There are some interesting researches about the Romans in Ceylon. One was done by Arianna Dimucci (Texas University) in 2015, who wrote even about the Roman presence in China. She pinpointed that Pliny (c. 23-79 AD), in describing ancient Sri Lanka/Ceylon (or "Taprobanê" as the island was known to the Greeks and Romans) complained that despite its remoteness, the island was beset with vices: "But not even Taprobane, though consigned by nature outside the world, lacks our vices: there too gold and silver have commercial value, marble is considered similar to tortoiseshell, and pearls and gems have high prestige. Their entire mass of luxury is greater than ours." Located at the midpoint of major sea routes linking China and Southeast Asia with the Middle East and the Mediterranean, Sri Lanka served as an important “transit trading place” or linchpin between the East and West. Gems, pearls, muslins, ivory, and tortoise-shell, along with rice, ginger, honey, beryl, amethyst, gold, silver, and other metals – mentioned by Ptolemy (c. 90-168 AD) – constituted quite a few of the island’s luxury commodities that reached the Mediterranean. The discovery of an ancient shipwreck (called "Godavaya shipwreck" and that has been excavated since 2012) off Sri Lanka’s southern coast and its cargo of iron ingots, demonstrated the existence of commerce between Ceylon and possibly the Roman Empire, and prompted a discussion of the region’s various exchange networks. The Godavaya shipwreck, dated to between the second century B.C.E. and the first century C.E., merits attention for a number of reasons: 1) it is likely the oldest sunken cargo in the Indian Ocean, 2) it provides direct evidence for Indian Ocean trade and 3) it represents one of the most promising opportunities to study the iron trade in this region. One of the best resources available to examine such a shipwreck is the well-known work, the "Periplus Maris Erythraei", a text thought to have been written by an un-named Romano-Greek merchant from Egypt between the first and third centuries C.E. A Roman merchant ship for ocean trade
Such Greek and Roman sources reveal that Sri Lanka was known to the Mediterranean world, partly
as a distant island south of India and partly as a far-away ‘other’ – a producer of exotic goods whose
inhabitants lived long lives. What sources like the Periplus Maris Erythraei make clear is that
voyages across the Indian Ocean were part of established trading routes that involved both
Mediterranean and Indian craft, potentially even the vessel recently discovered off Sri Lanka’s
southern coast, the Godavaya shipwreck.
Prosperous commercial activity along India’s western coastline between the first century B.C.E. and
the second century C.E. is well-attested to by non-western sources particularly in Tamil poetry
written in the centuries following the height of commerce between Rome and India. In the Tamil
poem Maduraikanch, for example, written between the first and second centuries C.E.,
Large ships on which high flags on mast-tops wave
Spread out their sails and cleave the rolling waves,
Tossed by the winds of the great dark, treble sea
On which rest clouds. They come to the sound of drums
To the port, their trade successful, with the gold
That much increases people’s wealth.
The Tamil poem Pattinapalai, written before the third century C.E., describes the port city of
Kaveripattinam and the travel of goods between the port and the country’s hinterland:
So goods flow in from sea to land,
And also flow from land to sea.
Unmeasured are the abundant wares
Here brought and piled.
Another poem denotes that merchants arrived at ‘flood time.’ Foreigners, or Yavanas, were
primarily traders, but Tamil poetry also attests to their presence as craftsmen and bodyguards.86
Yavanas are mentioned drinking and wandering along the streets at night; all of which provide
interesting evidence of their presence in the early centuries of the Christian era.
INDIAN OCEAN TRADE: MERCHANTS AND ROUTES
Before the arrival of the Romans, the Ptolemies of Egypt had begun to exploit trade with both India
and Arabia through the construction of ports along the Red Sea coast. Although such trade was well
established by the end of the Hellenistic period (323 B.C.E.-31 B.C.E), Strabo indicated that the
volume of the commerce was nowhere near as large as it was after Rome’s annexation of Egypt
When Gallus was prefect of Egypt, having accompanied him and ascended to Syene
and the borders of Ethiopia, we found that even 120 ships were sailing from Myos
Hormos to India, but under the Ptolemaic kings only a very few dared to sail and to
trade in Indian goods.
Sailing routes across the Red Sea and Indian Ocean have received a substantial amount of scholarly
attention. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea indicates that such routes were dictated by the
monsoons, with merchants utilizing the southwest monsoon winds for outbound voyages and the
northeast monsoons for return voyages. During the summer months the monsoon winds blow
violently from the southwest, suspending most sailing activity from May through September along
the west coast of India and the south Arabian coast; the northeast monsoon dominates between
November and April. Sailors making the journey to India left from Myos Hormos and Berenike in
July sailing down the Red Sea to the Arabian port of Mouza or to the port of Okêlis before following
the coast along the southern Arabian shore as far as Kanê. From there they either sailed to India’s
northwest coast, to the ports of Barbarikon and Barygaza, or to the southern part of the Indian sub
continent, and the ports of Muziris and Nelkynda
Long-distance trade with Arabia and India was greatly facilitated by the use of the monsoon winds,
which enabled merchants trading with India to travel there directly rather than make a long and
dangerous coastal voyage. Prior to this, few ships made the trip directly and cargoes were
transshipped from Indian and Arab ships at one of the southern Arabian ports. The Periplus Maris
Erythraei, for instance, mentions a time when there were no direct sailings from Egypt to India and
all cargo was transshipped at Aden. After the discovery of the monsoon winds by Greek seamen,
Mediterranean ships made the crossing directly. Vessels arrived in India in September or perhaps
early October, depending on when they had initially departed. Ships left for the return voyage
according to the Periplus, at the onset of the northeast monsoon in early November, though vessels
could leave as late as December or January.
The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, however instrumental and crucial to the study of maritime trade
in this region, is not the only textual source relevant to this discussion. Chinese sailing directions in
the "Hou Han-Shou" (the Historical Book of the Han Dynasty), written between the second century
B.C.E. and the second century C.E., clearly attest that the country Yibuchen lay south of India. A
late Tang Dynasty document written in the eighth century, The Sea Route from Guangzhou to
Countries in the Indian Ocean, is more helpful in that it describes a venture from Canton to a variety
of places in the Indian Ocean, including Sri Lanka, providing approximate sailing times in ‘Li’ or
days. These documents help clarify the extent of Sri Lanka’s maritime connections.
In India, the ports of Barbaricum (modern Karachi), Barygaza, Muziris, Korkai, Kaveripattinam and Arikamedu on the southern tip of India were the main centres of this trade with Rome.
Furthermore only two visits to Sri Lanka by Romans have been officially recorded: that of a freedman of Annius Plocamus in the first century A.D., which resulted in the sending of a delegation from Sri Lanka to Rome during the reign of the emperor Claudius (A.D. 41-54) (Pliny N.H. VI.23.84), and that of Sopatros, probably in the fifth century A.D. (Cosmas Indicopleustes, Christian Topography XI.17-19).
Indeed Pliny wrote that Annius Plocamus, a Roman who was related to the Emperor Claudius, sent one of his sailors to explore the seas east of Roman Egypt. The latter landed in Hipporos, a port on the southwestern coast of the island of Taprobane.
He stayed there for six months, the time to learn the language and customs. He left towards Rome with four ambassadors of the island. There he said that "...the island had 500 cities. Palesimundium was the capital, a city of 200,000 inhabitants in the center of the south coast, bordered by the river of the same name, one of the two largest rivers of the island; the island was also home to Lake Mégysba, a large inland lake full of islands (home to pasture); a second great river, the Cybara, watered the North Island towards India. The island was 2000 stadia (~ 400 km) long, which corresponds to the dimensions of Ceylon. The island was rich with precious stones, marble, gold, silver, pearls ... The king was dressed like the Greeks, while his people dressed as Arabs...."
All this confirms the existence of huge trade between Rome and Taprobane since Augustus times.
Furthermore Chandra Tilake Edirisuriya wrote in detail that: "Pliny relates that in the time of Claudius Caesar (41-54 CE), a freedman of Annius Plocamus, while coasting off Arabia, was carried by the winds, and after drifting for 15 days, made land at the haven of Hippuros in Taprobane, where he went ashore and was hospitably entertained by the king at the capital Paleisimundus, for six months.The freedman then returned to Rome taking with him two "Sinhala ambassadors" led by one Rachias (ratiya or ratika; a district chieftain), who were sent by the Sinhala king to establish direct commercial contacts with the Roman emperor. An inscription of Annius Plocamus recently discovered in Egypt, is dated 5 July 6 CE, in the reign of Augustus and proves Pliny to have been wrong in ascribing the story he relates to the time of Claudius. Further evidence that the Roman emperor was actually Augustus is provided by the commentary to the Mahavansa which states that King Bhathikabhaya of Sri Lanka (22 BCE-7 CE), the contemporary of Augustus, sent ambassadors to "Romanukkharattha" (or the country of the Romans) and obtained coral, a well-known product of the Mediterranean, with which he had a net ornament made for the Ruvanveliseya at Anuradhapura. Pliny purports to describe Taprobane and its inhabitants according to the accounts given by the Sinhala ambassadors, but it is evident that much of what they are supposed to have said has been misunderstood. The Periplus asserts that the name Taprobane had been replaced by 'Paleisimundu'.Direct trading between the West and Sri Lanka began towards the end of the 1st century CE and developed rapidly thereafter. The far-famed but little-known island of Taprobane became a reality to Western merchants. Numerous first-hand accounts of the island and its people and products became available through mariners to Greek and Roman geographers, and this material formed the basis of the altogether exceptional description of the island computed by Ptolemy about the middle of the 2nd century CE. Ptolemy calls Sri Lanka 'the island of Taprobane which was formerly called Simondou and now Salike' and he adds that "the inhabitants are commonly called Salai." 'Salike' and 'Salai' are from Sinhala. Ptolemy fell into the same error as other geographers in exaggerating the size of Sri Lanka to 14 times its actual area, but gives its general shape and outline with greater accuracy than the Portuguese did in the 16th century. The wealth of information which he gives shows that by the 2nd century Western traders and mariners had acquired a remarkably good knowledge of the coastal and interior topography of Sri Lanka.The Axumites had begun to monopolize the Indian sea-borne trade, by the 4th century and the Romans used them as middle-men. Roman commerce with the East was revived by Emperor Constantine and in the year 362 CE an embassy from Serendivi or Sri Lanka was received by Emperor Julian. The Arabian form, Serendib, of the name of Sri Lanka, had already gained currency in the West. Sri Lanka had become the entrepot of sea trade between the Near East, India and the Far East, by the 6th century. Persian and Axumite ships from the West, Chinese and South-East Asian ships from the East and the shipping of India met in the harbours of Sri Lanka, principally Mahatittha, now Mannar, and exchanged their merchandize as well as purchased the products of Sri Lanka. Great wealth accrued to the Sinhala kings. The trade contacts with the Western world, thus inaugurated, continued during the subsequent centuries up to the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 CE, as indicated by the discovery of large hoards of Roman coins at various places in the island."
With the commerce came to Taprobane even a huge amount of Roman coins, that was used by the Roman merchants to pay for the local merchandise and that also was imitated by the Taprobane authorities, who created similar bronze coins
Bronze imitation of a Roman coin in Taprobane during the Antonine period
Large hoards of copper or bronze Roman coins and contemporary Indo-roman imitations have been found at many places in Lanka with a large hoard being found in 1987 at Sigiriya. The coins are always very worn indicating a wide and constant circulation and the roman coins are usually third century and later in age. These hoards suggest that the roman and indo-roman coinage was probably used as small change long after the minting date of the coins themselves. Occasional gold trade coins from Rome are also found in Taprobane, like a Byzantine Roman solidus of Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine (610-641 AD).
INDIAN OCEAN TRADE: THE COMMODITIES
Roman traders typically used coin to acquire such exotic eastern goods though gemstones, fabrics,
corals, and mineral powders such as antimony, sulfide, and yellow orpiment were also traded. Large
quantities of raw materials including glass, copper, tin, and lead were also in demand in Sri Lanka.
Additionally, iron is mentioned in Pliny’s Natural History as well as in the Periplus of the Erythraean
Sea where ‘Indian iron and steel’ are specifically denoted.
The Periplus specifies that in Barbarikon, a port on India’s northwest coast, traders could purchase costus (used as a medicine),
bdellium, lykion, nard (a medicinal unguent occasionally used in cooking), turquoise, lapis lazuli, silk,
cloth, yarn, and indigo clothing. These items could be purchased by Western merchants or exchanged for printed fabric, multicolored textiles, peridot, coral, storax (a resin used in medicines), perfumes,
frankincense, glassware, silverware, and wine. Roman money – written in the Periplus as δηνάριον
(denarii) – could be exchanged in the port for local currency at a profit. Following India’s coastline
south to Barygaza, a port and industrial center, the author of the Periplus indicates that there was a
market for foreign wine, metals (including copper, tin, and lead), coral, peridot, cloth, storax, yellow
sweet clover, raw glass, realgar, sulfide of antimony (used primarily for the eyes, both as a cure for
sores and as a cosmetic applied to the lids and lashes), and gold and silver currency. Barygaza
exported nard, costus, bdellium, ivory, onyx, agate, lykion, cloth, silk, yarn, long pepper, among other
items brought from nearby ports. Further south, Muziris and Nelkynda were markets for peridot,
multicolored textiles, sulfide of antimony, coral, raw glass, copper, tin, lead, wine, realgar, orpiment,
grain, and a ‘great amount of money’.
Lionel Casson comments that ‘money,’ or Roman coinage,
was emphasized in the Periplus in reference to these two ports to underscore the necessity of having
silver and gold currency to purchase goods at Muziris and Nelkynda; elsewhere bartering seems just
as prominent a strategy. Muziris and Nelkynda exported pepper, fine-quality pearls, ivory, Chinese
silk, Gangetic nard, malabathron – a kind of cinnamon from trees in northeastern India – as well as a
variety of transparent gems, diamonds, sapphires, and tortoise shell. While the author rarely
comments on the volume of the trade with India, he does write at one point that the vessels departing
Muziris and Nelkynda carry full loads due to the quantity of pepper and malabathron they pick up at
these two ports. Pliny, whose figures owe more to Stoic moralizing on the cost of luxury than to
imperial customs receipts, attests that 50 million "roman sestertii" per year were sent to India to pay for goods;
elsewhere in his Natural History he claims that 100 million sestertii were spent yearly upon all the
goods imported from India, China, and Arabia. Pliny also quotes prices of 4-15 denarii per pound
for various types of pepper, 40-75 denarii per pound for nard leaves, and 300 denarii per pound for
Literary complaints about eastern luxuries and corrupt ‘luxurious’ living developed alongside a
steady market for such eastern goods. Propertius (c. 45-15 BC) for instance, who condemns Indian
gold, Red sea pearls, Tyrian purple, and Arabian cinnamon and criticizes imported beauty aids –
perfume, make-up, jewelry, hair-dye, and diaphanous garments – draws on an established ‘anti
cosmetic’ tradition in his poetry. Ovid (c. 43 BC-17 AD), similarly mentions silks, decorated
cotton, pearls and various gemstones, as well as other decorative materials such as shells,
tortoiseshell, coral and ivory, perfumes and unguents, and writes that a ‘middle way’ should be found
between neglect and over-refinement. Culinary items, including pepper, cinnamon, and cassia, for
example, are also mentioned. Such goods would have been coming to Rome from the Far East, from
Arabia and India, at a time contemporaneous with the Godavaya shipwreck.
Gary Young, who has studied the various routes and communities involved in Roman commerce with
the East, cautions against indiscriminately denoting such products as ‘luxury goods,’ or assigning the
demand for such items wholly to a Roman taste for luxuria. While some goods were indeed luxury
goods, many commodities had medicinal or religious applications. Frankincense and myrrh, for
example, were predominantly items of religious significance, burned in honor of the gods at temples
and at funerals for centuries. Literary evidence for the use of eastern trade goods in the
manufacture of medicines includes Dioscorides’ (c. 40-90 AD) De Materia Medica, which dates
from approximately 65 AD and is one of the most comprehensive ancient treatises concerning the
medicinal uses of many eastern trade items. Eastern goods were especially prized for their perceived
properties as antidotes, which made them useful for cleansing wounds, defeating infections, and as
preventives against poisoning. In his writings, Theophrastus (c. 372-288 BC), for one, noted the
power of pepper as an antidote.
Any discussion of Indian Ocean trade would be incomplete without the wealth of information that has
been gained from archaeological excavation work; together with literary references such resources
help contextualize the material carried onboard the Godavaya shipwreck. A commercial relationship
between India and the western world is confirmed by abundant archaeological evidence, including
excavation work carried out successively in 1945 by Mortimer Wheeler, in 1947-48 by Wheeler and
J.M. Casal, and in 1989-1992 by Vimala Begley at the port of Arikamedu.
Arikamedu, one of the
emporia of Roman trade on India’s Coromandel Coast, has come to be regarded as essential for the
study of overseas commerce with the Mediterranean world during the so-called “Indo-Roman” trade
period – a term that has prompted some controversy. Indisputable evidence for commerce with the
Mediterranean exists in fragments of transport amphorae, cups and plates of terra sigillata, ceramic
lamps and unguentaria, blue glazed faience and glass bowls found at the site. Two-thirds of the
amphora fragments found at Arikamedu during the 1941-1950 excavations come from wine jars,
suggesting that wine was a principal commodity sent to India from the Mediterranean. Many of the
fragments originated in Roman Greece, from the island of Kos, though fragments of Knidian and
Rhodian amphorae have been found as well. Fragments of Koan amphorae, originating in
Campania, have led to the suggestion that wine from Greece was later supplanted at Arikamedu by an
Italian production. In addition to wine jars, fragments of Spanish jars for garum sauce and olive oil
have been found as well. Sherds of terra sigillata, a slipped Roman ware, found in the 1989-92
excavations at Arikamedu and dated to the first quarter of the first century C.E., are thought to
represent personal possessions, novelty items, or gifts. While typically considered part of the
assemblage indicating resident foreigners, a sherd found with “megalithic” writing has caused
speculation that some terra sigillata pieces were sold, bartered, or gifted to the local population.
Pattanam, a site on India’s southwest coast recently identified as ancient Muziris, has also provided
evidence for Indo-Roman trade; Mediterranean contact is represented by readily identifiable ceramic
material, including a Dressel 2-4 amphora, as well as other finds of imported Roman amphorae and
related fine wares. Such artifacts date from between the late first century B.C.E. to the fourth
century C.E. Remnants of Roman glass bowls, fragments of painted glass objects, and glass pendants
discovered at the site are also suggestive of personal belongings rather than merchandise.
Evidence further supporting the supposition that Muziris may have had a Roman ‘merchant colony’ comes
from the Tabula Peutingeriana, a medieval map depicting the Roman world as it was in the first
century C.E. This map shows a building marked as "Templum Augusti" (Temple of Augustus) at
Muziris. Young argues that such a structure would have been built only by subjects of the Roman
Empire, likely ones who either lived in Muziris or who spent a significant portion of their time there.
Young further argues that the presence of foreign merchants is supported by the Periplus, in a passage
that mentions “enough grain for those concerned with shipping, because the merchants do not use it.” These merchants who do not use grain are thought to be Indians who would instead have eaten
rice, whereas ‘those concerned with shipping,’ are thought to have been resident foreigners.
Roman Map showing "Templum Augusti" in Muziris, southern India. Taprobane can be seen at the bottom of this map, called "Tabula Peutingeriana"