these rulers gave the Christian land to build churches and helped them in other ways. The Syrian Christians were an independent group and were supplied with bishops and religious guidance from the Eastern Orthodox Church in Antioch in Syria

Jews Arrive in India in the Roman Era

The first group of Indian Jews are said to have migrated from West Asia and to have settled in Cranganore (also the traditional first site where Muslims later arrived in India) on the Malabar Coast of Kerala in the first century A.D. A second group of Jews fled the Arabian Peninsula in the face of Muslim ascendancy in the seventh century. [Source: Library of Congress] *

Trade contacts between the Mediterranean region and the west coast of India probably led to the presence of small Jewish settlements in India as long ago as the early first millennium B.C. In Kerala a community of Jews tracing its origin to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 has remained associated with the cities of Cranganore and Kochi (formerly known as Cochin) for at least 1,000 years. The Pardesi Synagogue in Kochi, rebuilt in 1568, is in the architectural style of Kerala but preserves the archaic ritual style of the Sephardic rite, with Babylonian and Yemenite influence as well. The Jews of Kochi, concentrated mostly in the old "Jew Town," were completely integrated into local culture, speaking Malayalam and taking local names while preserving their knowledge of Hebrew and contacts with Southwest Asia. *

A separate community of Jews, called the Bene Israel, had lived along the Konkan Coast in and around Bombay, Pune, and Ahmadabad for almost 2,000 years. Unlike the Kochi Jews, they became a village-based society and maintained little contact with other Jewish communities. They always remained within the orthodox Jewish fold, practicing the Sephardic rite without rabbis, with the synagogue as the center of religious and cultural life. A third group of Jews immigrated to India, beginning at the end of the eighteenth century, following the trade contacts established by the British Empire. These Baghdad Jews came mostly from the area of modern Iraq and settled in Bombay and Calcutta, where many of them became wealthy and participated in the economic leadership of these growing cities. *

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Wikipedia, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2020

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