CJ-ONLINE Archives

January 2010


Options: Use Monospaced Font
Show Text Part by Default
Show All Mail Headers

Message: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Topic: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Author: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]

Print Reply
Reply To:
Classical Journal On-Line <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 6 Jan 2010 14:29:06 -0600
text/plain (163 lines)
The Making of Roman India. By GRANT PARKER. Greek Culture in the Roman 
World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. xiii + 357. Cloth, 
$99.00. ISBN 978–0–521–85834–2.

Order this text for $99.00 from Amazon.com 
using this link and benefit CAMWS and the Classical Journal:


Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 

CJ Online 2010.01.01

In his Preface, Parker asks: What did India mean to Romans of the imperial 
period? He sifts through literary, material and documentary evidence for 
answers, paying heed to the different contexts in which that information is 
preserved. Specifically, P. examines references to India in Latin and Greek 
texts of the imperial period in light of the social processes whereby the 
notion of India gained its exotic features, including evidence of the role 
of the Persian empire and Alexander’s expedition. Three social contexts 
receive special attention: trade in luxury commodities; political discourse 
of empire and its limits; and India’s status as a place of special 
knowledge, embodied in the “naked philosophers.” Roman ideas about 
India ranged from the specific and concrete to the wildly fantastic; such 
variety must be accounted for. The afterlife of these ideas into late 
antiquity and beyond is also considered.

The book is aimed at both classicists and those interested in ancient India 
or the history of orientalism, and is broken into three parts: (1) Creation 
of a Discourse, (2) Features of a Discourse, and (3) Contexts of a 
Discourse. Chapter 1, “Achaemenid India and Alexander,” outlines the 
features of Greek Indography from the earliest texts to the late 
Hellenistic world of the 1st century BC. The extent of Achaemenid power is 
studied from the perspectives of four ancient writers: Scylax and the King 
of Kings; Hecataeus’ cosmos; Herodotus and the satrapies; and Marvels and 
lies of Ctesias. Next, Alexander and his aftermath are considered in four 
categories: A conqueror and his historians; Megasthenes and 
Chandragupta’s court; Bactrians and “Indo-Greeks”; and Mapping India: 
from the bematists to Eratosthenes. P. asserts that the body of information 
about India reached new levels of complexity with Alexander’s eastern 
expedition. Part 1 concludes with an analysis of the origin and process of 
the making of Roman India.

Chapter 2, “India Described,” considers contexts of Indography in 
historiography, geography, natural history, romance and mime. Marvels and 
monsters characterized Hellenistic accounts of India, even more so than the 
earliest accounts. This marvel-based view was typical of Greek descriptions 
of the ends of the earth generally, and in many respects was not unique to 
India. Also considered are Indian pasts, profusion, social divisions, 
gender relations, space and race, and catalogue or system. Under modes of 
literary description, eight tropes that recur in Indographic texts are 
discussed: the Periplus form, omission and abbreviation, authors and 
authority, utopianism and barbarism, narrative space, analogy, fragments, 
and closure. P. concludes that the recurrence of the marvel, that hallmark 
of Hellenistic literature, in sources of the Augustan period and beyond is 
a major theme in this Indographic discourse. Was knowledge about India 
gathered as a product or a process? P. asserts that despite all it was a 
process, though a slow one.

Chapter 3, “India Depicted,” considers how India was represented in 
four motifs of Greek and Roman art: the marvel (from the earliest Greek 
accounts); the Triumph of Bacchus (India is represented as a part in 
several sarcophagus reliefs from Antonine and Severan times); 
personification (e.g., the great hunt mosaic of the Villa Filosofiana in 
Sicily, and a silver platter from Lampsacus now in the National Museum in 
Istanbul); and the Christian topography of Cosmas Indicopleustes. Seen as a 
typology of Indias, the analysis that emerges from this survey may be 
understood as a set of contexts within which India was perceived by Greeks 
and Romans.

Chapter 4, “Commodities,” explores what India meant to Romans, by 
examining the discourse about specific goods. Focusing on roughly the late 
1st century BC to the 6th century AD, the chapter traces the consumption of 
Indian goods, or of supposed Indian goods, in the Roman world. Considering 
objects of exchange and the materiality of distance, P. examines spices and 
aromatics, precious stones, fabrics, slaves, animals and craft goods. He 
draws on literary texts (e.g., Pliny’s Natural History, Strabo’s 
Geography, Claudius Ptolemy’s Geography, the Periplus of the Erythraean 
Sea), documentary sources, inscriptions, excavations and archaeological 
finds to assess the social meanings of luxury goods from India and the 
Roman taste for them. The figure of Alexander is particularly crucial to 
the Roman image of India (cf. Plin. Nat. 12.21).

Chapter 5, “Empire,” looks at the notion that India marked the ends of 
the world, a sentiment that abounds in texts from the Augustan age and 
later. Was that world the inhabited world or the Roman Empire specifically? 
P. answers that the definition of empire is difficult enough, and that the 
notion of imperialism raises particular problems. The Pax Romana and Res 
Gestae helped define Augustus’ discourse about empire after the Battle of 
Actium. In Propertius’ Elegies (2.10/13–18; 3.4.1–4) we find 
variations on the theme of the grandeur of Rome’s conquests, including 
India. Horace’s Odes (1.12.53–7; 4.14.41–52) shows the same 
principles at work. But after serious consideration (by Mommsen, Badian and 
others) it is difficult to point to any Roman military interest in India. 
The aging Trajan may have had designs on India, but his imperial sense of 
the place was intensely concerned with Alexander’s conquests. 
Nonetheless, according to P., India was in fact part of the Roman 
empire—a region that could and would be conquered. It was India, more 
than anything, that reminded Romans that Rome had expanded from 
agricultural village to world empire. Indeed, Alexander’s visit to the 
ends of the earth gave the Romans, and the western Middle Ages, eminently 
reusable ways of thinking about that expansion.

In Chapter 6, “Wisdom,” P. asserts that holiness, along with the 
related concept of wisdom, is among the main areas for consideration in any 
survey of Greek and Roman ideas about India. P. posits that Indian wisdom 
is a kind of mystified knowledge central to the concept of the holiness of 
certain Indians. A major theme is India as a destination of religious 
travel. Travelers to India came from the west and east. Fa-Hsien, a Chinese 
pilgrim, visited India’s Buddhist sites between 399–414 AD. These 
visits reflect India’s status as a site of spirituality. Christian 
missionary activity in India, another kind of religious travel, also took 
place. At this point P. wisely considers “wisdoms alien and other” with 
a discussion of metamorphoses of sophia (with Pythagoras as a point of 
comparison); elements of wisdom; and Jews, Chaldaeans and Indians. He 
follows up with an analysis of, e.g., Brahmans and Gymnosophists, and then 
turns to the “diffusion of paideia: Apollonius of Tyana” for 
Philostratus’ testimony about Indian holiness. Apollonius’ eastward 
pilgrimage to the wise teachers of ancient societies invites comparison to 
Herodotus’ visit to the Egyptian priests. P. asserts that Philostratus 
presents Pythagoras as a recipient and transmitter of Egyptian and, 
ultimately, Indian wisdom.

To conclude, four broad phases of Indography can be identified: the 
Achaemenid phase, when Greek images of India were formed in close relation 
to the Iranian world; Alexander’s expedition and its immediate aftermath, 
fleshing out the picture of India that had already emerged; the Roman 
phase, in which writers appealed to their Hellenistic and earlier 
predecessors, while the Pax Romana made possible the long-distance exchange 
of luxury goods from exotic places; and the Christian phase, resting 
heavily on an acceptance of the Augustan discourse about empire. How much 
of this is due to Alexander’s expedition and the later Alexander Romance? 
Imperial memories of Alexander’s visit to India account for the attitudes 
of the vast majority of Romans, who did not themselves visit the 
subcontinent, and Alexander could not have been far from imperial minds 
during the political revolution of the late 1st century BC that in turn 
made possible the greater awareness of India in the 1st century AD. 
Alexander’s own concern with India seems inspired by the memory of the 
Achaemenid kings whose achievements he desired to extend and fulfill. Roman 
imperial desires, in turn, were fulfilled by virtue of the memory of 
Alexander in India.

P. makes full use of primary and secondary sources. With impeccable 
scholarship, he analyzes and challenges the historical data on the subject, 
while inviting us to engage in the ongoing dialogue about India in Roman 

Boston Latin Academy

If you have been forwarded this review, you may subscribe to the listserv 
by sending an email to: [log in to unmask]
Leave the subject line blank, and in the first line of the message write: 

You may remove yourself from the CJ-Online listserv by sending an email to: 
[log in to unmask]
Leave the subject line blank, and in the first line of the message write: