One might be surprised to learn that the ancient Greeks and Romans were intricately linked to ancient India in science, trade, art, religion, and other fields. Regrettably, this history is largely ignored. Most people are familiar with Alexander's invasion of India in the fourth century BCE, but it is only the beginning of a long and intricate history that links the Greek and Roman empires.
Beginning with the reign of Ashoka Maurya, Buddhism flourished swiftly. In response, Buddhist missionaries were sent all over the world to spread the faith, even to the Greek kingdoms that had arisen in the aftermath of Alexander's conquests. Many Greeks living outside the Mediterranean eventually turned to Buddhism. Archeologists have uncovered ancient Buddhist scriptures written in cursive Greek in India and Afghanistan. They've also discovered a slew of Buddhist stupas with Greek inscriptions. But what prompted this Buddhist conversion?
We know that Ashoka dispatched a Greek Buddhist monk named Dharmarakshita to spread the Buddhist faith among the Greek populations in what is now Gujarat and Sind. Dharmarakshitha converted up to 37,000 Greeks to Buddhism on his own. The majority of Greeks in the subcontinent would not accept Buddhism until a century later, with the conversion of the Indo-Greek King Menander the First. Menander was not an average guy. He was an expansionist leader who invaded most of Northwest India, and he was so successful that the famous historian Strabo once stated, "Menander conquered more tribes than Alexander the Great."
Menander's Indo-Greek kingdom, centered in what is now known as Punjab, was affluent and strong despite its brief lifespan. Simply said, Menander's impact cannot be overestimated. His interactions with the Buddhist sage Nagasana are recorded in the "Melinda Panha" scripture. In Greco-Buddhism, Manander's personal conversion is a pivotal event. Most Indo-Greeks converted to Buddhism under his influence.
Even after Menander's Indo-Greek kingdom fell apart, this Greco-Buddhist heritage would go on. For hundreds of years, Greek successor powers in India, such as the Kushan Empire and the Western Kshatrapas, were ardent supporters of both Buddhism and Greek culture.
The arrival of the Greeks in South Asia resulted in the creation of a distinct syncretic art form known as the Gandharan style. The Gandharan School of Art combined Hellenistic and indigenous Indian influences. Greek figures were frequently depicted alongside or incorporated with Indianized elements. Sculptures of the Greek Titan Atlas, for example, would be put beneath Buddhist temples to indicate that Atlas was supporting the construction.
The Gandharan influence, however, was not limited to stone art. Greek coinage combined Greek portraits with Indianized features. Native American kings quickly adopted this pictorial technique. Buddhist art flourished during the Indo-Greek period. It is usually assumed that the first iconic images of Buddha were sculpted in the Gandhara style. Prior to the birth of this style, Buddhists avoided depicting Buddha in their art. They were recognizable. Some historians feel that the evolution of this more relevant iconic form contributed to the popularization of Buddhism in India. Greek mythological legends acquired new life in India as well. Furthermore, Hercules, Dionysius, and other legendary Greek figures were given Indian travel stories to demonstrate their cultural and spiritual ties to the subcontinent.
While the Indo-Greek kingdoms inspired religion and art in North India, the Roman Empire's tastes may have been more influential in South India. The location also has a Roman-style amphitheater, the only one of its sort left in India. These components may have been incorporated into local forms by Indian artisans inspired by the inflow of Roman coinage and sculpture, or by Roman artisans who lived in South India.
Since antiquity, the Mediterranean has been trading with India via both maritime and overland routes into the subcontinent. The volume of this trade increased dramatically with the founding of Roman Egypt and the discovery by Roman and Greek merchant sailors of how to harness seasonal monsoon winds to propel ships across the Arabian Sea on a straight course. Along with this advancement, the foundation of Roman Egypt reduced the cost of shipping across the Arabian Sea by removing bureaucratic middlemen, brought India and Rome into direct communication, and resulted in political stability.
There is plenty of evidence of the trade, ranging from historical texts documenting the trade in shipwrecked Roman merchant vessels to the discovery of Roman coins and merchandise in India. According to Strabo, up to 120 ships went from Myos Hormos to the coast of India in a given year. The trade was so prevalent that Pliny the Elder, a Roman statesman, claimed that it was depleting Rome's gold coinage. Every year, around 100 million sestertii were left in circulation to support the trade in Indian luxury items. Many Indian ports received Roman goods. Aside from Karachi and Baruch, it appears that the majority of trade took place at ports in South India.
Archeologists have discovered hordes of coins, shards of Roman amphorae, and several other signs of trade in places such as Arikamedu, Kaveripattinam, and Muziris. It is thought that the Indo-Roman trade was so significant that it aided the formation of the Sangam era's golden age of Tamil kingdoms. There are even references to the Indo-Roman trade in Tamil Sangam literature.
The trade was large enough to warrant sending embassies from India to Rome and vise versa.
What kinds of items were traded? Clothing, ointments, diamonds, frankincense, glasswork items, lamps, silver and gold, wine, and slaves were all exported by the Romans. Indian traders exported spices, cinnamon, peppers, ivory, diamonds, pearls, exotic animals, fine textiles, silks, and other textile things. Clearly, the Indo-Roman trade was diverse, but many of the products traded in India came from China and Southeast Asia. In fact, the majority of Chinese silk purchased by the Romans was manufactured in Indian marketplaces.
As with any trade, even rarer things, such as sculptural art for wealthy purchasers, would occasionally make their way from end to end. Archeologists, for example, have unearthed the Pompeii Lakshmi among the ruins of the Roman city of Pompeii.
Interactions between Rome and India were not merely transactional. According to historical evidence, there were populations of Roman citizens living and working in cities across the subcontinent. Romans in India mostly worked as merchants and artisans.
The Periplus Maris Erethrai, a first-century CE Greek navigational treatise, cites a number of ports along the Indian coast, including but not limited to Bharuch, Muziris, and Arikamedu.
An excavation near present-day Pondicherry, Arikamedu, has discovered a Roman commercial colony of this period, and the discovery of Roman trade products elsewhere indicates a continued occupation. Muziris, near present-day Cochin, has also yielded a plethora of Roman coins and fragments of Roman wine in fora. Muziris was a vital harbor for Roman trade.
In reality, a temple to Augustus Caesar was constructed in the city, most likely to serve the Roman community that had sprung up around the imperial embassy.
There is evidence of a Roman presence in other places in South India, both coastal and non-coastal. Specifically, where river trade enabled Roman commodities and culture to spread further inland. According to ancient Tamil literature, there were numerous Roman merchants dealing in the Kaveri delta, and they were a thriving community.
As we know, ancient Indians lived and traveled in the Greco-Roman world.
This Indian presence has been clearly documented. For example, Indian gravestones dating back to the Ptolemaic period have been discovered in Alexandria. In addition, the graffiti themes on pottery from established Red Sea ports suggest the presence of Indian merchants. All of the evidence points to major and frequent Indian communities in the Greco-Roman world. There were Indians in Athens as early as Socrates' time, either living there or visiting.
Zarmano Chegas, a traveling Hindu ascetic from Gujarat, also burned himself alive in Athens as a symbol of his beliefs. This occurrence created a stir in Greek society and sparked debate among Greek writers.
Dio Chrysostom, the famed Roman orator, once stated that Homer's poetry was popular in India and that Indians were regular members of his audience. It's probable that intriguing Greco-Roman art and philosophy drew experts from the subcontinent to visit. As a result, Indians were a common sight in the Greco-Roman world. They were missionaries and elite intellectuals, as well as members of the mercantile and diplomatic classes.
Some historians believe that Ammonius Sakas, a Roman citizen and a famous Neoplatonist in Alexandria, was of Indian ethnic background and may have come from what is now Bihar.
We know that some Indians were sold as slaves during the Greco-Roman period.
There's a lot to consider, but it's safe to conclude that India and the Greco-Roman world were considerably closer in ancient times than we've been led to assume.