Published: 04 Sep 2017

How ancient Romans left India gold-rich

Patrician Romans had a loved beautiful Indian luxuries such as our arts, spices, jewels and beautiful woven cloth. Pliny the Elder, a Roman author and natural philosopher, wrote accounts of the Roman addiction to Indian luxury products. His books from the 1st century AD refer to the heavy drain of gold from Rome into India.

In his book Indian Feudalism (1965), R. S. Sharma explains that Pliny lamented the amount of gold that was leaving Rome and going to South India in exchange for spices, muslin, silk and other costly luxuries that did not have long-term value like gold. Pliny believed that the Indian exports, which were being exchanged for gold, were “unproductive luxuries,” that held little worth compared with the gold Rome was giving up.

At the time, Romans placed ahigh value on gold, and recognised it not only as currency, but also for its malleability and ductility, and as a luxury item . Although Pliny wrote accounts of gold’s high worth – of how gold was woven into imperial clothes – he remained critical of the greed for gold, as noted by Jacob Isager in his historical book Pliny on Art and Society: The Elder Pliny's Chapters on The History Of Art. "India, China and the Arabian peninsula take one hundred million sesterces from our empire per annum at a conservative estimate: that is what our luxuries and women cost us. For what percentage of these imports is intended for sacrifices to the Gods or the spirits of the dead?" - Pliny. Historia Naturae, 12.41.84.

Ancient Indian literature in the Tamil Sangam also mentions of such Roman traders. Charles Ernest Fayle in ‘A Short History of the World's Shipping Industry’ details one such mention from the Sangam that states: “The beautifully built ships of the Yavanas came with gold and returned with pepper, and Muziris resounded with the noise."

The ports of Barbaricum (modern Karachi), Bharuch (Gujarat), Muziris and Arikamedu in South India were used as the main centres of trade, where much of the Roman gold landed and where much of it continues to exist, mostly in temples.